Monday, December 15, 2008

The Bookshelf: Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Link to Dragons of Winter Night at
And I’m out. Life is too short to read books that you don’t enjoy, and at some point around the middle DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT started to feel like work. I had been looking forward to this second volume in the DRAGONLANCE saga, on the grounds that the middle installment is usually where things get really interesting, plus the dead-of-winter angle seemed appealing and seasonally appropriate. But instead this is where Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s game fiction turned bestselling trilogy goes off the rails, losing the clichéd charm of the first installment in a morass of bad plotting and downright uninspired writing. It’s not without its good moments, but to get to those you have to wade through a lot of stuff that’s just not interesting.

My first difficulty comes with describing the plot. Our heroic adventure group have taken refuge with a group of people fleeing from the Dragon Highlords who now control Krynn. They’re sent on a quest to find the port city of Tarsis so the refugees can hopefully find some safe haven, but when they get there it’s been landlocked for centuries, and an attack by the Highlords splits them up. Laurana, an elvish girl who’s in love with Tanis (he’s obsessed with some evil warrior woman who shows up eventually) joins Sturm, Flint, and Tas in search of one of the fabled Dragonlances, weapons that can actually slay the flying menaces, while the rest of the group goes after an orb to control dragons in the midst of a haunted elven city. I think. Eventually the first group comes across a dragonorb too, and there’s some business with Sturm’s old order of knights suffering from political infighting, and there are elves and humans in conflict over who gets to keep one of the dragonorbs, and gnomes get involved somehow.

If these books were in fact drawn from a D&D campaign, this was obviously the point where the Dungeon Master made the mistake of splitting up the party and had to handle separate plotlines in the vain hope that they would intersect again. The alternative, of course, is that Weis and Hickman planned this storyline, which would be unthinkable but then again I saw the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels. The point is, this is not good plotting. The second installment of any trilogy always faces a challenge because it has to bridge two other works and thus often lacks its own beginning and end, and you often end up with lots of parallel action for some odd reason, but there’s parallel action and there’s whatever the Hell this is. I can no longer recall how anything in this book fit together, and was halfway tempted to steal someone else’s plot summary. And I understood THE AVENGERS.

This might be forgivable if this mess of loosely connected setpieces were consistently fun. There are some bits I like. The haunted city portion ends in a bit of a cheat, but it’s pretty damn moody before that. The action is generally good, and I liked the final battle. But we also have to wade through a lot of tedious political bickering, none of which reaches a level of sophistication beyond junior high debate and serves no purpose other than to reiterate the high fantasy cliché that diplomacy and debate are completely worthless.

My great failing in reviewing the previous book in this series is that I somehow managed not to pick up that it is a HUGE Mormon allegory, from the golden plates to the white Native American types. Strictly speaking I don’t object to fantasy being used as religious symbolism, but in this new context it was impossible to ignore a scene between Caramon and bar-wench-turned-warrior Tika which seems to exist solely for the purpose of establishing that he will not sleep with her until they can be in a committed relationship, essentially an abstinence message made incredibly ill-fitting by the fact that everything prior has established them as lustful stoats who could not be pried apart with a crowbar. It was what made them entertaining. Speaking of poorly wedged-in morals, an inordinate amount of focus is spent on Tas, the halfling who can’t help taking other people’s things because his culture has no concept of ownership and is absolutely not a thief. This itself is worth remarking upon for an entirely different reason, namely that his third-person-limited voice is cloying and twee, a forced roguish tone that quickly wears out its welcome. Between him, the comic tinker gnomes and the return of Fizban, the book stretches the reader’s tolerance for cutesy comic relief to the breaking point.

While we’re on the subject of characters, it’s weird how quickly the focus shifts away from Tanis, our protagonist from last time, and in fact he’s not even present for the book’s climax. Raistlin, also an interesting character, drifts to the sidelines as well. Goldmoon and Riverwind are also marginalised despite their prominence in the first book, but I actually didn’t mind that.

The prose is as workmanlike as ever, getting the job done and painting a few vivid pictures, which is why the book fails to slip from mediocre to outright bad. I do have to fault it for downplaying and often forgetting the whole “winter” thing- there’s the occasional mention of snow and/or ice, but it’s so sparse that if this were a film you wouldn’t be able to see the actors’ breath. Conveying season is a subtle thing, but if you put “winter” in your title you should indulge in a little overdescription.

I was perhaps forgiving of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT’s flaws because I was convinced this was going somewhere. About midway through DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT I decided that if this was going anywhere it was sure taking its sweet time, and at this point my only real interest was in seeing the “state of play” for the DRAGONLANCE setting, which is something I could get on Wikipedia while reading a much better book. There is simply nothing sufficiently earth-shaking here- nothing that changes the game or raises the stakes or makes me think this is going to go in some very unusual direction. It’s just more running around, without the basic dungeon crawl coherence of the first novel. This is not quite a book to be hurled across the room with great force, but I was tempted.

Grade: C

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