The Icewind Dale Trilogy: a retrospective review

Posted by Chris Rosser on Sun 29 September 2019
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A couple of days ago, I re-read The Icewind Dale Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. Partly born out of a desire for nostalgia, and partly because I've started playing D&D, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with Faerun, the primary setting of the Forgotten Realms.

Faerun, setting of the Icewind Dale Trilogy
Faerun, setting of the Icewind Dale Trilogy

I must say it was an interesting experience. Perhaps the books one reads in childhood are best left there, for their shine diminishes, and the joy we experienced back then is seldom realised in the jaded mind of adulthood.

Original cover of The Crystal Shard
Original cover of The Crystal Shard

I first read the Icewind Dale trilogy as a teenager in the early 1990s. Before this, my experience with fantasy was limited to British authors Tolkien, Lewis and Macefield. They were better books, classics that stand the test of time, but as a teenager, I craved adventure and excitement and Salvatore certainly provided that. Salvatore hooked me with Homeland1 and I went on to consume his next dozen books until my tastes matured and I discovered more sophisticated authors.

So, what was the experience like returning to an old favourite?

Well, it was mixed.

I certainly experienced a degree of nostalgia. The Icewind Dale books harken back to fantasy's more innocent days before G.R.R. Martin made rape, incest and torture mainstream staples of the genre. Yet, as an adult reader evaluating a text as an author, The Icewind Wind books exhibit serious flaws.

Structure and plot

The book's structure for me stands out as Salvatore's strength as a writer. By the standards of the genre, his books are short (105k), well-paced and follow a tight three-act structure. Subplots are minimal, and Salvatore used them as hooks to the other books in the trilogy. The result is a solid structure that repeats itself throughout the series. Salvatore's first trilogies all follow this pattern, and is likely the reason he was — and remains — so prolific in his output.

The books' plot serves the structure well enough, moving the characters from one set-piece to another, steadily building the stakes and the tension until the climax. Yet, much of the plot consists of very well worn tropes — the dwarf searching for his homeland, an evil wizard bent on conflict, a barbarian who would be king, the rescue mission. Even in the 1980s, these were borderline cliches, thirty years later it's hard not to dismiss them outright.

Characters and characterisation

If the structure is Salvatore's strength, then his characters and how he portrays them are his Achilles heel. Yes, I know that's heresy — Drizzt Do' Urden is beloved by millions, and when I was 13 I thought he was cool too.

As an adult reader, though, there's nothing remotely exciting about the characters — leading or minor. Bruenor is a gruff and sentimental dwarf. Wulfgar is a proud and brave barbarian. Regis is a lazy and self-interested halfling2. Drizzt is a stoic and principled elf — admittedly a contrast from his evil race the Drow. The group act as the story's central protagonists - a mixed-race party of adventurers representing each of the common races found in the D&D gaming system. Every minor character met, with the exception perhaps of Catti-Brie, along the way is similarly one-dimensional with little motivation beyond altruistic good, or self-interest.

While I give Salvatore credit for trying to move beyond the cardboard cutouts of the genre, his characters still feel like they were generated with the D&D rulebook and a few rolls of the dice. There's little substance to them, and rather than agents of their own destiny they mostly roll with the punches the author lays out.

There is no moral ambiguity, no shades of grey…characters (indeed, whole races) are either good or evil, moral or immoral and act accordingly. Even when Drizzt and his nemesis briefly team up, neither learn or grow from the experience. The sole outcome is a deepening understand of themselves to justify their narrow world view and their hatred for the other.

The heroes never have to struggle to overcome their inner flaws — because they barely have them — they just press on using their weapons to solve their problems. Drizzt is particularly problematic in this respect, as is his foil, Artemis Entreri. I noted that neither grows when Salvatore throws them together, but that only mirrors the lack of character development across all three books. Where character flaws exist (Regis' dishonesty, Wulfgar's pride, Bruenor's stubbornness), they are mostly used as plot devices to trigger another encounter or set-piece.

Modern readers will note there's no sex or overt sexual politics, beyond mild flirtation between Wulfgar and Catti-Brie. Love and sex are powerful motivational forces for characters, and their absence in these early books is glaring.

Oh, and there's no swearing either. Prudishness of the day, I suppose - sure. Sure, your hero can slaughter foes by the hundred, but you can't have him saying 'fuck I hate goblins' as he relaxes in a brothel after a hard day's adventuring. Back in the 80s and 90s that would have caused a flood of hate mail from the moral brigade.

The omission, I think, isn't wholly Salvatore's fault. In the 1970s, a considerable moral panic arose around D&D, particularly among Christian groups in the United States. TSR, the publisher of the Forgotten Realms, took this on board, altering the ruleset to remove demonic references. I wonder if this reaction bowdlerised and censored the more adult elements of Salvator's writing, which began to make a gradual if subtle appearance in later books.

Who's the trilogy about?

That's not a question any reader should have to ask. In retrospect, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's Drizzt's story, but that's not the case.

It's actually hard to tell who's the main character. While there's a well-defined plot in each book, there's not one strong character arc in which any of the four protagonists change and grow.

