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The Highwayman by R.A. SalvatoreTwo and a half stars

The Highwayman — a new novel set in the world of Corona, the setting of Salvatore's Demon Wars novels — is essentially Robin Hood written as if he were a Stan Lee comic book superhero. That would be great, I suppose, if the intent were nothing more than swashbuckling escapism. But there is plenty of material here to indicate that Salvatore would like the proceedings to be taken more seriously than that. So it's no surprise that the final product seems a bit bipolar. There's entertainment value to be had in The Highwayman, but only, I think, for a certain audience. I came away from the novel rolling my eyes. After an absorbing first half, it becomes almost risible in its second.

Any good comic book superhero worth his tights needs an origin story, and that's exactly what this novel is. As the story opens, the country of Honce is coming under the influence of the new and (relatively) benign religion of Blessed Abelle, much to the consternation of the more aggressive and oppressive Samhaists. Brother Dynard, a monk of Abelle, is returning to Honce after many years on a pilgrimage to the neighboring country of Behr, whose natives are perceived as ignorant savages by Dynard's countrymen. Dynard has found reality to be quite the opposite, and he is returning to Honce with a copy of the holy book of the Jhesta Tu, Honce's chief religious order, whose wisdom he feels is compatible with Abelle's — and a wife.

Predictably, Dynard scandalizes his former brethren with both his apparent heresies and his now-pregnant heathen bride, and the consequences for both are tragic. But the child who will grow into the Highwayman is left in the care of Dynard's last remaining friend. As inevitable as the outcome of these scenes are, Salvatore impressively resists the excess of melodrama into which they could have fallen; he writes with a sensitivity that permits readers a genuine emotional connection to the characters. In other words, you don't hear mawkish violins playing over any of the sad stuff...and that's a relief.

But in the second part of the story, Salvatore starts up with the more blantant emotional button-mashing. Years pass, and the boy Bransen grows up physically malformed — his mother had saved the life of a peasant girl sacrificed by the Samhaists by drawing the poison killing the girl into her own body. We're invited to bask in the sadness of the boy's upbringing as his adoptive father makes a profound sacrifice to save Bransen from the clutches of the Samhaists, who, being dastardly, cannot wait to sacrifice him in some agonizing and devilish manner. Bullies waylay Bransen at every opportunity while the hard-hearted townspeople just watch and laugh — except, of course, for the lovely young girl Cadayle, who pities Bransen because someone's got to, and it might as well be a young girl Bransen pines for and will finally get to save in a later scene. Right? That's what Stan Lee would do, after all.

In part three we're right into superhero territory. Living with the monks of Abelle, who barely tolerate his presense any more than anyone else, Bransen tries to overcome his infirmities through his studying of the Jhesta Tu rites and rituals outlined in the book his father brought back from Behr (and which Bransen has read so many times he's memorized it). Bransen can control his damaged physique for brief, tiring periods by harnessing his chi through concentration. But it isn't until he gets his hands on one of the magic stones the brothers of Abelle use for various purposes that his control is absolute. (The stones, of course, are a device just like the radioactive spider that bites Peter Parker.) Now, not only can he walk and talk normally, but he can run, leap, and kick ass like Bruce Lee! Quickly making himself a disguise/costume so that no one who happens to witness him will know he's really the deformed weirdo everyone calls "The Stork" (he has a secret identity now too!), he steals out into the night.

Sure enough, we get the "Save Cadayle" revenge scene we've been gearing up for, and it actually wraps up with this dialogue exchange.

"How can we ever thank you?" Cadayle said to him breathlessly as she continued to hug her crying mother.

..."No need, of course," he said, trying to show some measure of calm so that the two would follow that lead. "I consider it an honor to be able to help."

This sort of thing works, I suppose, when it's rendered in brightly colored comic book panels. In a hardcover novel...well...I'm not a superhero fan (I only saw Sam Raimi's Spider-Man because all my friends were going, and I couldn't stand the second and third Matrix movies), so I just found myself laughing at it. But what's so frustrating to me is that, for about the novel's first half, Salvatore was on the verge of really impressing me as a fantasy writer. I haven't read any of his Forgotten Realms sagas because, as those of you who've read the greeting page know, I steer clear from media tie-in novels. But in the early chapters of The Highwayman, Salvatore tells a fascinating tale of a land torn between both warring religions and warring lairds, as an ambitious road-building project across Honce, designed in the hopes it would improve trade and political ties, has instead thrown the country into chaos as the more powerful lairds try to annex the lesser ones' holdings. It's compelling and very promising in its potential for thematic and narrative depth. But Salvatore simply uses it as fantasy window dressing to hang onto a superhero story.

Yes, the finale is action-packed, but it unfolds in such an utterly predictable manner you'll have guessed the outcome a full hundred pages ahead.

Salvatore's regular fans will eat this up, as will kids and adults who like superhero comics and don't mind hearing the same banal clichés and dialogue trotted out and put through their paces one more time. But in this day when writers like George R. R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay have raised the bar for traditional fantasy as high as they have, and others like China Miéville and Gene Wolfe continue to reshape our ideas about what fantasy can even be, The Highwayman has little to offer discriminating adult readers who have long since outgrown the idea that the best way to impress a girl is to put on a mask and beat people up.

Salvatore includes as a bonus the short story THE DOWRY (), which stars the popular character Drizzt Do'Urden, a dark-skinned "drow elf" from his Forgotten Realms stories. It was okay, and certainly action-packed, but to me it read a little too much like the product of someone who'd spent a great night with his gaming group and then gone home and written a story based on that night's campaign. I'm sure fans of the character will love it.

Followed by The Ancient.