Dragonlance Chronicles: Book Reviews

The Dragonlance novels are what got me into fantasy. Well, that’s not entirely true, Redwall did that, but the Dragonlance novels are what got me into dragon-infested fantasy. In high school, a friend of mine highly recommended the Dragonlance series to me, and one trip to Barnes and Noble later netted me the War of Souls, a crazy trilogy of death, dragons, and ghosts by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.

Those books led to more, and those more books led to even more, and now I have a bookshelf of trashy fantasy novels with ten different breeds of dragons in them.

“Trashy” is, sadly, the apt word for these novels. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a good, trashy novel now and then—much like a good, trashy action movie is well worth the price of a theater ticket—but my high-school self held these novels in high regard, so to find out they are trashy is disappointing.

The Dragonlance Chronicles marks the very beginning of a series of books that measure in the hundred by more authors than I care to count. I own quite a few books in this series by differing authors, but it wasn’t until now that I picked up the very beginning because that same friend from above decided to reread them.

I wanted to read them too.

The start to Dragonlance measures three novels: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning. I’m going to talk about all three here and in one large discussion. Expect spoilers.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight serves as the introduction to not only a trilogy but an entire world. The first two or so chapters are masterfully written, introducing big concepts and eight different characters. It’s an insane amount of information to balance, yet the book pulls it off.

But the book cannot continue it’s mastery of narration and characters and quickly devolves into a very generic fantasy book. The party consists of a stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons party: Warriors, Archer, Cleric, Mage, Thief, and Barbarian, and they do some very stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons adventuring: ruined cities, macguffins, evil magic, and a world on the brink of destruction.

The real problem with the first novel is that it reads like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Narration is very much in the “telling” category instead of “showing” and exposition is unleashed in bombardments of sentences that aren’t always well written. Moreover, the characters move from place to place much like a Dungeon Master would command the movements of his players.

In a way, many parts of the first book feel like some kind of fanfiction and not like a published novel.

Once the information is presented and understood though, the trilogy picks up. The books never stop feeling like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but they do stop reading like Dungeons and Dragons fanfiction.

Dragons of Winter Night was exceptionally easy to devour, and I averaged eighty or more pages a night until it was over. The novel was just so stupidly fun to read. The authors saw fit to split the characters up into two separate parties, and Dragons of Winter Night is better for that decision. Many characters regulated to the background now had a chance to show their worth, and I was really surprised to see what happened to Sturm, whom I really didn’t like in the first book.

Dragons of Spring Dawning served as an alright climax to the trilogy. The book sadly wound up following the “damsel in distress” trope with Laurana getting captured—forcibly by the authors who had her make stupid, uncharacter-like decisions that could have been done away with by a simple scream for help—and then saved by Tanis. But even though that very tired story trope was used, the book managed to tie everything together with some satisfaction. I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, and in fact, was surprised that a few clichés were used quite well.

It wasn’t the best ending, but I’m not sure what else could have been done. Plus, the novel couldn’t end the conflicts within entirely, for the purpose of these books was to create a new world for authors to work in and Dungeons and Dragons campaigns to be based around.

And by the end of the trilogy, most of the characters wound up going through very respectable story arcs. Flint (the dwarven warrior) and Riverwind (the barbarian) are the only two that truly miss out on character development, but the others got a chance to shine and leave their mark on Krynn.

The two shining characters in the trilogy were Caramon and Raistlin, a set of twins and opposites. Caramon played the part of stupid, headstrong warrior while Raistlin was the cool, calculating mage. Caramon was nice and would help anyone while Raistlin was self absorbed and all around kind of terrible. Raistlin was the most interesting character of the series, and long stretches away from him were the weakest points of the trilogy.

It’s hard to really talk about what was fun in these books, because fun only reduces down into itself: fun is fun. Dragons of Winter Night had a great sequence where the Heroes of the Lance were walking to an Elven city wracked by terrible magic. Each of them falls into a dream where he or she dies, and even though the event didn’t last all that long, it was a joy to read.

And that’s the crux of these books: they are trashy fantasy novels with moments of pure joy sprinkled throughout, and those parts are worth getting to if high fantasy is your thing.

There’s more to complain about than praise, but the praiseworthy moments are very much worth their praise.

My biggest gripe to the three novels, and one that I’m sure stretches throughout the series to some extent, is the stark black-and-white morality. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. The only character this didn’t apply to was Raistlin, and I’m still not sure if that was a happy accident or not.

The Dragonlance mythos revives around a large pantheon of gods, and the evil gods are very evil while the good gods are very good. To a Judeo-Christian world, perhaps it’s expected, yet I find it so boring. Evil for the sake of evil and good for the sake of good are just lazy ways to characterize, and yet they abound here.

This permeates the novels so harshly that even the bad guys know they are bad. At one point Kitiara—the second-most interesting character in the trilogy, and the evil characters being more interesting than the good characters is a pattern—says something to the effect of, “Call your good dragons away” implying hers are evil and that she is on the side of evil.

It’s absolutely infuriating and childish.

It doesn’t get any better when one notices that Kitaria, the evil woman, has wanton sex with everyone while the good women are chaste and don’t have sex until they are married. It turns out one of our two authors is a devout Mormon, and that clears up a few of these morality problems in less than satisfying ways.

There are a few continuity breaks throughout the books that bothered me as well. At one point the crazy mage Zifnab mentions a “twenty-one gun salute” which doesn’t exist in a world of swords and shields. Bowls of oatmeal are referred to as “cereal” and one poor gnome is described as holding a “ream” of parchment.

All three of those examples made me cringe.

These books are hard to look at, because while it’s easy to think of example after example of what they do wrong from a storytelling perspective, I can’t shake the fun I had while reading them. There were some very surprising character arcs (Sturm’s being the most surprising, but Gilthanas and Laruana had some nice ones, and Tasslehoff went through a dramatic shift (though he kind of reverted back to his old self by the end, but that was played for laughs)) and the world itself is well thought out, even if it feels like a Dungeons and Dragons world.

Parts are terribly predictable, parts are terribly poor, and parts are terribly fun. There’s an odd mix to be found in this trilogy, and I can’t really recommend them because of that. I had fun, but I also had moments of vigorous headshaking at what seemed like very stupid decisions or hamfisted storytelling.

As someone very infatuated with the idea of nostalgia, this bothers me. I can remember so many books from this series fondly, and now I question if they hold up or not. I’m almost afraid to check, and yet I want to. High fantasy is fun, and I do appreciate the thought that went into crafting Krynn, even if not all of it is fully realized.

I suppose it comes down to this: there are better books, there are more fun books, and there are more charming books, yet this Dragonlance Chronicles manages to fit elements of fun, good, and charming into itself in surprising ways. I cannot on good faith recommend anyone read them despite the fact that I really want to.


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