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Mega-Double Review / Interview Special: Gauntlgrym & Neverwinter by R.A. Salvatore

When I attended GenCon 2011 this past August, and got the chance to sit down with the Wizards of the Coast Brand Manager Laura Tommervik, I had no idea that the conversation would lead to some amazing opportunities for me as a game reviewer this fall. Not only did I end up getting a pre-release paperback review copy of the new Neverwinter novel by R.A. Salvatore, but I also got the chance to...

When I attended GenCon 2011 this past August, and got the chance to sit down with the Wizards of the Coast Brand Manager Laura Tommervik, I had no idea that the conversation would lead to some amazing opportunities for me as a game reviewer this fall. Not only did I end up getting a pre-release paperback review copy of the new Neverwinter novel by R.A. Salvatore, but I also got the chance to interview the author himself as a lead up to my book review!

But as I began to read Neverwinter, I realized very quickly that I would be doing both myself and you, my review audience, a discredit by not also reading the first book of the new Neverwinter Trilogy, Gauntlgrym. From all indications in the press releases of WotC, the Neverwinter Trilogy is clearly set to be a complete story arc, with many tie-ins to not only to WotC’s Neverwinter Campaign Setting, but to the upcoming Neverwinter video game by Cryptic Studios, coming out in 2012. So I put down my advanced copy, and borrowed a copy of Gauntlgrym from a friend to make sure I got the full scope of the trilogy before my interview with R.A Salvatore, and my review of Neverwinter. And since I’ve read both books, it only seems right I should write this as a double review, as well as a chance to offer some choice quotes from my interview with Mr. Salvatore regarding his characters and his work!

Gauntlgrym / Neverwinter

  • Author: R.A. Salvatore
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Format: Hardbound
  • Price: $17.72 (Gauntlgrym) / $16.98 (Neverwinter) (books prices given are from [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Gauntlgrym-Neverwinter-Book-Nights/dp/0786958022/ref=as_li_wdgt_js_ex?&linkCode=wey&tag=neurogames-20"]Amazon.com[/ame])
Reviewer’s Note: A few words on Spoilers – I’ve struggled for a couple days now, trying to figure out a way not to give away too many spoilers, but as a review any novel goes, or in this case pair of novels, it is very difficult to discuss them without dropping a few bombshells. For those that don’t want their reading experience to be spoiled, I’d recommend skimming the text, read the excerpts from my interview with Mr. Salvatore, and then hit the score and conclusions at the end. But if spoilers don’t frustrate you, read on! But remember, I did warn you…


Gauntlgrym takes place in the intervening years, well after the Spellplague, and brings the characters from the Drizzt novel series up to date with the current timeline in the Forgotten Realms. There is about a century of history between the events in The Ghost King, with the tragedies befalling Drizzt and Catti Brie, and the current events in the Neverwinter Trilogy, and Gauntlgrym is literary bridge Mr. Salvatore uses to try to span that time gap. And because of the jump in time, some of the characters which were part of the preceding Drizzt novels could not make the passage with him. Bruenor becomes his only companion for the majority of this current book, and the author commented about that time jump during my recent interview with him:
...I’ve kind of wiped the slate clean around him, the Forgotten Realms advanced a hundred years, and if I’m going to write in the Realms, it’s incumbent on me to advance with the world. And his friends didn’t all make the journey with him for one reason or another.
This loss of friends has some profound effects on Drizzt’s attitudes during Gauntlgrym, and Salvatore does a considerable amount of exploring into Drizzt persona throughout this book. In many respects, the book is more about peering into Drizzt’s soul, rather than continuing with plot concerning his character development:
[After] 20 books into a series, it’s really hard to do character development, people just don’t keep changing like that… in profound ways… they do in subtle ways… their perspectives change a little bit, and so you shift from character development to putting the character under pressure and see if he or she can remain true to the principles that have guided them through the years.
In fact, for much of Gauntlgrym, we see Salvatore pushing at Drizzt’s psyche, and watching him backslide a bit into an earlier persona which the author called The Hunter – a more feral and unfeeling character Drizzt had to adopt to survive on his own in Exile. Clearly, Breunor’s companionship helps Drizzt resist this back-slide of emotion to a degree, as does the dwarf king’s single-minded quest to finally discover Gauntlgrym:
Well, he was in the same place in The Lone Drow, but he had no idea how to handle it, and that’s why he became the Hunter again, and became this crazed killing machine, and taking out his rage on those, who he thought had killed his friends.

