If he never wrote another word, R.A. Salvatore would be forever recognized as a master of fantasy for leveling up his Dungeons & Dragons tie-in fiction via the creation of the dark elf Drizzt Do-urden, an anti-hero for the ages. But in addition to his tie-in work (he’s also penned a number of Star Wars novels), he’s also written books set in his own invented universes, including the world of Corona, the setting for 11 novels across two trilogies and a four-book series, with a bridge novel in-between.
Learning that his newest book, Child of a Mad God, is set in such a mature fantasy setting might intimidate readers who haven’t picked up the DemonWars or Highwayman series, but never fear: Child of a Mad God is an ideal entry point for the curious. You really don’t need to know anything about the setting or the events of the other books in order to enjoy this one.
What you will need is a bit of nerve, because Corona is far from gentle, and the story he spins here goes to its darkest corners.
A Hard World
Salvatore sets this new story on the frontier, far from the civilization represented by the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, beyond even the far reaches the Wilderlands. Here, eight tribes live in uneasy peace—seven of them settled along the shores of Loch Beag, and the eighth squatting high on the cliffs of a volcano—battling the monstrous creatures that share the land, and trading with those strong or desperate enough to travel so far.
The volcano-dwelling Usgar are a violent, warlike clan that survives on the spoils of horrific raids on the other settlements, taking what they need and enslaving prisoners. They are made nearly invincible in battle by the power of their witches, a coven of women who can control the magic of the Crystal God (magic in Corona is almost entirely based on crystals of varying power and purpose). Despite the witches’ strength, the Usgar is a patriarchal society—and a terrifyingly brutal one. Its women are abused as a matter of routine, and its male warriors are expected to claim victory or die in battle, with no mercy for the wounded.
A Young Girl
Born into the Usgar is the young witch Aoleyn, who wishes to be inducted into the coven. Her fate is clouded when she catches the eye of Tay Aillig, violent leader of the warriors. For a woman, marriage in the Usgar is neither voluntary or pleasant, and as she grows older, Aoleyn not only becomes increasingly disgusted by the ways of her own people, but desperate to master magic and use it to secure her own freedom. Her sympathy for the slaves the Usgar have imprisoned, and her bravery in the face of danger, are complemented by her sheer skill for magic, and her power startles and worries her elders, who question whether she should be trained.
The Demon Fossa
Aoleyn’s story is complicated by the presence of the fossa, a demon that feeds off of crystal magic. Those who wield the power are hunted by the demon, who thrills at their agony as it consumes their magic. Aoleyn’s power makes her most tasty prey, and Salvatore seems to relish shaping the fossa into a palpably malevolent force of nature—to the point that you might even feel some sympathy for the brutal Usgar as it savagely hunts them down. No mean feat, making readers feel sympathy for such terrible villains.
Into this dangerous environment falls Talmadge, a young trader fleeing the plague that has ravaged his town. Talmadge is a fierce survivor and skilled fighter, making his living on Loch Baeg while searching restlessly for meaning in his broken life. Here’s where you can sense the author laying the track for later in the series—Talmadge will almost certainly factor into sequels, but for much of Child of a Mad God, his essentially serves as tour guide, leading us through this dangerous corner of Corona. It’s a satisfying delivery mechanism for exposition, particularly becayse Talmadge is a great character: world-weary in some ways, young in others, skilled and fierce, and yet all-too-mortal, and often terrified.
At this stage of his career, it’s no surprise to say that R.A. Salvatore has written another great fantasy novel, but it’s a joy to see him playing again with toys of his own creation, and still finding new things to do with them. There is gruesome, bloody action here that will provoke even the most hardened grimdark fan, but there’s real storytelling purpose behind all of it. For longtime fans, it’s an excellent entry in a popular universe. For newcomers, it’s a perfect opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about.