Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: "Dragons of the Dwarven Depths" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

During my junior high and early high school years, I was a devoted follower of the Dragonlance series based on the world from then-TSR's (now Wizards of the Coast's) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. If you'd asked me in ninth grade to name my favorite books, the Legends trilogy would have been right there near the top. In fact, my first novel, written in my high school years, was a complete ripoff of the Chronicles trilogy.

Somewhere during those last couple of high school years, I lost interest as the company began pumping out a series of lousy novels that were really only connected by the Dragonlance logo on the cover. But when I saw this new installment, "Dragons of the Dwarven Depths," from the original writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, I just couldn't pass up the chance to revisit my childhood.

I had some reservations going in. After all, this is the beginning of a trilogy that promises to fill the gaps between the books in the Chronicles trilogy. I thought those three books covered the story pretty well. Also, there's always that nagging feeling about revisiting something I really enjoyed 18 or 20 years ago and finding it isn't as special as I remembered. I revisited the Chronicles a few years back and still found them fun, and I enjoyed Weis and Hickman's more recent War of Souls trilogy. Nostalgia won.

"Dragons of the Dwarven Depths" tells the story of the finding of the Hammer of Kharas, the tool used to forge the legendary dragonlances. The companions are trying to lead a group of former slaves from Pax Tharkas to safety after the fall of the Dragon Highlord Verminaard. But a pair of draconians have stepped up to take Verminaard's place, determined to destroy the former slaves. The only place of safety available is the dwarven kingdom of Thorbardin, which hasn't been opened in 300 years.

The book is tough going through the first 100 pages or so. There are huge information dumps throughout as Weis and Hickman try to recount the events of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight" and offer up backstory on the characters that long-time readers already know by heart. They're so big and come so often that I was going "OK, let's get on with the story already," and I almost didn't make it through the first part of the book I understand the need to get new readers up to speed, but I think perhaps there are better ways to go about it.

Once that's out of the way, the pace picks up a bit, but there are still a few problems. One of those is that we already know how the book turns out. So, for example, when Tika is attacked by a draconian or when the companions are prisoners of the Hylar dwarves and under attack by the Theiwar, there isn't as much suspense as their could be. After all, we already know that all of the companions survived and made it through to "Dragons of Winter Night." It's a challenge of any prequel and one that's hard to overcome.

There's also, at least in the hardcover edition that I read, a serious editing problem. There are tons of missing words, misspellings and incorrect grammar. I'm an editor myself and know what the job is like, so I'm pretty forgiving of a few mistakes, but these were so frequent that they took me right out of the story on several occasions. That's never good.

Finally, there's the question of the characters. Most of them seem somehow different from the characters that I remember. Two decades ago when I was reading these books, I cared for these characters deeply. Here, most of them seem very shallow to me and there were only a few moments when I was genuinely pulling for them. That could be the product of faulty memory or the passage of time and experience as a reader. I'd have to revisit the originals to say for sure.

So there are a lot of factors stacked against "Dragons of the Dwarven Depths." Are there any good points. Sure. The latter part of the book moves swiftly and is a lot of fun. Then, there's the nostalgia factor. It's always nice to visit with some old fictional friends, and there are a few moments in this book that offer a little bit of extra insight into favorite characters.

If you're a newcomer to the Dragonlance world, I'd still recommend reading Chronicles and Legends first. For fans of the original two trilogies, though, it's a nice, enjoyable little walk down memory lane. It wouldn't be at the top of my reading list, but it's probably worth a look.

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