First Impressions: After the second (but not the last!) ‘end’ of Dragonlance, TSR decided that sales of the novels were so good that they wanted to keep going. With Weis and Hickman done, for the time being, they decided on the Heroes trilogy, starring some of the legendary characters of Dragonlance’s history. Well, two random characters and one legend anyway, which is the one that we start with: The Legend of Huma! This book first came out in March 1988 For those unfamiliar with Dragonlance, Huma is the greatest Knight of Solamnia of legend, the first to discover the Dragonlances and save the world from the Queen of Darkness. He’s a bit like Isildur from The Lord of the Rings, except he’s not a prat. Richard A. Knaak got assigned this project, his first novel, on the strength of his contributions to the Tales anthology, two of which were Knight-related and also pretty solid. I’ve heard that this book was extremely successful, thus ensuring the continuation of the Dragonlance franchise. Certainly, it’s the only Dragonlance novel not by Weis and Hickman to ever be adapted into a comic book (which I haven’t read.)
I remember The Legend of Huma being one of my absolute favourite Dragonlance books. When I was 10, we went on a family holiday to England. We went to a bookshop, and I was absolutely blown away by HOW MANY DRAGONLANCE BOOKS THERE WERE! And they were SO CHEAP compared to New Zealand! I can’t remember which books my parents bought me, but I remember the first one I picked was The Legend of Huma. For Christmas that same holiday, I got Tales of the Lance, the Dragonlance campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons, and when we discovered you needed some other books to play it, we tracked down the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and my first set of polyhedral dice. The rest, you might say, was history.
On with this book! This book has two different pieces of cover art. The original cover, by Jeff Easley, is an absolutely stonkin’ picture of a red dragonrider killing a gold dragon with a stolen Dragonlance. It’s an odd scene to choose, rather than showing our hero on his silver dragon. However, it’s the sort of aerial dragon jousting that Dragonlance always promised me, and while it’s a bit dated, it’s undeniably awesome. Ten-year-old James still gets excited by that cover. The newer cover by Matt Stawicki actually has Huma riding the silver dragon on it. I think Huma’s moustache looks naff, and it’s not as action-packed as the original cover, but there’s nothing wrong with it; I think I just have more of an emotional attachment to that original cover.
Plot Summary: The Knights of Solamnia are fighting a losing war with the forces of Takhisis, the Queen of Darkness. Huma, one of the humblest of the Knights, distinguishes himself when he rescues a minotaur defector called Kaz from the enemy. He attracts the attention of a silver dragon by his mercy. During a rout, Huma and Kaz are rescued by Huma’s childhood friend Magius, a renegade magic-user, who has had dreams of a great treasure hidden in a mountain that might end the war. Huma, Kaz and Magius eventually make their way to Dragon Mountain, where Huma is separated from the others and undergoes three tests to prove himself worthy of the Dragonlances. With the new holy weapons, Huma defeats the evil dragons, foils Takhisis’ magical major-domo Galan Dracos, and finally battles Takhisis in her form as a five-headed dragon, with the help of his silver dragon, who’s been secretly moonlighting as his love interest all along! Huma defeats Takhisis and save the world at the cost of his life, leaving only Kaz to remember him as a man, not as a legend.
The Good: Wowza! This book is pretty slow in its first half, but once Huma starts undergoing his trials, it bounces from action scene to action scene and never lets up. There’s something viscerally exciting to ten-year-old James about knights riding on dragons, going on quests, saving the world from evil dragon goddesses… Sure, it isn’t Shakespeare, but it does have the same vital mythic energy of Beowulf or Le Morte D’Arthur. A more apt comparison might be to movies, actually: one of the three trials, where Huma confronts a traitor in the Knights of Solamnia, felt heavily influenced by The Empire Strikes Back, while the devastation of war and the quest for the Dragonlance felt inspired by John Boorman’s Excalibur and the Grail Quest sequences in there. I found these allusions added to rather than detracted from my enjoyment of The Legend of Huma.
