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Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles, Volume I) by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

The DragonLance saga is one of the most prolific in fantasy, with scores of prequels and sequels and offshoots and imitators. The DragonLance Chronicles is the series that started it all. To call it anything less than a classic would be sacrilegious. Deeply rooted in the mythos of Tolkien and heavily influenced by the rules and mechanics of the RPG world, the DragonLance Chronicles manages to create a vast high-fantasy universe with few equals then or since. Dragons of Autumn Twilight has many rough edges, typical for a first book in a series, but it fulfills its role admirably and paves the way for a crescendo in the second and third book.

All of the main characters are introduced very early on. In fact, most of them already know each other. Five life-long friends agree to reunite after a long separation. There’s Tanis Half-Elven, the mongrel who serves as the group’s de facto leader. Raistlin Majere is the creepy mage who recently underwent a disturbing transformation, physical and possibly much more; his twin, the warrior Caramon, is a gentle giant who’s somewhat simple-minded but unswervingly faithful. Sturm Brightblade is an austere paladin seeking to attain knighthood and restore honor to his family and to the disgraced Knights of Solamnia. Flint Fireforge is an old, hot-tempered dwarf who, despite his gruff demeanor, considers the others his only family. Rounding out the company is Tasslehoff Burrfoot, a lovable kender who bubbles with curiosity and loves to lay his hands on other people’s belongings. It was a troubled time, with news of war abroad and disturbing rumors of strange creatures walking the lands. Soon, the company runs into a mysterious barbarian princess and her grim escort. She bears a staff with strange powers that soon proves to be the source of their troubles.

There is no lack of adventure and exotic locales. The party finds themselves whisked on one fantastic, and deadly, journey after another. They will have traveled from the tree city Solace to Darken Wood, never before seen by living eyes, to the legendary ruined city Xak Tsaroth, where black wings of death reign, to the secret elven city Qualinost, with its slender and graceful spires, to the long abandoned fortress Pax Tharkas, now teeming with sinister forces. Strange, fantastic creatures hinder and aid their journey, and rumors have it that dragons have returned out of legends to spread destruction across the lands.

The main characters scream “stereotypes”. But remember that this book was one of the first, so such accusation would be unfair. Tanis is a conflicted protagonist, tortured by the passions of his human heritage and the aloofness and passivity of his elven heritage. He’s also torn between his desire for the tempestuous human warrior Kitiara and his love for the sweet but inexperienced elfmaiden Laurana. The others seem somewhat one-dimensional. Caramon is unfailingly obsequious to his brother, Sturm unbendingly upholds his ideals of honor and chilvalry, Riverwind is always grim, Goldmoon has boundless compassions, Flint is deathly afraid of boats, the seemingly evil Raistlin spouts one foreboding comment after another, in between in bouts of racking coughs. It seems Raistlin does little else; we know he’s sorely bothered by his coughs, can we just move on? Raistlin would become the focus for later books, but I must admit I do not find him very interesting in this book, even though among the group he has the most potential for intrigue. My favorite character is Tas. Despite obviously being the comic relief, his ofttimes silly little adventures are quite funny. I love his exchanges with Flint, who never quite carries out his threat to throttle the lovable kender. He has a lot of Bilbo Baggins in him.

The first part of the book up until Xak Tsaroth is as good as it gets. The mood is evil and foreboding and the reader has no idea what to expect. The first encounter with the draconians gives the impression that they are mysterious, deadly, and very hard to defeat. However, after the meeting with the gully dwarves, the book takes an abrupt turn and becomes… comical. The fight scenes in Xak Tsaroth are light-hearted, almost slapstick-like. The draconians proceed to lose most of their fearsome aura and become no more than your average goons. I’m also not sure if the whole treatment of the gully dwarves in Xak Tsaroth are supposed to be comic relief or not. If so, it ruins the mood of one of the more exciting sections of the book. I’m also dismayed by the lack of fighting prowess of the characters. The humans are fair enough fighters, but despite his age and experience, Flint is virtually a liability in battle. Raistlin is capable of casting only a few noneffectual spells before he tires and has to rest. The elflords too are rather weak and easily defeated. And everyone is so susceptible to magical attacks that they can be easily disabled. I suppose, like in an RPG, the party gain power as they gain experience. Still, this is a novel, not a game. Given their adventuring experience, the characters should have more martial prowess than they are given credit for.

The authors have shown a lot of imagination in bring to life the many ruins and dungeons the party has to explore. However, many adventures seem to be rushed, as if the authors are trying to cram as many as possible into the book. For one thing, I would’ve liked to learn more about Xak Tsaroth, Qualinost, or the dungeons of Sla-Mori. The descriptions are too brief and fail bring out all the grandeur and mystery the idea of these places can inspire in the reader.

Overall, the book has a great beginning, a so-so middle, and a good ending. The way is paved for the next installment of the series, a masterpiece! So get this one out of the way and get started on Dragons of Winter Night.

Originally posted March 17, 2003 on Amazon.com