And he has a couple of companions, elven companions, and one of them who has become very dear to him, Innovindil, tells him what it is to be an elf, and explains to him that if you’re going to mingle with the lesser lived races… the shorter lived races… that you’re going to have to live your life as an elf that will see the dawn and death of several centuries. So you’re going to have to live your life in shorter bursts, and you’re going to have to just be able to wash your hands of it, and go on with the next phase of your life. So here he is, and we see if he’s got the intestinal fortitude or the emotional makeup to do what Innovindil said he had to do.

But finding Gauntlgrym takes a long time, in fact it takes a few decades of searching, researching, and searching again for the dwarf and the drow to finally figure out its location. Surprisingly, Salvatore does not spend as much time with Drizzt and Bruenor in Gauntlgrym as one would expect for a “Drizzt novel”, but instead jumps about to other forces at work in the North, bent on either subjugating or annihilating the people of Neverwinter.

The author utilizes three major factions operating in the North, which are vying for power there, and who are constantly struggling against each other, either covertly or in all-out battle. On one side, you have the Thayans, which have begun work on a Dread Ring in Neverwinter Woods. They are allied with the Ashmadai cultists – worshippers of Asmodeus – who they use as cat’s paws to advance a very destructive plan by Szass Tam, who wants to spread death and undeath to gain power. The Thayans are co-commanded by an elven warrior named Dahlia and a sorceress called Sylora Salm, and the two woman do not work well together at all. They are jealous of the other’s favor with Szass Tam, and that offers all manner of fascinating intrigue throughout the book.

On the other side, you have the shadowy Netherese, led by a powerful shadovar tiefling warlord named Herzgo Alegni. He in turn controls a very powerful assassin known as Barrabus the Gray, who acts as Alegni’s cat’s paws, although quite unwillingly, but is bound to a weapon known as Claw which has enslaved the deadly killer. The Netherese work hard to gain control and influence in the cities of the North, Luskan and Neverwinter, and use guile and threats to set up their power base. And there is a powerful connection between Herzgo Alegni and Dahlia’s past, which proves to be a fundamental part of her evil nature, although Dahlia never realizes the connection during Gauntlgrym.

The number of players in this game of power does tend to give the book a bit of a disjointed feeling, moving rapidly from one faction leader to the next, and it is further complicated by covering their plots and schemes over the course of years and decades. While Drizzt is no longer the focus for character development, there is plenty of development going on with Dahlia, Sylora, Alegni, and Barrabus, so much so in fact that Gauntlgrym has the feel of what some might call an “evil campaign” novel. But the evil scheming is done so well, and feature exciting cameos with Szass Tam and a frighteningly insane lich named Valindra - who is a survivor from when the Spellplague blasted the Host-Tower of the Arcane - that it makes for some great reading, particularly for anyone considering DMing adventures in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting - which is pretty much as intended, based upon my discussions with WotC PR folks at GenCon!

Truly, Dahlia Sin’felle is the anti-hero of the Gauntlgrym novel, and is frankly one of the most dynamic and exciting characters to read about, hands down. Even her backstory is compelling, as we find out that this elf warrior had been raped by a certain shadovar as a teenager, apparently murdered her own newborn son, and allied herself with the Thayans, who are at war with the Netherese shadovar. And she’s sort a serial monogamist, who ends her relationships with past lovers by killing them in mortal combat. She instantly became my favorite character in the novel, and she literally stole every scene she was in!

