Homeland by R.A. Salvatore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oh, Mr. Salvatore. Methinks thou hast bitten off more than thou canst chew.
Intentionally or not, R.A. Salvatore has created a potential monster here. Not in the Underdark denizens or in the drow society that provides the backdrop for the story. Not even in Lloth, queen of the demonweb pits and diety to the drow. I'm talking about the themes of race, gender, and, most of all, the nature versus nurture debate. If I were a smarter man with more time, I'd delve into each of these, but suffice it to say that, for all its hacking, slaying, nobility, and heroics, Homeland is a sociologists dream-come-true. I would not be surprised if this book was picked apart in some obscure Master's thesis and the stories themes vetted against the author's background and the general social, racial, and economic background of the book's target audience. Salvatore has really opened a can of worms here.
That said, let's take a quick look at the book itself, regardless of its (probably unintentional) implications.
I love the setting. At times I felt a bit of tunnel vision while reading, like the room around me was getting darker and the only thing illuminating my eyes were the words on the page. Salvatore does an outstanding job of painting a picture.
As far as plot goes - it's interesting, but not earth-shattering. The many intrigues of the book seem a little obvious, on the face of it. Once one understands the Drow modus operandi, nothing seems too surprising.
What is surprising is the characterization. And this, I think, is where Salvatore is going to or has already gotten himself into trouble with modern readers. Or maybe not. The action focuses, of course, on Drizzt, the young dark elf born at the height of a battle in which his "house" is in the process of destroying another "house". Honestly, I found Drizzt to be unconvincing. He's pretty whiny, to be frank, and the altruism within him that Salvatore makes too obvious is not terribly believable, given the circumstances of his up-bringing - essentially being brainwashed and beat into submission at a young age to learn his place in Drow society. Problem is, who are Drizzt's role models for his resistance to the cultural programming he undergoes? Color me jaded, but the survival instinct often causes humans to bend to societal pressures to one degree or another. "But Drow are different!" you say. Really? Then why is Drizzt the only Drow to fully keep his own culture at bay? You might argue that Drizzt's weaponmaster, Zaknafein, successfully maneuvers his way around Drow culture while keeping his own moral code intact, but this is easily refuted by examining Zak and Drizzt's familial relationship itself (don't want to spoil, just keep in mind that their relationship is critical to the story). Besides, Zak, in the end, proves submissive to the matriarchal power of the Drow social structure.
The character I find most believable is Vierna, one of Drizzt's sisters. Again, I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but it pays to read Vierna carefully, to see where and why she has resisted Drow society in some ways and succumbed in others. I find her the most compelling character of the book, though she is only a minor player in the grand scheme (and there is a grand scheme in this book - several, actually). I'd love to see a book or two focused solely on Vierna. There's fantasy gold there!
Now, all that said, I really did enjoy the book. The nurture vs nature theme could and should have been handled with much more subtlety, but I was able to shrug off my annoyance and move on. Homeland sets the stage for something bigger, I am hoping. I will be reading the other two books in the Dark Elf Trilogy in the future. I can see the potential in Drizzt as a character and I'm thinking that we haven't seen the last of his clan or of a certain deep gnome. I look forward to seeing how Salvatore handles Drizzt's emotions as an outcast from among his own people and am especially excited to see where Drizzt's wanderings take him. The world building here is excellent, with a well-fleshed-out culture that could provide great cognizant dissonance in the main character as he strikes out to escape and explore the Underdark and maybe even the surface(???).
So, I give it a 3.5, rounded up to a four. It has it's zits and scars, but with the right makeup this book could have been beautiful. I'm hoping it ages well in the next two volumes and leaves behind childish things as Drizzt leaves behind his childhood and his childhood home. It's time to grow up. I hope that Salvatore was a good parent.
Oh, and if you do a Master's thesis on the sociological implications of the text, as I've outlined above, my consultant fees are reasonable . . . I take pay in blue cheese, expensive dark chocolate, good ginger ale, honest reviews of my own work and, of course, books.
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