Monday, November 17, 2008

The Bookshelf: Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

For no particular reason I’ve taken an interest in some of the fantasy settings for DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS and its various permutations. The differences between them are often subtle and incredibly geekish, but the DRAGONLANCE saga caught my attention as a unique blend of creativity and marketing. The original trilogy of books that I’m reading- DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT, and DRAGONS OF SPRING DAWNING, all by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman- were tied in with a series of modules released for the game around the same time in the mid-eighties, detailing a very linear, story-driven campaign based on one that Weis, Hickman, and others had run earlier.

So DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT is essentially the professionally published and bestselling equivalent of someone’s online game fiction, and yet it’s not bad. I’ve mentioned in the past that I don’t like how the fantasy genre is dominated by Extruded Fantasy Product that always revolves around a diverse group of characters from every corner of the author’s fantasy world going on a quest which takes them to every other corner of the author’s fantasy world in order to collect plot tokens and defeat the Supreme Evil, but in retrospect I don’t really hate the form itself. Only a handful of authors have ever done anything genuinely great with it, but a good EFP can be fun reading, and DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT works on that level. It’s surprisingly fast paced, given its length, ably juggles a good cast list, and though it has more than its fair share of silly moments they don’t drag the whole thing down too much.

It begins, appropriately enough, in an Inn, where a woman named Goldmoon, in possession of a staff with magical healing properties, is hiding from her tribe with her lover Riverwind, whom she tried to save from execution. Needless to say, dark forces are after her and the magical artifact her boyfriend obtained from a lost city under mysterious circumstances, and she falls in with a group of seasoned adventurers who have been looking for information on the old gods of Krynn, gods forgotten after a great cataclysm but still at work in the land. The staff is obviously connected to them somehow (healing magic was lost when they went out of fashion), and the disappearance of a couple of constellations from the sky portends a new cataclysm on the way. So our band of adventurers- Tanis, our somewhat moody half-elven protagonist; Caramon, a rough and tumble swordsman; Raistlin, his sickly wizard brother cursed by his studies; Flint, your requisite gruff dwarf; Tasslehoff Burrfoot, a kender (essentially kleptomaniac hobbits); Sturm, formerly a knight of Solamnia, and our two sort-of-Native-American-but-she’s-blonde-somehow refugees- set off up north to find the lost city wherein Riverwind first stumbled across the magic item in hopes of discovering more about what’s going on. And yes, there are dragons.

Stories like this are hard to review, because while the plot structure is pure Joseph Campbell by way of J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s the details which make every story stand out. The setting here is quite elaborate, with its old gods and new theocrats, lost orders, dragon-like humanoids who turn to stone when killed, primitive “gully” dwarves, and a number of details that just sort of lurk in the background. There are also, as you may have noticed, more than a few characters to keep track of; they’re very distinct and broadly drawn, so it’s not hard to remember who is who, but it’s still a big cast and they get kind of scattered at times. (This is why Dungeon Masters try not to split the party.)

The plot rambles along in a way that one might expect from something adapted from an RPG campaign; it’s episodic, but each episode is strongly connected. One distinguishing element of the story for better and for worse is a certain level of silliness. Take for example the gully dwarves, a friendly group of underground dwellers our heroes meet on their journey through the lost city. They are primitive, childlike, and most importantly, stupid. They can’t count above “two”, they speak in pidgin babytalk, and they’re so lacking in apparent common sense that it seems hard to believe they exist as a civilization. Obviously, this is fantasy, and the dwarves are funny at times, but they wear on the nerves a bit, as does Fizban, an overly comic wizard who can never remember how to cast spells.

Closest to damningly, though, and I regret having to spoil anything so I’ll try to be vague but skip over this paragraph if you insist anyway, in rather quick succession we see two characters seemingly killed decidedly dead only to come back the next chapter. The very next chapter. Now, I am all in favor of resurrecting a fictional character if it’s at all necessary or entertaining, but if you’re going to do this you should at least have a suitable period of anticipation wherein we think the character might actually be gone. Gandalf at least had the decency to wait an entire book before his reemergence.

Some of the silliness extends to the characters. Tasslehoff’s ever-so-whimsical compulsion to take things seems like a contrivance because the authors were afraid to make any of the heroes morally ambiguous, and frankly all the main character notes get pounded on repeatedly without a lot of variation over 400 pages. Goldmoon loves Riverwind, Tanis is conflicted about his heritage, Caramon has the hots for a fetching barmaid, Sturm used to be a knight, and Raistlin is bitter. They’re never quite three dimensional, though they’re not without charm.

I can’t say I dislike this book, though, even if it does feel rather inconsequential for the first act of an epic trilogy. It’s got a lot of neat ideas, and even if they don’t all congeal they still give you the feeling that this is a genuine fantasy world and not just a marketing ploy. But the real sign that this book worked for me was that I picked up the sequel without any thought. Weis and Hickman have hooked me, for better or worse.

Grade: B

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