Book: The Woods Out Back
Series: Spearwielder’s Tale
Author: R.A. Salvatore
Genres: fantasy, adventure
Synopsis (from Amazon book page):
“The first in the Spearwielder fantasy adventure series–from the author of the New York Times bestseller The Legacy. In a magical spot in a forest, Gary falls asleep . . . and wakes up in a dangerous realm of elves and dwarves, witches and dragons. There he discovers he is the only one who can wear the armor of the land’s lost hero–and wield a magical spear.”
Notes of Interest:
I am a huge R.A. Salvatore fan via his Forgotten Realms books with Drizzt Do’Urden. But I never heard of this series until I came across it by accident. I was surprised to find it’s quite old: 1993. But it was on discount, so I decided to see what he would write outside of a familiar setting.
For me, this book brought up the controversial topic of author “brands”. A “brand” for an author or other creative professional is when fans come to expect something specific from the products offered. It’s controversial because marketing gurus say the best way to sell your work is by having a niche. A narrow scope of expertise tells the audience what it can expect from you, and niche fans are more likely to return. Case in point: I’ve read many of Salvatore’s D&D novels in the Forgotten Realms setting, so the reason I purchased this book was because I loved those books.
But creative professionals sometimes feel caged by “branding” their work because it limits their creative expression. The niche market becomes a trap, so that they can’t do anything else because experimental projects in different genres (or whatever) might not fit expectations of established fans.
Anne Rice became famous for writing about vampires. But she has also written about angels, Jesus, and (under a pen name) erotica. She is perhaps unique in that each of her niches has a wide following, depending on which books led that particular subset of readers to become fans. Somehow she manages to handle the broad scope of differing (often opposing) opinions well. But I for one will only ever be interested in her vampire books. I can’t really explain why. It’s not like I have anything against her writing other types of literature. I feel authors should be free to write about whatever they please. But from that spectrum, vampires are the only topic and style that suit me. So that is where my expectations, or reader bias, exists.
J.K. Rowling was a huge success with her Harry Potter series. But her other works have not measured up to the same success, not because the other books aren’t good, but because fans expect more of the same. The world of Harry Potter is Rowling’s brand.
So, this quickly became my dilemma with The Woods Out Back. When R.A. Salvatore is mentioned, the book that comes to mind is Homecoming. It’s one of my all-time favourites, therefore I have come to expect more like that from him. I tried not to let my expectations get in the way of my impressions while reading something completely different, but they intruded anyway. I couldn’t help it.
In the review that follows, I acknowledge my bias and will try to work around it as much as possible. Opinion pieces, which is what all reviews are, will always have a measure of bias shaping those opinions. In this case, I admit brand reared its ugly head, but I am 100% supportive of authors and artists having the freedom to explore different venues with their works. Moving away from a brand might not win over loyal readers from one subset to another, but doing something different can win a whole new subset of readers. And there’s no good reason why an author shouldn’t be allowed to do that, as long as they understand brand expectations can work against new, experimental projects.
What could have made it better for me:
The story starts off well enough with Gary, an average Joe at work in a modern setting, then turns into a portal story. I love portal stories. But because I was expecting characters like Drizzt Do’Urden to come to life in a D&D-type setting, the introduction of a leprechaun, complete with Irish accent and snarky attitude, felt … cartoonish. A more typical D&D-type elf showed up after that. So, of course, I loved him. But then there was a goblin who was a typical “grunt” laboring to please his queen in all the wrong ways. The evil queen dressed in black with her shape-shifting skills, spies, and minions made me think of Snow White’s wicked step-mother. And there was a dumb giant who had a vocabulary of “duh” in between dialog of a little more substance. In other words, what came to mind was every major stereotype for every fantasy archetype.
I do have a good sense of humor, so it’s not a matter of taking the story too seriously. But I think I was expecting a little more in terms of unique character development versus tongue-in-cheek placeholders for archetypes. For example, I loved the idea of a dragon named Robert! How could you not love a dragon with such a mundane moniker following in the footsteps of dragons with such legendary, exotic names like Smaug, Falcor, Draco, and Paarthurnax? But in the end, Robert was a typical, blustery dragon who hates to lose and hoards treasure. Robert had such potential to be something utterly unexpected, but even he was predictable. But it seems that was the goal for this tale: writing about magical creatures using the typical archetypes the way everyone expects them to be.
I think I could have found iconic mascots coming together for a tongue-in-cheek tale like this more enjoyable had I not been expecting the more individual depth and persona that is a given in settings like Forgotten Realms.
What I liked about it:
Since I am a fan of many kinds of fantasy, I don’t dismiss fantasy intended to be taken less seriously. Therefore, in spite of what I said above, seeing a blatantly stereotypical group pursuing a very typical quest actually turned out to be something different. The whole thing had a very tongue-in-cheek approach that made me think of Terry Pratchett’s books, but with more action/adventure and a more subtle humour. Salvatore is a master of writing fight scenes, so the writing itself was bold, vivid, and moved at a good pace through each chapter along the quest.
Gary—the average Joe protagonist—felt very real. His down-to-earth personality becomes spasmastic in a way most people could relate with after having been transported through a fairy portal … being funny, frustrated, frightened, and courageous in all the appropriate places. In my opinion, he was the best developed character of the bunch. And because he is new to magic and myth, his naivety is something I don’t usually get to see in Salvatore’s writings. That would be the major difference between a portal story and a story in which the characters are already expert swordsmen and mages; so it was interesting to see how he handled that difference, and he handled it well.
Technically, the book is a clean and easy read. The plot’s objective and action is straightforward and classic, rather than intentionally complicated with deep, controversial themes or gritty ambiguity. Because of that, it does not have a lot of the dark matter some of his other books do. So, it makes for a lighter read, too. I love both dark, deep literature and fun, light literature, depending on my mood. So, this balanced out the darker, more serious nature of the other book I’m currently reading. Variety is good.
If you are a fan of Salvatore’s more serious works, go into this one knowing it’s meant to poke fun at fantasy stereotypes. Don’t compare it to his D&D works if at all possible; it should be enjoyed as something completely different. I have not yet decided whether I will be purchasing the rest of the series. I enjoyed it enough that I might return to it. My expectations will be different for the second book after reading the first, so that should help. It’s a good book for anyone wanting a light read about a portal story or a classic hero’s quest.