Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Encounters at the used-book store

blog review literature

I first read Dragonlance books a long time ago, as a kid. I didn't remember much about the books, only that it featured characters who were real and vitally important to me, and that Krynn was D&D in my mind until, I guess, I discovered the Forgotten Realms.

I recently had a chance to pick them back up and read the books again, this time with maybe more perspective on fantasy, art, and life. For instance, I'm aware now that not all plots have te equate in some way to Star Wars. I'm more aware of subtleties of character interactions, and I actually care about the romances, the lost loves, the loss of ideals, and the desperate search for meaning. It strikes me, in fact, that this is what they're talking about when they speak of art that appeals equally to children and adults. Dragonlance, as it turns out, isn't childish at all, and yet I was enraptured with it in my school years.

And I'm happy to have found that it's as good a novel as I remember: epic, iconic, exciting, fantastic, and evocative. What stood out the most is the sense of history in the world of Krynn is so vivid. This isn't a flat and disposable set-piece that was built overnight because the book needed a place for its story to happen. There's age to Krynn, and as you read about forgotten cities and ancient wars, you feel somehow that understanding the past of Krynn is somehow helping you understand its present...and then you look up from the page and remember that none of it's real.

This is a masterfully crafted tale. The story doesn't begin with long tedious history, nor does it start in the middle of a bombastic action sequence. It begins with the reunion of an old adventuring party, gracefully persuading you into a sense of familiarity and camaraderie. And because you feel for the heros you meet and the way they relate to one another, you join them in their longing for that most basic of all human desires: a sign of divinity.

The heros of Dragonlance aren't young farmhands setting out to find adventure through a series of mishaps. They're a diverse and interesting bunch who don't necessarily always get along. It's a world full of life and mystery and danger. And it breaks a lot of rules, and goes against the tropes you might expect if you've grown up on whimsical misinterpretations of 80s fantasies. This book doesn't just have strong and intriguing female characters, it was co-written by one.

Looking at this novel from the perspective of a D&D player, there's a heck of a lot to work with, too. Obviously the novels serve as convenient expansions of the Dragonlance source books, but it has story lessons for the GM, too. Everything about the story is fine-tuned and perfect: the clear path and progression of the quests, the foreshadowing, the mystery, the foreboding, the development of villains, the entertaining NPCs. And even details about some of the old complaints about the setting: for instance, your game doesn't have to allow kenders to be impossible-to-manage kleptomaniacs when there are so many clever ways to make a kender's unique interpretation of ownership empower a player with the ability to be a spontaneous resource of materials and tricks in a game.

It's said that the intent of Dragonlance, as a TSR product, was to incorporate dragons into the Dungeons & Dragons brand, which up to that time was strong on the former and weak on the latter. Dragonlance does that with astonishing efficacy: somehow it manages to keep dragons precious and rare, while also giving the reader plenty of time with dragons, dragon culture, dragon politics, and so on. It helps that one dragon in this book is strong and all-powerful, while another is feeble and aging; you get a sense that the dragon experience isn't all treasure hoards and fire, but that it's a spectrum with highs and lows just like everyone else's existence.

This is a great opening to a great series, and a great look at an exciting fantasy setting. It very much makes me want to adapt a Dragonlance module for Pathfinder or 5e so I can hang out in Krynn again, but for now, I'll settle for brushing up on the canonical stories.

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