The Companions: The Sundering, Book 1 (Dungeons & Dragons)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 448 Pages
Cost: $9.78 (Kindle)/$17.95 (Hardcover)/$4.95 (Softcover)
Release Date: 08/06/2013
Get it Here: Amazon.com
The Sundering is the event that will be bringing Dungeons & Dragons, particularly the Forgotten Realms, from Fourth Edition into D&D Next. There will be a series of playable adventures for the tabletop game (Look for our review of Murder at Baldur’s Gate soon!) and there will be six novels, each by a different author, to reflect how their characters react and change in the wake of this worldwide event. It’s an interesting way to do it, and it’s handled far better than the Spellplague, which changed the world from Third Edition to Fourth Edition, and I’d daresay it’s proving to be as interesting as the “Time of Troubles.” This book is also R.A. Salvatore’s twenty-fourth Drizzt Do’Urden novel, which is impressive that the author still has that much to still say about the character.
Of course, this really isn’t a book about Drizzt so much as the late, lamented friends he made over the course of his existence. I’ll be honest and say that Drizzt isn’t my favorite character on Toril. I’m not in love with him like a lot of people, and I don’t hate the guy like so many others. I can take or leave the world’s most famous Drow, much like Elminister. Generally, Ashe is the guy who reviews Salvatore’s books, but as I’ll be reviewing all the Sundering products, both tabletop and novel, it make sense for me to tackle this one. I will say that I didn’t feel the novel is as good as the early Drizzt pieces, but I honestly liked it better than a lot of the more recent books, like the Neverwinter trilogy, but that’s more that I didn’t care for the 4e version of Neverwinter than a knock of Salvatore’s writing.
Whether you will like The Companions or not rests solely on if you can enjoy a Drizzt book without Drizzt, and if his other companions were ones you enjoyed and miss. So, if you’re a fan of The Crystal Shard, you’ll probably enjoy seeing Wulgar and Bruenor Battlehammer again. If you’re one of the many who seem to vehemently hate Cattie-Brie or Regis, well, a third of the book is devoted to each, so this might not be the novel for you.
Now, if you’re a long time fan of Drizzt or Salvatore, you’re probably asking yourself right now, “Wait? Aren’t all these characters Alex is mentioning DEAD?” Well, yes they are. However, D&D is like comic books, in that there is always an out from death somehow. In this case, Wulgar, Bruenor, Cattie-Brie and Regis are all reunited in the afterlife and offered a chance at reincarnation. They can return to Toril, albeit it new bodies and as new people, if they agree to help save Drizzt from an undefined and unknown threat twenty-one years in the future. Three of the companions agree to this, while one outright refuses and wants to return to his eternal rest. I thought it was interesting to see which one said no.
In these new forms, the three remaining companions take on new identities, but keep all their old memories and much of their previous skills. It’s like a baby having the skills, feats and abilities of a tenth level warrior, which leads to some hilarious, and sometimes horrible, situations. It’s also interesting to see how much these three characters grow into their new lives and how different it makes them. One character ends up living and working with the Netherese, one becomes part Genasi and a master oyster diver (and an unintended enemy of a powerful lich!) and one becomes bitter and angry for much of his new life, regretting his decision to accept the reincarnation. The latter is not the character I would have expected this from, as he was almost my favorite Salvatore character, and I hated seeing him grow into an angsty whiner, but at the same time, he also had the most interesting story of the three.
Now I won’t deny that, as good as this story felt, it also seemed weird to devote an entire book to bringing these characters back to life as, love them or hate them, they died and their stories were over. I know that a huge push with D&D Next is to return to the older mechanics and glory days of Dungeons & Dragons, but I’m not sure if I want to see the old characters whose time is done return too. I mean, I don’t want to see Mirror come back in Richard Lee Byers’ Sundering novel, even though I loved him, and it would be odd to see, say, Tanis and Tasslehoff come back to life in Dragonlance or Ravenloft revert to before the Grand Conjunction, so I can see why fans are split on this novel and how it brings the dead back to life. It’s controversial to be sure, but for every reader that hates the idea, there will be one that loves seeing these guys return to life and have new adventures in the latest version of Toril.
Now, as this is the first book in a new series (The Sundering), I wish it had been a lot friendlier to newcomers. The first book in any series, especially if it uses older familiar characters, should do a bit of introduction and explanation for new readers to help them navigate the events unfolding around them. After all, this book is not billed as the twenty-fourth Drizzt novel, but the FIRST Sundering tale. Someone brand new to D&D, thinking this will be a good launching point into the series, will find themselves pretty lost and way in over their heads, as nothing is explained, and Salvatore writes this novel assuming you’ve read all the Drizzt books that have come before. Now, I haven’t, because as I’ve said, Drizzt isn’t my favorite character, and my main time with D&D novels outside of Richard Lee Byers was with First and Second Edition novels. Third and Fourth Edition didn’t really offer too much in the way of books that interested me, as I was more a Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape and Spelljammer fan. I wasn’t lost because I’ve read novels with all these characters before, although I was unaware of exactly how some of the companions died. Throughout reading this, though, I couldn’t help but think how hard it would be to get through this book without some sort of previous knowledge about the characters, god and events taking place here. This was not a problem with other edition change novels, so I’m disappointed that this is how Wizards and Savaltore chosen to handle the beginning of the edition change. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a very well written book, and it’s one of Salvatore’s better novels (especially if you prefer the companions to Drizzt), but this is not something I would give my wife to read who had read only Homeland, I believe.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that The Companions barely touched on The Sundering and how it will affect the Forgotten Realms as we move into D&D Next. Another one might be that The Companions is more of a prelude to other upcoming Drizzt novels. All the protagonists from the individual arcs are not dealt with, many plot threads are left unresolved, and things feel unfinished… which is hard to say, considering at the same time, I felt the book ran a bit too long, clocking in at nearly 400 pages, and that there were segments and sections that could have easily been excised in exchange for finishing up each character’s storyline. The end result is a book that fails to deliver on nearly all counts, while still being a well written and gripping read. It’s an odd juxtaposition to be sure, and I still don’t know how I feel about The Companions even while writing this review.
I think the more invested you are in Drizzt, the more emotional and/or visceral a reaction you’ll have to The Companions. For some, this will be a masterstroke and a thank you to long time readers, as all their favorite characters are reunited once more. For others, they will feel annoyed and cheated that several characters are back to life, and even more overpowered than they were the first time. It’s really going to depend on how you view character death and if you think it should be permanent or not. Again, I think writing-wise, this is one of Salvatore’s best novels in some time, even while I don’t think the novel did its actual job of introducing and/or explaining The Sundering, and leaving too many plot threads unresolved. It’s a good read, especially for Drizzt fans, but if, like me, you’re reading The Companions for the Sundering aspect, you will probably walk away a bit disappointed or feel cheated, while also enjoying the tale told between these covers. I would definitely say that The Companions is better than a lot of Drizzt books I’ve seen over the past decade or so, but not as good as the first six. So it’s one of the better, but it’s not the best. Truly, The Companions elicited mixed emotions, and I’m hoping the other Sundering novels do a better job of showcasing the changes coming to the Forgotten Realms.