Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Halfling's Gem by R.A. Salvatore

(Forgotten Realms #12, The Icewind Dale Trilogy #3)
(First published 1990)

The ruthless assassin Artemis Entreri has kidnapped the halfling Regis and is taking him to Calimport to deliver him to his erstwhile master, Pasha Pook - kingpin of Calimshan's criminal underworld. Fortunately for Regis, his friends Drizzt the drow elf and Wulfgar the barbarian are hot on their heels. Meanwhile, another friend thought lost struggles to survive a perilous situation. It is a case of out of frying pan and into the fire for the Companions of the Hall as they make their way to sprawling Calimport, the largest city in the Realms deep in the heart of the desert nation of Calimshan.




Regis, or Rumblebelly to his friends - or at least his friend, the dwarf Bruenor - has a lot to answer for. Not content with a life as the Pasha's most prized thief, he made the foolish error of stealing his master's most valued possession, a ruby Pendant of Beguiling able to charm any creature within sight of the gem. Taken at face value, one could argue he deserves whatever dire fate Pasha Pook has in store for him. Look a little deeper, however, and... well, he still kind of deserves the fate the Pasha has in store for him. I mean, Bruenor himself has a chest in Mithral Hall in which the severed hands of thieves are kept.

Hmm.

Muddy morals aside, honour demands that Drizzt and Wulfgar rescue their friend from the clutches of the wicked Artemis Entreri. What follows is a somewhat abbreviated journey south, aided by some rather convenient magic and punctuated by scenes that range from memorable to rather silly.

Firstly, the memorable: the tavern scene in which Wulfgar chooses restraint in talking down the hilariously-named Bungo shows some nice character growth. The scenes between Pook and his minions are frequently amusing and, as with Salvatore's earlier efforts, paint villains with greater nuance than some of his contemporaries. There is an exciting sea battle between the heroes and a small pirate fleet that rewards Drizzt with a heart-warming moment of acceptance as his race-altering mask slips and the crew choose to embrace him despite his heritage. The showdown between Drizzt and Entreri, when it eventually happens, is a blood-pumping confrontation that will have readers on the edge of their seats. As always, Salvatore writes combat with an energy and level of detail that highlights every thrust, slash, parry and wound dealt.

As mentioned, though, the justness of our heroes' cause is less sure in this novel. For all Drizzt's introspection regarding respect and honour, he allows his hunger to prove himself better than Entreri to occasionally cloud his thoughts. For his part, Entreri massacres an entire ship's crew in perhaps his most villainous act of his career. There's a certain twisted logic behind his doing so - but it feels gratuitous and jars with what we know of his character.

The novel's biggest misstep is the journey into Tarterus, an Outer Plane crawling with native fiends known as demodands. Here the action crosses over into the absurd, with the heroes surviving hordes of fiends (mostly) unscathed and constantly making million-to-one odds seem a sure thing. Drizzt's obvious attraction to Catti-Brie becomes a tad uncomfortable given she and Wulfgar are clearly an item - there's a stolen kiss from an unconscious Cattie-Brie that is certainly eyebrow-raising - and Drizzt claims highest-level hero privilege to shunt both Bruenor and Wulfgar to the side and become the star of the show in decidedly dickish fashion near the end. There's the feeling that here was where R.A. Salvatore decided a certain drow elf was absolutely the main event and plotted accordingly.

(Of course, the Dark Elf Trilogy remains the jewel in the crown of the roughly 400 subsequent Realms novels, so in that he was absolutely correct!)

One thing that grated that I must mention is the dialect used for some of the characters, particularly the Calishite Sali Dalib, whose broken English (or Common) is embarrassingly denoted using "de" instead of "the," among other abominations. Maybe it read better in 1990 - but, as with the stolen kiss, it makes for slightly uncomfortable reading in 2019.

All in all, The Halfling's Gem is the weakest of the original Icewind Dale Trilogy. It lacks the rough charm of the first novel and the charming character growth of the second. Nonetheless, it presents a memorable cast of secondary villains and henchmen which it delights in knocking down, and features an iconic showdown between two iconic characters. An uneven plot and some questionable character choices don't detract too much from the book serving as a satisfying conclusion to a story that brought to life some of the most prominent locales and colourful characters in the Forgotten Realms. For that achievement, the Icewind Dale Trilogy was crucial to the runaway success of the setting.

*** 1/2 out of *****

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