The Great DRAGONLANCE Re-Read – Introduction, and Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragonlance was an important part of my childhood. After I read The Lord of the Rings, I looked around for other fantasy books like it. I read C.S. Lewis, I read Terry Brooks, I read David Eddings, and I read the Dragonlance Saga. In the back of the book, there was an advertisement – do you want to experience these adventures for yourself? That was how I learnt about Dungeons & Dragons, and on a family holiday to the U.K. I got a copy of the Players’ Handbook and the Dragonlance campaign setting boxed set, Tales of the Lance. And from there, there was no stopping me.

It’s been a while since I last read a Dragonlance book now, but I have a fairly sizeable collection of novels and roleplaying supplements, and it’s something I remember fondly. So do a lot of you, apparently! My constantly bringing up Dragonlance has become a sort of running joke, but when we did our podcast on Dragonlance, it got more reaction that just about anything else we’ve done, put together! The people have spoken, and what they have said is: we want Dragonlance.

So here we are. I’m going to be reading the entire Dragonlance saga, about two hundred novels. A lot of it I’ve read before; some of it, I’ll be reading for the first time, and some I may have to skip if I can’t find a copy. I’ll probably cover some of the other products: I’m keen to read the original comic books, which are new to me, and maybe some of the roleplaying supplements, for instance. I’ll keep going as long as people are interested. If any of you have read them, you can share your thoughts with me too! 

I’m going to read one book a fortnight. (This gives me time to read everything else I want to read in between!) Each review will be structured like this:

First Impressions: What I remember, if anything, about this book from back in the day. I’ll also show Claire the cover art and get her impressions, because that can be funny.

Plot Summary: A quick summary of what happened.

The Good (represented by Paladine, The Platinum Dragon, leader of the Gods of Good): What worked! What I liked. Positivity.

The Neutral (represented by Gilean, the Book, leader of the Gods of Neutrality): Neutral things I want to say – continuity notes, probably.

The Bad (represented by Takhisis, Queen of Darkness, leader of the Gods of Evil): What didn’t work. What I didn’t like. Negativity.

Then I’ll give each book a rating out of five Discs of Mishakal (an important artifact that is suspiciously similar to the Mormon golden plates of Joseph Smith).

So grab your hoopak and start whistling a road song, because here we go!

The Beginner’s Guide to Dragonlance

Some of you know lots about Dragonlance already. Brothers and sisters, I pity us. For other people, you might appreciate a quick guide to explain what’s going on.

What’s Dragonlance? Dragonlance was a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. It went from 1984-2011. There are rumours that it’s coming back. Dragonlance got invented because people realized that, at the time, there were lots of dungeons, but not many dragons, in D&D. So it’s Dragon-World. It’s also Epic Story World, because they decided to tell a giant ongoing story in a way that had never been done before, across twelve adventures – each one spotlighting a different type of dragon. To really make it a big deal, they also adapted the story in comics, computer games, and – this is the big one – novels. The novels were so popular that they quickly took over, and while the game line struggled, nearly 200 books were published in Dragonlance – to say nothing of all the other tie-in novels that Dragonlance inspired for other worlds.

What’s the story? On the world of Krynn, on the continent of Ansalon, everything is awful. 350 years ago, the gods went Old Testament on the world by throwing a flaming mountain at it, before departing for parts unknown. Dragons, meanwhile, are considered children’s stories. Eight random PC-types discover that the dragons are back, with armies led by Dragon Highlords and dragon-men called Draconians as their soldiers. They rediscover the ancient gods, and find the secret of forging the Dragonlances, the only weapons capable of fighting the dragons. Also they have lots of teenage angst along the way!

Who are the characters? There’s a huge core cast, and they’re going to be recurring for years, so it’s good to have a basic knowledge of who our heroes are. Here goes!

Tanis Half-Elven: Half-Elf (surprise!) fighter. Team leader. He can’t decide whether he likes his elf girlfriend Laurana or his human girlfriend Kitiara more. Nominally the main character early on.

Flint Fireforge: Dwarf fighter. Grumpy old curmudgeon, team grandpa. Afraid of boats, allergic to horses, racist about gully dwarves.

Tasslehoff Burrfoot: Kender (basically a halfling) Rogue. Has a childlike innocence and kleptomaniac tendency to ‘borrow’ of other people’s stuff. People either love him or hate him.

Sturm Brightblade: Human fighter. He’s a wannabe knight. Gloomy and self-righteous, but also self-sacrificing and idealistic.

