Book Review: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman

Once merely creatures of legend, the dragons have returned to Krynn. But with their arrival comes the departure of the old gods–and all healing magic. As war threatens to engulf the land, lifelong friends reunite for an adventure that will change their lives and shape their world forever . . .

When Tanis, Sturm, Caramon, Raistlin, Flint, and Tasslehoff see a woman use a blue crystal staff to heal a villager, they wonder if it’s a sign the gods have not abandoned them after all. Fueled by this glimmer of hope, the Companions band together to uncover the truth behind the gods’ absence–though they aren’t the only ones with an interest in the staff. The Seekers, a new religious order, wants the artifact for their own ends, believing it will help them replace the gods and overtake the continent of Ansalon. Now, the Companions must assume the unlikely roles of heroes if they hope to prevent the staff from falling into the hands of darkness.


‘If you look at all the big things in the world closely,’ he said, ‘you’ll see that they’re really made up of small things all joined together.’ That big dragon down there comes to nothing but tiny drops of blood, maybe. It’s the small things that make the difference.”


I have always loved fantasy. It was my gateway into becoming a reader (thank you, J. R. R. Tolkien) and There is a lot of fantasy on my blog. I have never been worried or ashamed of it, although as someone who has a reputation as an “intelligent” and “literary” reader – I guess reading Literature at Cambridge gives that impression – I was aware of those literary snobs who peek derisively their copies of Shakespeare, Ulysses or Dickens and sneer at those who are enjoying genre fiction.

Tolkien challenged that, of course, investing Middle Earth with literary and thematic and linguisitc and mythic borrowings from Middle English – remember, Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon and of Literature and Language and produced the (for me) definitive text of Gawain and the Green Knight – and the rise of Game of Thrones books and TV series thrust high fantasy into the mainstream with credible settings, historical inspirations, sex, incest, violence and dragons.

And then there is The Dragonlance Chronicles.

These are not as gritty as George R. R. Martin nor as literary as Tolkien. They are not as well written. Their characters are not as well rounded or as credible. They are, very much, what they famously began life as: characters for a Dungeons and Dragons game and the tropes are so blatant. Sturm, the knight upholding an ancient code of honour; Flint, the irascible dwarf; Tanis, the half-elf caught between two worlds, the elven and the human; Raistlin and Caramon, the twins, one weak having broken his physical body in gaining magical powers, one strong and imposing as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And yet. Whilst they are incredibly two-dimensional, these characters have lived with me, embedded into some part of my brain, so that this re-read was like checking in with old friends. The image from the first chapter where Flint and Tanis reunite and

Tanis unconsciously slowed his pace while Flint unconsciously quickened his

did specifically stick in my memory – and it is a simple but touching note on what true friendship is, a meeting-in-the-middle, a mutual change of pace so that both find a new rhythm together…

With regard to plot, there is – of course – a quest which begets another which begets another. The barbarians – yes, a recognised D&D class but a word that rings of racism now – Goldmoon and Riverwind arrive in the inn in which our companions are reuniting. Goldmoon is revealed to be carrying a blue crystal staff which is being sought by evil hobgoblins – becuse aren’t all goblins and hobgoblins evil? That’s not racist at all, is it?

The companions fall into helping the barbarians escape Solace and take the staff to Haven. That quest is somewhat abortive when a unicorn suborns them with a second quest to seek the Disks of Mishakal from Xak Tsaroth within a very specific and tight timescale. Thereafter, the companions are tasked by elves to infiltrate the fortress of Pax Tharkas.

Each plot point is somewhat foisted on the company – the Heroes of the Lance as they will become known – and has an external origin. Not unlike, let’s say, the machinations of a Dungeon Master in a D&D campaign? I do say that, never having actually played. What it does mean, however, is that as protagonists in a novel, they are all terribly passive – no one was really pro-active about joining the quest or seeking out adventure. Perhaps this was deliberate, a message to all of us that we don’t choose when or if we become a hero… but I fear that may give Weis and Hickman too much credit.

Whatever the nostalgia feels – of which there were many – the book is certainly not unproblematic. The depiction of Goldmoon and Riverwind – seemingly modelled on native American culture – were both the weakest drawn characters and most difficult to read as a modern reader. Race is not managed subtly at all, in fact. Women were universally beautiful – we were reminded of Goldmoon’s beauty in almost every chapter, and the elf-maiden Laurana’s introduction wholly revolves around her sexual objectification by every male in the room including those standing beside their lovers, Tika’s bust gets more than a few mentions too – and generally useless. Goldmoon does very little except carry a staff and heal some people, even after she manages to slay a dragon she is immediately depowered. Laurana and Tika both flail about uselessly with weapons they are too scared to use and Laurana literally runs away from home to be with her boyfriend. Tika had so much potential – a young waitress caught up in this ridiculous quest without the experience and training of the others – that was not really plumbed in this novel. As a busty red-head, she does seem like book-cover eye-candy. Not exactly feminist.

The writing is heavy with exposition, done in a very clumsy way, and there are whole sections that could have been edited out and redrawn much more skilfully. Darken Wood, Forest Master, Qualinasti, I’m looking at you! At the same time, the set pieces – battles with dragons – are great fun but over far too quickly. There was so little of what these pieces called for – no joy in the language, no wonder in the spectacle of two dragons fighting each other – that it felt like the mechanics of the fight was more important than the atmosphere.

And, my goodness, that perennial bugbear in fantasy – deaths that seem meaningless because they are reversed pages later. I seem to remember that as the series progresses the Heroes of the Lance do die for real, but that courage was perhaps something that Weis and Hickman had to grow into…

At this point, I fear I am rambling. As a book, there were flaws but at the time of picking it up, tired and rundown after a few nights of very disturbed sleep and seeking something familiar and comforting, it did its job and raised those nostalgia feels. Will I re-read more of the series? Possibly. Is it a priority? Absolutely not!

What I Liked

  • The nostalgia of returning to a group of characters I grew up loving
  • Raistlin – gold skin, hourglass eyes, seeing only ruin and death and destruction – how does that even work? What exactly does he see and how does he actually get around? – and a definite snark, but with a hidden soft side. He did care for Bupu!
  • Tas, the kender who just wanted a fun roadtrip with his mates!
  • Fizban, the muddled old mage who may be much more than he seems.
  • Draconians

What Could Have Been Different

  • Representation of women.
  • Representation of race.
  • Pacing issues.
  • Better and deeper characterisation.

Ratings:

Overall (including a bonus star for nostalgia)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Page Count:

448 pages

Publisher:

Random House

Date:

12th November 1984

Links:

Amazon, Goodreads

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman”

  1. Weren’t you a little unfair to Laurana in your review? Yes, she runs away from home to be with the man she loves but by doing so she is also taking charge of her own life and defying her society’s racist and sexist customs. And yes she is afraid the first time she goes into battle, but she overcomes that fear and successfully defends herself. Thus I felt she was an enjoyable character who showed a lot of promise in this story.

    Liked by 1 person

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