Thursday, October 2, 2008

THE THOUSAND ORCS, by R.A. Salvatore

After my recent disappointment with the DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, I felt tempted to give up on the Dungeons and Dragons world all together. But I still find myself primarily interested in adventure-oriented stories (after all those literary texts in college), and I can't forget how much I enjoyed reading fantasy novels when I was a kid. So the other day, killing time in Aardvark Books, I wandered over to the used paperback sci-fi and fantasy section, and came across THE THOUSAND ORCS, by R.A. Salvatore. I bought it, and read it, and liked it a lot better than the Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novel I'd been so bored with this summer. (One quick aside: the Weis and Hickman novel was their first, while THE THOUSAND ORCS comes after Salvatore's been writing a book a year for more than a decade, so the comparison isn't really fair.)

One of the things that Salvatore does really well, and which Hickman and Weis didn't manage in their book, is maintain a sense of connection between all of the different scenes. I remember reading DRAGONS and feeling like it was just one thing after another without a logical progression, sort of like a series of unrelated events in random order. With Salvatore, the plot flows in a cohesive way. There are different groups in different areas doing different things, but they're doing those things during the same time span, in the same world, and their actions affect each other, their paths eventually cross.

Come to think of it, this technique of multiple inter-related story lines seems pretty common in page-turner novels. It's a format that lends itself to cliffhangers--one chapter brings a certain character to the brink of some important event, like a shocking discovery or potential disaster, and then the next chapter takes up with a different character, so you plow through that chapter to find out what happens to the first character in the following chapter. Cliffhangers make the pages turn.

Another thing Salvatore does well is action, especially battle. He's got a great imagination for sword fights, and huge skirmishes, and he makes each one compelling and unique.

But probably the most standout aspect of Salvatore's writing, what really seemed interesting and unique, was his handling of different races (in the fantasy context, race refers to dwarf, elf, halfling, human, etc.). Especially with dwarves. You get the sense of a distinct living beings, with a distinct culture and way of behaving, a distinct view of the world. There are individuals within that race--they're not all the same--but their individual personalities exist within a larger cultural context. This race-related sensibility allows Salvatore an angle that brings a lot of interest to his character interaction, especially because of the variety of races comprising the principle group. It's fascinating to watch how the characters form bonds outside of their own groups.

Despite all the good things about the book, I don't see a R.A. Salvatore binge in my near future. ORCS was a good fantasy book, and it reminded me of why the fantasy genre had captured my imagination as a kid, but I don't think I could sustain the same level of interest in another such novel right now. I get the feeling that they've got too much in common, that they're even pretty formulaic, to keep me interested forever. I guess that's true of most pulp, adventure-based books. I can't imagine myself subsisting on a diet of detective fiction alone, either.

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