Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Dragons of Autumn Twilight
An inset of Matt Stawicki's cover for the 2000 reprint of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. From l-r, that's Flint, Tanis, and Goldmoon. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

It’s been a long-held belief that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance novels are superior to all other Dungeons & Dragons novels. Although I’ve frequently admitted being a bigger fan of the Forgotten Realms books growing up, upon re-reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight for the first time in 30+ years, I finally understand the hype.

Not that any of the previous 10 books I’ve read for this column were masterpieces — and Autumn Twilight isn’t either — but Weis and Hickman’s inaugural novel in the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy absolutely kicks their butts. In the last D&D&N review, I called Shadowdale the book that finally felt like an actual novel instead of a transcript of a game session (which is interesting because the Dragonlance book was based on a game session). However, Autumn Twilight is superior on every level: description, dialogue, characters, plotting, etc. It doesn’t make Shadowdale look like total garbage, but it’s definitely superior.

If you’ll recall, I’ve read one Dragonlance novel previously for D&D&N, that being the non-Weis and Hickman-written Legend of Huma. The mediocre book chronicled the titular knight’s battle against the evil goddess Takhisis (aka the Dragonqueen) through the use of the mystical Dragonlances — which are like regular lances that are super-good at killing dragons, especially when carried by people riding on other dragons. The knight managed to banish Takhisis and her evil dragons to another dimension but died in the process.

The Legend of Huma is set so far in Dragons of Autumn Twilight’s past that both Huma and the Dragonlances are genuine legends. The ongoing concern is the Cataclysm — a comet that crashed into the world of Krynn 300 years ago — caused people to abandon the faith of the old gods entirely, which means no clerical magic has existed for quite a while. That’s especially bad news when Takhisis and her evil dragons suddenly show back up, of course. The people of Krynn are going to need the power of these gods, especially the goddess of healing Mishakal, to defeat the Dragonqueen again. Does the fate of the world rest in the hands of an unlikely group of heroes? You know it does. Let’s go through the adventuring party, shall we? It’s a big one!

  • Tanis — A bastard (in the technical sense) half-elf who doesn’t truly belong in the world of either race; he’s a capable leader of the group although he’s often plagued by self-doubt. He left Qualinesti, a land of elves, because their leader’s daughter Laurana was in love with him and her father was having none of it. He’s currently in love with a swordswoman named Kitiara, who’s the half-sister of Caramon and Raistlin.
  • Goldmoon — A barbarian and de facto chieftain of the Que-Shu tribe. She’s a priest of Mishakal, which makes her the first cleric since the Cataclysm. She bears the Blue Crystal Staff, which gives her the first healing powers in 300 years, too. She’s arguably the most important character in the series, as her desire to fulfil her goddess’ behest drives most of the story.
  • Riverwind — A regular barbarian who loves Goldmoon. Goldmoon’s father sent him to find a magical artefact in hopes that Riverwind would die on the journey. Instead, he came back with the Blue Crystal Staff and PTSD. Both he and Goldmoon then left the tribe together to discover the origin of the staff.
  • Sturm Brightblade — A Knight of Solamnia, much like Huma, except the Knights are now despised because they couldn’t stop the Cataclysm from happening, which seems rather unfair. This might be why Sturm is frequently depressed, sometimes to the point he’s nearly catatonic. Been there, Sturm!
  • Raistlin — The breakout character of the first Dragonlance series. He’s a red-robed wizard, which marks him as neutral (black robes are evil, white robes are good, natch) although everyone except his brother mistrusts him. Everyone else constantly assumes he’s secretly planning something evil, even though he never does anything evil in Autumn Twilight. He’s very caustic and solitary, which is quite understandable in my opinion.
  • Caramon — Raistlin’s twin brother. He’s strong, beefy, and not particularly bright. He does love Raistlin unequivocally, which is good because no one else does.
  • Flint Fireforge — An extremely grumpy dwarf who’s effectively the surly grandfather of the group. As required by fantasy law, his people were run out of their ancestral mountain home, but thankfully this doesn’t figure in at all.
  • Tasslehoff Burrfoot — A kender, a race particular to the Dragonlance setting that are hobbit-sized but not interested in creature comforts and Elevensies. Instead, they’re innately curious, playful to the occasional point of meanness, and generally so happy-go-lucky they genuinely don’t feel fear. They’re also uniformly kleptomaniacs.
A print of Jeff Easley's awesome original 1984 cover for the book featuring Tanis, Goldmoon, and Sturm. (Image: Wizards of the Coast) A print of Jeff Easley’s awesome original 1984 cover for the book featuring Tanis, Goldmoon, and Sturm. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Obviously, this role call contains only one female main character, but I don’t believe there’s been a stronger, more competent, and more developed female character I’ve encountered since D&D&N started than Goldmoon. (Although the addition of two other women to the party later in the book are, certainly.) Honestly, all the characters in the novel feel extremely fleshed out.

