Welcome back to our reread of the Dragonlance Chronicles!
When we last left our adventurers, they were forced to take shelter from a blizzard in a cave. Two short chapters this week, setting up what is clearly some mayhem to come. But what we lack in progress, we make up in atmosphere—and, best of all, a new villain!
“Between master and dragon.” and “Tarsis the Beautiful.”
We kick off with a dragon! A blue one this time, Skie, and he’s grumpy. Cold and grumpy. For some reason unbeknownst to him, the Highlord has hauled a team of blue dragons down to chilly south, and the dragons aren’t happy. They’re currently parked (‘short stay dragon parking: $20’) in some hot springs, and Skie has some questions.
Skie, cold and grumpy, stomps over to the Highlord and flat out asks why they’re so far off their beaten path. It seems these two have a better sense of teamwork than Pyros and Verminaard, which already makes them more effective villains. We learn a few things through their conversation, including some—surprisingly tactful—infodumping:
- There are multiple Dragon Highlords—Verminaard wasn’t the only one
- The oft-cited ‘war in the north’ is definitely a thing, and the Dragon Highlords are winning
- Some names: Lord Ariakas seems to be in charge of this Highlord, who also has a ‘skilled young commander’ named Bakaris
- They’re on to Elistan’s role as a cleric of Paladine
- They’re here for the party. Or, more specifically, three of the party (but which three?!)
- ‘Here’ is right outside Tarsis, which they are about to destroy
The Highlord, like Verminaard, seems an intimidating figure—complete with dragon-scale armor, cape and ‘horned dragonhelm’ (apparently the complete circumstances of Verminaard’s death weren’t shared around the Highlord staff room).
But on the other side of the field…
The party trudges across the frozen plains, no less cold (or grumbling) than Skie. Tanis takes a moment to do a mental roll-call, and tallies all of his friends, his relationship to them, and their unique abilities. It isn’t un-subtle, but given this book began essentially mid-quest (or ‘right at start of quest’), it is a useful Who’s Who for both new and old readers.
There’s not a lot of new information here, so I’ll skim over it, but Tanis’ mind’s eye—as well as his eye-eyes—linger on a few people—especially Sturm, whose dedication he admires, and Laurana, of whom he’s getting squishy feelings. Tanis is irked that Laurana spends so much time with the charismatic Elistan, who, despite his ‘thinning hair’, is still a silver fox. Laurana, with so much to prove, has stepped up to be Elistan’s right-hand woman, helping shepherd (literally and spiritually) the hundreds of refugees the party brought out of Verminaard’s dungeons.
After Tanis mulls over his feelings for Laurana for the 8,000th time, we get a little comic relief. Tika and Raistlin are walking together as Caramon is needed up front to plow the path. They’re not super-duper-happy about this. And Flint and Tas are arguing about, you know, slapstick stuff. Tas is telling Flint a complicated story, and the two are debating the provenance of the helm they found in Xak Tsaroth. (Flint says the tassel is ‘griffon mane’, Tas says, ‘wtf? horse!’) Tas, Tanis notes, is the only one enjoying the trudge to Tarsis, and apparently hit Sturm in the head with a snowball at one point. [Having this occur off-screen is the greatest tragedy so far.]
As with all things Tanis, it ends in a self-doubting internal monologue, in which he still can’t figure out why he’s leading this crew. Sturm has a quest (follow in Huma’s footsteps), Elistan has a quest (bring the gods back), even Raistlin has a quest (make Raistlin really powerful), Tanis? He’s got nothing.
These gloomy thoughts are interrupted by hills—supposedly (according to Tas’ map) the ones overlooking Tarsis. Tanis, Caramon and (surprisingly) Raistlin volunteer to scout up the side of the hill. They climb up, and see the city of Tarsis. The beautiful city of Tarsis. The beautiful, land-locked, city of Tarsis.
The three realise that the city must have been landlocked during the Cataclysm (300 years ago!), and their hopes of finding sea transport for the refugees are, well… toast. But nor can they go back. Both Caramon and Raistlin have an instinct that something nasty is following them, and they’d rather go forwards than face it. They chat a bit about Raistlin’s Test at the Towers of High Sorcery, but Raistlin stops before divulging anything too juicy.
The rest of the chapter is given to a potted history of Tarsis. One of the great cities of the land, it flourished for century after century. Even during the last big epic dragon war, it did well—the Queen of Darkness never made it that far, so while the rest of the continent was rebuilding, Tarsis just kept plowing on. It was a trade hub, a walled city, and a center of learning. All very impressive.
But, like the rest of Krynn, Tarsis fell under the sway of the Kingpriest of Istar, and was not spared the divine retribution for his hubris. The Cataclysm cometh, and with it, the city began land-locked—half-ruined, and nowhere near the sea.