This story feels like a response to Knaak’s short story Definitions of Honour from Kender, Gully Dwarves and Gnomes. Once again, we have a minotaur and a knight, and the interplay between their moral codes. However, here Huma represents a third pole: not the brutal honour of the minotaurs, or the decorous honour of the knighthood, but the honour of goodness and being a decent human being. A minor recurring motif in the book is mirrors, and most of the story, especially the three trials, reflects Huma’s essential humanity back to us (pun unintended).
The Bad: This book wanted terribly to be a trilogy to itself. Certain side-characters and subplots get short shrift: in particular, Magius. Huma’s childhood friend drives the action of the first half of the book, but he’s unbearably narcissistic. He then vanishes and has a lot of character development off-stage or implied. By his death at the end of the book, he’s implied to have been a wizard of all three orders (i.e. evil, neutrality and good) as well as a renegade, but we don’t see any of this, except as Huma sees it. As it stands, the first half of the book is extremely dull as Huma does what superiors or Magius tell him and travels around without much purpose. This is simply the fault of the sheer quantity of exposition that Knaak is forced to employ to set up the story. To be fair, just about every plot point that he does establish in the first half pays off in the second half, but by dividing the book into three, he would have been able to split that burden, and have more things actually happen in the opening section.
The fact that this is Knaak’s first book is also apparent. The prose is generally workmanlike, but there’s a few problems. He has a tendency in this book to break the point of view to switch perspectives to an onlooker, and then return to the original point of view after a paragraph. I found it jarring and awkward each time it happened – at least twice, I wasn’t actively looking out for it. A few sections are awkwardly written, like the introduction of Gwynneth: “She wore a gown akin to that worn by healers of Mishakal, save that no medallion graced her smooth, ivory-coloured neck. The gown did not hide her feminine attributes, and Huma forced himself to look away before embarrassment ruined all.” Feminine attributes? Knaak’s also unable to make the two major plot twists – the identity of the traitor and the truth behind Huma’s love interest Gwynneth – at all surprising. The first is hinted at but comes largely out of left field; the second is painfully obvious, though it does still work emotionally for Huma. Finally, I found a continuity error at the end where Bennett, another Knight of Solamnia, is present at a war council where the Knights agree to make fake Dragonlances to confuse the enemy. The fake Dragonlances wind up being real, and Huma tells Bennett, who now was not present at the council and has no idea that the Dragonlances were ever fake.
The Neutral: This story is set in 2645 P.C., approximately three thousand years before the adventures of the Heroes of the Lance. Huma was referred to extensively throughout the original series and was the subject of a short story in Love and War, which this story over-writes. This story also omits the major Huma myth from the books up to this point: the story of Huma and the white stag, which appeared in the Chronicles trilogy, and then again from the stag’s point of view in Love and War. I think this is another casualty of this book being only a standalone novel rather than a trilogy: there’s simply no space for it.
The introduction of this book also references a strange timeline anomaly. Quite simply, the Dragonlance timeline was ret-conned at some point in 1987 or 1988, which leads to the introduction, in which Astinus blames this error on ‘Paulus Warius’. The same mistake was also referenced in Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home.
While Huma didn’t get the trilogy that he deserved, this book was successful enough that it did lead to an unofficial trilogy. In 1990, Knaak got to write a sequel continuing the story of Kaz the Minotaur as part of the Heroes II trilogy, prosaically called Kaz the Minotaur. Later on, he got to write a third Kaz book in 1996: Land of the Minotaurs, as part of the Lost Histories series, and this would lead to Knaak writing even more minotaur-related books in the future, set in the present day.
My final shout-out is to Rob Bricken’s reviews of old Dungeons & Dragons books over on IO9. They were one of the inspirations for my writing this series. Although he has mostly reread Forgotten Realms books so far, he did read The Legend of Huma, and I basically agree with everything that he’s said (about this book, and the other ones as well). Here’s the link to his The Legend of Huma review: https://gizmodo.com/dungeons-dragons-novels-revisiting-the-legend-of-h-1845938062
Overall: Rushed and poorly placed, The Legend of Huma is also action-packed and mythic in its best scenes. It’s awkward, but I love it. My head says it’s worth a low rating, my heart says it’s worth a high rating, so I’ll split the difference and give it three Disks of Mishakal out of five.