The Weeks that Were
Underground Reading: Feed by Mira Grant

Underground Reading: Homeland by R.A. Salvatore (1990)

HomelandHomeland (1990) is the first book in R.A. Salvatore's Dark Elf Trilogy, featuring the dual-wielding, drow ranger, Drizzt Do'Urden. By 1990, Drizzt had already appeared in three books - the Icewind Dale Trilogy (1987-1990), but his popularity was such that Salvatore was immediately requested to crank out Drizzt's backstory. Homeland is just that - the first volume in the biography of the Forgotten Realms' (and arguably, all of Dungeons & Dragons) most famous citizen.

It is worth mentioning up front that this is my first R.A. Salvatore book and my only previous encounter with Drizzt was in the Baldur's Gate computer game series, in which he has a passing cameo. Still, I'm well-aware of his influence: the one good dark elf, the dual scimitars, the perpetual outcast... Drizzt has become an icon, if not an archetype.

With that in mind, I'll do my best to review Homeland as a single book, and not try to extrapolate the larger Drizzt "mythology".

Homeland is set in the vast underground city of Menzoberranzan, the home of the drow (dark elves). Menzoberranzan is a stunning metropolis - svelte architecture, omnipresent magic and an atmosphere of choking paranoia. The drow are organized into houses - family units of "noble" drow and their legions of mercenary followers (other drow, goblins, whoever). The houses are ranked in an obscure hierarchy, with the greater houses gaining more prestige, more power and more access to Lolth, their meddling goddess. It is important to note that the Forgotten Realms are a place of extremely high fantasy - magic is taken as a fact of life and the gods are very real and very hands-on. Menzoberranzan is high fantasy to another order of magnitude. Every drow can use magic and their city glows with eldritch power.

The drow are also incredibly vicious. They are a race united by a fear of their goddess, a nasty belief in their racial superiority, and, ultimately, a deep loathing of the "surface" elves. The first - the fear of Lolth - is what keeps daily society ticking over. Although the houses of the drow are all unsubtly scheming against one another, they have to play nice or, at the very least, not get caught. There are few ostensibly neutral areas as well, including the universities that train the fighters, wizards and clerics of their people.

Secondly, their fierce racial pride keeps the drow united against the other denizens of the Forgotten Realms' underground land - the Underdark. The drow are surrounded by mind flayers, deep gnomes, cave fishers and worse. However much the drow may hate one another, they hate their neighbors more.

Finally, the drow are obsessed with their surface-dwelling alter egos, the elves. Every day in Menzoberranzan starts with an Orwellian minute of hate. The drow hate the elves ruthlessly and hope, someday, to wreak genocidal "vengeance" (for slights unknown) against them.

Our hero, Drizzt, is born into House Do'Urden. Initially one of Menzoberranzan's minor houses, Homeland begins with Do'Urden annihilating one of their rivals, House DeVir. Again, the goal is to not get caught. As long as no DeVir family member lives to "press charges" against House Do'Urden, the rest of society will turn a blind eye to their bloody disappearance and shuffle the hierarchy accordingly. Drizzt is born during a complicated spell cast by Do'Urden's ruling matriarch, Malice. As the family's third son, he's a spare part and is intended to be sacrificed immediately. However, during the (successful) attack on House DeVir, Malice's second son kills her first son in order to jump up a rung on Do'Urden's internal hierarchy. Drizzt is now no longer superfluous and, thanks to his brother's ambition (and his other brother's carelessness), is kept alive.

Drizzt's childhood is sort of generically awful. He's raised by one of his older sisters, who also does her best to make sure that he knows that women are superior and elves are evil. Being a fantasy novel, Drizzt is mainly defined by his sense of alienation ("I the only one here that's not evil. Woez.") and his specialness, he becomes the very bestest warrior the drow have ever seen.

In the background, there's some drow politicking that helps move the plot along. A DeVir wizard has survived and is plotting against the Do'Urdens. He becomes (somewhat randomly) fixated on Drizzt, meaning that our hero has more than his fair share of trials and tribulations as he grows up. Overall, the structure of the book is more biographical than epic - the focus being more on Drizzt's advancement rather than any sort of overarching storyline. 

