Welcome back to the Dragonlance Chronicles Reread! Last week we ended on a cliffhanger. Or a forest-hanger: the party have been driven off the road, into the woods and along a magical path. There were deer, but also spectres.
This week’s chapters… do we have a turning point? Do we get to know what’s going on? Will we get a few more monsters? Where are our dragons?!
As always, we’re going to keep the reread post spoiler-free, but the comments are open to any and all discussion, so proceed with caution!
The Forestmaster. A peaceful interlude. Winged sleep. Smoke in the East. Dark memories.
When we last left our companions, they’d been escorted by an army of the undead to the enigmatic Forestmaster. Who then turns out to be (drumroll!) a unicorn! The party are relieved to not be eaten / maimed / mauled / whatever happens in Darken Wood, and, instead, they’re treated to a very nice dinner party, with entertainment courtesy of the Exposition Band.
The Forestmaster explains the following:
- The lizard-monsters are called “Draconians.” The mysterious armies to the North are comprised of these shady fellows.
- The unicorn has received a message from a ‘shining being’—the staffbearer needs to go to the abandoned city of Xak Tsaroth and collect the ‘greatest gift given to the world’. In two days. Or else.
- The Forestmaster can provide transport.
Cue: in-fighting. Given the approach of war, Sturm would rather go to Solamnia and get his glory on. Tanis would like to go to the elves. Caramon just wants to complain. Goldmoon and Riverwind aren’t so keen on crossing the plains (what with the fact that they’ll be executed on sight). Etc. Etc.
Tanis makes a fairly crafty leadership decision and consults with the designated smart member of the party. He and Raistlin have a bit of a confab, and Raistlin ticks off the following points:
- Armies of lizard-monsters shouldn’t be taken lightly.
- The world is a pretty screwy place right now.
- When a unicorn says she’s got a cosmic message for you, you should probably listen.
- You’ll get yours, my pretty, oh yes you will. Cackle.
Ok, he doesn’t say that last one outright, but Raistlin is pretty creepy.
Now advised by unicorns, cosmic forces and the only one with a double-digit INT attribute, Tanis makes a decision—to Xak Tsaroth!
The Forestmaster does her bit. After wining and dining Team Lance, she summons more quasi-equine friends: pegasi! The team saddle up, sing a happy horse-flying song (seriously) and then doze off to a well-earned (and magically-induced) sleep.
When they wake up, they realise that—a bit like Tolkien’s eagles—magical travel isn’t all it is cracked up to be. The party are in a grassy meadow—the plains, in fact—and the pegasi give their apologies. There’s something nasty in the woodshed of Xak Tsaroth, and the pegasi aren’t flying any further. The party will need to walk the rest on foot. (Hilariously, the lead pegasus is also really adorably stern and is all, “this better not be your fault, young man!”)
The party trudge across the plains a bit nervously—the village of Que-Shu (where Goldmoon and Riverwind have fled from) is between hither and yon but—just as the party is getting really nervous, they find there is a fate worse than a death sentence.
Que-Shu has been completely annihilated. Torched to the ground. Stone buildings melted, wooden ones destroyed. The people all dead. Everything blasted and destroyed. A few of the conquering soldiers—hobgoblins—are dangling from a gibbet, apparently some warning from their commanding officer (‘Verminaard’?) about taking prisoners.
The Que-Shu scene is presented as a series of feverish flashbacks in Tanis’s mind. It ends with Raistlin, of all people, getting the party back together and on the road. They can’t save the village, but maybe they can avenge it. The chapter concludes, appropriately enough, with the party having nightmares.
Monster(s) of the Week
The good, the bad and the ugly!
The good: A unicorn! I mean, dragons aside, is there any more classic beastie than the unicorn? Described in terms of “silver” and “pearl” and “sea-foam” and “moonlight” and “goat”(?), we haven’t had adjectives this rhapsodic since we first met Goldmoon. There’s something very Narnian about the Forestmaster scene. A bit like Aslan, the Forestmaster is a primal, imposing animal given to cryptic announcements about destinies and fulfilment and roles to play. Beautiful but terrible, and oh-so-mysterious. Also like Aslan, the Forestmaster seems to have a lot of hospitality related magical powers, including ‘Summon Table’ and ‘Craft Magic Stools’.