One of the facets that makes her such an interesting character is her amazing fighting style, which made me think of her more as a monk that a warrior, being both athletic and acrobatic, and having a unique Eastern-themed weapon. Dahlia wields a magical staff called Kozah’s Needle, this weapon can break down from staff to bo sticks to nunchaku to a three-sectioned staff and back again, offering her battle scenes endless diversity and excitement as she uses her weapon outwit her enemies. When asked about what inspired him to create such a weapon and style, Mr. Salvatore explained that his inspiration comes directly from a stunning martial arts movie:
was really inspired by Crouching Tiger - Hidden Dragon. There is a great scene in there where the older female master and the young girl are fighting in the circular armory, and she’s grabbing different weapons and going at it. And so I wanted… well, at first I was thinking that I just wanted to give her a staff from 1st edition… it was like an Anything Staff, you could make it be any weapon. So at first I was going to give her that, but that felt kinda goofy to me when I was thinking about it… like a staff that become a battle axe? So instead I kinda improvised upon that, and thought what if you had a staff that you could magically and mechanically break into pieces, and have bo sticks, and then magically and mechanically break into a tri-staff, as well, or into nunchaku, you know, that just made more sense. And it would be more fluid, and that’s how I created the weapon, because she has a fighting style that is very nimble, are really several different fighting styles built into one.

Dahlia becomes the wild card of the novel, a selfish and evil at first as she plots and causes the destruction of Neverwinter city by using a fire primordial bound inside of Gauntlgrym’s famous forge. But later she recants her decision, and begins to slowly switch sides over the course of the book, seeking to prevent a second catastrophic eruption from the primordial, which would have leveled the newly rebuilt city years later. Of course, this eventually puts her at odds against her former allies, and makes her mortal enemies of Szass Tam, the Ashmadai, and Sylora Salm.

Reading the first destruction of Neverwinter was quite epic, and Salvatore did a great job describing an event which would have killed nearly everything in the city, drawing on his own fascination with volcanoes:
It [destroying Neverwinter] was awesome. I’m the kinda guy that sits around on a Saturday and watches shows about volcanoes. The shows I love to watch are the volcano chasers, when you see the pyroclastic flow take out a town in just a few minutes, it’s just an amazing sight to behold.
To finally stop the fire primordial, and rebind it within Gauntlgrym, Dahlia enlists the aid of Jarlaxle and Arthrogate, who in turn enlist Drizzt and Breunor in a series of twists, turns, and mistaken identities – after all, you have not one, but two pairs of drow and dwarf larking about the North. It is these four, along with Dahlia, who must venture back into the lost dwarven city, and enact a ritual of binding, which is no mean feat given the primordial’s allies (salamanders and a red dragon), or the fact that the lich Valindra is in hot pursuit of Dahlia, with Ashmadai troops and a pit fiend as her army!

This end scene inside Gauntlgrym is spectacularly detailed, massive in scope, and Mr. Salvatore describes the action of the heroes and villains and monsters with great relish. This last part of the book becomes a real page turner, and it looks pretty bleak for the heroes at any number of places. Thankfully, the tide turns because of Breunor’s empowerment by the dwarven gods, courtesy of a Gauntlgrym’s powerful magical throne of the dwarf kings of old Delzoun:
As the book progressed, it became clear to me as to who was going to be in that last fight, and that’s when I realized that King Bruenor was going to take on this like god-like presence In order to do the big battle, which I thought was really cool. Sitting in the throne of the gods, if you remember your 1st edition D&D, well weird thing happen when you sit in the throne of the gods, and this was essentially the dwarven throne of the gods there at the entrance to Gauntlgrym, and I thought it allowed me to give Bruenor the proper denouement, you know?
There was admittedly a certain Tolkien-esque quality to the final battle, reminding me a bit of the scenes from Moria. Mr. Salvatore does not deny the fact that Tolkien is one of the touchstones he has as an author of a D&D based character, and has great affection for the creator of the Lord of the Rings:
Absolutely, I won’t deny that for a minute… love [Tolkien], just love him to death! I remember reading the introduction to the LotR that Peter S. Beagle wrote, when he said that Tolkien “didn’t create these characters, he just gave them a home on which to live”, and that’s the truth. And we’re told that in many ways he took our twilight fancies and gave them flesh and blood, and dialogue, and character. If you read the 1st Edition DMG, they at the end of the book, they give a particular homage to two authors Jack Vance for the magic system, and Tolkien, and so to me the elves in the realms, the elves in most fantasy literature, and the dwarves in most fantasy literature, derive from Tolkien, and that has become sort of the comfortable archetype and trope that people use, and are used to, and end the end want.
In the end, however, Breunor had to die to save his friends, and Neverwinter as well, and his passing also cleared a way for Drizzt to begin a new relationship and camaraderie with Dahlia. Killing off a major character is certainly difficult for any author, and Mr. Salvatore admitted that it was no easy decision for him to do it and still affects him to this day:
You know, I was at the Philedelphia Public Library, and on tour for that book, and one of the guys who worked for the tour and set up the library, wrote a review, on the book… I think it’s on Amazon or Barnes and Noble… but at the end of the review, he said, “we should all be so lucky, to speak the words, ‘I found it elf!’”… and I think I was crying as I read the review… afterall, he’s Bruenor!
Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5.0

