Dragonlance – Nostalgia only goes so far

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I continue to read to my 10-year-old son on a regular basis. I’ve been going back through some old fantasy books and series that I read myself when I was much younger. First was the Belgariad series by David Eddings. This time, it’s Dragonlance.

I read the first Dragonlance trilogy after a friend of mine told me about it in 1989. We both regularly played Dungeons & Dragons, and these stories were D&D brought to life. I was at the tail end of my teen years when I read them, consuming all six (the Chronicles trilogy followed by the Legends trilogy) over a period of a couple of months.

It’s now 2014 and I’ve just finished reading the Chronicles trilogy—Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning—once again. So what’s the verdict?

My son enjoyed all three books. He loved Tasselhoff, the kender, and enjoyed the gruff dwarf Flint Fireforge as well. Just like me when I first read these books, he found Tanis to be far too whiny, and Sturm to be boring. But overall, he thought they told a great story and now he wants me to read the Legends trilogy to him. The fact that Tasselhoff plays a big role in the second trilogy may be a significant factor in this desire.

And me? How do these books hold up after so many years?

Let me preface my answer by saying that I don’t consider myself a fantasy-snob. I never really understood the hate that some people have for Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and I don’t think they were the heralds of the “destruction of D&D” (as some have claimed on various forums and blogs over the years). I have no issues with tie-in novels, nor do I demand great literature from my escapist fantasy.

Having said that, reading the Chronicles trilogy was a noticeable let-down for me. My memories of these books were far better than the reality. I’m happy that my son got such enjoyment out of them, because otherwise I would totally regret reading them again.

So what’s the problem?

First, the writing itself is very…amateurish. Weis and Hickman make so many newbie mistakes, and whoever edited these books did a pretty sloppy job. For example, while each passage is written as if from the viewpoint of a single character, that viewpoint often switches randomly in the middle of a passage, sometimes in the middle of a single sentence.

Out of the entire sizeable cast, only Laurana undergoes anything resembling character growth. I know some people will say that Tasselhoff also grew, but the only evidence of his growth is that Weis and Hickman tell us that Tasselhoff has changed without showing any real behavioural changes in the character himself.

There are other issues with these stories that I’m not going list as I don’t want this to turn into a rant. Now, one has to understand that these are the first novels ever written by both Weis and Hickman, and I’m sure I committed my own list of newbie mistakes in my first novel. But good editors are supposed to catch these mistakes and steer the writer—especially a new writer—in the right direction. That was obviously missing here.

Ultimately, my son was happy to listen to me read these to him, and I was disappointed in my experience of reading them a second time. He wants me to move on to the Legends trilogy, and I have no interest in going any further down the Dragonlance path. There are too many other great books to read to him, and I know that one day he’s probably going to grow out of listening to me reading altogether.

The original Dragonlance trilogies have been enjoyed by millions of people over the years since they were written. They tell the story of an epic battle of good against evil, and there are some enjoyable moments in them. For me, however, there is just something lacking—something I didn’t notice the absence of back when I was in my teens, but which I certainly notice now. As much as I devoured these books the first time I read them, I now know with certainty that I’m never going to revisit these again.

I’ll let the Legends trilogy live on in my memory as a fantastic story about an awesome, evil wizard who was powerful enough to challenge the gods. Why ruin a good thing with an (in this case) unnecessary dose of reality?

What about you? Have you gone back to reread a series you loved as a younger person only to discover it didn’t live up your memories? Tell me about it in the comments.

Turning back the clock with David Eddings

Since my son was old enough to listen, I’ve been reading to him before bed just about every night (excluding the occasional business trip a couple of times a year). These started with simple board books, progressed to Dr. Seuss and Robert Munsch, had some side trips into comic book series (such as Avengers and Spider-Man, and eventually to full-fledged novels.

I’ve picked some books, and he has picked others. This has led me to read some novels that I probably would never have chosen on my own, such as the 39 Clues series, or the Percy Jackson novels, many of which I found enjoyable despite being written for a younger audience.

My son turned ten years old this summer, and I’ve been pushing some fantasy series that I remember reading myself when I was young. Naturally, I had already read The Hobbit to him—my wife, as a child, was given a wonderful copy illustrated with images from the 1977 television movie—when he was eight. This started his journey into fantasy stories.

Recently I found a box of paperback books that I’ve had for at least a decade or two. In the box, I rediscovered the Belgariad series, by David Eddings. I originally read these back when they were first released as mass-market paperbacks, and I was just a young teen. I remember enjoying the series so much that I tried to adapt the world for a tabletop Runequest RPG campaign. Unfortunately, the RPG experiment was short-lived and unsuccessful, but I’ve always had fond memories of the series.

I wasn’t sure how well these books would hold up—it’s been more than 30 years since I first read them. However, my recollection was that they were light, humorous, yet epic in scope. The books avoid the classic Tolkien races (dwarf, elf, halfling, human), replacing them with human cultures that are painted in broad strokes and shamelessly borrow elements from real-life historical cultures.

For example: the Chereks are big, burly, and bearded barbarians, the Tolnedrans are pretty much the Roman empire, the Sendars are simple English farmers, the Mimbrates are all knights in shining armor, etc.

So how did it all hold up after 30+ years?

First, my son absolutely loves these books. He laughs at the witty banter between characters, he speculates on what is going to happen next, he not-so-secretly has a crush on the Imperial Princess, Ce’Nedra, and he wishes he was the main character, Garion. (I’m not impressed that he sees me as Belgarath, however, considering I’m only in my early/mid-forties.)

He cannot get enough of this series, and he begs me to read to him at every spare moment, not just before bed. We’ve churned through the first four novels in a few weeks, and we’re about a quarter-way through Enchanters’ End Game as of the writing of this post. It’s been great watching him get inspired by these stories that were such a big part of my imagination when I was 13-14.

And, as a jaded adult, what do I think of these books now?

Well, I have to say I’m actually pretty surprised at how well the story and the writing holds up. Let’s be clear, this is not great “literature.” It’s a pretty simple zero-to-hero story with an evil god (evil for the sake of being evil, really), some cultures that are almost entirely good, other cultures that are almost entirely bad, over-the-top villains, etc. There’s nothing really that special about the story or the setting when looked at in the context of the genre as a whole. But the writing is so clean and you get the feeling Mr. Eddings really enjoyed himself immensely while committing the words to paper, and so the whole thing becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

To sum up, I’m really glad I revisited these books and shared them with my son. They’ve aged rather well, and have been a breath of fresh air in the current landscape of grim fantasy novels patterned off of the Song of Ice and Fire series. (Not that I’m not a fan of George R.R. Martin, but the relentless grimdark of his many imitators gets tiresome after a while.)

It turns out that sometimes you can go back, and things are just as good as you remember them.

What about you? Are you re-reading anything that you originally read as a teen? How does it hold up? Are you sharing any of those books with your own children, either by reading to them or by them reading the books directly?

Tell me all about it in the comments.