Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first book of the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy.
“One of the classics of tie-in fantasy fiction, this book is still as enjoyable today as it was when I first read it more than a decade ago.” ~The Founding Fields
The Dragonlance Chronicles is, as I’ve said before, a part of my formative years of reading fantasy. It wasn’t until high school that I really began to explore the SFF genres beyond Sherlock Holmes, Animorphs, Harry Potter and the like. Following on quickly from various books by Raymond E. Feist, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Dragonlance Chronicles instilled in me a love for epic fantasy that has only grown with time. What also helped was that the series was much more approachable than The Lord of the Rings, which can get dense at times, and such a great counterpoint to The Riftwar Saga, which I still regard as one of the best trilogies in SFF to date. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman had an instant fan in me, and after I finished Dragonlance Chronicles for the first time, I went back to the trilogy again and again. I eventually got into the other books, sequels, prequels, and spin-offs alike. Dragonlance is a setting that is incredibly rich in lore and mythology, able to hold its own against that anything that Tolkien, Feist, Warhammer Fantasy and others can offer.
Where to begin really. With old books, classics even, such as Dragons of Autumn Twilight, I find it really tough to offer an informed opinion given their status and nature. These books, believe it or not, are really tough to review. I redid the review for Dune three times before I was happy with it, enough to publish it. If I had disliked either of these books, the reviews would have been much easier to write. But as the Book Gods have cursed me, I love these books, and so the reviews falls into the realm of “contain my gushing excitement and offer a balanced opinion”. This is not easy, not by any margin.
Looking back on the series (well, the first book) after all these years, and the experience that has come from reading so widely as I’ve been for the last 16 months, has opened my eyes to the shortcomings in the novel. The characters are a little too cliched. The female characters sometimes lack agency and are more important for their womanly bits rather than what agency they have as strong characters. There is the typical “clear-cut” good versus evil world-at-stake plot. And so on. Ten years ago, none of these mattered to me since at that age I had no concept of what was cliche and what wasn’t. I read purely for entertainment and nothing else. Books have always been my big method of escape, and reading for just entertainment of late has become somewhat of a luxury.
All the same, in complete honesty, I’m rather willing to forgive the book for these shortcomings. And the reasons for that are many.
One, I call the book a classic and there’s a big reason for that. I only need to look at the legacy that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman set in motion when they first wrote about the adventures of Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Tas, Laurana, Tika, and the others. Much as I grew up reading these books, many others have as well, especially an entire generation of writers who were inspired by these books towards their own book. I look at Dragons of Autumn Twilight as a product and sum of the times it was written in. That full well does not excuse the shortcomings, but having the context is important I feel.
Two, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is the first book in an entirely new setting, one borne out of the tabletop adventures of an RPG group that played Dungeons & Dragons. The authors are finding their feet in this brave new world, they are experimenting, and they are essentially playing it safe. For example, when Tika is confused about her feelings with respect to Caramon and another (secondary) character, I did not really pay attention to what was on the page when I first read (or reread) the book more than a decade ago. Reading it just a few short days ago, it kind of rankled. But then I was also reminded of the fact that Tika does end up having some notable agency in the novel, when she begins to train as a warrior and becomes at least half-competent at it by novel’s end. The mysterious mage, Raistlin, can be highly infuriating at times with his cliched secrecy and annoying attitude, but then again, that is the charm of the man. To this day, he remains one of my favourite characters from the entire Dragonlance setting. In him, there was a character who was on the good side, but had enough shades of grey to him that which side he was on didn’t really matter. Ultimately, Raistlin is about himself, no one else. In this book, the authors lay the groundwork for later events, and they are just beginning their experiments.
And so on with many of the other characters.
Third, the basic idea behind any novel is to entertain the reader. The degree to which a book entertains is also important. For me, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is an extremely entertaining novel. The humour chemistry that is imparted to the narrative with the presence of Tasslehof is unbeatable. He is such a wonderfully complex yet simple character and he acts as the reader’s conscience in the novel, so to speak, since he is all about the fun of things and staying positive no matter what the situation is. The chemistry between Flint and Tanis is also notable given their status as “elders” within their group, and thus, the leaders. I know from prior reading that Flint is a character who is downright vital to the entire trilogy and his role as a mentor, father, brother and friend to the entire group is not something that can ever be overstated, only understated. His humour chemistry with Tas has excellent payoffs as well. He is one of the most endearing characters from the novel. And I’ll say the same about that mind-addled yet lovable Fizban as well, who provided a lot of great entertainment throughout the second half of the novel.
Thing is, if a novel entertains me enough, I’m willing to forgive quite a bit. Should the novel fail that test however, its not in me to be forgiving.
Where Dragons of Autumn Twilight is concerned, it passes the test with flying colours. The narrative is something that sucked me in from the very first pages. Reading the Canticle of the Dragon after all these years made me giddy with excitement and it was as if I was coming back to the series as a fresh reader, rather than someone who’s been through the trilogy like four times in the last 12 years.
What it boils down to is that Dragons of Autumn Twilight is a simple and fun little book. It presents racial, societal and cultural complexities without boring you with details (Tanis’ back-story being an excellent example). It does so in a manner that is far from “dumbing things down”, more like, the authors present these complexities in a way that readers can easily latch on to for themselves and then take things further with inspiration from the imageries that are being created.
To go to the basics and cover the usual bases: Yes, the characters in the book are written quite well for the most part, and each character has something substantial to offer to the narrative. Yes, the pacing is pretty spot-on for the most part. Yes, the world-building is quite involved and shows a lot of promise for future installments (from hindsight, this is all too true).
And yes, this is a book that I would definitely recommend to readers of fantasy fiction. If you are looking for something that is really involved in terms of the setting’s mythology and really deep and complex characters, then Dragons of Autumn Twilight will be an ill-fit for you. Otherwise, go to town with it and rock it out.
Much as with Dune, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is pretty much as I remember it. I’m hoping to continue on with the sequel this year, so let’s see how that works out. Would love to get the trilogy read before the end of the year!