The Spine of the World: Never mind, bring back Drizzt

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Spine of the World by R.A. Salvatore

R.A. Salvatore’s The Spine of the World tries so hard that I actually feel a bit bad for giving it low marks. It’s akin to how I imagine a judge at a dog show must feel when sizing up that one dog who’s a bit too flaky for the event. It won’t stand on the podium or heel properly and it gets singed going through the fiery ring (this might be a good time to own up to the fact that I’ve never actually watched a dog show), but all the same it just looks so enthusiastic and eager to please that one feels guilty giving it a poor evaluation. The Spine of the World is that dog. It desperately wants your approval, but unfortunately it has committed a sin so heinous — especially for this series — that I don’t think there’s any way back.

No easy way to say it: the book’s a bit on the boring side.

Now admittedly, lots of novels can get a bit slow at times, but we read and enjoy them anyway. Show me someone who found Middlemarch to be a gripping page-turner and I will show you someone who probably needs to get out more. The issue is that, in frankness, THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT mostly gets by on being the anti-Middlemarch. There’s never been a lot going on under the surface, and so readers really come to the books for a bit of easy-going action. It’s a series of novels based on an adventure game where players end up, in the overwhelming majority of cases, killing and looting anything that pops out in front of them as they travel through a suspiciously grid-like cave system. For the most part the series has represented those roots almost perfectly. It’s an action series for teens, and on that level it’s quite entertaining.

Bearing all of that in mind, here’s where we stand as we begin The Spine of the World: Wulfgar, last seen as a bouncer in the seediest tavern that ever seeded, has taken to spending most of his nights with cheap booze in one hand and a loose woman in the other. As the contents of both hands rank high on the (admittedly substantial) list of things Drizzt wouldn’t touch with a nine-foot halberd, it is immediately apparent that Wulfgar is in a moral tailspin and needs to be rescued from himself. Meanwhile, in some gods-forsaken little village on the edge of nowhere, the beautiful young Meralda, a girl of great natural charm but few prospects, is being courted by two very different men. One is the wealthy but awkward (read: dumb-as-a-brick) Lord Feringal, and the other the poor but magnetic (read: hot) Jaka Sculi. The decision is complicated by the debilitating sickness of Meralda’s mother, who may not survive without the money to pay for her expensive treatment. Can Meralda come to love Lord Feringal for her mother’s sake despite her animal attraction to the passionate Jaka? Are Jaka’s protestations of affection only a ruse to hide darker designs? Who are these people anyway, and what happened to Wulfgar?

If you’re wondering when THE LEGEND OF DRIZZT started taking its cues from Victorian romances, I have to admit I’m right there with you. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Now, Salvatore never exactly leaves his wheelhouse — there are still lots of fights, lots of dramatic lines, and metric tons of Tolkien-homage — but it’s a redecorated wheelhouse. He’s replaced the bean bag chairs with fashionable sofas, he’s hung some tasteful black-and-white landscape shots in place of his old Heavy Metal posters, and on the whole he’s gone very artsy on us. The novel’s first edition probably hit shelves wearing a little beret and beatnik sweater. For shame, Salvatore! What happened to you? Why, I can remember the good old halcyon days of ICEWIND DALE — we’d drop by for some good-natured literary potluck about a morally unassailable Aragorn pastiche slaughtering the living daylights out of every evildoer in a twenty-mile radius, and you’d dole it out with whistling, jaunty efficiency. But now you’re making us sit down and put napkins on our laps, and the potluck’s all tarted up with dribbled gravy and sprigs of parsley. Where’s the Salvatore I used to know?

Am I being too hard on Salvatore? Probably. After all, I generally enjoy ambition in an author, and it’s a bit rich of me to get annoyed at The Spine of the World when I just praised Salvatore’s alterations to the series in The Silent Blade. That was just as much a departure from the usual Drizzt novel as this is. In fact — and here’s the real discrepancy between the two — it felt more like a departure, at least in the ways that made sense for Salvatore’s style. It was the first novel in the series that wasn’t about one of the Companions of the Hall or even a hero. Entreri gave it the feel of a different series entirely, in which Drizzt and co. were just making slightly awkward cameos. The Spine of the World puts us back in Companions territory but tries to not only carry over the Entreri tone but adds the odd Victorian subplot to boot. Another Entreri book might have been able to bear up under the extra weight of a bit of genre shifting, but a Companions novel isn’t even edgy enough for a darker tone, much less an extra load.

I suppose what it comes back to is that while both novels are character pieces, The Silent Blade was about an interesting character. It really gave the sensation that there was a lot more to say about Artemis Entreri. The Spine of the World doesn’t do the same for Wulfgar. The sad fact of the matter is that Wulfgar’s character arc officially ran out of gas at the end of The Crystal Shard, and our gormless barbarian has been standing by the side of the road with his thumb out ever since, hitching rides with more interesting story elements. I don’t know that there’s much to say about the character, or that there ever has been. I applaud Salvatore’s gallant efforts in the service of making Wulfgar interesting (and make no mistake, he puts in sterling effort, at least), but The Spine of the World feels less like an exposé on all of Wulfgar’s hitherto-unsuspected complexity, and more an attempt to drop Wulfgar into a series of the proper settings for a complex character in the hope that he’ll reveal or develop some personality in response.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t. Wulfgar has two modes: sober, scrupulous, kinda stupid Wulfgar; and drunk, depressed, kinda dumb Wulfgar. Swulfgar is the noble savage archetype played completely straight, while Dwulfgar is just the “noble savage ruined by the evil ol’ firewater” trope. Wulfgar is too much like Drizzt in a lot of ways, and Drizzt’s weakness has always been that he doesn’t have much edge or drive to him and in moments of emotional fragility ends up being purely reactionary. It doesn’t make for a compelling protagonist in a more introspective storyline, which is why Drizzt’s books have generally inclined more toward dumb fun and breathless adventure, where the events are so flashy and bombastic that Drizzt’s passivity is less noticeable.

At the end of the day, I wish I’d enjoyed The Spine of the World a lot more than I did. It really is ambitious and well-intentioned, and I feel as though I should praise Salvatore for pursuing grander designs rather than resting on his laurels. It would have been easy, I’m sure, to just have Wulfgar overcome his PTSD off-page and reappear at some later date. Salvatore chose the thornier path, and I wish it could have worked out more successfully. The trouble is that while it’s good to see Salvatore trying to expand his literary horizons a bit, this might not have been the best opportunity for it. The novel sacrifices goofy fun for melodrama, but never really demonstrates the wherewithal to make the substitution work. It’s not awful, and true fans will probably find something to enjoy, but frankly Wulfgar may not be capable of leading a story like this. Watching him try is neither as suspenseful nor as exciting as we really need from a story of this type.

So, in other words… uh… what’s Drizzt up to these days, Salvatore?

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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  1. OMG, Tim! That opening paragraph!

    I have watched parts of dog shows, at least, and your version would be much more lively.

  2. And a further comment. I called my husband in to read over my shoulder and we both laughed all the way through this — which is a nice way to start a morning! Thanks, Tim!

  3. I love reading Tim’s reviews even though many times I have no familiarity with the book nor any intention to read it.

  4. If dog shows featured a ring of fire for the dogs to jump through, I’d be WAY more invested in watching them. Tim, your reviews are absolutely priceless!

  5. Like Kat, I love reading Tim’s reviews even for books I’d probably never read. In this case, the cover looks like a battle of male models arguing over whose abs are more chiseled, and I can’t read any story whose characters are named Wulfgar, Drizzt, or Szrptr…

  6. This review was hilarious! I’m almost curious enough to pick this one up now.

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