The Pirate King, book two in R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms series called "Transitions," suffers greatly from middle-book syndrome, as well as simply not being as interesting as the first book, The Orc King. The pacing of the book just seems off, a large part of the book is filled with characters I didn't care much about (and a couple who I had trouble telling apart occasionally), and seems too much like a transitional novel. You might not think that's a bad thing in a series called "Transitions," but this one goes a bit too far.
The city of Luskan is a den of inequity. Ostensibly ruled by five pirate "captains" who head up their own areas of power within the city, they are effectively under the power of the arch-lich Arklem Greeth and his Hosttower of the Arcane. A power struggle soon erupts in the city, and it's decided that Greeth must go. A noble from Waterdeep and his good friend, pirate hunter Deudermont, are determined to remove him from power and bring true government to the city. Meanwhile, the dark elf hero Drizzt Do'Urden and his good friend, the halfling named Regis, have decided to come north to see how Wulfgar the barbarian fares in his journey to find his place in the world. It's been five years since the treaty that established an uneasy peace between the Dwarves and the Orcs, and both feel that it's safe now to leave the caverns of Mithral Hall to see how things fare. Getting caught up in local politics on behalf of a friend may doom that journey before they find what they're looking for.
Too much of the action in The Pirate King is removed from the characters I actually like, Regis and Drizzt. Salvatore cuts back and forth between the two companions and the events in Luskan, and I found myself losing interest in the horrible events going on in that city, especially after the first assault on the Hosttower. The main pirate captain who dreams of becoming the Pirate King, Kensidan, isn't that interesting a character, despite his Machiavellian machinations to wield political power once Deudermont is removed. The dialogue isnít compelling, and the plots and counterplots playing out among the captains, Greeth and Deudermont all seem so pedestrian. These events don't have the oomph of the first book, and the characters aren't interesting enough to cover for that.
Drizzt and Regis seemed too far removed from the action. When they're in Luskan, they get involved, and things become much more immediate. They actually succeeded in making me care about Luskan and what was going on there. My favorite scenes, though, were those when the pair was up north looking for Wulfgar, trading tales of the past and showing just how much they have changed in the many years since they all became friends. Regis, who used to be the happy-go-lucky halfling companion, has matured a great deal, and events in The Pirate King further that transition. He comes face to face with some harsh realities of life, how even heroes can't solve every problem they encounter, and sometimes trying to solve the problem might only make it worse.
It's hard to tell whether The Pirate King ends on a cliffhanger or not. Salvatore is clearly crafting a transitional period with all of the main characters, but is he doing it with the state of society and politics in the northern part of the Forgotten Realms as well? The Orc-Dwarf peace treaty is still going strong, though there are some occasional skirmishes. It's hardly mentioned again after an opening scene that seems quite out of place with the rest of the novel, even as reference is made as to why it has something to do with the events in Luskan. There's really nothing plot-wise linking this to the first book in the series.
Is the seeming cliffhanger at the end really just Salvatore putting Luskan through that transition, leaving it for future authors (or Salvatore himself in a future series) to deal with, or will this be dealt with in the final book? Maybe Luskan is a lesson to Drizzt on the dangers of getting involved when you don't know what the end result will be of "helping". My opinion of this book may change once the third book in the series comes out, perhaps mitigating the incomplete feel of this novel. It still won't make the situation in Luskan that interesting, though.
I did love the action and characterization of the regulars (Drizzt and Regis are the only ones in most of the book). Itís nice to see somebody who is almost a match for Drizzt in a fight, as it often doesn't feel like he's in any danger when you're reading about him in a melee. Also, the action doesn't seem quite as forced as it did in The Orc King, though that could just be me getting used to Salvatore's writing style again. Overall, I did enjoy a large part of the book, whenever Drizzt and Regis were "on screen." Salvatore has them deal with some moral dilemmas that make the book seem a bit more "adult" than many Dungeons & Dragons novels.
Overall, though I was disappointed in The Pirate King, I would still recommend it for those who are interested in this type of fantasy novel. The series seems to be on strong footing, and this is just a minor crack to step over in your enjoyment of the whole. Take it for what it's worth.