The series reads like an ensemble movie. Yet originally it was supposed to be about Wulfgar with Drizzt acting as his sidekick. As characters go, Wulfgar is so dull that readers latched onto the enigmatic Drizzt. This unexpected shift prompted Salvatore to retcon the character's origin story in the Dark Elf Trilogy, published several years after. Good on him, Drizzt built a career for Salvatore that persists to this day.

Further confusing matters is Salvatore's frequent head hopping within scenes. It's sloppy writing by today's standards and a pet peeve of mine as a writer of close third-person perspective. I like to explore the world through a single character's senses. Salvatore's omnipotent narrator tells me exactly what each person is thinking and feeling instead of showing it through action and dialogue.

The world-building

Surely, I liked the world, right? Well yes, and no. The Forgotten Realms' setting is undoubtedly vast and comprehensive — created as an enormous sandpit for role-players to find adventures over beer and pizza on a Friday night3.

As a game world, I've no doubt it's brilliant, but as a setting for a book series, I'm less convinced. Firstly, the setting seems to be made up of city-states and frontier towns. There's no empires or kingdoms of note, beyond chiefdom-level societies among the barbarians and dwarfs4.

This means there's very little in terms of macro politics, such as dynastic conflict and inter-state warfare as I came to enjoy with the works of Raymond E. Feist. Where politics is hinted at in the Icewind Dale series, it's usually confined to local machinations of greedy merchants or power hungry guilds (thieves and wizards). Presumably, this is a deliberate strategy to maintain the sandbox feel. The Forgotten Realms spawned a bunch of novels and official game modules. TSR didn't want individual authors running amok changing big chunks of lore and muddying the waters.

I understand why, but it's an opportunity lost for a story-teller. Salvatore doesn't own his setting so he can't change the world, and it shows. The flip side, of course, is that Salvatore didn't have to world-build, another factor for his considerable output.

Then there's the economics of the world, which my inner archaeologist5 struggles to reconcile. Who's feeding these cities? Where are the vast networks of farms, hamlets and villages that dotted the landscape of the medieval analogue on which the setting is based? When farms are mentioned, they are merely used to provide a means to acquire horses to speed the adventure along. Since there's no large nation states, who's maintaining those roads our intrepid heroes frequently use to get about the perilous landscape?

Of course, the hinterland is where adventures are supposed to take place, and there's plenty of monsters outside city walls — occupying all that much-needed farmland. It creates an odd balance, and I'm left with the impression the world of Faerun is merely pockets of civilisation surrounded by a vast ocean of hostile forces. While not implausible — there's historical examples in our own world — it's hard to suspend disbelief if you have a logical mind.

Another glaring oddity is the lack of linguistic diversity. There's only really one language, conveniently called Common, which is taken from the gaming system. Sure, each race has their own language6 but all the humans pretty much speak the same tongue, from Camilshan in the south, to Ten Towns thousands of miles to the north. As native Briton where accent changes from county-to-county, and the relatively small British Isles incubated English, Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic, I find this hard to believe.

Really, I could go on. Yet, I am prepared to simply enjoy the world at face value — after all, it was built for gaming, not necessarily writing novels. It doesn't aspire or even pretend to be rooted in any historical model beyond the vanilla fantasy setting loosely based on old-world analogues.

Swordplay and action

I don't think I've ever written a book review before where I've felt I had to discuss its action scenes. Yet, when Salvatore exploded onto the scene, he was praised for his exciting combat. His books features pages and pages of detailed blow-by-blow description showcasing the abilities of his central characters as they battle through one encounter after the next. Martial arts and combat is almost a fetish in these books, as it is with D&D which had its origins in wargaming.

When I was 13, I enjoyed it, but as a 40-year-old, I found it tedious — like reading sport or poorly written sex scenes. It's not that they are bad, more that they get monotonous after a while with little variation of emotional engagement. The good guys almost always win and never do you get the sense that they won't triumph or that they are in mortal danger. Partly this is because Salvatore's heroes are badass, but because they are virtuous. Even when Drizzt and Entreri reach a stalemate, Drizzt wins the moral victory.

It's kind of hammy if I'm honest, but good fun at the same time. There's a strong moral streak that runs through the story, that seems quaint now to my modern eyes. It's the sort of wholesome vibe you get when Obi-Wan Kenobi laments for an elegant weapon for a more civilised age.

Concluding thoughts

Well, it was a fun trip down memory lane. Despite my criticism, I did enjoy my return to the Forgotten Realms and Salvator's first published series. His books had a significant impact on me as a teenager, giving me what I needed and enjoyed at the time. With his prolific output and my lack of choice growing up in semi-rural Australia, the books provided me with several years of enjoyment. At least, that is, until I found something better as my tastes and interests matured.

The Icewind Dale trilogy isn't complete crap. When placed within the context of a fantasy novel written in the 1980s to compliment a roleplaying game, it does provide a few hours of diversion, even to a jaded modern reader like myself.

Now…do I dare read my favourite fantasy book from my youth? A critical eye is a curse as much as a blessing. This experience has taught me that perhaps it's best to leave old favourites undisturbed in the comforting memories of youth.

  1. Published after the Icewind Dale trilogy, but I read it first largely by accident. 

  2. AKA Hobbit until the estate of Tolkien threatened to sue publisher TSR. 

  3. Don't get me wrong, that's fun! 

  4. Yes, another cliche. 

  5. Yes, I have a degree in archaeology. 

  6. Usually one. 

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