Despite the books disjointed beginning and middle, the ending brings together all the elements of the story into a fairly mighty climax, and brings Drizzt into the Forgotten Realm timeline concurrent with the D&D 4E multiverse. In some respects, Gauntlgrym’s earlier time-bounding moments reminded me of a from the prologue of Henry V:
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass…
It’s no easy task to span a hundred years of history, and a leap of editions, but Mr. Salvatore does it fairly well, and in a way that kept me fairly well engaged in the story to its fiery climax. Having a new and exciting anti-hero helped quite a bit here, and Dahlia was definitely the underpinning that kept the story from completely flying apart.

In fact, my only other real complaint with the novel – besides the disjointed sense of action - was the inclusion of the Ashmadai, and how I never could make sense of their alliance with the Thayans and Szass Tam. It seems that they really had no agenda of their own in the North, and were simply used by the Thayans as shock troops and cannon-fodder. For a group worshipping an arch-devil, and a master of manipulation, they don’t seem to emulate their god very well at all. Perhaps in the final book of the series, we might finally figure out Asmodeus’ reasoning for allowing his worshippers to be used in such a fashion, because even in Neverwinter, I still didn’t get it.


Right from the very beginning of this second novel in the Neverwinter Trilogy, the story-telling took on a very different scope than in the preceding book, Gauntlgrym. With Beunor dead, and in fact with Drizzt believing that only he and Dahlia survived the climactic events which rebound the fire primordial in its prison, Drizzt’s attitude changes profoundly from The Hunter persona we saw emerging in Gauntlgrym. Now having put his past behind him, he can mourn his old friends and start a new chapter in his life of adventure. As Mr. Salvatore puts it, he gave Drizzt a “blank slate”, which offers the character a chance to develop in new, and possibly surprising ways.
…now he [Drizzt] keeps telling himself… if you read the essays, and especially if you read the opening essay to Neverwinter… he keeps convincing himself that he’s alone now, but there is relief to that – he’s free – he’s ready to start the next adventure of his life, and he keeps trying to convince himself of that, and I’m not sure how much he believes it.
Of course, Dahlia is still with him, and Drizzt and the ex-Thayan champion decide they have no choice but to try and track down and stop Sylora Salm, although their motivations for the hunt are quite different. Dahlia wants pure revenge, while Drizzt has a more noble purpose of ending an evil which could once again find a new way to threaten Neverwinter and the North. This puts an interesting spin on their relationship as co-adventurers, which Salvatore was quick to point out in the interview I had with him:
But now he [Drizzt] is surrounded by a blank slate, and he’s angry and vulnerable, and the first character that he interacts with really, that becomes important beside him, is a really hot intriguing mysterious dangerous skilled elven female – Dahlia – and piques his interest quite a bit, but who’s moral compass does not point in the same direction as his at all.
Now the Neverwinter novel is a return to more of an “adventuring companions” sort of novel, unlike the disjointed flow of the previous novel which had the author hopping as he tried to match up a hundred years of timeline with the current Forgotten Realms. The action concentrates on Dahlia and Drizzt, with their adventures squarely in the forefront, but with side treks which allow the reader to learn about the machinations of the Thayans lead by Sylora Salm, and the Netherese championed by Alegni and his pet assassin. These are the evil forces at work in the North, which we know that the heroes must eventually overcome. The story in Neverwinter progresses without the great leaps in time, and we have the luxury to watch a more intimate relationship develop between Drizzt and the stunning Dahlia on a day by day, week by week basis.

