Dissolution by Richard Lee Byers
|Author:||Richard Lee Byers|
|Publisher(s):||Wizards of the Coast|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Genre(s):||Fantasy / Forgotten Realms|
|Release Date:||August 1, 2003|
Before I ever heard of Grimdark as a concept, before I ever learned of Martin’s host of murderous and self involved characters, before I watched Abercrombie’s Glokta hack up an innocent man, and before I saw Lawrence’s child killer with father issues slaughter a village – I read Dissolution and The War of the Spider Queen series. I watched a twisted fellowship of psychopathic dark elves bicker and backstab their way across the Underdark and beyond.
It was magnificent.
This book and subsequent series showed me that characters don’t have to be “good” to be good. The protagonists were rich and well developed, with their own believable motivations and plots weaving together. Oh yeah, and they were all evil. The dark elves, or Drow, are a fantasy race created by Gary Gygax for the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which live underground in a vast collection of tunnels and caverns known as the Underdark. Black-skinned creatures with the ability to see in the dark, they are capricious, ruthless and obsessed with power and their own ambitions.
When you read the books, it’s not about rooting for the right side, it’s about rooting for the characters you like. There is no black and white, all of the characters commit some vicious and evil deeds, yet in the dark world of the novel these things become part of the background in the face of the greater plot and the interactions between the characters.
Dissolution is part of a series written by different authors and overseen by R.A. Salvatore, author of the famous Icewind Dale Trilogy and Dark Elf Trilogy. Dissolution brings to life the vivid world of the Underdark in all its complexity and cruelty. The imagery of stalactite castles where scheming noble families plot the downfall of each other hanging over vast caverns and lit by faerie fire is a captivating backdrop for the story.
The world has a sense of life and solidity that is rare in fantasy and especially in so ambitious a setting. The city of Menzoberranzan is an entrancing yet deadly place with an intricate political and organisational system made all the more exciting by the bloodthirsty tendencies of the Drow. Manipulation and power play is rife from the lowest guardsmen to the matriarchs of the noble houses. The very attitude of the Drow seeps into the tone of the story that the reader really gets a feel of an alien place with different values and belief systems. A place where evil is not only okay, but encouraged.
The characters are rich and varied in their natures while still giving a nod to some of the classic fantasy archetypes. You have Ryld, the traditional honourable warrior, with the twist that in Menzoberranzan honour is an eccentricity and likely to get you killed. Pharaun the slender mage with awesome powers and a sardonic wit, whose ambitions get him involved in a plot between greater powers. There is also the cruel Quenthel, Mistress of Arach-Tinilith and servant of the spider god Lolth. She struggles to maintain order in the temple against treacherous acolytes while fending off repeated assassination attempts. Many more players populate the city, from duplicitous ambassadors to undead mind readers and sinister archmages. Each of them has their own goals and plans in the works that collide in a tapestry of violence and intrigue.
There are so many elements of the story that are skilfully executed it’s hard to pick them out. The magic system is particularly interesting, the casting mechanism taking elements from Dungeons and Dragons such as the use of spell components. There’s a real sense of excitement in some of the fights when Pharaun reaches into his pocket for the next spell component. The reader is eager to see what he will pull out and how it will create a deadly or cunning spell.
And spells aren’t the only magical element, it’s hard to swing a cat in Menzoberranzan without hitting some kind of magical artefact, and in fairness the cat may well be enchanted too. A veritable armoury of magical items are carried by the characters, like Pharaun’s ring that turns into a floating rapier and fights for him, or Quenthel’s whip of sentient snake heads that occasional provide a witty comment. All these features serve to flesh out the world and immerse the story in the fantasy element.
The story itself is a wild ride through Menzoberranzan, full of intrigue, manipulation and bloodshed. Numerous plots are threaded together, like Archmage Gromph’s plan to assassinate his sister, Ambassador Faeryl’s attempts to escape the city, and Pharaun’s quest to save himself from bloody punishment as his tries to track down some missing Drow, dragging his friend Ryld along for the trip.
All these narratives are wrapped around the macro-plot of the series with the goddess Lolth falling silent to her worshippers and our characters’ quest to find out what’s happened to their wayward deity. Dissolution features underground conspiracies, political manoeuvring and skulduggery, vicious battles and pulse pounding chases – particularly in Pharaun and Ryld’s story arc as half the city seems determined to kill them before they can accomplish their goals.
Dissolution is a fantastic book and the beginning of a unique and exciting series that will hook the reader in and not let go till the end. The characters have depth and the reader really grows to care for them despite their inherently evil nature. The world is as fascinating as it is alien, and the story is a skilful blend of myriad plots that work together to create an enthralling tale.