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

First Impressions: I still remember Dragons of Winter Night pretty well. In fact, I still remember the first time I read it, sitting on a seat in the local shopping mall, waiting for my mother and sister to finish clothes shopping. I don’t think it was my favourite, back in the day. I don’t remember why – maybe it’s the increased romantic elements, or maybe it’s the inexplicable gaps in the narrative (More on that later!). That said, I remember all three books of the Chronicles trilogy fondly, so I think that dislike is only relative to the other books.

Once again, I showed the covers to Claire to get her impressions. Here’s what she thought.

·         Original Larry Elmore cover: A little campy with those bright pops of colour, I’m not mad at it. Still going with the whole dragon photobombing thing, I see.

·         Reprint Larry Elmore cover: Is the blue dragon friendly? Cos I’m not sure what vibe I’m getting here. Also I hate that knight lady’s perm, too 80s for me! (I challenged Claire on this, since she’s previously said she likes her Dragonlance characters with 80s hair, and she said, “I know, but I just hate short perms!”)

·         The UK Jeff Easley cover: I have no idea what I am looking at here. Boat sailing into a volcano? (Once again, this cover shows an event that’s not in this book, and manages to crop the dragon completely out of the art!)

·         The modern Matt Stawicki cover: Aww, I don’t like how these modern covers get less campy. That being said, I do quite like the poses, it’s like oh geez guys, here comes that dragon!

Plot Summary: Our far-too-numerous band of adventurers – Tanis the half-elf, Flint the dwarf, Tasslehoff the halfling kender, Sturm the knight, Riverwind the ranger, Goldmoon the cleric, Raistlin the wizard, Caramon the fighter, Tika the fighter, Elistan the cleric, Laurana the elf princess, and Gilthanas the elf prince – leave the kingdom of the dwarves to find ships in the port city of Tarsis, only to discover there’s no sea there anymore! They meet up with Derek Crownguard, a knight hunting for Dragon MacGuffin Orbs, and Alhana Starbreeze, another elf princess. During a dragon attack, the group is separated into two more manageable groups. Laurana, Sturm, Flint, Tasslehoff, Elistan, and Gilthanas go with Derek to the ice level in Ice Wall Castle to look for a MacGuffin Orb; Tanis, Caramon, Raistlin, Riverwind, Goldmoon and Tika go with Alhana to the undead-haunted nightmare-forest level in Silvanesti. Don’t worry, first group – because Sturm found a plot coupon, you get to take part in the worst acid trip ever too! Everyone dies, but it was just a dream, so they get better, but there’s lots of foreshadowing, and Raistlin (the party wizard) gets a MacGuffin Orb.

Meanwhile, Laurana’s group finds their second MacGuffin Orb and gets shipwrecked on the island of Southern Ergoth, where all the elven refugees are living. The elves are the chosen people of good, so they’re all on the verge of war with each other and are enslaving the native wild elves. Yay Team Good! Our heroes escape into the wilderness with the help of Silvara, a sexy elf with a big secret. There, they discover the Dragonlances – the only weapon capable of fighting back against dragons. All the representatives of the good races meet up, and immediately start fighting over who gets the MacGuffin Orb. Yay Team Good! Tasslehoff destroys the orb so they’ll stop fighting, and the arrival of the Dragonlances makes everyone moderately enthused to maybe possibly get off their backsides one day and do something. In the meantime, the assembled Knights have to defend a tower against the Dragonarmies. This task is made harder when unfulfilled political ambitions and the stick up Sir Derek’s backside drives him insane, but after a heroic sacrifice, and the lucky discovery of a THIRD MacGuffin Orb, the heroes are able to save the day.

Meanwhile, Tanis’ group puts on a travelling show, and Tanis gets laid. This does not help to resolve his angst.

The Good: This book is, by and large, an immense improvement over Dragons of Autumn Twilight. While that was extremely faithful to the first two adventure modules, Winter Night plays much more fast and loose, focusing on the characters and skipping over superfluous material like the dungeon crawls. This is a great idea, which plays well to the strengths of the format, even if it makes for some strange cuts – especially what happened between this book and the last one, and the attack on Ice Wall Castle, which is relayed in the form of a poem. More importantly, it allows them to focus the narrative around the two main magic items – the Dragonlance and the Dragon Orbs. 

The devastating dragon attack on Tarsis serves as a counterpoint to the later battle when the party, armed with the appropriate magical tools, is finally able to combat dragons. Furthermore, Weis and Hickman decide to focus on the characters that they find interesting, as opposed to the more even-handed focus of the previous book. Riverwind and Goldmoon, Elistan, Gilthanas and Tika all become supporting characters, propping up other characters’ arcs and then getting out of the way. Gilthanas does get to star in a romantic storyline, but it’s quickly resolved. The result is that Tasslehoff and Flint, who were rather annoying at times in the last book, blossom into a Laurel and Hardy-esque comedy duo. Laurana blossoms into the main character of her story arc, and indeed the book, while Tanis and Raistlin share focus in their branch of the narrative. 

Raistlin really is an interesting character, and he gets a lot of time to shine here. He single-handedly manages to exploit the foreshadowing in the nightmare of Silvanesti to defeat it, comes up with the performing troupe ploy, and masters a dragon orb. We get to see more nuance in his relationship with Caramon as well. It’s easy to see that he’s the writers’ favourite character, and why he gets to be the star of the sequel trilogy. I’m also a big fan of mysteries in role-playing games, and there’s a number here – in particular, ‘what’s up with Raistlin?’ and ‘who is the Green Gemstone Man?’ 