During my interview, I asked Mr. Salvatore if he planned for Dahlia to become involved with Drizzt or if this was something that seemed to appear as he developed her character and the first novel. It turns out he had a surprising insight about how he felt about their budding relationship:
Well I really wanted to explore what would happen if Drizzt fell in with someone who’s moral compass pointed in a different direction than his own, so that was part of it. And I honestly didn’t realize how bad she was when I started writing her… when I started writing her in the introduction to Gauntlgrym, in the introduction to Dahlia… and then she had this flashback, that caught me completely by surprise, as to where she came from and what had happened to her. And I was like whoa, do I really want to let this person within a 1000 miles of Drizzt, I mean I was worried about him then.
The new elven duo set off in search of Sylora Salm, but end up running afoul of the pirate captains of Luskan, who have their own minor agenda regarding the power struggles in the North. There are some fairly spectacular fight scenes here in the City of Sails, involving considerably more new 4E spell effects than we saw in the previous novel. Admittedly, I might have been a bit more sensitive to it, once I learned about how Mr. Salvatore felt about D&D 4E, but somehow the scenes of battle in Neverwinter felt a little awkward at times:
When I wrote Neverwinter, I have an “anatomically correct” 4th edition battle in there and it almost killed me writing it. It was brutal… making those cards make sense in prose form, and then have a logical consistency for how this battle might develop.
I don’t want to give the impression I thought the battle scenes were bad in Neverwinter, quite the contrary in fact. But I still felt as though the scenes were more forced somehow, as though the author wanted to pay his respects to the new system, but was still unsure of the best way to go about it.

Through all the adventures and fights, Drizzt and Dahlia’s relationship continues to grow, despite her constantly testing his motives and ethics. The conversations feel like those old “alignment” arguments that we as players used to have back in D&D 1st edition, and I rather enjoyed seeing Dahlia poke and prod at Drizzt’s smug views of “right vs. wrong”. Of course, the relationship finally ends up becoming physical, and there is a strong indication that Drizzt is falling in love with Dahlia, and vice versa, although Dahlia seems to always have a hidden agenda – in fact, Salvatore confirmed my suspicions about a hidden agenda and revealed something even more dark about Dahlia’s psychology, and then swore me to secrecy! Frankly, it’s probably this agenda that makes their love affair feel dangerous and a little wrong, which Mr. Salvatore seemed to confirm in his other comments about where Drizzt was headed, emotionally, in Neverwinter:
And now all of a sudden… and you’ll see this through Neverwinter as well… he’s suddenly finding himself surrounded by people with not quite the same moral character as himself, and even in Exile, if you go as far back as Exile, which is the second “chronological” book in the Drizzt history, when he’s a young Drow just leaving Menzoberranzan, and even in Homeland, with Zak’nafen, you find him surrounded by people who know right from wrong…

And now all of a sudden, he finds himself surrounded by unsavory types. And we’ve all seen this… you’ve been in high school, and see what happens when your friend falls in with the wrong crowd, right? Or you know someone who falls in love with someone that’s really bad for her, or for him, but there is nothing you can do about it. And so you wonder… And for me with Drizzt now… I wonder are these characters going to pull him down into the gutter, or is he going to elevate them somewhat towards his level, or will they find a gray area in between. And the beauty of this for me, as someone who has been writing about this character for more than 24 years, is that I don’t know the answers! And that’s what makes it fun and interesting for me as I am typing along.
The book begins to really pick up when the couple escape from Luskan – and Dahlia almost loses her life, which puts even greater focus on Drizzt’s growing affections for her – and they start hunting for Sylora Salm. But it turns out that they are also being hunted by the Thayans in turn, as well as the Netherese, and the latter half of the book becomes a very exciting game of cat-and-mouse with the two finding ways to thwart vastly superior forces, comprised of Ashmadai cultists, Netherese shadovar, and even a pack of powerful devil bounty-hunters!