As Tarsis rebuilt, its people felt betrayed: the Knights of Solamnia, so long the city’s protectors were nowhere to be found (they had their own problems, and couldn’t have made it there if they tried, but the Tarsians didn’t know that). And the clerics had all disappeared as well, taking their gods (and their magical healing) with them. Eventually order was restored, but not until after the Knights were driven from the city.
Now, we learn, Tarsis the Beautiful is a trade center once more, but only a local one—with farmers packing the once-thriving bazaar, and false clerics strutting the streets. Tarsis have heard the rumours of a war up north, but think it is a matter of lies—and blame the Knights.
And this is where the party is going…
Monster(s) of the Week
Blue dragons! They’ve got claws and wings and attitude and, apparently (although we’ve yet to see it), they can breathe lightning! Stylish!
‘Wizards dressed in robes of white, red or black strode the bazaars… Clerics too—some worshiped the gods of good, some the gods of neutrality, some the gods of evil.’
Part of the description of Tarsis’ past, but interesting as it spells out the three pillars of Krynn’s religion (?) / worldview. And, perhaps more intriguingly, shows how they all can live in harmony. Sure, the land’s been a post-apocalyptic disaster for centuries, but things were ok and in balance once.
I like these chapters. The robot roll call is probably the least interesting part, especially coming on after a close reread of the first book—but it is still nice to check in on everyone and their complex relationships. But the other parts of these chapters are really good—intriguing and ominous and informational, but with a lighter touch.
The Skie/Highlord combination seems a particularly lethal one, especially because—unlike Verminaard—the two seem to work in unison. This is a Highlord smart enough to befriend a dragon. And a Highlord that’s badass enough to earn the dragon’s respect. And a Highlord that’s smart enough to see both the smart and the dumb of Verminaard’s plotting. We’re dealing with a better class of villain. And, of course, anyone else notice the lack of pronouns? We’ve gone all Leckie here, or perhaps there’s something else a-foot. (A-wing?)
I also enjoyed the description of Tarsis. We’re moving the story to a new stage, and this set it nicely—there’s a bit of empathy, but mostly we get the impression that the party is about to wander into a pit of snakes. But it also serves as a reminder of how vast this world is, and how much change it has undergone. We’ve got a glimpse of a more golden era, so we know ‘what success looks like’, but we also see that contrasted with the bitter and paranoid now.
And, of course, the big twist: Tarsis still has ships, but no ocean. Oops.
There are a couple things I don’t quite understand, and hope to have explained later. The flow of information between ‘North’ and ‘South’ is pretty erratic. We learn it is impossible to travel, but the rumours still seem to be flying. The Highlords I understand, they can actually fly, so their spies would (theoretically) have more access to all parts of the land. But how can something like “Tarsis has no ocean” stay secret for three centuries, while “armies massing in the North” spreads in a manner of years/months?
I’m also not sure why the Highlord is going to destroy Tarsis, rather than conquer it—or even buddy up? It doesn’t seem like much of a threat, and, if anything, it might be a possible ally—assuming the Highlord’s spies have access to the same information/vibe that the reader does.
About this north and south thing. How come it’s so cold in the south? Skie points out that they are in the ‘frigid southlands’…so just how far south of the equator are they? Is Tarsis further south than where Skie and this new snazzy Highlord are hangin’ tough? They’re trudging through snow so obviously it’s properly cold but can it really be full on frigid because busy ports aren’t usually ones that end up frozen for parts of the year. Is the sea somehow warmer? Oh wait, but there’s no sea so none of this matters. And I’m totally with Jared on the whole ‘Surprise! No sea!’ factor. It’s hard to see how this news would never have travelled out of Tarsis for 300 years.
Anyway, it’s a moot point since the port is closed for business, what with no sea to sail ships on anymore. I find myself wondering if Dragonlance is an early example of ecologically concerned fiction, given that this Cataclysm that managed to also destroy the seas sounds pretty much like massive climate change. I’m kind of thrilled with this. Maybe that’s how it got so cold in the south. See? See what happens when you mess with nature? And the Queen of Darkness, but still.
I’m not loving these chapters. The second one is a long history of Tarsis and while it’s not as bad an info dump as we’ve seen in other places, it does slow down the pace of the narrative itself, as we spend quite a few pages away from what’s actually going on. Admittedly, what’s actually going on is that our lot are walking along, so that’s not terribly interesting in the first place. Most intriguing, as always, is the possibility of what Raistlin gave up for the knowledge and power he has. His soul? His heart? His lungs? I’m going with lungs.
Next week, we better see some major action in Tarsis. I’m counting on at least one fight scene, some ale and at least three instances of Tanis being confused about whom he loves.
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.