Caramon Majere: Human fighter. This party has way too many fighters! Big, muscly, dumb jock. Likes food, likes drink. In an mutually abusive relationship with his brother Raistlin, who he looks after.

Raistlin Majere: Human wizard. Edgelord wizard with gold skin and hourglass eyes because Wizard Exams are hardcore. Gets to start the game with a magic staff. Most people’s favourite character, including one of the authors.

Goldmoon: Human Cleric. ‘Barbarian’ (I hate how D&D uses that word!), a.k.a. Native American coded character. The token girl in the starting party. Should be the main character.

Riverwind. Human Ranger. ‘Barbarian’ (again, hate that), Native American-coded. He and Goldmoon are in love, and that’s really about all I can say about him. Sorry Riverwind, I love you, but you are the most boring party member.

The following characters aren’t in the initial party, but join the party in the first book (with one notable exception!)

Tika Waylan: Human fighter/rogue. Barmaid and girl-next-door love interest for Caramon. She never really gets a lot to do except whack bad guys with a frying pan, but sometimes that’s enough.

Laurana Kanan: Elf fighter. Tanis’ foster sister, Most Beautiful Evar, princess, and irrationally infatuated with him. Intentionally useless early on, she gets better, but she really needs a Sassy Gay Friend to talk to about her boy problems.

Gilthanas Kanan: Elf fighter/wizard. Tanis’ foster-brother. He’s just sort of there? He was my favourite back in the day because I like elves, but he really has nothing going for him.

Kitiara Majere: Human fighter. ANOTHER fighter! Caramon and Raistlin’s big sister, Tanis’ human girlfriend. She’s a Strong Female Character! Actually, for the 80s, she was pretty strong. And also pretty not appearing in this book. She was a part of the group, but she bailed on them and never reunited with the others. Where have you gone, Kitiara?

That’s our initial core cast! Other people join the party, but they’re nowhere near as important as these eleven. And eight of them are fighters! Good grief. Anyway, these are our main characters for the first couple of trilogies, and most of the spinoff novels are about their backstories, or (later on) their children and eventually grandchildren.

So let us begin… 

The Great DRAGONLANCE Re-Read – Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

First Impressions: This is the one that started it all off! I remember it being rough around the edges, but pretty decent. There were a few different covers to show to Claire this time around – these are her reactions: 

  • The original Larry Elmore cover: “Why is this dragon photobombing Fleetwood Mac?” 
  • The reprint Larry Elmore cover: “The costumes are SO much better than the first, but the dragon still looks super calm for what I know reds should be like.” 
  • The UK Jeff Easley cover: “What the hell is even going on here? And why is my boy red dragon cut off so much? Not fair. Not a big fan of heavy armour Goldmoon, bring back cover two!” (This cover is a fairly strange crop from a larger piece called “The Epic Quest. As is typical for the UK covers, it shows a scene that doesn’t happen in this book, and the character Claire thinks is Goldmoon is in fact not.)
  • The Matt Stawicki cover: “It is soooo toned down from the ridiculousness of the other ones, almost too much. There is something about it that reminds me of world of warcraft. Also sorry but Goldmoon’s hair should be bigger. Even as times change, Goldmoon should always have 80s hair, it’s the rule.”

Plot Summary: A group of adventurers reunite after years apart looking for signs of the lost gods, to meet two barbarians, Goldmoon and Riverwind, carrying a staff with miraculous healing powers. How convenient! Mysterious dark forces – the reptilian draconians – are after it, and the companions are on the run. The journey takes them to the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth, which was abandoned when no one could spell its name correctly, and fight a dragon to retrieve the Disks of Mishakal, a McGuffin artifact with a more than passing resemblance to the Mormons’ golden disks. Once that’s done, they level up and return home, only to discover it’s been conquered by the Dragonarmies. After being railroaded to the land of the elves, the heroes agree to help rescue the slaves from the dragonarmies’ iron mine and fight the Dragon Highlord, whose parents hated him enough to call him Verminaard. But there’s a traitor in their midst! Could it be the most obvious suspect? And what does this have to do with Berem, a strange man with a green gemstone embedded in his chest?