Salvatore introduces a few more supporting characters in this book, but only one becomes a major player in the action in Neverwinter – although the new Netherese character has dropped some fairly serious clues regarding his relationship to Dahlia!

On the Thayan side, Sylora takes on an Ashmadai lover named Jestry, who she betrays. She manipulates him to undergo a horrifying transformation by magic and psionics into a living weapon, courtesy of the Abolethic Sovereignty. Jestry plays a major role by the end of the story, being designed for the single purpose of destroying Dahlia – although there are other forces have designs on him as well.

On the Netherese side, a young crippled warlock named Effron appears on the scene and he shows a strange interest in and knowledge of Dahlia. He is paired up with Alegni’s assassin, Barrabus, in order to fight against the Thayans, and hunt for Dahlia and Drizzt. While there is no clear confirmation, I think it’s a good bet from the hints and clues in the novel, that Effron is somehow Dahlia’s newborn son, crippled from when he was hurled off the cliff by his mother, and somehow managed to survive the fall! His relationship to Alegni, who had originally raped Dahlia, is strained and uncomfortable, and feels like more proof of the character’s identity.

The book finally rushes to a climactic fight scene against Sylora Salm, after a surprise reveal - although long-time fans of the Drizzt series have been speculating about this for a while now – that Barrabus the Gray is actually Artemis Entreri! Drizzt’s old rival joins forces with the two elves, and they head off to take on the forces of Thay and the Dread Ring. This final battle is spectacular reading, and the author finally seems to find a way to create a solid blend of 4E powers and wondrous magic effects from previous editions, and his own imagination.

In this climactic fight, Salvatore feels back in his normal swing of things, and he even discussed with me in the interview how he made Dahlia an even match for the super-assassin Entreri and the superlative swordsman Drizzt:
And the other thing I’ve got by doing that, is here I’ve got this character, and I want people to think that she is a match for Drizzt, and he’s like one of the best swordsmen around, after he’s been doing for over a hundred, well over two-hundred years by now, and he hasn’t lost a step, and he’s got some pretty powerful magic – he’s just bad, really bad! And then you have Barrabus the Gray on the other side, who’s like this massive assassin and champion of Alegni, and she’s gonna battle these guys, and be a match for these guys in one way or another, so how can you do that with a 30 year old, who is an infant by elvish standards? Is she as good a fighter as Drizzt or En… er Barrabus, probably not, but how she fights, they’ve never seen anything like it before. And so by giving Dahlia such an unusual style with such an unusual weapon, that she can change her form, in the middle of a fight like that, gives her an edge that allows her to be much more dangerous to someone like Drizzt, and I want that.
If you note in the italics above, Salvatore slipped a bit when he told me about Barrabus, almost calling him Entreri at the time of the interview, but catching himself so as not to ruin my surprise, as he knew I was not quite done with Neverwinter. To be honest, I didn’t even catch it at the time, but I just had to include it in this excerpt from the interview.

Overall Score: 4.5 out of 5.0

Of the two novels, I far and away prefer Neverwinter, feeling a real pleasure at seeing Mr. Salvatore return to the “adventure companion” style of novel, but now with a new and very different set of characters surrounding Drizzt. While I realize that Gauntlgrym had to be there to span the gap of time and bring Drizzt into the concurrent Forgotten Realms timeline, its style was simply less enjoyable to read than Neverwinter.

Neverwinter is filled with great intrigue, and some smart dialogue, particularly between Drizzt and Dahlia, where they test their morals, ethics, and philosophies of life off each other, like duelists looking for a weakness. This second book of the Neverwinter Trilogy really makes me look forward to the final book with even greater anticipation, and pondering just whether Dahlia and Drizzt are meant to become long-time lovers, or star-crossed ones fated to witness their own tragic ending.

So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Reviewer’s Note
: This reviewer received a complimentary advanced copy of the novel Neverwinter, by which part of this review was written.

On a personal note, I wanted to once again thank Mr. Salvatore for the opportunity to interview him, which gave me considerable insight when writing this review!

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