As many players in my D&D games could tell you, my default halfling NPCs are almost always misplaced kender (they do tend to travel an awful lot). Dragon orbs are my default MacGuffin for one shots. Krynn feels like home to me, and while I can't claim to have read all Dragonlance books (there are lots), I think I've read most. I'm no scholar, though, and I don't have the best memory without lots of repetition, so I'm re-reading as many Dragonlance books as I can before the upcoming release of the 5e release of the setting. I love Dragonlance, and I think you should too, so I'm going to review the books as I read them, in hopes of convincing you, dear reader, to become an honourary citizen of Krynn.
Dragons of Autumn Twilight is the first Dragonlance book. It's the first book in the original trilogy. Aside from its teaser intro, the story starts five years after the previous trilogy. Except there is no previous trilogy. This was the first book, and we meet Flint Fireforge and Tanis Half-Elven, and the rest of our heroes, upon their reunion after long, separate quests.
I love that opening. Like a good game of D&D, the party is already tried, true, and ardently loyal to one another. We don't have to endure the obligatory introductions and building of trust. The party exists, it has always existed, so begins the adventure.
And you have to get used to that. Dragonlance is about stories untold just as much as it is about the stories that you "witness" on the page. There are things in the books that you don't get to see, and sometimes they sound like pretty major events. But they aren't for you, maybe because you can't be at two places at once, or maybe because they'll get told in a later volume, or maybe because there are things unknowable by anyone but those who experienced the events (and of course Astinus the Chronicler.)
Something you catch onto pretty quickly in this book is that you're not getting a hero in this story. At one point in the book, your heroes include Flint, Tanis, Tas, Sturm, Tika, Laurana, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Caramon, Raistlin, and Gilthanas. And amazingly, all of them add to the story.
Could one or two have been combined and condensed into a single character? Probably. But that's not how Dragonlance's story works. You don't get the iconic hero who can do it all. There's no heroic force of will defying all odds. Nobody is the hero of this story, and instead many are the heroes. Like in real life.
Of course, this is fantasy. It doesn't have to be like real life. It's acceptable to have a hero who can do everything. We readers are used to that, and I think we'd have bought it in Dragonlance.
And I'm so glad that that's not what we get from this book. The assortment of everyday heroes, with doubts and insecurities and weaknesses, is refreshing and endearing. Their relationship is special, and their discovery of how the world is changing around them is captivating. We get to see these changes through many eyes, and it's a process of discovery for you, the reader, as to who you ultimately identify with. And it may well change from book to book, or even from chapter to chapter.
The big story is that Takhisis, the queen of darkness, the five colours and none at all, is returning to Krynn. Evil is returning to the world. war is coming.
There are moments of real sadness in this book, and more to come in the whole trilogy. I sometimes talk out loud at the characters, the way you might to a character in a horror movie, to contradict the hopelessness they're feeling at a certain moment in the story. It's a way to protect myself from the anxiety that a sometimes difficult story brings on. You don't have to do that, though. There's a beautiful balance to this book. There are moments of beauty and mystery and discovery. There are moments of fond memories and great hopes for the future.
The reason Dragonlance exists was an effort by D&D's parent company (at the time) to get more dragons in their game titled Dungeons & Dragons. This book does that, but it's later books that really fulfill that promise. Dragons of Autumn Twilight is, at least to me, about campaigns and characters.
The pacing of the book takes you by surprise. You're never quite sure what "act" you're in, and this is partly because the volume itself is divided into three "books," the way some novels are. So you're unsettled, a little, by the progress of the story. That is, unless you're a D&D player.
For a D&D player, the story feels familiar and comfortable. There are people in need of help. There are quests to find objects of power. There are tombs and forgotten ruined cities and temples, monsters, factions, and ultimately the boss battle. It's supremely satisfying, but I think there's something more satisfying for a D&D player who understands the cant.
And there are characters and classes, too. You pick out the wizard and the cleric and the rogue and the fighter pretty quickly. You get hints of other classes (after all, AD&D classes were a little different than what you might be used to now), and you get the classic D&D races. It's almost confirmation bias: Yes, this is an amazing game, this is a cool and awe-inspiring setting, this is high fantasy.
The story of Dragonlance can be difficult. Theocracy on the rise, evil surfacing in once peaceful places, factions dividing once united people. Shouldn't these topics have become old-fashioned since the books were originally written way back in the 1980s? It's practically ancient history. Surely we've progressed since then. Surely the fears of the world, as reflected in these fantasy stories, aren't relevant now?
Read the book, decide for yourself. It's a delight to read, which is why I re-read it every few years. But make no mistake, these are stories about people. Sometimes people do bad things, sometimes good people are weak and don't do what's right. But sometimes, ordinary people stand up to protect the vulnerable, and they find hope in each other and in their beliefs. And then they become one of many minor heroes in a very big story.
Dragon art by David Revoy. Creative Commons BY.