Dragonlance Chronicles starts at the end of the 5-year personal quests of the book's heroes. The Preludes series provides some specific stories from the 5 years leading up to Chronicles, and Riverwalk the Plainsman, the fourth book, is about the barbarian Riverwind. In a way, there are few other characters from Chronicles that deserve or need a book all their own than Riverwind. To be fair, he probably got just as much "screen" time as Sturm got in the original trilogy, but he spends much of that time being wholly distrustful of Tanis and the others. And even after he's learned to trust them, he's often overshadowed by Goldmoon's story. I don't mind that, and I wouldn't have minded a book or two just about Goldmoon (she is in later novels, but I'd have loved a book about her doing a bunch of cool clerical magic immediately after Chronicles.) Still, Riverwind's there and so we may as well get to know him a little better.
This Preludes novel starts with a kicker. Riverwind is taking his coming-of-age test, and it ends up being a blurry, disturbing, weird metaphysical experience that nobody should have to endure. It's great to see the Que-Shu culture, though. In fact, it's refreshing to see a version of a D&D world that isn't modelled after the usual vaguely-medieval-village. Don't get me wrong, I love the vaguely-medieval-village setting, and it's really my default setting. It's comforting and nostalgic (not because I ever lived in a medieval village, but because it's kind of the classic fantasy setting). But seeing the "barbaric" (as the "civilized" folks of Ansalon say) culture of the Que-Shu is inspiring. It's different, vaguely-Native-American, and it makes you feel like you've gone exploring beyond that forbidden forest the town elders kept warning you about and stumbled into a completely foreign society.
What I admire about the writing here is that the Que-Shu isn't just a generic native culture dropped onto Krynn. The Que-Shu society is fully integrated into Krynn. The Que-Shu have been affected by the cataclysm just as much the rest of the world's societies. They're having religious and spiritual crises. And of course they're nowhere as near "barbarians" as the townfolk seem to think. Nor is it perfect. They have feuds, outcasts, power struggles, and all the usual things that happen when you gather a bunch of humans together.
To prove his love for the chieftain's daughter (Goldmoon, of course), Riverwind must go on a quest to find proof that the "old gods" have ever existed. Seems like an impossible task, but then again it's a D&D setting where gods have stat blocks. But those same gods abandoned Krynn (or did Krynn abandon them?) so it's still pretty daunting.
Riverwind gains the companionship of an old soothsayer nicknamed Catchflea, and together they travel Krynn to find some sign of an old god. Pretty quickly, though, they end up falling down a hole only to find themselves in a vast underground city run by the Silvanesti elves known as the Hest. These subterranean elves are truly barbaric, with a noble class and a slave class, all ruled over by Li El, who is absolutely the creepiest elf you could ever hope to meet.
More importantly, Riverwind meets Di An, a 200 year old elf slave. Love triangles are admittedly pretty easy to get right, and I'm a sucker for them in fiction. But the love triangle between Di An, Riverwind, and Goldmoon is particularly effective because you really do like and sympathise with everyone. Goldmoon is one of my favourite characters in Dragonlance, and Riverwind is a great match for her. But then again, I also like Di An and she's been through a heck of a lot over the past 2 centuries. You really do want everyone to somehow get what they want. But you know it can't be, and to make matters worse Catchflea receives a prophecy from his oracle, and it predicts that of Riverwind, Di An, and Catchflea, one will die, one will be driven mad, and the other will obtain glory.
And if we've learnt anything from Dragonlance, it's that when the authors reveal a prophecy, they mean it. Dragonlance authors don't mess around with divination magic. When they give you a glimpse of the future, that's the future. It's going to happen.
And sure enough, it happens in Riverwind the Plainsman. But not until after our heroes have been through absolute hell. It's almost physically painful, at times, to endure what our small adventuring party is put through. Possibly the hardest trials of all the Preludes.
There are a bunch of uncanny prequel happenstances in this book, but if you wade into prequel territory that's usually what you're in for. The fact that Khisanth and Riverwind met not just once, but spent several days together, seems particularly surprising. The book manages to ensure that Riverwind suffers memory loss from a fever (I assume it's Burning Plague?) so it's arguably believable that he fails to mention in Dragons of Autumn Twilight that there's a black dragon in Xak Tsaroth.
This is a great book, though. You may think you're ambivalent about Riverwind, but you won't be after reading his story. It's exciting, difficult, painful, and satisfying. I'm holding out for the book detailing Riverwind and Goldmoon's journey from their home to Solace, but until then, I'll keep re-reading this one when I need a helping of heroic barbarians.