There’s a twist at the end of the book where (spoiler for a thirty year old book, which is ruined by the second cover!) Kitiara, the missing party member, Caramon and Raistlin’s sister and Tanis’ lover, turns out to be one of the evil Dragon Highlords. (I didn’t want to give this away, but it’s going to be absolutely impossible to talk about the books from this point on otherwise.) It’s hard to evaluate how effective a twist is when you already know about it, but it’s well foreshadowed and has massive consequences for the characters from this point. There are a few excellent sequences as well: the climactic sacrifice of one of the main characters was quite powerful.

The Neutral: This book is set at the end of 351 A.C and the beginning of 352 A.C. It skips over the third and fourth adventures, which cover how the companions discovered the hidden dwarven kingdom of Thorbardin and retrieved the lost Hammer of Kharas to earn sanctuary there for themselves and the escaped prisoners. (What ever happened to those prisoners? The impetus for this book is to find a new home for these refugees, but they’re forgotten very quickly. I guess they had to stay underground with the dwarves for the rest of the war, after all their leaders abandoned them to go chase magic items.) This book covers the 5th adventure (especially the first four pages in the city of Tarsis; it skips the lengthy dungeon crawl in Ice Wall Castle after that), the 6th and the 7th adventure, and also the 9th and a tiny bit of the 10th (which are about Tanis and his group). The missing adventure of Ice Wall Castle is covered in more detail in Finding the Faith, a short story in The Magic of Krynn anthology; later, Weis and Hickman returned to write the Lost Chronicles, which properly fills the gaps in the story. The first book in the series, Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, explains what happened between Dragons of Autumn Twilight and Dragons of Winter Night; the second, Dragons of the Highlord Reaches, tells the story of the battle of Ice Wall Castle, as well as a few other gaps in the story.

The Bad: Wow, this book has a lot of McGuffins in it! It’s a result of the original adventure design, rather than being Weis and Hickman’s fault as writers. However, we’re introduced to the extremely rare and powerful Dragon Orbs at the beginning of the book, told that only three exist… and lo and behold, by the end of the book, we’ve got all three of them! I was frankly sick of the things in the end, although I have to admit that after the amount that they’d been built up, the climactic scene with Laurana struggling to master one was quite tense. 

One of the problems with the tighter focus on certain characters is that they’re not very interesting! Laurana gets a lot of character development here, but it’s a pity that she’s a fairly bland person. She goes from passive and selfish to active and selfless, but beyond her immature love for Tanis, there’s just not a lot to her. Tanis himself is even worse. He’s torn between his human and elven sides, which could be interesting, but this conflict is personified in his love for the beautiful elf Laurana and the beautiful human Kitiara. Most of the time, it feels more like him agonizing about which gorgeous lady he should be with! 

The antagonists are also fairly problematic. Derek Crownguard is a caricature of a self-righteous paladin, with no redeeming qualities. He’s one of two competing leaders to take over the Knights of Solamnia, but there’s no reason why his side is right, or why anyone would support him. His sudden descent into raving lunacy also comes out of nowhere. It felt unrealistic and was a very disrespectful portrayal of mental illness. Kitiara is also problematic, in that her villainy manifests itself in an insatiable sexual appetite – one of the only characters who seems to have one! All the good characters nobly restrain themselves, with the exception of Tanis, the minute that he meets Kitiara again and starts giving in to his ‘human blood’, and Gilthanas and Silvara. They have a rather steamy love scene, but their tragic love is doomed, and founders very quickly once Silvara’s secret is revealed. It seems to be pretty clear that sex is bad in Dragonlance. 

Apart from this, we have more race essentialism with our race of mad inventor gnomes. (That said, I found the Mount Nevermind chapter to be fairly funny, and Dragonlance’s gnomes did go on to influence the entire portrayal of gnomes in fantasy from this point on – just look at World of Warcraft!) I did find the portrayal of elves interesting – they’re officially the chosen people of Good, but they’re the most close-minded, bigoted and judgmental people in all Krynn! I’d be a fan of this in a setting that didn’t feature capital-G Good so strongly. Meanwhile, the avatar of the main Good god prefers to hang out with the innocent, childlike kender rather than his own chosen people, and Tasslehoff is a much more caring, empathic, and innocent person than any of the elves. Why aren’t the Kender the chosen people of Good? I didn’t mention equitable gender representation in my last review, and I’m not really mentioning it again here, because there isn’t any. We should be glad to have Laurana and Kitiara as reasonably active female characters. The past is a different country; it doesn’t feel fair to criticize them too much for this.

Final Impressions: A better narrative and better characterization helps, but this book is still held back by its origins as an adaptation of adventure modules, by unevenly interesting characters, and questionable underlying morality. 3.5 Disks of Mishakal.

Next fortnight, the War of the Lance ends in a high-stakes episode of The Dating Game!

One thought on “The Great DRAGONLANCE Re-Read – Dragons of Winter Night, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

  1. Brendan Guy says:

    I have to strongly disagree with your idea that Laurana is a bland character. She’s shown throughout the series to be dynamic and independent and passionate which is about as far from bland as you can get. Indeed I would say she is the most interesting character in the Chronicles as she ultimately grows the most and accomplishes the most of any of the heroes while still having enough flaws and making enough mistakes to feel like a real person.

    I also disagree with the idea that there’s not much to her beyond her love for Tanis. Yes, that is an importation motivation for her, but there’s a lot more to her than just her feelings for Tanis. Her love and loyalty for her friends, her desire to help others, her desire to prove herself as more than just a pretty princess, and her growing disillusionment with the existing power structures are also important aspects of her character (and indeed I would say they are bigger motivators for her in this book then her feelings for Tanis since throughout Dragons of Winter Night we see her repeatedly put aside her feelings for Tanis in order to help others.)

    Like

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