Saturday, May 21, 2011

You Can Go Home Again: Dragons Of Autumn Twilight Opens The Quintessential Fantasy Series!

The Good: Well-written, Interesting characters, Decent plot, Some good reversals
The Bad: Somewhat predictable
The Basics: Both straightforward and character-driven, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight reminds readers how good fiction and fantasy can be, even when it is aimed at young adults!

Sometimes, I look over my body of work and I am actually surprised by what I have chosen to review versus what I have avoided reviewing. So, for example, when I first started reviewing, one of the novels I was eager to review was the second DragonLance novel, Dragons Of Winter Night (reviewed here!) which was arguably a perfect book and easily one of my favorites in my young adulthood. I think, though, that I avoided the rest of the DragonLance series because I'm entering middle age, illustrate rigorous standards in my reviews and it somehow seemed stupidly beneath me to return to one of the delights of my young adulthood to review as an adult. However, after the past few weeks of rereading and reviewing a number of Star Trek books, including comic books that I picked up right around the same time as I was reading DragonLance books, I rethought that philosophy. After all, I have no problem with reviewing these books with the same high standards as I have for other literature and I'm never one to shy away from an intellectual fight on the merits of a work.

So, tonight as I sit - having reread the start of the DragonLance books, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight - and review, I find my mind coming back to my young adulthood and adulthood and the literary choices I have made as an adult. In the process, there are things I know I will return to as I age. For example, I know that every year or two, I will reread Invisible Man (reviewed here!). I also know that I am likely to never subject myself to The Lord Of The Rings again. But I am likely to return to the DragonLance books, especially the first two trilogies, Chronicles and Legends. Just to make that perfectly explicit: I think the first two DragonLance trilogies are superior to The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (of books, not movies!). That starts with Dragons Of Autumn Twilight.

As the result of a vow to come together after years apart, a small group of companions meets at the Inn Of The Last Home to discuss the changes in the world they have observed over their years apart. After the years of separation, they have made notes on the rising forces of evil in the world of Krynn and the companions are dismayed when one of their number - Kitiara - does not show, despite the vows that bind the members of the group. Tanis, a half-elf, half-human, leads the companions, despite his own deep insecurities. His friends are a diverse bunch: Raistlin Majere, a mage, who is accompanied by his physically powerful brother, Caramon, Flint Fireforge, a dwarf, Tasslehoff, a Kender (diminutive thief), and Sturm, a knight who has been disgraced. The companions are joined by two newcomers, travelers from the plains, a healer named Goldmoon and her partner Riverwind. Goldenmoon comes bearing an ancient staff that has the ability to heal people and she claims to be a cleric of one of the old, forgotten gods.

Unfortunately for the companions, the newcomers draw the attention of the local religious fanatics and an invading army of dragonmen (draconians) who are loyal to the forces of evil. Tanis decides to rescue Goldmoon and Riverwind and in the process the group flees, with a barmaid from the Inn across Krynn. Eager to alert the centers of power in the dwarven nations and realms of the Elves to the new threat represented by the draconians and the return of the malicious gods, Tanis and his band find themselves beset upon by evil forces while trying to alert the leaders who might prevent Krynn from falling into darkness. And no sooner does the group escape one dangerous situation than they find themselves face to face with an enemy army, evidence of the return of the old gods, and an actual dragon!

Dragons Of The Autumn Twilight is a setup novel, establishing the world of Krynn and the essential main characters and supplemental characters for the franchise. Right off the bat, this differentiates itself from The Lord Of The Rings because the story is character-based, not plot based. In The Lord Of The Rings, there is a mission determined somewhat externally by people only peripherally involved in the bulk of the story. Elrond dictates that the One Ring must be destroyed and everyone sets out to doing that while trying to hold the continent together long enough for Frodo and Sam to succeed. In Dragons Of Autumn Twilight, there is nothing so clear cut and the people the book is centered on are not the powerbrokers of the planet. They are just good people (well, most of them) who want to do right by their fellow citizens.

The result is a story where the heroes make choices that lead them to heroism, not some form of generic heroism based upon accomplishing a task or a birthright. This is not to say that one cannot be fans of both The Lord Of The Rings and DragonLance, but truth be told, the two main flaws in Tolkein's works are absent from this franchise, starting in Dragons Of Autumn Twilight: the writing style and the element of character.

