Highwayman, by R. A. Salvatore

Highwayman, by R. A. Salvatore book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: CDS Books
Published: 2004
Reviewer Rating: one and a half stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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I honestly didn’t expect much from the Highwayman. Mostly, it was an interest to read a non-D&D novel from R. A. Salvatore. He is extremely popular, yet I could only finish a couple of chapters of those books of his I have tried. They weren’t particularly horrid, but I certainly wouldn’t have called them bad, they just weren’t my style and they didn’t hold my interest.

With the Highwayman being the complete creation of Salvatore, I figure it might be something similar but different. I can’t say what I expected, but as I hadn’t exactly hated his other books, and I had plodded through some pretty bad books in order to write a review, I figured this book might surprise me and at worse, I’d end up slightly mind-numbed. No great loss–especially with my mind.

The Highwayman is the story of a mysterious protector of the weak and poor. He wears a mask, has a magnificent sword, and has moves that seem straight out of a wuxia movie. From the outset, the tone seemed to indicate that I had a pretty mindless action novel on my hands. No big deal. I enjoyed those David Gemmell novels that I had read. Minimal setting development, cookie cutter characters, recycled plots, but still a lot of fun.

Then Salvatore threw everything into low gear. This book really should be called “the Origin of the Highwayman.” Two thirds of the book relate the background of the main character. Now, this might not have been a bad thing had that background been engaging or different. Unfortunately, Salvatore takes two hundred or so pages to give a background that–in my opinion–would have worked well enough in two or three chapters. There is little subtlety in this story, so there really is no need to focus tightly on the characters. Because of the lack of development, subtlety or novelty, the background seems slow and plodding.

By the time the novel really got going for me, when the main character–the Highwayman–began to act as an action hero, putting on his mask and kicking butt, I had lost any interest that I may once have felt, and I could no longer accept this work as an entertaining, mindless action novel, because it was trying to be something more. I think it could have succeeded as something light and entertaining, but the author wanted more. He wanted more, but failed to deliver, and so I haven’t referred to the identity of the Highwayman in the hope that there is a slim chance it might come as a revelation or surprise. That might redeem the otherwise pedestrian nature of the story. Unfortunately, as soon as the character was introduced, I figured out what he would become.

So, in the end, I considered the Highwayman a waste of time. I love strong characters, I appreciate an intricate setting and I can easily be seduced by a good plot.

The Highwaymanoffered stereotypes rather than characters. No character had nuances. All could be encapsulated in a sentence or two without missing anything of importance. The good guys are good, with no real strong flaws. The bad guys are just bad, they have no redeeming qualities. There is no real journey, no real change, save of the most superficial variety.

The setting of the novel is all but transparent. A few medieval European-type fantasy tropes are paraded out and that seems the end of the world-building. This is a place without a history, without a culture, everything is pale. Calling the setting vanilla is false as vanilla has a discernible flavor. The land in which the action occurs seems to be lifted straight from any generic fantasy novel or role-playing game.

The only real attempt at differentiation are the evil dwarves. Really, they were orcs, but calling them dwarves seemed like a weak attempt at something new. They were orcs–or goblins, or whatever–and changing their name to that of a standard fantasy race that is usually considered a “good” race isn’t novel or exciting. What kind of culture did these dwarves have? Why were they so evil? What drove them. If it was related in the novel, I didn’t note it. Perhaps my mind wandered.

As for the plot, I’m not asking for something completely new. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with recycling a plot, as long as something is done to make it one’s own. The Highwayman is a bit different in that he is a “European” character with “Oriental” martial arts. That’s as far as it goes. Everything else is pedestrian, seen a thousand times before.

Certainly Mr. Salvatore has a deft, technical hand. His writing is very clean. I would guess he has a deep well of self-reflection and discipline. I can easily see other writers–not mentioning any names–turning this into a five or six page series of five-hundred page novels. Thankfully, Mr. Salvatore hasn’t fallen into this trap.

Now, the review seems quite dire. I don’t mean it as such but the unfortunate thing is I can’t find much to praise in this book. It wasn’t the absolute agony of, say, the Underworld novelization, but it wasn’t even as fun as a David Gemmell novel. Honestly, Mr. Gemmell’s works have many of the same faults as the Highwayman. So really, it wasn’t so much the faults of the novel in and of themselves as that Mr. Salvatore attempted to create a work counter to his strengths–or at least a work that he did not have the skill to successfully complete.

Perhaps fans of Mr. Salvatore’s D&D novels will enjoy this book as they enjoyed those. I can’t say. I can say that for me, this novel fell flat. Moreso, it wore out its welcome quickly. I will not be re-reading this novel, nor will I be loaning it out. I have plenty of good or at least fun books for friends to peruse without thrusting this upon them.

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