R.A. Salvatore,
Spearwielder's Tale
(Ace, 2004)

R.A. Salvatore's Spearwielder's Tale is an omnibus edition of three novels: The Woods Out Back, The Dragon's Dagger and Dragonslayer's Return (1993-95). Although not very sophisticated formally or stylistically, it is a rousing adventure and without doubt what is commonly termed "a good read."

Gary Leger is a recent college graduate who has found employment working in a plastics factory after spending years tailoring his academic career to provide the most lucrative return: there is a recession, the country is at war in the Middle East, and he was lucky to be able to turn his part-time college job into a full-time paycheck. Reading The Hobbit in the woods near his house in the evening after work, he sees strange lights dancing in a circle and spies a tiny figure in outlandish clothing who very calmly shoots him with a tiny arrow.

Gary falls asleep. He wakes in Faerie; the land has need of a hero, one who can wear the armor of the legendary warrior Sir Cedric Donigarten. The elf Kelsenellenelvial Gil-Ravadry (commonly called "Kelsey") has taken it as his life's quest to restore Sir Cedric's spear and needs a human of the right size to wear the armor. Through the not-so-willing aid of the leprechaun Mickey McMickey, Gary, who is a big, muscular young man, is transported, put into the armor and set on the adventure.

The quest is opposed by the sorceress Ceridwen, who is pleased enough that the people of Faerie are despondent and depressed; the dragon who calls himself Robert the Righteous (although everyone else calls him Robert the Wretched); and the rapacious King Kellinore of Connacht, widely rumored to be Ceridwen's pawn, who seeks to bring all of Faerie under his sway. The trio soon encounters the dwarf smith Geno and the gentle giant Tommy One-Thumb, and the companions suffer a series of harrowing adventures.

It is apparent very early on that Salvatore has created a universe that is somewhere between Middle Earth and Loony Toons. It is sometimes an uneasy juxtaposition, with set pieces from Road Runner cartoons facing off with deeds of derring-do in a noble cause. And the characters draw as much from cartoons as from Tolkien: along with goblins, trolls, dwarves, elves, dragons and sorcerers, there is the terrible hairy haggis, more than a little akin to a certain Tasmanian Devil, while the dwarf Geno owes more to Yosemite Sam than to Durin.

Characterization is consistent, if not always smoothly done. In the case of Prince Geldion, for example, we are faced with a man who is brutal and often vicious, at his father's orders. Although his transformation into a just and wise king is described, I, along with many of the characters, wasn't quite convinced. Part of this is that Salvatore falls into telling us what the characters are feeling and thinking, rather than showing actions that reveal their feelings and motivations, a basic rule for effective characterization. (It occurs to me that a talented novelist must have some of the qualities of a talented dramatist, who relies almost wholly on dialogue to establish his characters.) Refreshingly, Gary is not the clueless hero so common in fantasy these days: through the help of the spear, he becomes a capable warrior, and he is resourceful enough to pull his band out of several scrapes. His wife Diane, who joins him in the last adventure, proves herself a strong, if unexpected, hero as well. (Perhaps the most subtle character transformation, in fact, belongs to Diane: strongly opposed to violence and war, she holds her own in a set-to with soldiers of King Kellinore, inflicting severe damage on more than one of them. She hasn't changed her attitude, but we feel that she now has a more realistic understanding that sometimes violence is the only acceptable option -- personal extinction being, for most people, not on the agenda.)

Within very broad limits, the plots are predictable -- as always, you know the good guys will win, the only question is just how they will do it, and Salvatore pulls in enough wrinkles and twists, along with enough action, to keep the story moving briskly. It is also a tightly constructed trio, with extraordinarily little, by today's standards, of purple-tinged prose wandering off in various directions, very definitely a mark in Salvatore's favor.

The treatment of the basic theme -- the loss of magic (for which read "imagination" and all the things that give life a dimension that makes it worth it) in the modern world, is a little heavy-handed. This is my first encounter with Salvatore's work, so I have no idea whether he has passed that hurdle (these were all originally published in the mid-1990s), but in this set, at least, he again spends too much time telling us about it and not enough time letting us see it.

In spite of my reservations, I have a feeling this one will make it to my "guilty secrets" list -- the books that aren't perfect (and sometimes far from it), but you like them anyway. I quite literally had to force myself to put this volume down -- like, in order to eat.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 26 February 2005

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