They have flaws, they have doubts, they have complicated and sometimes even fraught relationships with each other. Weis and Hickman have the ability to write them as if they’ve genuinely been companions for years. The problem is, in trying to make those relationships multi-dimensional and to show these characters aren’t just archetypal heroes, sometimes Weis and Hickman go overboard with these flaws, especially the difficulties between the party members. Because despite all the moments where they show true comradeship, these heroes seem to frequently hate each other’s guts.

Everyone’s annoyed with everyone else at multiple points. Tanis gets massively irritated with Tasslehoff’s free spirit, Flint’s eternal grumpiness and complaining, and Sturm’s frequent depression. Riverwind is furious that somehow, while he was on his years-long quest to find the staff, Goldmoon’s personality changed even though it was a result of her forcibly becoming the leader of their tribe. Tanis also believes despite their long history together Caramon would unquestionably kill them all in defence of his brother Raistlin if it came down to it.

The biggest — and weirdest — problem is Raistlin himself. Again, everyone except Caramon treats Raistlin like absolute shit, even though he consistently saves their lives. There seems to be no basis for any of this hate other than he’s not particularly sociable. I remember thinking this was bizarre even as a kid because it felt like the heroes were genuinely trying to turn Raistlin evil.

There’s one scene where there’s some evidence for everyone’s fear and mistrust of the mage, but it’s absolutely bizarre. During a heated conversation with Tanis, Raistlin screams, “Someday all of you will call me master!” It’s out of nowhere, but even if Raistlin is secretly evil this is an unfathomable thing for a villain to say out loud to people, and again, this desire to conquer his teammates isn’t supported by anything else in the book — other than how they all treat Raistlin like he’s pure evil. (I really can’t stress this enough.)

But there’s only one thing about Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and by extension the world of Dragonlance, that truly sucks, and they’re gully dwarves. You know how Drow, the dark elves, are (almost) all supposed to be uniformly evil? Well, gully dwarves also have a monogenic trait, but it is stupidity. It’s just really weird and gross and I don’t really want to get into the role they play in the story but rest assured I am glad for the umpteenth time that Wizards of the Coast is working on improving this sort of thing.

I know this sounds like a lot of negativity, but it’s a testament to how good Dragons of Autumn Twilight is that, despite these flaws, it’s still far and away the best Dungeons & Dragons novel I’ve read so far. The characters are complex enough to feel real, and the scope of the novel makes Krynn feel like a living world. Stories are going that the main characters might have never known about had they not chanced upon them, which makes the world of Dragonlance feel epic in a way the Forgotten Realms novels haven’t managed, at least so far.

So it’s going to roll an 18 on its 1d20, but at a -2 penalty because the gully dwarves really are that horrible, with the result of 16. On the other hand, Dragons of Autumn Twilight was so good I’m genuinely eager to read the next book in the series. I’ve decided to shake things up and go straight to the sequel, Dragons of Winter Night, for the next instalment of D&D&N because I really want to keep reading the Dragonlance Chronicles and find out what happens next. See you then!

Stawicki's full cover. (Image: Wizards of the Coast) Stawicki’s full cover. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Assorted Musings:

  • A Gandalf/Merlin-type elderly wizard named Fizban joins the party for a while. He hides his intelligence under a façade of senility — I think? At the very least he’s so committed to the part that he has multiple arguments with trees. He also dies while trying to cast featherfall on himself while he’s plummeting to the ground. He manages to say “featherf — ” and then *splat*. It’s, uh, pretty wild.
  • The pupils of Raistlin’s eyes are shaped like hourglasses, which means he can only see death. Everything he looks at looks like it’s ageing, falling apart, rotting, or dying. It’s quite metal.
  • Also, Raistlin is carrying the staff of Magius, Huma’s old frenemy, which played an important albeit stupid role in The Legend of Huma. It’s not important here in the slightest.
  • Dragonlances are not mentioned until very late in the book, and then only briefly, and no one comes close to seeing one. Not a judgment, just an observation.
  • There are pegasi, and they are racist. It’s weird.
  • So there’s was a straight-to-DVD animated adaptation of the book released in 2007 that looks like it was made in 1997 or so. The 2D animation looks like the old X-Men cartoon, and the CG looks like a later PlayStation game. Also, the only things that seem to be CG are the bad guys? Enjoy the trailer, if you dare.