Salvatore has the unenviable task of trying to describe a culture that's both insidiously evil and functional. At times, he shows glimpses of pulling it off. The brainwashing of young drow to loathe the unseen "surface elves" is inspired and even adds a touch of empathy. The deadly politics are couched as a survival game - the drow are a race of paranoid schizophrenics, afraid that the elves are going to come get them at any time... As a conceit, this actually makes sense - it is a shame that it is left unexplored.

Salvatore instead relies on the basest staple of fantasy villainy: "evil for evil's sake". If Sauron's goal is to destroy the world, why would you work for him? The answer is, and always has been, "because you're eeeeeevil". Salvatore falls willingly into that same trap. For every momentary glimpse of brainwashing or instilled paranoia, there are ten long scenes of drow just being nasty 'cause that's what the drow do. Fighting your Underdark neighbors is one thing. Shagging demons for the fun of it? That's something else entirely.

It is a shame because Drizzt is the only drow that questions the principles of his society. What should be provocative character development is instead rhetorical monologuing. "Should we really be slaughtering children for fun? Let me think..."  Not that this is the only thing reining in the character development. Drizzt's only evolution is chronological - he's born Good and Special and, by the end of the book, he is still defined by both of those traits. His only real relationships are with a stuffed animal (his magical panther) and Zak (his father and mentor), with whom he never has a meaningful conversation. He never probes his outsider status - he spends the entirety of Homeland knowing that he doesn't belong. This is a confidence shared by adolescents around the world, which may go some ways towards explaining Drizzt's popularity.

Still, Drizzt hacks and slashes and spins and slays (always evil folks - he never crosses a line by inadvertently killing a good 'un) and that's all quite a bit of fun. Like a D&D campaign, every adventure invariably dissolves into combat and looting - this one is certainly no exception. Drizzt dices a lot of bad guys and is rewarded by a sexy new suit of armor (which is described in painstaking detail). Later, he'll dice more bad guys and then pick up new swords (which will be described in even more detail). If you like that sort of thing, Homeland is about as good as it gets. It is like a pub session with other gamers, swapping stories about your favorite characters and their zomg-sweet custom longswords.

The fundamental problem - and the bit that keeps Homeland from being happily stacked with the other comfort reads - is the drow. In his defense, Salvatore was working with the tools he was given. Presumably the hideously-flawed biology that made the evil cave people dark-skinned and the lovely surface-dwellers pale was Gary Gygax's fault. Ditto, the old gaming modules are what added in the idea that the drow empire was ruled by women. But, when it comes down to it, there's not much that's less progressive than an eeeeeevil empire with the defining characteristics "black" and "matriarchal".

Additionally, Salvatore compounds the problem by glossing over the indoctrination and making the drow's evil inherent to the race. Drow aren't evil by nurture, they're evil by nature. Drizzt, the noble savage, isn't a maverick - he's a mutant.  Granted, Drizzt's odd purple eyes aren't a huge change, but they're the first thing mentioned when he's born and, more importantly, they're emblematic of his underlying physical difference from the rest of his people. 

The treatment of the matriarchy is handled no less clumsily. The drow women are obsessed with sex and power. The ruling women keep a harem of men for their mates, choosing and discarding them as they see fit. It is, essentially, the inverse of every traditional fantasy kingdom. Except, in this case, it is eeeeeeeeevil. Beyond that, the women are either square-shouldered, whip-happy man-haters or slinky predators, ordering men and demons about for sexual pleasure. 

Granted, this book is twenty years old, but it was still 1990. At what point was someone going to look at it and think that, just maybe, a nation of man-hating black people should have a little more thought applied to it? Salvatore displays tiny fragments of being able to write the drow as a compelling race, but abandons these efforts and indulges himself in making them as evil as possible instead. The result does no favors to either Drizzt's character or the book as a whole.