Years ago, I read the first two Drizzt Do'Urden trilogies written by R.A. Salvatore. While I enjoyed them, I wasn’t compelled to follow them as the number of books steadily increased. I've been in a bit of a fantasy mood lately, and you can't get much more fantastical than the Forgotten Realms universe (based on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game), so I decided to give the latest Drizzt series a try. It's entitled "Transitions," and the first book, The Orc King, is actually quite deep for a sword and sorcery book.
Orcs and Dwarves have been mortal enemies for as long as this fantasy world has existed, and when Obould the Orc King leads his forces out in the Silvery Marshes, King Bruenor of the Dwarves is sure that Mithral Hall will be under attack again once the snows melt and the river is fordable. Obould may have other plans, but they could be disrupted by the sinister workings of orcs supposedly loyal to him and the emergence of the Clan Karuck orcs from the bowels of the earth. Bruenor and his allies explore the ruins of a lost city which may hold a key to a possible history of trust between the Dwarves and the Orcs, but they may not get the chance to follow this up as it seems Mithral Hall will be under attack again. Will Bruenor be able to put a hundred years of animosity behind him to finally bring peace to the land, or will prejudice sink deeper into never-ending war?
Many have looked down on these D&D books, making comments about how "you can feel the dice being rolled in the background" and the like. To an extent, this can be true, even in the best of them. But Salvatore lifts The Orc King a step above that. Yes, anybody who knows the system at all knows exactly what spells a wizard is casting at any one time, but Salvatore goes deeper to examine how a people can set aside their racial prejudices for the greater good.
Admittedly, Salvatore goes about it in a bit of a clichéd fashion. Bruenor holds the deep-seated hatred of all things Orc stemming from way back, and he's reluctant to trust Obould at all, firmly convinced that Obould's orcs camped a short march from Mithral Hall are there for a lot more than farming. Isn't it convenient, then, that there is a force of orcs dead-set against Obould's plan to peacefully coexist with the Dwarves, thus illustrating to Bruenor that these are Obould's true intentions. That having been said, Salvatore's handling of the whole situation is quite mature. There is still plenty of distrust there, even though Bruenor is willing to finally accept the peace that Obould offers. It's something that could be shattered at any moment, and it threatens to fall apart very easily.
Salvatore takes the "Transitions" name of this series to heart, making changes in all of the major characters that have been there since the beginning. Wulfgar, the barbarian who has loved Catti-brie for many years, finally has some decisions to make as he has come to accept that she loves Drizzt. Events of previous novels (I'm assuming, anyway) have shown him that he must do what is right for his adopted daughter and then make his own way in the world. Catti-brie, the human woman who is also Bruenor's adopted daughter, was injured in the previous novel, which brings about changes in her life and her profession that she never saw coming. Regis the halfling doesn't change as much, but he's much more mature than I remember, and events from past novels weigh on him.
Stable throughout is Drizzt himself. He's almost a philosopher on the sidelines, with each section of the book introduced by a journal entry in which he comments on the various happenings or commiserates on the issues of trust and destiny and what will become of his friends. He goes through many of the same emotions as Bruenor, especially when a good friend is killed in an orc attack, but he is able to see past it and realize that there might be a greater good from moving beyond the centuries-long racial violence. He's still quick with his two blades, an adept fighter with lots of moves who always wins out in the end. He brings a measure of constancy to the whole proceedings, which is a counterbalance to all of the change going on around him.
Salvatore writes the action scenes just as well as I remember, though occasionally they are a bit too detailed. The reader gets a feel for the flow of the action, but sometimes it gets so detailed that it's almost like he's choreographing it for the reader rather than letting the reader just get a sense of what's going on. It does help readers see the action step by step in their minds, but it also felt very mechanical at times. It's a question of style, though, and obviously this style has a lot of fans.
A couple of minor notes: the type in my copy of this book is almost microscopic, supposedly to keep a reasonable page count despite the vast number of words. Don't try to read this in bad light. Secondly, the "map" at the beginning of the book is almost totally useless for following any events in the story. You see where Mithral Hall is in relation to the Orc kingdoms, but other than that, you're on your own. I couldn't even follow our heroes' expedition to the lost Dwarven city on this map.
The Orc King is a great first book in the Transitions series, though it probably would mean even more if I was familiar with the last six to nine novels. Salvatore rarely loses the reader in the retelling of the backstory; it does feel like you've missed a lot, but you won't be at a loss to follow the events in this book. What more can you ask of an author who has written so many previous books in the series? It's worth checking out if you like this sort of thing. Don't let the Forgotten Realms tag automatically turn you off.