Before there was A Song of Ice and Fire (the books), before there was Game of Thrones (the TV show), before the go-to water cooler topic of conversation was, “Did you see what happened with the dragons on Sunday night,” before all that — there was Dragonlance.
Dragonlance is a series of Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels that came out starting in 1984, with Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Since then, they have become a rite of passage of sorts for lonely, nerdy, fantasy-loving kids across the country: After you outgrow Animorphs and Redwall and Narnia and Prydain, before you graduate to Tolkien and Le Guin and Martin, you go through a Dragonlance phase.
Mostly, you go through a Dragonlance Chronicles phase. Dragonlance encompasses a big, sprawling universe featuring hundreds of titles by dozens of different authors, but the Chronicles trilogy, co-written by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, is the first and, by some measures, the greatest.
Yet “greatest” is a relative term when it comes to Dragonlance. These books don’t have deep literary ambitions; the writing never aspires to be more than serviceable, and the characters are designed specifically to codify and encapsulate the tropes that make D&D work, not for profound psychological complexity or depth.
The real joy of Dragonlance is in the world building — which is detailed and expansive, if not entirely coherent — and in the pleasurable recognition of the fantasy tropes that the books have successfully translated out of Tolkien’s rarefied air into something at once accessible and marvelous. If you’re new to the series, it’s a fun romp of a quest fantasy that gives you a peek into the development of the genre. And if you’re returning to Dragonlance as an adult after reading it as an 11-year-old in the ’90s, it holds the pleasure of as much pure, unadulterated nostalgia as Hello Kitty doing the Macarena on top of Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s floppy hair.
It’s especially welcome now, in the wake of Sunday’s Game of Thrones finale. If you’re suffering Westeros withdrawal, Dragonlance offers you another expansive world to get lost in, and a chance to see in their full glory the tropes that George R.R. Martin wanted to deconstruct.
Sit back and let 2017 fade away. We’re about to embark on a journey to the fantastical, expansive world of Krynn.
Most of the characters of the Dragonlance Chronicles are archetypes, and some work better than others
The Chronicles trilogy, which begins with Dragons of Autumn Twilight and continues on to Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning, has a simple and elemental appeal — the same appeal as a D&D campaign, because that’s what it’s designed to be.
The world of Krynn has lost touch with its gods after a period of massive destruction known as the Cataclysm. It’s become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But things begin to change when a group of old friends, meeting again after five years, stumble upon two strangers who have found an artifact of the true gods.
The gods are returning to Krynn. And the goddess of evil is preparing to do battle with the god of good. To wage her war, she’s brought an unbeatable weapon with her: dragons.
Only the group of old friends, known as the companions, can stop her. But to do so, they’ll need dragons of their own.
The dragons of this world are always a joy — they’re as petty and vindictive as humans, but exponentially more powerful, and even when they claim to be working with human allies, they always have agendas of their own. They inspire a crippling fear in their wake that leaves their enemies cowering before them, and they’re nearly invincible, unless you have one of the titular dragonlances. Every book in Chronicles builds up to a dragon fight at the climax, and it’s always worth the wait.
The companions, meanwhile, are all sketched-in archetypes, and most of those archetypes are reasonably compelling. The group ebbs and flows over the course of the trilogy, but among them are Sturm, the tragic and noble knight; Tasslehoff, the comic relief trickster; and Flint the dwarf, who is basically just Gimli from Lord of the Rings.
Time has not been kind to the women among the companions, who tend to be flat characters notable only for their extreme physical beauty (none of the women in Krynn who have speaking parts are ugly), buffeted around by the winds of male attention. Even the appealingly selfish and morally ambiguous warrior maiden Kitiara spends the bulk of her page time chasing after a boy. Particularly unfortunate is Goldmoon, who gets to show us all what intersectionality looked like circa 1984. Her D&D character class is “barbarian,” which in the world of Dragonlance translates to a culture vaguely defined as “Native American with a Celtic touch” (basically: what if American Indian stereotypes, but blonde?), and her primary personality trait is serene.