The Good: High literature this isn’t, but Dragons of Autumn Twilight actually holds up pretty well. This is basically the Critical Role of its day, almost an Actual Play transcript in novel form. A lot of attention gets given to the eight (!) main characters, and they’re all given a chance to show their strengths and their weaknesses, and how they interact with one another. They’re all pretty standard D&D stereotypes, and it amused me to see how many of them I’ve seen around a table: the Wizard Obsessed With Magic, the Killjoy Paladin, the Thief Who Steals From Their Own Party, and so on. Each has an extensive backstory, moments where they’re extremely likeable, and moments where you’ll want to strangle them. The worldbuilding is pretty good as well, with lots of allusions to the wider world and the deep history of Huma Dragonbane, the Kinslayer War, the empire of Istar, and much more that would get fleshed out in the ancillary novels.

The Neutral: This is the first! It’s the first Dragonlance novel, the first official Dungeons & Dragons novel, and the first book for both Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. (There was originally a different author, but when their efforts were unsatisfactory, Hickman, the game designer for Dragonlance, and Weis, the book editor, took over and wrote it themselves.) In universe, this book is set in the year 351 A.C. It’s based, very faithfully, on the first two Dragonlance adventure modules, Dragons of Despair and Dragons of Flame. It will be extensively referenced in future books, which will show how the companions first met, what they did in the five years in which they were separated, the backstories for the villains, and explain a lot of the history referenced in here. The most important tie-in novels are the Lost Chronicles, by Weis and Hickman. Written twenty years later, they fill in the gaps between the original novels, so Dragons of the Dwarven Depths is the immediate sequel to this book. However, I’ll get there when I get there!

The Bad: One of the problems with being the first of your kind is that you’ve really got no map for what you’re doing. The book is slavishly faithful to the two adventures upon which it’s based. This can be a strength at times – the book bounces along from set piece to set piece pretty rapidly – but it’s also a weakness, when you can almost see the spell slots being tracked behind the scenes, and you could plot the party’s progress on a map. Weis and Hickman themselves admitted that they were finding their feet regarding fidelity to the source material, and they feel free to deviate from the adventures much more after this book. It also invalidates the adventures – how can you create your own stories about the War of the Lance, when the official story has been canonically told? 

In addition, a lot of the episodes are highly derivative, especially of The Lord of the Rings. In the first epic story-driven roleplaying adventure, that’s not really a problem. Everyone wants to start out by experiencing the iconic stereotypes and tropes first-hand. However, in a book, we have already read these scenes, and so as the adventurers meet the Army of the Dead, then Galadriel (who’s a unicorn this time around), then go to Moria, meet Gandalf, and then go to Lothlorien… it’s all a bit familiar. To be fair, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is better at remixing or tweaking these tropes than, say, The Sword of Shannara, and I did enjoy Fizban, who’s Gandalf by way of a senile Deadpool. 

The prose is generally good, with a few really great lines (generally dry humour), but there’s a tendency to info-dump at times, and other times the point of view wanders very casually from one character’s thoughts to another. The whole sequence with the wicker dragon is ridiculous. The book’s real sins, however, are its shaky theology and its blatant 80s-isms. This is the story of the rediscovery of the gods, who mankind abandoned after they threw a meteor at the world. It’s all very Old Testament, but it doesn’t cast the gods in a very good light. When the gentle goddess of healing seems to demand a blood sacrifice – very reminiscent of Abraham getting ready to sacrifice his son – from the group half way through the book, you can absolutely understand where Tanis Half-Elven, the leader of the group, is coming from when he curses them and says that people are better off without them! 

Meanwhile, the handling of race and gender is problematic, to say the least. The four major female characters (not counting the black dragon) are defined by their exquisite beauty – or lack of it, in the case of Bupu the gully dwarf. They all have precious little agency, even Goldmoon, who by rights should probably be the main character. She’s the one who finds the old gods, but then she’s forced to find a man to actually lead the new faith. Speaking of the gully dwarves, they’re the worst example of the race essentialism that runs throughout Dragonlance. Every single one of them is ugly, stupid, and played for laughs. Bupu is the sole exception, whose wretchedness is a way for our evil magician Raistlin to show some humanity by pitying her. There are other races that are all identical, and generally awful – kleptomaniac kender, for example, although I generally find them much better than gully dwarves. In later books, there are more nuanced depictions of some of the races. I remember draconians, the villainous mooks, becoming surprisingly compelling in later books. But at this point, it’s painfully tone-deaf for a modern reader.

Final Score: Given how much the writers admitted they were finding their feet with this book, it’s surprisingly good! It feels even more formulaic and cliched now than it did at the time, but I can’t hold that against it. Also, I have a lot of goodwill for this book. Three Disks of Mishakal out of five.

Next fortnight, the saga continues with Dragons of Winter Night, in which everyone has a really bad acid trip.

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