As far as writing style goes, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have the ability to write in such a way that once one overcomes the necessary exposition of the first chapter, the story flows well and is thoroughly engaging. Not at all written like a history text, Dragons Of Autumn Twilight tells a story with a good pace, interesting characters and a sense of genuine peril. There are reversals as our heroes are captured by the draconians, there is a decent amount of humor between the annoying antics of Tas and the introduction of the wizard Fizban, and there are clear descriptions of locations and characters that tell readers what they need to know without a five-volume lesson on the guild that made the king's buttons. Indeed, one of the notable differences that Weis and Hickman establish are characters with clear and compelling backstories that are used to foreshadow their decisions and the directions they go in, as opposed to expository personal histories that never seem to relate back to the quest the characters are on.

In addition to being an establishing story that gives enough history of Krynn to make the place interesting enough to return to (the gods, for example, appear to have left Krynn hundreds of years prior during the Cataclysm, which - among other things - involved a firestorm at one of the major population centers) the characters actually move through a few different states (one of the elven kingdoms and one of the dwarven realms) and things happen to the characters there. The important element I am attempting to stress here is that every member of this group has a point (many readers of Tolkein, for example, seem to forget that it was Peter Jackson who had Merry and Pippin sacrifice themselves so Frodo could get away - in Tolkein's version they're just two hobbits who get captured by Uruk-hai) and a purpose.

This leads us to character. Dragons Of Autumn Twilight is full of characters and it is a diverse bunch. Flint Fireforge may well be a simple sage advisor to Tanis, who spends his time making quips at Tas, but he is written in such a way that he appears to be one who has a history and has a rich tale behind him where it makes sense that he has Tanis's unwavering support. Goldmoon and Riverwind might well be the least developed characters in the book, but they at least have a purpose: she is a woman of faith with a magic staff. They lend diversity to an already diverse novel by adding characters roughly analogous to the Native Americans to an otherwise European blend of characters.

Sturm Brightblade is a knight who has never been accepted by the order of knights he strives to be in, due to his low birthright. Sturm is one of those characters who immediately seems whitebread, but is actually a fascinating study in genuine heroism. He is a man who follows a strong moral code for the sake of being an honorable and decent guy. I like that. He's principled for the sake of principle and once one gets over that unflinching lack of corruptibility, there is something remarkable about reading the story of a character for whom the world is still very much black and white, good versus evil.

The reason Sturm's character works at all is because of Tanis and Raistlin. Tanis is half-elven and this gives Hickman and Weis the chance to do something seldom explored in fantasy novels and certainly underrepresented in literature targeted toward young adults, which is to explore race issues. Tanis is an interethnic symbol walking around Krynn despised by both sides and the metaphor works beautifully and is so thinly veiled that only the most dense or young readers will not understand it. Tanis struggles with being too different from the humans and being an outcast among his chosen people, the elves. That level of conflict informs many of his decisions and that works beautifully for the book!

But from the beginning, it was Raistlin who grabbed readers, especially me. He's a mage, powerful but clearly wounded by the magic he practices. His eyes have hourglass pupils as a result of a trial the order of mages put him through and he sees the decay in all things. He is neutral and has little care for wars or the fate of the masses. In many ways, he is an intellectual snob. Physically sickly, he is a genius when it comes to magic and herbal medicine and from the moment he enters the narrative, there is a complete and beautiful ambiguity about the character that makes the reader wonder just which way he will fall when the impending war comes.

Choices that Tanis, Sturm, Raistlin, and Tas make change the course of event on Krynn and this is definitely a first act in a larger series, but in virtually every chapter there is an allusion to something that fleshes out Krynn and makes one more curious about the characters, the history of the world and the future of it. It's smart, asks deeper philosophical questions about the relationships between individuals and their religions, faith and honor and it's worth the time of anyone who likes a good fantasy novel. And truth be told, it's better than virtually any other literature targeted toward young adults and the surprising thing I'm rediscovering is with its emphasis on character just how enjoyable it can be for adults.

For other science fiction or fantasy novels reviewed by me, please check out:
Star Trek: Avenger
The Fellowship Of The Ring

For other book reviews, please click here to visit my index page!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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