Review: The Companions by R. A. Salvatore

The Companions by R. A. Salvatore
Wizards of the Coast, 2013

The Companions mark’s the first R. A. Salvatore penned Forgotten Realms novel that I’ve read in quite some time. With the Wizards of the Coast wrapping up the playtests for the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons the Realms has been targeted for a bit of a facelift via a major cross-media event called The Sundering. While I was at one times a voracious consumer of the Forgotten Realms novels, particularly in my teens, I have since moved on and while I’ve checked back in here and there I’ve not followed along too closely with the adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden and the Companions of Mithral Hall. While R. A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard was not the first  Forgotten Realms novel (that title belongs to Douglas Niles’ Darkwalker on Moonshae) it wasn’t too far behind and given the wild popularity of Drizzt and the Companions throughout the years it seem appropriate that the simply title The Companions kicks off The Sundering.

The Companions is a contemplative novel that is as much a meditation on the fictional past of the Forgotten Realms as it is the start to a new era in the Realms’ history. Despite his prominent place on the cover of the novel Salvatore’s iconic Drow hero appears more in the background instead focusing on the rest of the titular Companions. Indeed the focus of the novel is on reborn figures of Catti-brie, Bruenor, and Regis. The Sundering is an event that looms over the novel and the Resurrection and rebirth of Drizzt’s deceased friends marks the opening gambit of the ranger’s patron diety Mielikki in events to come. Over the course of the novel the three companion who chose to return to life get a second chance to become something more than what they were while at the same time attempting to cling to who they were.

The Companions is a novel that moves on a brisk pace and the tonality walks a fine line between nostalgia drenched reminiscence of the novels early and final chapters and contemplation on the nature of identity both in the new lives of Regis, Catti-brie, and Bruenor and the interstitial meditations in Drizzt’s journal. The latter concept is indeed a fascinating one and Salvatore keeps this inner examination of identity as light as he is able while also keeping the novels plot moving forward. In the end this is also the problem as the novel’s “plot” so to speak feels largely nonexistent. The novel has a beginning and an end but is the middle which feels a bit listless and unfocused. While the Companions are brought back to aid Drizzt at a particular place and time the period getting there offers little insight into the what they need to do or what threat the world faces. Indeed I have to wonder if some other format, something similar to John Scalzi’s serialized Human Division, might have better served the story at hand rather than the traditional novel format.

The Sundering, for all its hype as a cross-media Realms defining event is largely a marketing ploy to drive sales. This isn’t something I really have a problem with but the opening salvo in that event seems like a pandering attempt to cater to the long-term fans nostalgia for the Realms as it was. While shared world novels appeal to a particular subset of readers it seems utterly strange to me that the opening work in a major cross-media event doesn’t even attempt to cater to new readers. While as a past fan of Drizzt and the Companions I enjoyed The Companions I don’t know if I can honestly that say that this is a particularly good novel. It certainly has moments but it doesn’t feel to me like it holds together as a cohesive whole; a fact which isn’t helped by what felt like a rushed and confused ending.

As the kick-off to what is supposed to a MAJOR SUPER HUGE BIG EVENT The Companions isn’t the sort of wiz-bang spectacle one would expect. Perhaps the writers of the Forgotten Realms learned a harsh a lesson from the poorly disguised editorial handwaving of the Spellplague, but the editorial mantra of the “return to core” seems to be carrying across everything that carries the Dungeons and Dragons brand at a much slower pace than the Spellplague did. The Companions marks a slow and contemplative start to The Sundering that will face a tough audience of readers from various portions of the Forgotten Realms’ history. I’m certainly on board for the forseeable future and I will be looking forward to see how Paul S. Kemp takes his characters into the Realms’ old/new past/future.

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