Twice in my life, I have had the honor of performing the role of Dungeon Master for my circle of gaming friends and both times I have used the Forgotten Realms campaign setting designed by Ed Greenwood. It is a rich, fully realized world that allows me to concentrate on the collaborative interactive story my friends and I are creating and not worry so much about building the world itself. I have infinite respect for those who can create their own world, e.g. Matthew Mercer of the Geek & Sundry show Critical Role, but it is not for me. To help me fill my knowledge of the world I am using for my games, I read a lot of novels set in the Forgotten Realms and there are a ton of titles from which to choose. All of the books bearing the Forgotten Realms name are canon and while many fans read them for the pure joy of it, I also read them as source material.
One of the most voluminous series available --we are talking 30+ titles as of this writing-- is R.A. Salvatore's epic saga of the drow with a heart, Drizzt Do'Urden. It is a series I never picked up because by the time I discovered Salvatore, the mountain of titles available in the series was so intimidating that I had no chance of succeeding a Will saving throw. In 2013, Wizards of the Coast, the parent company of the Dungeons & Dragons product line, released the first book of a new series that would set up the next evolution of their Forgotten Realms setting, a world-shattering event called The Sundering. To explain this event, six authors were commissioned to write six novels, each one telling the story of one of the six stanzas of The Prophecy. Salvatore lead off with The Companions and I was concerned because I had not read any of his previous novels and I knew that the titular companions were those of Salvatore's Drizzt. I worried that the history of the characters across the dozens of preceding books would make The Companions difficult to follow or relate to.
I am pleased to say my concerns were alleviated. While there are several references to the events of other novels in the Drizzt series, Salvatore does a fine job of providing enough context that I, as a new reader of his work, did not feel lost. I would even go so far as to say the references piqued my interest enough to want to seek out those older stories. As the novel opens, the companions are dead and in the Forgotten Realms's version of Purgatory. They have the opportunity to choose to pass through to the Paradise of their chosen deity or return to the mortal world in infant bodies. Those who chose to inhabit mortal bodies again make a pact to meet at a location called Kelvin's Cairn on the night of spring equinox of their twenty-first year. They each experience rebirth, becoming infants born to unfamiliar parents, but with all of the knowledge and experience and memories from their previous lives. How many of us have wished we could live life again knowing what we know now? If only.
Each of the titular Companions relives life, battling through childhood and adolescence again, but with adult sensibilities and experience, en route to their preordained meeting. They inhabit the weak and ineffective bodies of children, not the strong adult bodies to which they are accustomed. They may have been granted a second chance, but they are still mortal. How many of them will survive their first twenty-one years again with the forces of evil still to content with? I thoroughly enjoyed finding out. The story is exciting, the characters are interesting, and I had a great time following them on their respective journeys, fantasizing about how I might handle the opportunity to relive life with my current mind and memory fully intact. Throughout the novel, I found myself caring deeply for each of the characters, cheering for them to succeed and fearing their failure.
Fans of Salvatore's series will not be disappointed in The Companions unless they only like Drizzt (he makes a cameo appearance but is absent for most of the story) and for readers new to his work, this is a great place to start. I may jump back to the inaugural Drizzt novel and experience the entire saga from the beginning. It will be a steep mountain to climb, but having experienced The Companions, at least I can be quite certain I will enjoy the hike. But first, there are five more novels in The Sundering series, each of which sits on the bookshelf above my writing desk, daring me to take the next step.