Most Dragonlance fans identify either with the jock or with the nerd
If you’re a Dragonlance fan, chances are you are either Team Tanis or Team Raistlin. (I abstained from either team to be the sole member of Team Laurana. I am an outlier and should not be counted.)
Tanis is the leader of the companions. Half-elf and half-human, he’s torn between his two heritages — and between his love for amoral, exciting, human Kitiara and virtuous, noble elf maiden Laurana. (As a child, I had an unreasonable love for Laurana, who even I recognized was so pure as to be boring; as an adult, I’ve realized that she’s the only woman in the trilogy who has anything resembling a decent character arc.)
Tanis is a proper ’80s archetype of a hero, one who desperately wants to do the right thing but cannot always be counted on to actually deliver and is intriguingly tortured by his own doubts about whether he is the right person to lead his party. He gets by far the most page time in the Chronicles, and his arc is the most fully developed and detailed.
Raistlin is the mage of the group, and although he first wears the red robes of neutrality, he is increasingly drawn to the black robes of eeeevil. He’s the kind of character who seems very cool to a teenager and on the verge of becoming a hilarious try-hard to an adult: He has hourglass eyes, through which he sees all things aging and decaying, and gold skin and white hair. (This is all the result of a mysterious trauma he suffered in his special magic trial, which he took young because he is a genius.) Raistlin speaks only in a raspy whisper and is prone to making speeches about how “someday you — with all your strength and charm and good looks — you — all of you, will call me master!”
Shockingly, the rest of the companions find Raistlin a little off-putting — all except his twin brother, Caramon, who is as sweet and strong and dumb as Raistlin is bitter and weak and clever, and who is deeply devoted to Raistlin. Raistlin is clearly the smartest of the companions, but he’s also clearly accompanying them on their quest purely to advance his own agenda, which is the pursuit of power.
Dragonlance is a D&D world, meaning that everyone has an alignment: good, neutral, or evil. In gameplay this keeps things simple, but in a book it can be frustratingly static. What makes Raistlin compelling is that he can so easily switch alignments: He begins by fighting with the side of good, but officially aligns himself with neutrality, and as the saga progresses he moves more and more toward evil. (It’s not a coincidence that most of the best Chronicles continuations are Raistlin-focused.) He also signifies a powerful revenge fantasy for the lonely middle school kids who make up Dragonlance’s target demographic: Someday all of those other kids, with their charm and their good looks, all of them, will call me master!
The heart of the Dragonlance books is Krynn itself
The characters of Dragonlance may be hit or miss, but the setting is killer. I’ve always been especially fond of the first place we visit in Krynn: It’s an inn, because even in 1984 it was a cliché that characters meet in an inn at the beginning of a D&D campaign — but this one is built in a treetop, because after the Cataclysm, the people of the town where the inn is located decided to avoid all the dangerous nonsense happening on the ground by taking to the trees. It’s a treehouse inn! With stained glass windows! And fried potatoes and alcohol! Screw the quest, why would anyone ever leave that place?
In general, Krynn has the vibe of a post-apocalyptic Middle Earth. Since the Cataclysm of centuries before, the vast civilization that used to rule this world has shattered, and the one that rose up to replace it is grubby and petty and vulgar. Now the land consists of bucolic, quirky little towns scattered across ruins of immense grandeur, filled with knowledge that the world of the present has no hope of truly understanding.
What used to be a great port city is now a landlocked ghost town filled with the useless hulks of old ships. An old temple is now a mine. Even the elf countries are dying, or have been fully transformed into gothic nightmare scapes. It’s the kind of world that feels as though it exists off the page, as if it stretches out in all directions around you, as if you could get lost in it — which is good, because that’s what it has to do if you want to build a decent D&D campaign in it.
In the end, that’s the heart of the appeal of Dragonlance: an endless world to adventure in, and a passel of heroes and villains to do it with. What could be simpler or more appealing than that?