R.A. Salvatore’s Child of a Mad God reads like a retro fantasy novel, and that’s both to its credit and to its detriment at the end of the day.
As the author bio at the end of the advance copy of Child of a Mad God reminds its readers, R.A. Salvatore has sold a lot of books. (Tor sent me the copy, to be clear.) That’s a number you have to respect, really. But it also means that Salvatore has been writing books for a long time, and, unfortunately, it seems as though he hasn’t kept up with the times in fantasy. This book reads like a very retro style of fantasy novel, and while long-time readers might appreciate the throwback, it makes it a pretty difficult sell for newer readers of the genre.
To try and put it in more specific terms, there are lots of names used that sound stereotypically fantasy. Salvatore, for example, created Drizzt Do’Urden, and he hasn’t lost his tendency to use what TVTropes lovingly calls the “punctuation shaker” — there’s a place called the Croas’a’diad in Child of a Mad God. He also takes plenty of influence from Celtic languages — a loch features heavily, even though the main threat of the novel is a demonic fossa. (Apparently, fossas are real! See, even fantasy can be educational.) It’s just that fossas don’t sound threatening, even though Salvatore does his very best to make it threatening and basically only succeeds when it actually appears. Ditto with a kingdom named Honce-the-Bear not sounding impressive.
And, in this #MeToo era, with trigger warnings ahead, it’s hard to justify Salvatore’s use of rape here as part of Aoleyn’s storyline. It seems like the point is to make sure we know that the men of the Usgar tribe to which she belongs are extremely violent people, but Salvatore makes that point effectively without the rapes (because the Usgar men also rape slave women). They take slaves; they beat women; they are called demons by the peoples who live around the mountain. Point made.
Pacing-wise, the book covers a lot of years — Aoleyn grows into her teens but starts as a young child — and sometimes, it doesn’t quite convey time passing well, either with her or with Talmadge, the other main character.
What he does do well, however, is the magic system. It’s well-defined and makes sense, and there are traditions in place that Aoleyn challenges.
At the end of the day, it’s hard not to get over how expected it all seems.