The promise and disappointment of Dragon Wing

 

Returning to books and films you liked when you were young is an exciting but also slightly risky endeavour. It’s fun to rediscover old familiar territory, but there’s a very real risk that that old wonderland will turn out to have been a plastic swing, a see-saw and some sand with cat-poo buried in the corners.

And so, it was with some trepidation that I recently went back to Dragon Wing, the first book in the Death’s Gate septology by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann. I remembered it as a great world, but not the greatest story. And I was proven right.

Please note: this is a book review. But it is also a post about world building. There might be more to come on that topic, so if that’s your bone, stay tuned!

The sundered world

Dragon World takes place in Arianus, the world of sky. It is indicated that this takes place in “our” world sometime in a future in which the world has been split into four (or five, or more) worlds. Two races of powerful magicians, the Sartan and the Patryn, fought for control over the world, and rather let the Patryn win the whole world, the Sartan split the world. They made four worlds corresponding to the elements, and created the Labyrinth, a prison for the Patryn. Several hundred years later, the first Patryn are reaching the end of the Labyrinth into the glorious city of Nexus, and through the Death’s Gate into the four worlds to which the “mench” races of humans, elves and dwarves have been transported. But where are the Sartan? And why are the worlds failing?

The first book takes place solely on the World of Sky, Arianus. The people of Arianus live on floating islands of coralite, a porous material that secreted by a worm – like coral. The coralite is filled with a gas, keeping it floating in the air.

The floating islands of Arianus fall in three layers. In the Middle Realm, the elves and humans fight a long standing war, with human dragon riders raiding elves and elven dragon ships attacking human settlements. In the High Realm, the Mysteriarchs, the most powerful of all human wizards, have secluded themselves from the world. And down below, the Gegs (or dwarves to anyone but themselves) serve the great machine, the Kicksey-Winsey, every geg serving the great machine in some capacity for a significant portion of their lives. The machine is autonomous, seemingly has a will of its own, and is revered by the Gegs who serve it without really knowing why or what the purpose of the machine is. It does, however, produce a number of trerribly useful byproducts, like wooden beams, cloth – and water.

Now, in a world of flying, porous islands, water will fall, accumulating at the bottom. This means that while the Gegs live with almost constant thunderstorms, the High Realms have perpetual sunshine. It also means that while the Gegs have plenty of water, to everybody else, water is a most precious substance. Convenient for the elves, then, that the Gegs revere them as gods, delivering monthly supplies of water to keep the wheels of the elven empire turning.

The Assassin, the Idealist and the Changeling

The plot of Dragon Wing starts out rather dramatically. Hugh the Hand, a notorious assassin, is saved literally with his head on the executioner’s block, in order to be hired for what seems like a very easy job: to kill the king’s son. But the prince, ominously named Bane, is really the son of a mysteriarch. Along is also the prince’s clumsy and unseemly chamberlain (thought there is something odd about him).

Meanwhile in the low realm, the idealist geg, Limbeck Bolttightner, is sentenced to death for having incited young gegs to damage the Kicksey-Winsey – the worst crime a geg can commit. The means of execution will be flying out into the raging storms below. But like Hugh, Limbeck is saved, and he brings someone with him from below: Haplo, a Patryn, come to scout out Arianus for his master, and to seed chaos in the realm.

Of course, these two groups will meet and travel through the world of Arianus. When he book ends, the story of Arianus will be mostly closed, while the stage will have been set for the overarching story connecting the seven books.

But where are all the people

If the names of the authors of this book, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickmann, sound familiar, it is because they are the creators of one of the most famous D&D campaign settings and book series: Dragonlance (they seem to have a thing for dragons). That world is a great and rich world, with many different cultures and races, interesting and exciting epochs and a great story that you can immerse yourself in. It is also, however, a world that is very much made for high adventure. Much of the world seems like a backdrop for heroics and villainy, war and, most of all, adventure!

Dragon Wing feels somewhat the same. I keep wondering how this world works – where are all the people? How are all these realms kept running? Where are they – physically, in a world that can seemingly be traversed in a few days? A world that can be kept running on water sent through just one tube for a few hours every month (there are a few other sources of water, but they seem limited). In one scene in the book, someone tries to trick our heroes by creating an army of illusions, reproducing the same people over and over again, but creating a hollow world in the process. The same goes for the whole book: it feels hollow, claiming to portray a whole world, but that world is just a backdrop, without any real gravity.

It seems such a shame. Weis and Hickman have the makings of a great world here, but they didn’t make it feel real. And don’t tell me it can’t be done! George R. R. Martin does it eminently in his Song of Fire and Ice! Joanne K. Rowling made a world that started out for kiddies, which hinders her worldbuilding a little, but Hogwarts always  feels real, teeming with students. But sadly, I don’t get that sensation from Dragon Wing.

Something else that Martin and Rowling do well, is write. Rowling has a playful attitude towards her language, without which Harry Potter would surely have flopped. And while Martin doesn’t write Shakespearean prose, his writing underlines his world, as well as the specific pair of eyes this chapter is seen through. I don’t get this from Dragon Wing either. The prose is a bit awkward, and the storytelling a bit off. I don’t really believe the characters. They seem to be caricatures, stereotypes. Alfred is too clumsy, the villain too cruel, Hugo too cold. And part of this is the prose, which doesn’t make it all seem real to me.

…but it was a good idea

Despite my criticism, I don’t dislike Dragon Wing. It was not a waste of my time to re-read it. It is a b-novel – a high-fantasy adventure. Well, that’s what I got. It’s less black and white, than Dragonlance, and more about a greater ethical dilemma, which is good. And it presents a great idea for a world – a world that, from what I remember from reading it long ago and reading up on it on Wikipedia, will be even more fleshed out in the following books into a great little cosmology. A special place in my heart is reserved to the Gegs, who may best be described as hobbits meet the industrial revolution minus unions, plus worship of the machine. If the world hadn’t been so shallow, I would have wanted the campaign setting immediately!

But it IS shallow. And that is what is keeping me from picking up book two, what prevents me from immediately following Haplo into the World of Flame. I will probably do it before too long – but it will be to discover the world and cherish the good ideas, not to savour a truly good book.

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