He’s a Waterdeep nobleman wizard who pretends to be a bard, she’s an assassin who hates killing. They fight racism!
What is Elfshadow?
An undercover agent and a half-elf assassin join forces to bring a killer to justice in this first installment of the Song & Sword series, set in the Forgotten Realms
Silent death stalks the Harpers of Faerûn, a semi-secret society dedicated to preserving justice and peace in the Realms. One by one, the Harpers are falling to the blade of an enigmatic killer—and every victim has associations with Arilyn Moonblade.
A half-elven fighter and Harper agent, Arilyn’s surname derives from the magical sword she wields. But even after she’s tasked with finding the murderer, there are many who believe she is the true culprit. Enter Danilo Thann, a bard who joins Arilyn’s quest after they meet in Waterdeep. Though Danilo may play the fool, he is secretly a capable Harper agent and mage—charged with determining Arilyn’s innocence and uncovering the secrets of her powerful moonblade.
Together, the unlikely duo set out to save the Harpers, embarking on a magical, action-packed adventure that launches an exciting new story in the Forgotten Realms universe.
Elfshadow is also the second book in the Harpers series.
ELFSHADOW by Elaine Cunningham is one of my all time favorite FORGOTTEN REALMS novels. It was originally one of the HARPERS series but spun off into the Song and Swords series. It remains one of the great behind-the-scenes frustrations for fans because a coimplete manuscript called, RECLAMATION, was written to end the series in 2008 but it was never released because of executive shenanigans. Still, each of the books is more or less a standalone tale and contribute character development to the world while resolving their existing plots, which is how I like my series.
The premise is Arilyn Moonblade is the half-elf daughter of an elven warrior, Amnestria, who is assassinated in broad daylight by Gold Elf assassins. Arilyn is promptly adopted by a mysterious man named Kymil Nimesin, who trains her to be an assassin for the Harpers. Even in the Nineties, this seemed to be a strange job description for a member of the otherwise goodie-goodie faction but Arilyn is devoted to impressing her father figure.
Unfortunately, for Arilyn, every Harper around her is starting to end up dead. Assuming she is being stalked by an assassin, she decides to seek refuge in Waterdeep away from potential victims. Unfortunately, also for Arilyn, the Harpers have the reasonable theory that if every Harper around Arilyn is ending up dead then she is most likely the assassin. So, Khelben the Blackstaff dispatches his (distant) nephew, Danilo Thann, to investigate her. Danilo is a wizard who acts like a bard in what was a very funny joke back when Bards sucked as a class.
As mentioned, this is one of my favorite Forgotten Realms books as a whole and an excellent introduction to the series. It has a wonderful pair of protagonists and they have a classic romantic set up where she’s the hardened killer straight woman and he’s the eccentric hanger-on. The fact Danilo is a much-much better spy than Arilyn (who wears her heart on her sleeve) is part of the fun given the pair are both technically members of the same organization yet struggle to understand one another. Danilo is convinced of Arilyn’s innocence early on but it is Arilyn who can’t bring herself to care emotionally due to past traumas.
The book introduces the lore of the moonblades, which are artifacts utterly out of wack with game balance but absolutely fantastic for storytelling purposes. The elven equivalent of holy avengers but much-much more powerful, they will strike dead anyone unworthy of wielding them. So for a half-elf to wield one is a powerful statement of the gods’ approval for Arilyn’s character as well as their opinion on elven racism (which is negative as should be the case with Good aligned deities). Not all elves are down with this endorsement.
Which is perhaps the only warning to give with this book. I know some fantasy readers are quite tired of Fantastic RacismTM as a central plot point in their games, particularly when it involves the Fair Folk. For me, I think elves are fantastic metaphors for white privilege in fantasy and enjoyed dealing with the Thalmor as the Dragonborn in Skyrim doubly so with that as a plot point. Still, Arilyn has a complex about not being “elf enough”, being disconnected from her heritage (Arilyn doesn’t seem to have much care about her human heritage), and the fact she’ll never be fully of her blood-obsessed community. If that puts you off, consider yourself forewarned.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a good popcorn fantasy then this is highly recommended and among the better examples of the genre. The fact that it is able to tell a complete story in one book is also a big credit. Arilyn, Danilo, and other characters all go through character arcs with quite a few twists as well as turns. We also get a lot of good world-building regarding elves in the Forgotten Realms.