Sunday, July 7, 2013

Okay--Whose Turn is it Now?

R. A. Salvatore's new entry to the Dungeons and Dragons (R) franchise, The Companions: The Sundering Book I, is a bit of a patchwork. If you are a hardcore fan of the various rpgs (role playing games not grenades) offered by Wizards of the Coast, and you are very familiar with the history of the recent campaigns and modules in their milieu, then this book will be a fun way of introducing a new line of expansion modules (called Dungeon Modules for those who don't play). However the structure of the novel is a little like the previous sentence.

The prologue is composed of a series of infodumps, designed to inform the experienced reader of the point in the history of the fictional worlds of D&D (R) where this story picks up. Beginning in chapter one, the Principle Characters are introduced and their personal relationships are explained rather than demonstrated, as they awaken in a temporary way station on their way to the various eternal rewards. All four are dead and have been diverted by the goddess Mielikki, although three of them are not adherents of her cult. After a lot of unconvincing soul-searching, three set off to be reincarnated so they can be available twenty years later to help a good friend in his darkest hour. The Fourth decides he must honor his own God and wades into the magical pond that will take him to his heaven of rest.

Salvatore has a brusk style that often leaves the reader with little idea of setting, but this is typical of YA fiction whose readers tend to be impatient with introspection and internal dialogue. Overall it is well composed and intercalary vignettes keep the principles, who are scattered to the three (four?) winds, in sync with their individual timelines. For a reader of more adult or literary fiction, and many readers of Fantasy genre' fiction the plot will be thin and lacking in a discernible climax. Passages about the growth and development of Little Arr Arr (aka Breunor) are very off-putting and difficult not to skim. His self indulgence is trite as are his staged epiphanies. It will likely be difficult for even a teen to identify with this characters brand of angst.

For the believer, several things may stand out as positive. In the process of "getting his priorities right" Breunor expresses a great deal of miplaced anger at his God, which he eventually makes peace with by learning submission and differentiating between personal discipline and honor versus pride and accomplishment. This theme is strong but handled poorly, as if the author lacked the insight to really handle the topic. Regis does some convincing growth, making a few false starts (e.g. picking a fight just to prove he's brave, attempting murder to help his father deal with alcoholism) but eventually makes peace with his personal horrors and finds the courage to face his new life. Cattie-brie is a generally positive model who grows up with loving parents and the courage to face life's challenges squarely without arrogance or rebellion. You will also be happy that the violence is kept to the PG-13 level, albeit due to the tensity of description.

However several elements will be disturbing:
A character experiences a short lived reincarnation and a post birth abortion, Caligula style. Every success is achieved through violence and even self sacrifice is portrayed as a means to self aggrandizement and personal glory. Selfish pride is a thing to be sublimated but only in support of obligation to close friends and family.

Overall I'd give this book 3 stars on a scale from -5 to 5. A YA reader will enjoy the fast pace and light drama. And the authors attempts, with varying degrees of success, to be compatible with Judeo Christian values.

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