R.A. Salvatore needs little introduction for most fantasy readers. His two best known creations are Drizzt Do’Urden and the multi-volume DemonWars saga. His DemonWars saga takes place in Corona, a world that has much in common with Renaissance Europe and spans eight books. With The Ancient, the saga now spans nine novels. The Ancient is the first of a quartet chronicling the world of Corona many years before the time of the first DemonWars novel (The Demon Awakens), and the book also serves as a follow-up to The Highwayman. Despite all of that, the novel works well enough on its own both as an introduction to the world of Corona and Bransen Garibond, Salvatore’s hero from The Highwayman.
A prologue introduces Ancient Badden, leader of the Samhaist sect and primary antagonist of the novel. Like many would-be world conquerors in fantasy novels, Badden is a powerful wizard who wishes to spread his power across the world and cleanse it of those who are opposed to him and his followers. Salvatore then introduces readers to Bransen, via a ‘journal excerpt’ told in the first person, then delves fully into the narrative of the story. Salvatore fleshes out the world of Corona as he introduces characters – Bransen the vagabond wanderer/adventurer, his wife and mother; the powries (dwarves of Corona), the Abellican monks including Cormack, Giavano, and Father De Guilbe; and Milkeila and her shaman brethren, the religious ‘heathens’ who find themselves opposed to the Abellican monks; and the Lairds (lords) of the various lands vying for power. Although this may seem like a considerable cast of characters itself, there are even more characters who contribute to the plot of the novel.
Ostensibly, the plot is combination heist, adventure and personal journey, as Bransen is conscripted into a conflict between one of the Lairds and Ancient Badden, somewhat against his will. Throughout the novel, both prior to Bransen’s drafting and after, he shows very little loyalty except to himself and his immediate family. Bransen is very much a renegade and at times, even exhibits characteristics similar to a vigilante superhero. He has a distinctive costume (black mask, cape, and sword), martial arts training, and a hidden jewel providing him with a certain level of power with a much more low-key, yet equally distinguishable alter ego – a shambling man with the moniker of the Stork.
The supporting characters don’t get quite as much plot time as does Bransen, and in some respects, this is understandable. After all, Bransen is the protagonist. On the other hand, I liked Badden’s character and thought Salvatore did a fairly good job of fleshing out what could have been an otherwise very stereotypical evil menace. This leads me to feel the story could have benefited from some more length. It isn’t often the case where an installment of a multi-volume fantasy epic is too short, but that might be the case here. Just about all of the characters might have benefited from some more development. Either that or a trimming of the cast might have been beneficial.
As I said, the plot is fairly standard – Bransen and his group of adventurers are set upon the quest of killing Ancient Badden and ending a major threat to the world. Subplots between the Milkeila’s shamans and the Abellican monks were developed fairly well, putting into question just who has the right in a clash of theologies. I also thought the relationship between Milkelia and Cormack provided good fodder for the novel. The Abellicans, for all of their holy talk, are not exactly shining examples of humanity. Again, this may seem something of a cliché – the holy church not being so holy – but that fact doesn’t deter too much from the overall plot of the novel.
Readers familiar with Salvatore’s many Drizzt novels will find similarities between the Dark Elf and Bransen, both are outsiders to their people, both are on a search for themselves, and the novels of both characters include "journal excerpts" interspersed with the main plot of the story. In that sense, as well as the familiar plot and character types, Salvatore is fitting The Ancient into a successful template. The story was comfortable and didn’t "reinvent" the genre, which some readers might find objectionable. This was a minor flaw for me, but I still found the story readable and enjoyable. The only true problems I can raise about the novel is the large cast for such a relatively short novel and a somewhat rushed ending. Since I haven’t read any of the DemonWars novels, I can’t compare The Ancient to the groundwork Salvatore laid in those volumes. Sometimes the comforts of a familiar story and characters, when done right, can still provide an enjoyable reading experience.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford