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Monday, March 23, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

So, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and indeed the DragonLance Saga was one of those formational books in my career as a fantasist.  The timing was apocryphal, 80s fantasy was proliferating, and the fantasy section of Waldenbooks (remember them?) was expanding from four shelves to an entire section.

But the writing was still in its infancy, it was a simpler time in fantasy.  Which is not to say that there weren't complex characters or narratives, merely that the expectation was merely swords and sorcery, not quality. Just about anything with a sword or dragon could qualify back then.

I say all of this because Tor has commenced its own DragonLance reread, and both bloggers, Jared and Muvesh, point out the text is simplistic and rife with cliche.  They're not wrong, but they started their reread with the creme de la creme. I started my reread with the dreck that is the first five novels of the Forgotten Realms books.

The Tor bloggers also point out what I have mentioned in my Forgotten Realm reviews, namely that these novels are limited by the fantasy rules of Dungeons & Dragons. Jared and Muvesh come from two different backgrounds, Jared obviously played the game "way to roll a 1 beardy!", and Muvesh came to the novels fresh, having grown up far far away from the kitsch of American consumerism in the 80s.

I actually purchased the DragonLance module for the D&D world, intending to Dungeon Master it for my friends. Unfortunately, my friends "grew up" before I did, and so I never got the chance. But I've actually seen the stats for the story's heroes. If you recall, or if you were born after 1985, the stats were rolled with a six-sided die. That I even had to qualify the number of sides for you is pretty indicative of the type of geek I'm talking about. All of this to say, the highest number you could get, at least in the original rules, was 18. The better your stats, the better your character's chance of hitting, dodging, casting spells, attracting followers, etc.  All of this was rolled into those first computer games, D&D and 4-bit Heroes of Might and Magic. Except for the fact that the game developers learned pretty quickly that if the same number of missed swings continued in battle, they would kill their market pretty quickly.

I bring this up because I remember being slightly puzzled by how low the stats of all the DragonLance Heroes had actually been, except for Raistlin whose intelligence was a stunning 17. As a young teen none of us wanted our heroes to be ordinary, so we gamed our dice until we came up with a number we felt comfortable with. The Realms computer game Baldur's Gate came up with a clever way of bypassing this, let the computer roll your stats, and then get a few flex points to tailor your character as you wish. Point is, the Heroes of the Lance were rather ordinary.

Anyway, Dragons of Autumn Twilight was published before even the first Realms book came out, so there was some real trailblazing here.

Character: Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Sturm, Flint and Tas. Need I say more? The figurehead, the leader,
and the character we all loved unequivocally, was Tanis Half-Elf. The product of rape, a dichotomy of elf and human, long and short lived, noble and peasant, lustful and pure, courageous but filled with self doubt and inner torment.  And a love triangle!  In Jared's reread week #2, he points out that DragonLancers fall into two categories, Raistlin or Tanis fans.  If this is true, then I confess I am probably a Tanis fan.  Though I do love the character of Raistlin, his all-consuming thirst for power was less interesting to me then the painfully torn personal anguish that Tanis felt.  In retrospect though, the writing of Tanis' inner torment is of a lower quality then that of Raistlin's.  That said, Tanis is the story's main hero, its leader, and there is just more detail regarding his thoughts and feelings.

The Twins, Raistlin and Caramon, darkness and light, Mage and warrior, ambition and loyalty. These two were so beloved that Weiss and Hickman wrote an entirely different series for them! I recall an interview with Margaret Weiss where she told us that Raistlin was her favorite character. The dynamic of the Twins told us so much of human nature.  The desire to protect and help our lesser brother, as the warrior Caramon so often did with Raist. The desire to be free from physical constraint and independent, as Raistlin personified. And ambition, oh, so much about ambition.  And it's converse.  Caramon's greatest desire, his most fundamental ambition is to make lots of babies with Tika Waylan, and live on a farm with his kooky brother as one big family. In stark contrast to Raistlin, who would one day challenge a god with his magic, not to vanquish her evil, but to consume and supplant it!

Then we had Sturm, himself a conundrum.  A boy aspiring to the past glories of knighthood. Trying to live the code, My Honour is my Life, yet knowing that he was no knight in truth, and the organization he worshiped, the Solamnic Knights had grown petty and powerless. As a teen, it was Sturm who captured my imagination.  I had the Death of Sturm, that famous Larry Elmore painting, taped to my college dorm room wall. His courage and his sacrifice were symbolic to me of all that men were meant to be. On my reread, I realize now that Sturm was also incredibly angry and intolerant.   Something
that probably appealed to me then.

Then there were Flint and Tas, the crusty dwarf and the irascible kender.  As a side note, I learned last month that in those early days, TSR the owner of Dungeons & Dragons was involved in a number of disputes with the the owner of the Tolkien merchandising, one Saul Zaentz. Possession of the term Hobbit was one of them, and by 1978 per Sacnoth's Scriptorium the most obvious terms, Ent, Hobbit, Nazgul, etc. were gone from the franchises. TSR compensated in a variety of ways, creating Halflings and Gnomes in the Forgotten Realms, Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes in the DragonLance series. While all dwarves seem to assume fairly typical clich├ęd attributes, and Flint is no exception, the splinter races of Hobbit take on a variety of different tropes. Gnomes are tiny but ingenious and industrious, Gully dwarves are filthy, uneducated and the lowest caste, and kender are the fun loving scamps of the tiny person world. Tas was one of these, and it's the relationship between these two that grants Flint a life beyond mere Dwarf cliches. To be sure, even Flint's fury at the kender's antics is fairly cliched, but the Death of Flint still brings tears to my eyes.

There are others, great loves and great heroes, but these are the essential Heroes Party.  Itself a cliche, a group of five or six heroes who compliment each other's skill sets and agree to quest together.

Cliche:  Where to begin?  Let's skip the obvious ones.  Dungeons and Dragons was all about cliche.  In fact, the original rules didn't even have a Dwarf class, the Dwarf was simply a fighter, the Elf, simply an Archer.  I mentioned one above, the Heroes Party cliche.  I note this because the cliche has certainly changed over time.  In the D&D world, the characters were very failable, your heroes died all the time.  You could get them resurrected without too much trouble, but only if someone in your party survived and was able to haul your keister back. To wit, the parties were larger.  You could have as many as seven or eight people to a party.  More with a good DM.  Parties are smaller these days, and videogames blazed that particular trail, parties are typically three now, with more characters waiting in the background.

Fan art, tried to find all three together. by Autumn-Sacura
I mentioned the Love Triangle earlier, a cliche but not one native to fantasy.  Tanis grew up in love with an elf maid, a princess of his people.  She loved him back with childlike naivety. But Tanis left because Elves are intolerant to the extreme, big on social purity.  And though humans are no better, human society is much less structured than the that of the long-lived elves.  And his other lover is a human woman who isn't even "good!"

Which calls to mind another D&D creation, the Character Alignment Cliche.  So when creating your character you had to choose two of six attributes, one from a set of three.  Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic, Neutral, Lawful.  For a great listing of character of alignments in D&D click here.  Why bother you ask?  Well, despite the massive amounts of rules, D&D attempted to create real story telling.  Which necessitated real characters, which necessitated real thought.  Choosing an alignment was a way of thinking about your character.  In effect, it made the game more fun.  "I will kill this murderer!" says the Paladin, "because I am the arbiter of justice, and because the rule of law says that this man must die!"  "I'm sorry," says the ex-soldier now adventurer, who continues "Though he is guilty of murder, he is also deserving of kindness.  He murdered only to protect his kin!"  Part of what made the Party system so interesting was that you had to have your six or seven heroes all get along together!  You don't see this cliche too often anymore.

As the Tor blog pointed out, the book begins in an Inn, a symbolic setting for the Dungeons & Dragons meme. And the Inn certainly manifests itself often enough in fantasy to warrant its own cliche. the jovial innkeeper, warm fire, large bosomed barmaids. Or it's the Evil Inn cousin, think shifty innkeeper, slatterns, and nefarious doings in the corner.  But in Dragons, it's the Inn of the Last Home, where friends gather to eat Otik's famous potatoes and flirt with the luscious Tika Waylan. And so the epic starts as Friends gather after a long absence.

Completeness: I talk sometimes about scope, and in this simple thematic device, that of old friends meeting, the book establishes a complicated history from page one. Why did the friends part? Where did they go? Why are some together, and some separate? Were there mixed feelings, old dramas, triumphs of old? What about that sensation we've all had about life: that the past is dead, never to be felt again.  That you can't go home, and that memory is always different then what was.  I actually can't think of another fantasy book that begins quite this way. The Eddings' Belgariad had old friends meeting up along the road, but off hand that's it.  For all it's tropism in the Dungeon & Dragons world, it is fairly novel.

"Dragons" suffers from a very obvious and perfectly explainable completeness issue: much is purposely left unexplained. The back story to the characters is only alluded to within the trilogy.  Other authors were contracted to pick up the yarn and finish these quests.  This was frustrating in the 80s, as the other authors were never as strong as Weiss & Hickman.  In some cases entire chapters seem to be left out.  That said, Dragons was a pretty thick book for back then.  Particularly given that the average "game module book" probably ran about 250 pages.  It might well be that some of the missing content was merely cut for size.
Flint the King, what Flint did during his 5 year trip

There are a few interesting points I wish to make here.  In almost all fantasy genres of the 80s and early 90s, the basic baddy, the foot soldier of evil was more or less incomprehensible, the other, alien and bestial (orcs, trollocs, demons.  Not so in DragonLance.  Hobgoblins and Draconians are fully sentient, frequently speak the common tongue, and are sometimes even playable races within the games.  So when, in that first chapter of Dragons, Tanis and Flint have a conversation with Fewmaster Toede (a hobgoblin comic-relief villain) it's almost shocking.  Usually when orcs appear, swords are drawn, and orc blood rains black from the heavens.  There is no discussion, no capacity for empathy.  It's just kind of a neat thing.  For all that Jordan advanced the genre, the only conversation he ever had with a Trolloc was one where it was being tortured for information, or attempting to trick its human target.

Fewmaster Toede, almost all of these images are Elmore originals
Last, what Dragons lacks in completeness, the game module, the other books in the series, and the other books in DragonLance as a whole compliment and fill utterly.  Though the book itself seems riddled with holes, you can rest assured that everything is explainable with reference to some rule in the Player's Handbook or in the lore of the series, or even in the fanverse that has, in the intervening years given these books a completely new life.

Having completed my reread of the first novel, I still love the Heroes of the Lance.  My admiration for Weiss and Hickman remains, though it is tempered by the amazing writing of what the future of fantasy would soon hold.