There are also the pegasi, who, I think, are hilarious. Like the unicorn, they seem to be extremely long-lived and prone to cryptic statements. But they’re so much more pretentious. One is really annoyed that he has to schlep around a kender and a dwarf. And, of course, there’s also the one that lectures Tanis in the morning. I think that’s hilarious. If I were a winged horse, I’d lecture Tanis too.
The bad: Hobgoblins again. Plus more about our Draconian friends. Who refer to themselves as the “Order of Draco”—which, if I recall correctly, isn’t a term ever used again in the entire series. But let’s just agree that lizard-monsters should have an appropriately draconic name, whatever the reason. Curiously, the draconians are described by the Forestmaster as a new sort of evil. This is coming from a magic pokin’ horse that has been around since Huma’s day, so, presumably she’s seen a monster or two. So what’s going on here? Hmmm.
Hickman notes in the Annotated Chronicles that the draconians were deliberately designed to replace ogres, which they felt were ‘overused in fantasy literature’. Tracy Hickman and Larry Elmore came up with what the beasties would look like. And, frankly, a fine job they did. The draconians are brilliant.
The ugly: There’s some sort of nasty thing on the horizon. Some sort of ‘darkness that fills the air’ that scares the pegasi. Something that generates a ‘white-hot, searing flame that engulfed the entire village’. Obviously we have no idea what this could be.
‘Be at ease warrior. We do not mourn the loss of those who die fulfilling their destinies.’
The Forestmaster, channeling her inner Aslan again. (But is Caramon eating a talking deer?!) There’s some pretty unsubtle foreshadowing here, does it count as a spoiler if the Forestmaster says it?
‘Sit at my right hand, warrior.’
Context: the Forestmaster has arranged magical stools, and the party freaks out. They’re terrified. WHAT IF THEY FALL OVER? What if you, like, wind up on your butt in front of a unicorn?! Do unicorns have butts? Unicorn butts smell like rainbows and candyfloss. They’re all magic and stuff! I bet they poop prophecies. Anyway, despite merrily fighting draconians and even stepping up to the walking dead, the party draw the line at sitting on stools. Goldmoon’s the only one brave enough, and then she shames the others into following suit. Well played, Ms. Moon.
‘Yes, I am smarter than you—all of you. And someday I will prove it! Someday you—with all your strength and charm and good looks—you, all of you, will call me master!’
Raistlin, demonstrating why he’s the favourite of every awkward, teenaged Dragonlance reader ever.
‘Who chose us? And for what purpose? Consider that, Tanis Half-Elven!’
Raistlin, again, showcasing that high INT attribute. It is a tiny bit meta, but isn’t it nice that someone is aware of how shamelessly railroaded they’ve been for over a dozen chapters now? This is why Rastlin is an interesting character. Given a destiny to fulfill, the party all vary between the two extremes of ‘blind obedience’ and ‘grumbling obedience’. Literally one person—Raistlin—takes the moment to see what is going on, calculate the value in it, and figure out a way to tie it to his own mysterious ambitions. Raistlin has his ‘own reasons for going’, and that’s that.
A genuinely fascinating pair of chapters—ones that show the full range of the Dragonlance Chronicles.
First, we’ve got the clunkiness. The Jesus-beast out of Lewis, the winged transport out of Tolkien, even the ‘shining figures’ that deliver incredibly specific instructions (that go completely unquestioned). There’s the ponderous foreshadowing and the slapstick humour and even a bit of old-fashioned scenery-chewing evil monologuing (thanks, Raist!). Yeeks.
Yet… these chapters also contain some of the best, and the most provocative, writing so far.
