Review of DISSOLUTION by Richard Lee Byers
R. A. Salvatore's WAR OF THE SPIDER QUEENE BOOK I
Wizards of the Coast, Forgotten Realms, July 2002
The great Drow (dark elf) city of Menzoberranzan is in danger. The spider god of the Drow has withdrawn her favor and all of the magics that depend on her are now at risk. While the great noble houses continue to tear at one another in typical dark elf fashion, secret forces may be pushing for even greater changes to the status quo. Magic instructor Pharaun is sent to investigate the mysterious way that many of the male Drow (because of their inability to commune with the spider goddess, males are non-dominant in this culture) have vanished. Together with his 'friend' weapon master Ryld Argith, Pharaun probes the slums of Menzoberrazan--slums where excaped slaves, embittered enemies of the Drow, and adventurers coexist in uneasy proximity. Making matters wrose, Pharaun is the target of a family feud--staying alive long enough to investigate, let alone solve, the mystery, may be difficult.
Although author Richard Lee Byers clearly prefers the sections of the novel relating to the adventures of Pharaun and Ryld Argith, long scenes deal with other characters and other conflicts in this complex society. Some of this felt like it was setting the stage for the series that DISSOLUTION kicks off rather than being a necessary part of the novel itself.
Dark elves are a fascinating subject for an author to explore. Like humans, their motivations are driven by self-interest. Like humans, dark elves often find themselves compelled to cooperate for the common good--lest all of them suffer. Unlike humans, however, dark elves refuse to disguise their self-interest and also refuse to put in place the social institutions that humans use to control our destructive behavior. Author Richard Lee Byers does a fine job exploring the nature of the Drow, the religion that justifies their behavior, and the way that their self-interest can often lead to a strangely 'good' result.
I would have liked to see more of this ultimate expression of Adam Smith's discovery that individuals working in their self-interest can somehow generate a result that drives a general good. Instead, Byers's Drow economy is difficult to believe. Could a weapon crafter really afford to slaughter slaves casually to demonstrate the sharpness of his blade? Surely the costs of capturing, feeding, and caring for a slave would make this casual destruction uneconomic--and therefore against the Drow self-interest. I'm still waiting for the novel that truly and consistently extends this concept of Drow self-interest to its logical extreme. DISSOLUTION definitely takes steps in this direction and it's worth reading--but it doesn't quite deliver on the promise. (See also our review of INSURRECTION, the next book in this series).
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