Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles, Vol. 1) by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

From the favourer: "You asked for can't unask for's my favourite because it was the first fantasy book I read and introduced me to what is now my favourite genre. Apart from the classic fantasy elements in there, there was also a good mix of characters that had a bit of depth to them. Well, at least more depth than the typical fantasy character (case in point, Conan the Barbarian!)"

Firstly, I knew when I started this reading adventure that there'd be surprises. I expected surprises about the books people nominated, about others' reactions to the books people nominated, and about the books themselves. I'm extra-pleased when the favourer doesn't feel they have to nominate a dead-white-male-canonical-(possibly-boring-but-who-am-I-to-say)-classic as their favourite, but actually goes for the heart and nominates something they love.

Because - as I finally found the words for last night when I'd had too much wine and was having earnest discussions with Paul, my very tolerant husband - the point of my reading these books isn't to give a distanced, objective review of your favourite books. This would require some sort of complicated standardising procedure that my year 12 Maths Methods score just isn't up to. That would be HARD.

The point is for me to find out why these books are your favourites. I don't particularly care about the subject matter or standard of writing. (Length is an issue. But I'm working with myself intensively on that prejudice.) Basically, I want to read them, and to understand, quite simply, what makes you love them. That is EASY.

Secondly, I want to state that I'm not one of those people who say loftily, "Oh, I don't read fantasy" (a breed of folk closely related to those who say "Oh, I don't watch mainstream films.") I do read fantasy, but mostly Young Adult fantasy. And when I say 'mostly', I actually mean 'solely, apart from Terry Pratchett'.

Thirdly, I want to offer a word of advice to the lonely: if you read Dragonlance books on the train, you will make friends.

I made my first Dragonlance friend during Monday evening peak hour, standing up on the 6:08pm Hurstbridge train with only room to hold the book about 5cm from my nose. Good thing I'm short-sighted.

"They're making a movie of it, you know," said the man standing unavoidably a little-bit-too-close to me.

I looked up. (Well, I moved my eyes sideways.) "Are they?"

He nodded, and started to push towards the doors as the train slowed. "It looks crap so far," he called as he stepped of the train, "Stick to the books!"

My second Dragonlance friend was a man named Chen on the 7:38am to Flinders Street Station. Dragonlance book covers are instantly recognisable (in the same way that Discworld cover art can be spotted from at least 23 miles away), and Chen was reading War of the Twins, another in the series. We spotted each others' books at the same time.

"Going back to where it all began?" he asked.

"Actually, I've never read one before, [insert repetitive explanation about reading adventure here]" I said.

"Oh, it must be great to be reading it for the first time," said Chen wistfully. And conversation continues until Chen gets off at Fairfield.

See? Read Dragonlance, make friends.

Caveats and RSVP-aspirations over. On to the book.

Five friends meet in a tavern after many years apart. They're a motley bunch - Flint the dwarf, Tanis the half-elf, twin brothers (Caramon the boofy warrior and Raistlin creepy mage), and Sturm the knight. Yes, it's all very Lord of the Rings, but so is Harry Potter. They're joined accidentally by Tas the kender, a 4-foot-tall kleptomanaical species that knows no fear and is as such perpetually getting into trouble. Last time they met, it was under happier circumstances. There's bad stuff goin' down in the land. Hobgoblins are a new and menacing presence in the usually peaceful town of Solace, and there's rumours of war and monsters in other cities.

After a chance encounter with a healing blue crystal staff, a bunch of hobgoblins and a good old fashioned bar brawl, the five friends (plus the kender) find themselves fleeing the tavern with two strangers. One is the bearer of the magic staff, Goldmoon, the other her Plainsman guardian Riverwind. All of them are initially unsure of their direction and almost go their separate ways, but eventually embark on a journey to find out the purpose of the magic staff, and whether it can play a part in arresting the torrent of evil that is engulfing their home towns.

It's not so much the novelty of plot that entertains in this book as it basically goes: "fight a battle find the object go to the next place fight a battle find the next object go to the next place fight a battle etc." As the favourer notes, it's the characters that make the next battle worth reading for. Tanis the half-elf (whose half-breed status manifests in that unlike other elves, he can grow facial hair) is constantly torn between his human and elf instincts and loyalties. Caramon the warrior, who would otherwise be a big bland ball of muscle, is constantly hungry and gets amusingly nostalgic for meat when feasting among the vegetarian elves. Raistlin the mage, whose name just works so well, has sacrificed his physical wellbeing for his magical powers and sees everyone as dying by inches, all the time. Tas the kender is just lovely, a cross between the brownies of Willow and Nanny from Count Duckula. Sturm the knight is hilariously and touchingly loyal to his outdated knightly code, to the point where the others have to work him around to doing what will actually save his life rather than satisfy his honour:

"'Sturm!' Tanis said urgently. 'Come on! We've got to get out of here!'
'Run?' The knight appeared astonished. 'From this rabble?'
'Yes.' Tanis paused; the knight's code of honour forbade running from danger. He had to convince him. 'That man is a religious fanatic, Sturm. He'll probably burn us at the stake! And' - a sudden thought rescued him - 'there is a lady to protect.'
'The lady, of course.' Sturm stood up at once and walked over to the woman. 'Madam, your servant.'"

I think character for me is the appeal of series fantasy. In many books I read (of various genres), when I reach the end of the book, I just don't want to let the characters go. In fantasy, I don't have to. I also think this sort of fantasy evokes a kind of longing, the same kind I feel when I watch Doctor Who or read the Narnia books. If you love Doctor Who, you've already had this thought: 'If David Tennant asked me to step into the Tardis, I would go.' If you love the Narnia books, you've already had this thought: 'If any wardrobe keeps going, I'm going to see where it goes.' That's the longing. You want to go. You're basically ready to go. At any time. So when in this book you read -

"Tanis and the dwarf both turned and looked down into the quiet valley. Lights began to wink on, making the homes in the trees visible among the vallenwood. The night air was still and calm and sweet, tinged with the smell of wood smoke and from the home fires. Now and again they could hear the faint sound of a mother calling her children to dinner."

- you think 'Wow what a cliche' and 'How lovely I wish I was there.'

It's a longing here for a romantic rustic fantasy setting that is conveniently absolved of the problems that come with lack of sanitisation, infection, feudal politics and general discomfort.

It's also a longing for a sort of heroism which is basically impossible, where there's just good and evil. It can take a while to get there and you can't always tell which is which at the time, but you know it's going to be clearly one or the other eventually.

It's a nostalgia for something you've never actually experienced. But I guess that's what nostalgia is - a longing for something that never really happened that way in the first place.

And in the case of The Dragons of Autumn Twilight, it's also pretty funny and exciting. I actually missed my train station one morning. I'm not exaggerating for effect here, I actually went through Melbourne Central to Flinders Street. If you know my general standards of organisation, you'll know I don't miss my train station.

But you know how I was talking about surprises? TRACY HICKMAN IS A MAN. Paul, who like the favourer also loved this book as a teenager, has had his world turned topsy-turvy since I've told him this. But Margaret Weis is still a woman, so he's going to be okay.