Yes, there’s the ridiculously specific quest, as delivered from On High by way of a unicorn and an angel. But that also prompts Raistlin’s response, and the intriguing character development of a ‘hero’—the smartest of the group—who confesses to figuring out not only that he’s a Chosen One but also that he’s working out a way of turning it to his advantage. Raistlin mentions that he’s known he’s ‘special’—chosen for something—even before the books began, back when he took his Test. Yet, at the same time, he’s also aware that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, he’s the scrawny creeper at the back of the room. No wonder he’s such a dick to everyone else. He’s got objective proof of his Specialness, and still no one cares.
And, of course, there are the truly haunting scenes in the ruins of Que-Shu, in which Tanis’ fragmented memories depict the true horrors of war. This gives the quest—so far vague and toothless—a reason, if not a tangible enemy. They’re not sure who is behind this, but the cost of failure is now embedded in their minds. The scenes in Que-Shu are also a skillful way of bringing depth to the characters. Their individual reactions to the horror: Caramon with the dog, Sturm in prayer, Tas in tears, Raistlin’s icy strength… this brings them to life far more than overblown physical descriptions in fantasy inns.
These chapters demonstrate, almost perfectly, why Dragonlance is so important to fantasy. Why, despite the lapses into goofiness and game-mechanics, and even despite the constraints of being written as an RPG tie-in, the series is a defining work, bridging the gap between Tolkien and Lewis and contemporary fantasy. This is a series that manages to incorporate the transcendent philosophy and embodied metaphors of its predecessors, but also strives to include the human: the comedic, the pathetic, the shades of gray. Not just the quest, but its consequences. Not just the Chosen, but the self-interested.
All that, and unicorns too!
Since I can’t just add ‘ditto’ to Jared’s take, you’ll have to bear with me expounding on much of the same again. These really are a great couple of chapters—I found myself reading the pastiche of scenes describing the village’s destruction and thinking wow, so this is why I loved Dragonlance. I don’t even find those clunky, the way much of the writing seems to be very often. As Jared points out, those scenes are incredibly effective in giving the characters more depth and substance via their individual reactions to the horror around them. Goldmoon trying to piece together a broken vase makes me far more sympathetic towards her than any previous information presented about her, whether it’s her sudden tears at the Forestmaster’s overwhelming beauty, (she the only one who cries because she’s a soft-hearted girl, I assume and girls cry at everything, right? Right), or her attempts at covering up the others’ rudeness to at the magic forest banquet with the dodgy one legged-stools.
The Forestmaster is a strange beastie isn’t she? Aside from the obvious fancy-pants unicorn beauty she possesses, she’s all sad and well…knowledgeable, isn’t she? Being a unicorn in charge of the Darken Woods obviously means you have all sorts of prescient information, as suggested by her sad looks at Sturm and her eyes ‘clouded with sorrow’ that stare off into the distance. The foreshadowing, as noted above, is barely subtle here and it irritates me that the Forestmaster holds back information that could potentially help, even though I know that it needs to be play out slowly.
I remain firmly with #teamRaistlin, no matter how much of an ass he’s being, no matter what Jared said about awkward teenagers (yeah, okay on the inside I still am one—aren’t you?) Here’s the thing—he’s special. You know it, I know it, the gang (grudgingly) knows it and hell, Raistlin sure as hell knows it. Slithering voice, ‘twisted and warped’, eyes flaring ‘red in the crimson moonlight’ (shut up he’s magic) and consumed by ‘an inner fire’, Raistlin has a darkness that even his loyal brother is afraid of. With his little ‘someday you…all of you, will call me master!’ speech, Raistlin turns it up to ‘full camp’ and continues to prove why he’s the most intriguing of this entire lot. Does he have a weak moral compass? Will his power corrupt him absolutely? With whom will he stand at the end—the weak mortals who have put up with him, or the forces that perhaps are more like him? What is the ‘darkness that fills the air’? I get the feeling swords won’t matter soon, not the way sorcery will.
And yet, as Raistlin asks in a heavy is-this-a-metaphor-for-life way, who chose us for this battle anyway? What are we fated to do? The suspense is killing me.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.