While not the first book published in the Forgotten Realms by American author R.A. Salvatore, Homeland takes place first chronologically, and it reveals much of the history of one of the most famous characters of the Forgotten Realms, the Dark Elf Drizzt Do’Urden. As the first book of The Dark Elf Trilogy, it provides back story to Drizzt who appeared pretty much fully-formed and complete in the novel The Crystal Shard. Starting with Homeland and proceeding through Exile and Sojourn, this trilogy details the life of Drizzt from birth to just before the events of The Crystal Shard.
A troubled life
Drizzt Do’Urden suffers from a strange affliction: he isn’t evil. While we are no strangers to morality and shades of grey here on Earth, fantasy settings with their roots in gaming have a slightly different outlook: namely that monster sheets have a blank that says “alignment” on it. While it may be difficult to envision a race or society (or even a single town, for that matter) where everybody in it is evil, it is a necessary tool when you’re building a world for a role-playing game. You can’t handle goblins attacking the town by stopping to decide if maybe a few of the goblins are simply following orders and are really just nice guys. Goblins are evil, says so in the book, it’s okay for my good character to kill goblins. It’s a necessary sacrifice in the name of game design, and it bleeds into the fiction with pretty much no issues.
This is why Drizzt is presented as such a compelling and sympathetic character. He’s not evil, he doesn’t want to be evil or do evil things, but he exists in a culture where everybody is evil. Families advance in the hierarchy of the city by exterminating the family above them. Sons and daughters in the family advance the same way. Drow Elven society is presented as a culture of paranoid opportunists who will do anything to get ahead. He knows that if the wrong people discovered his true thoughts, they would simply kill him out of hand, and that sure-fire knowledge provides the driving force of his character.
A life of trials
The problem with the above scenario, however, is that it is completely impossible. If we forget for a moment the absurdity surrounding the idea that a whole race of people are evil, and the equal absurdity that in that situation, someone could be born who is instinctively good (this also says a lot of things about nature vs. nurture that are awkward to consider in this context), the issue is that there is no way he would have survived to adolescence, let alone adulthood. It might be easy to pretend to believe a certain way and to talk a good game, but there would have come a moment, many moments, where he was called to act in a way in keeping with his society, and he would have balked. The sheer volume of second chances Drizzt gets growing up completely contradicts the cut-throat and pragmatic culture we’re being asked to accept.
Drizzt, of course, has one way to deal with the issue of his beliefs in the face of those of his culture: be better at everything than everyone. The primary characteristic of Drizzt, beyond not being evil, is his incredible fighting skill. He goes to the academy where the males are trained in warfare, almost immediately trusts someone, gets stabbed in the back (nearly literally), decides to just go it alone from then on, and dominates everybody in every competition forever. He falls victim to that same heroic gene that Legolas and Aragorn have in The Lord of the Rings; you know, the one that makes them basically invulnerable and immune to any harm? It really doesn’t serve to make him a realistic character at all.
His saving grace
The one thing that saves this review from actually being overall negative (this in spite of my Drizzt obsession while I was a young teen) is the action. If you’re going to write a character who is basically a machine of death, the best thing you can do is keep putting him in fights and letting him loose. R.A. Salvatore is renowned for his combat writing, and for very good reason. The fights between Drizzt and his various recurring and one-time enemies are incredible. In the original trilogy, Drizzt gets himself a proper nemesis, the assassin Artemis Enterei, with whom he fights dozens of times in over a dozen novels, and each and every one of those fights is solid gold.
You won’t find any deep philosophy in the Drizzt Saga (unless you think “it’s so hard being good when everyone thinks you’ll be evil” is deep), though you can witness at least some superficial dialogue on prejudice and racism from the way most people treat him. What you will find is some of the best action fantasy ever written, with an eye on detail and description of maneuvers that create the fight right in your mind’s eye. I’m flabbergasted that none of these books have been tapped to be made into movies, especially with the popularity of Drizzt among readers who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. They are just -begging- for some fight choreographer to go to town on them.
Why should you read this book?
Drizzt Do’Urden is one of the most famous characters in fantasy. Just as you should know at least a little about the origins of Superman, Gandalf the Grey, and Rand Al’Thor, you can’t really claim to have a properly broad appreciation for fantasy without knowing about Drizzt. While his action-packed stories are perhaps a little lacking in deep character development, the sheer quality of the action more than makes up for it. These books are quick, fun escapism distilled down to its essence. You’ll burn through them quickly, and you’ll have a ton of fun doing it.