The other day I had a strange impulse to revisit R.A. Salvatore's "The Crystal Shard." I'd originally read this book back in 1988 when it was first released. I was still in grade school back then, and my method of picking out books was pretty heavily dependent on the cover. "The Crystal Shard" had a Larry Elmore cover, and I'd especially liked his work from the Dragonlance series.
I can't say that I was blown away by "The Crystal Shard" even when I read it back then, but I liked it enough to keep with R.A. Salvatore and stick with him over the other "Forgotten Realms" authors. I waded through a couple trilogies by guys such as Douglas Niles and Troy Denning, but those two authors never impressed me. There was something a little bit more alive about Salvatore's characters, I suppose.
Actually, when I was 13, the main thing I was looking for in a book was battle scenes and an author who got to them quickly! I remember thinking that "The Crystal Shard" was a bit boring, only to have my dad point out that there were two or three murders in the first fifteen pages or so (it wasn't the type of book my dad would read normally, but he picked up my copy once while we were waiting for a plane to land...and wasn't all that impressed). I suppose "The Crystal Shard" fits into that genre that you could almost call a prose comic book. I know, I know...that genre doesn't technically exists, but if there is such a thing as a "graphic novel" then there should be a "prose comic book" right?
R.A. Salvatore has had a dream career as a fantasy novelist. His books sell like mad and all you have to do is check out the reviews on Amazon to see he's got an intensely loyal following. I have to admit that when I was writing The Bone Sword or Dominvs, I reflected back on Salvatore's way of setting up a battle scene. The fact is, the guy simply knows how to get right to the action and keep his foot on the gas until the finish line.
"The Crystal Shard" was his first published novel, and it is kind of an interesting hodgepodge of ideas. From my understanding, Salvatore himself wanted to title the book "The Tyrant of Icewind Dale" which for my money is a much better title than "The Crystal Shard." In fact, "The Crystal Shard" is an extremely bland name, and it's even stranger since the crystal shard the title refers to is about the least compelling object in the whole book.
Like many fantasy writers, Salvatore was obviously trying to channel Tolkien and just not be all that obvious about it. Honestly, I don't think this is too big of a problem since it's what pretty much EVERY fantasy writer does. Let's face it, Tolkien's work sets the bar on the genre and there is nobody within a thousand miles of it. The similarities to Tolkien are abundant in "The Crystal Shard." There is a halfling called Regis who is very Hobbitlike, a dwarf who has taken up refuge in the frozen north because his people "delved too deep" in their ancestral home of "Mithril hall," there is a sentient object of unspeakable evil (the crystal shard), etc.
Now, as a discerning reader, what are you supposed to make of blatant similarities to Tolkien like that? When I was 13, the similarities didn't bother me in the least honestly. I was actually happy for them because they gave me kind of a reference as to what to expect. Also, where are you going to draw the line? Is the fact that a book is populated with elves, dwarves, and orcs enough to say that it is a Tolkien rip-off? What about the fact that you're writing a fantasy book at all? These are kind of interesting questions (and for another blog article I think).
The thing that saves "The Crystal Shard" (and, indeed, probably Salvatore's entire career as a writer) was that he introduced a character that was a dark elf, or drow. Drow had traditionally been evil in the D&D universe (a book like this is really just an extension of D&D...which is brilliant in terms of marketing, so good for them). By introducing a "rogue" drow (therefore a "good" drow), Salvatore was able to invent and explore an entire world of "evil" characters that nobody in fantasy had ever really gone into (he did this in the "Homeland" trilogy which I remember to be excellent, but which I haven't read in decades). Although the drow character, Drizzt, was proposed as only a supporting character, he's pretty clearly the hero of the book.
So, just to recap, when I first read "The Crystal Shard" I was about 13 and pretty much willing to read anything with a good cover and the promise of a lot of evil creatures getting chopped up. Now, at 35 after having earned a degree in English Literature and penned a couple fantasy novels myself, I sincerely have to put R.A. Salvatore among my primary influences. I think I'm pretty lucky in that I went through my degree program kicking and screaming and I wasn't the type of student who just blindly accepted everything the professors said. Because of that, I proud to say that I can still enjoy a book like "The Crystal Shard."
Sure, there are a couple point of view shifts and even some minor grammatical problems in the book (there are two points where he writes "breath" instead of "breathe,") but that's never been the type of thing to slow me down. I think the main difference between "The Crystal Shard" and my novel "The Bone Sword" is that, for one, I've never been a big fan of battles with non-human characters. I think I first got put off to that while watching "Battlestar Galactica" in which the humans were always killing the boring robot Cylons. I think it's a lot easier to generate conflict when you have human beings killing human beings (and Salvatore does get into conflict like this in later novels. Another difference is that my characters tend to doubt themselves a lot more than the characters of "The Crystal Shard" doubt themselves (again, this is something you see appearing more and more in later Salvatore works).
I'd be really curious to hear what Salvatore fans had to say about "The Bone Sword." Heck, I'd be interested to hear what Salvatore had to say! Hopefully he wouldn't suggest that I borrowed from him in the same way I suggested he borrowed from Tolkien...but you never know!
I'm off...maybe I'll go and read the second "Icewind Dale" book, "Streams of Silver" (which I remember being an almost word for word rewrite of "The Hobbit").