Book Review: The Crystal Shard

In March 1988, R.A. Salvatore’s first book of his many, many books about the dark elf ranger, Drizzt Do’urden, The Crystal Shard, was released. I read it a few days ago as part of my reread of all the Forgotten Realms novels. My impression? It was better written than Darkwalker on Moonshae. The dialogue, in particular, is much better.

The story is told in three parts. In the first part, the folk of the Ten Towns need to stop an invasion from the barbarian tribes. In the second part, one of the barbarian youths is adopted by a dwarf who is allied with the Ten Towns and grows to adulthood. In the third part, the barbarian, having grown to adulthood and learnt the error of his ways, helps defend the Ten Towns against an attack from an evil wizard aided by a malignant artefact.

At least, that might have been the story that Salvatore was originally intending to tell. He’s occasionally mentioned that in the original books, it was Wulfgar (the barbarian) who was meant to be the hero. Drizzt was meant to be just the sidekick. You can see elements of this in the story that eventually got released, but there’s little doubt upon reading The Crystal Shard who is the real star of the story: It’s Drizzt. He gets more time devoted to him than Wulfgar, and he’s a far more interesting character. Wulfgar spends a lot of the book being pretty unpleasant (and I’m not convinced he ever gets much better), but Drizzt is a joy to spend time with – a very unusual and engaging character.

I actually found the first section of the novel the most enjoyable. There’s something about the ultimate foe – Akar Kessel, a spoilt apprentice with no morals or intelligence whatsoever – that irritates me intensely. The artefact he wields, the eponymous Crystal Shard, possibly demands such an incompetent foe lest the heroes have no chance, but ultimate I prefer reading about competent characters, and Kessel is not that. “Kill him already!” is my ongoing reaction when he appears on the page. Salvatore does have some fun with the concept – Errtu, the demon who wants the shard, is quite happy to wait around until Kessel dies to claim it – but the character really doesn’t work for me.

The book also has one of the big early disconnects between the capabilities of characters in the game and characters in the novel. Drizzt manages to kill a major demon (the equivalent of a Balrog) by himself. It makes sense in the book. It makes little sense to everyone checking their D&D stats. It doesn’t bother me, because Salvatore uses the game to enhance his writing, rather than to limit it. Good storytelling does trump game rules, at least for me.

One of the odder things I noticed when reading this book (and also Darkwalker) is that the halflings of the book – especially Regis, who is the most interesting character after Drizzt – are still treated as the hobbits that inspired them: fat and more than a little inclined to indolence. The change to the character of halflings in the D&D game was still many years in the future. Regis is a treat, and his cowardice is used to great effect, not least because he’s clever and always looking out for his personal interest. Bruenor, the last of the main characters, presents as a person of importance, but doesn’t manage to develop much of a personality in this book after the first section, although his interactions with Drizzt are a highlight of the book.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is that despite it clearly introducing this major characters, the book feels less about them and more about the region. You could have called it “The Ten Towns” and it would have been just as accurate. Salvatore might set his books away from major areas of the world, but he was certainly building his section of the Realms, and it’s one that he’s continued writing about to this day.

Ultimately, The Crystal Shard is a problematic book. It has much to admire in it, not least the characters of Drizzt and Regis, but I don’t find the actual tale to be as thrilling as the one told in Darkwalker on Moonshae. However, Salvatore would have plenty of chances to improve his storytelling, and improve he did.

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