One of the first fantasy trilogies I ever read was R. A. Salvatore's "Forgotten Realms: Icewind Dale" trilogy, featuring the dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden. All this time later and Salvatore is still writing novels with fighting high on the agenda and I find that I can still enjoy them, although not quite as much as I did in my younger years.
In the Northern land of Alpinadoon, the leader of the Samhaist religion, Ancient Badden, has reclaimed the holy lake of Mithranidoon. Out in the waters of this holy lake, he is dismayed to find that barbarians, powrie dwarves and - even worse - a group of monks faithful to Blessed Abelle inhabit some of the islands. For Ancient Badden, this desecration cannot stand and with the help of the great worm who lives in the ice of the glacier that borders the lake and the glacial trolls who serve him, he intends to purge the life from the lake.
Blissfully unaware of this, the residents of these islands live in less than perfect harmony. Cormack, one of the Abellican monks, has fallen for Milkeila, one of the shamans of the barbarian tribes. This has caused him to question his faith and he no longer feels that their mission to convert the barbarians to the worship of Blessed Abelle is the right thing to do. The powrie dwarves don't care much for religion either, as they far prefer starting a fight so they can dip their berets in the blood of a fallen opponent and increase their power.
Far to the South, Bransen Garibond is on a quest of his own. Afflicted since birth with a malady that makes him clumsy and ungainly, he seeks someone who may be able to help him. In the meantime, he has found a temporary cure in the form of a gemstone he uses to become the Highwayman, a Zorro type character who steals from the rich largely to cause trouble. This is until he is unmasked and taken to Vanguard, a land between the South and Alpinador, to fight in the war between the Samhaists and Dame Gwydre who is despicable to them having fallen in love with an Abellican monk.
In terms of the story itself, there is always plenty going on here. It can get a little confusing at times, though, especially early on when there are so many different plot strands. In common with most fantasy writers with disparate groups of characters, Salvatore jumps between them and in the beginning when there are six or seven separate plot strands going on, this did get a little messy, especially as he often switched between groups several times in the same chapter. Fortunately, as the story moved on, the various plot strands came together a little more and it was easier to focus on events.
The pace of the story moved quickly, which made it very readable. Every character had an aim and was working towards it, which left the plot firmly fixed on advancing the story. Whilst this kept the pace high, it did mean there was very little room for character development. I do prefer stories where you can become a little more involved with the characters and I wasn't able to do that here. It felt as if the story was trying to keep me at arm's length rather than welcoming me in.
The way the action was written assisted with that separation as well. The frequent battles between the groups were very detailed, with almost every punch, kick and sword stroke making it onto the page. This resulted in a feeling that I was reading a novelisation of a martial arts film at points and these were the only parts of the story where this detail was present. Nowhere else, such as in the scenery and the characters themselves, was there anything that allowed a vivid picture of what you were reading.
The other main disappointment for me was the map that is seemingly ever present in fantasy novels. I do enjoy being able to follow the characters and to get a feel for the distances they're travelling. Here, however, the map was very basic and many of the place names mentioned weren't marked, so I had little idea where the characters were and where they were going. Again, this made me feel very much like an outsider looking in to the story rather than a active participant.
It's fortunate that Salvatore has such a great eye for action and telling a story, as otherwise "The Ancient" could have been a complete mess. As it was, once things settled down, I found myself enjoying things more as it went on and the parts of the story I didn't like just seemed like minor niggles rather than the huge disappointment I thought they would be. The result was that whilst I enjoyed the book less than I have done others in the past, I did still manage to get a reasonable amount of entertainment from it. With a cheapest price of £1.99 plus postage from the Amazon Marketplace, I would suggest that you'd need to be a big fan of the genre and Salvatore in particular to make this worth a purchase.