Book Review: Archmage by R.A. Salvatore

Archmage is the opening book of the Homecoming series and the 28th book overall in the Legend of Drizzt. It’s also a book I enjoyed reading; a real relief after the slog that was Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf.

The basics are as follows: The dwarven kings and their allies are marching to reclaim Gauntlgrym, a dwarven stronghold lost some decades past. Drizzt accompanies the dwarves in their quest, mainly to aid his friend Bruenor, one-time king of Mithril Hall. Drizzt’s wife, Catti-Brie, is also with the group, but his companions Wulfgar and Regis are absent for this book – they’re on a quest to recover Regis’s lost love, something that may see expansion in a side-novel at some stage.

Meanwhile, the drow of Menzoberranzan, led by their scheming Matron Mother, Quenthel Baenre, are planning the defence of Gauntlgrym, which they’ve claimed for their own. The first half of the book deals with what happens before the dwarfs reach Gauntlgrym, and the second half deals with what occurs when the two sides come into conflict.

Weaving throughout this tale are a number of disaffected drow, of particular note are Jaraxle, of the Bregan D’aerthe mercenary company, and the eponymous Archmage, Gromph of House Baenre. He’s not a particularly happy drow at this stage, and the book spends a lot of time with him. Events in Menzoberranzan are not going as they’d like, but any schemes they launch better be really, really good – or they’re dead. It’s the scheming of the drow factions that really helps elevate this book.

Newcomers to the series may be somewhat lost, although I think quite a number of relevant points from previous books are explained in the text. The chief of these is a misconception on Gromph’s part that Lolth, the goddess of the drow, was going to elevate the socially-inferior male wizards to the same status as the dominant female priestesses. No, Lolth wanted arcane magic to be more important, but she was going to have female wizards as well as priestesses now – and the men would remain on the bottom. Throughout the tale, Gromph becomes more and more disaffected with his goddess and his people, and the book is rightly named after him – it is definitely his book. Unfortunately for Gromph, there are schemes occurring than he’s unaware of, which has some rather disastrous consequences as the book reaches its climax.

Interestingly, Drizzt hardly appears in the book, although he’s present with the dwarves. It’s Bruenor and Catti-Brie that take up centre stage when we’re not in Menzoberranzan. Catti-Brie continues her development into a significant player in the new Realms, with her powers as both a cleric and a wizard seeing improvement, while the dwarves undertake a fantastic assault on their old city. I was not fond of how Salvatore wrote his last book, Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf, but the telling of the battle for Gauntlgrym is suitably epic. A tighter focus does wonders for the tale. Drizzt still gets a few nice moments, and there’s some very interesting developments that will likely be followed in the next book.

This was a fun book to read. There are good character moments amongst the plot developments, scheming and battles. Although there are still a few too many point-of-view characters, their number is much reduced from Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf, and there were only a few times when I felt that there was too much cutting between storylines. The book was entertaining throughout.

Do I have niggles with it? Yes, but many of them are conceptual – they follow from the structure of the Realms that Salvatore uses, but they don’t correspond to my own take on the Realms. Lolth seems entirely too powerful, with her schemes seem unopposed by other gods. How is this possible? Yes, it makes for a good story, but it feels wrong when compared to the larger Realms.

Dungeon Masters of the Rage of Demons adventures for the Dungeons & Dragons game are going to find this book particularly interesting, as it gives the backstory to the Out of the Abyss adventure. (The Rage of Demons storyline begins with this book, and ends with Salvatore’s next, Maestro). Would you be able to read this as your first Drizzt book? I think so, though much of the finer detail would be lost, there’s a strong story here even without you understanding everything that is going on. (It might be worth reviewing Homeland if you get a chance, just so you’re aware of how Drow society functions in the Realms).

It might not be one of the great works of modern fantasy, but Archmage is an entertaining book and an excellent addition to the ongoing Legend of Drizzt.

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