Friday, July 5, 2013

Dragons of Autumn Twlight: Old Man, Chapters One and Two

So we begin. I actually read it this afternoon while feeding my son at my father in law's house and when I finished I went swimming with my daughter and niece. As I floated in the pool I contemplated just how I was going to tackle this task. I knew that I had to set some kind of rules, but I wasn't sure what those rules were.

I knew that I was feeling nostalgia for the books, but I did read them when I was in middle school. That was almost 30 years ago. I'm not much of a re-reader and that's gotten even worse as I've gotten older, time gotten tighter and all the different online resources out there make re-reading less of a necessity when it comes to reading a series. I can just check Wikipedia to skim details and get right back into a series. Anyway, I tried to push out what I remembered about the books so not to completely spoil myself, as silly as that sounds, though there are things that I do remember as they are indelible in my mind. So I guess that was the first rule.

The second rule, and I know that I'm going to break this, is not to get all flustered when obvious game mechanics appear in the story or something reads like it is straight off the gaming table. Let me make a quick confession. I love D&D. I collected the manuals and am still obsessed with the worlds, but I've never played a single game of D&D. Never rolled a die, never listened to a game master, nothing. (I'm also not much of a video gamer, other than sports games, but that's a blog post for another time...I know, what a waste of a geek.) All this means is that while I enjoy these stories, the necessity of including obvious game mechanics or desktop RPG elements into the story grates on me. It's a problem I had with another very popular fantasy books I recently read that was almost a paint by numbers D&D session transcription...a very good one mind you, but still, after a while it made me skim huge chunks of the book. But I'm not here to talk about that book, I'm here to talk about DOAT (as I'm going to refer to it from here on out).

Old Man
One of the huge spoilers that cannot be avoided once you have read all the books is who the Old Man is...and I'm not just talking about him being a guy named Fizban. He's the avatar for the most powerful of the returning Gods. But let's be honest...he's Gandalf....he's Merlin...and he's an obvious agent of some great power wrapped up in the disguise of a crazy old man. It's always an interesting trope to play with and it's done pretty well here and brings up a great potential theme (already) in the writing: fate vs. free will. Is it the fate of these characters to save the world? Do they really have a choice or has it already been decided? It's one of the great questions that every "quest fantasy" asks and this one does it very interestingly because it's obvious that these characters are just pawns in the story.

Chapter One And Two
The thing that I think about as I'm rereading this book as a writer especially is audience. As I said earlier in this post, I read the book nearly 30 years ago when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I'm guessing that was lowest end of the target audience. As I can figure, we're probably looking at a target of 16-25 year olds for an audience when these books were written. (This is a gross generalization I know, so please, relax.) I look at these books and wonder if they'd be marketed as traditional or YA fantasy today. (Maybe even that nebulous New Adult. Anyway, the two first characters we meet are elderly: Fizban (though we don't know his name yet) and Flint, one of our protagonists. (I will talk about using multiple POVs later in this series but not now.)We meet two of our other protagonists, Tanis and Tasslehoff (there will, in all likelihood be a separate entry for Tas, but much later in the series). And thus begins the POV shifting.

In most modern fantasies it has become common practice to at least give us at least a physical break in the page between POV shifts, more common than not is to give one character their own chapter, but not always. Not in this book, they might give you a paragraph to break. Anyway, I digress.

Let's talk quickly about Tanis. Tanis is our gateway character. He's the hero. A half-elf ranger....we're wading into game mechanics because I know that Tanis is a fighter not a ranger, but go with me on this one....was the default for many of us. Not human. Powerful but somewhat balanced. It would have been easy for him to descend into Aragorn-ville if the writers allowed him to be, but they don't. Already you can tell there is something about Tanis that makes him more than he appears.

There is a throw away line, almost, in the chapter where the writers talk about his beard. I obviously didn't notice it the first time I'd read it, but it really stuck with me as I read it this time, even in the first chapter. What a great symbol the writers are using, and I'm interested to see how this plays out for the rest of the books. The beard means so many things that you can't ignore it's significance. It represents the reprehensible part of his heritage, the part that he doesn't want to identify with but he has to because there are "lands not friendly to those of elvish blood." All this sets up a terrific conflict: Tanis's inner conflict to identify which society he truly belongs, if he does at all.

Anyway, the opening chapter descends into a nicely done infodump that tells us why these characters have been away from one another so long and a quick "random encounter" from one of those charts in the game books, though introducing Fewmaster Toede is terrific and our heroes dispatching the mooks quite easily but leaving them with all sorts of questions.

The second chapter transitions to the typical "meeting of the heroes" in the tavern. It hits all the notes just right, and I'm not saying this as a criticism either...more like a good musician hitting the right notes. The "dark tidings" vibe is well done within the story and the thing that struck me was the lack of detail in some of the description. Being a Martin fan and having so much time in Randland in the last few years, there were several lines that made me chuckle where I thought about the way Martin or Jordan would have written them. The one that made me stop was when the protags notice a group of guards "armed to the teeth." Martin and Jordan would've taken up at least a paragraph to describe the weapons, armor and uniforms of these characters. Instead, Weis and Hickman don't. This economy of words is nice and makes me think if this is something I can do too.

Within this we get two terrific fantasy tropes played very differently, one perfectly, one not so much. The one that doesn't go as well is related to game mechanics again...I know, I know, I promised I wouldn't harp on it, but I am, sort of....magic comes at a great cost. I'm kind of tired of that trope (some of that coming from the book I was talking about earlier but I digress) and prefer the Harry Potter, magic is genetic kind of magic system. The Vancian (if you aren't sure, Google it, I'm sure someone has a blog post or definition of it somewhere that can help you understand it) System devalues the power of magic in my mind. (There is a blog post in me about the absurdity of "wizards are physically weak" requirement but this isn't the place for it.) These books are always going to be tied to the D&D magic system and that's going to give me fits. And it's one of the reasons why Raistlin frustrates me. He doesn't work within the context of D&D. He's a great character, but he doesn't fit the rules of the world, they just wanted to make him creepy for creepy's sake. (Okay, part of my judgement is coming from my own knowledge of the rest of the series and magic users in other D&D tie in novels.) Creepy would've been fine, if they were consistent.

The thing they do right is the last few paragraphs of the chapter. One of their band has broken the oath. Broken oaths are another building block of good fantasy. And it sets up so much of the rest of the start of the story. So many questions that we need to answer: Who is Kitaria? Why is she sending word to Tanis? Why is he so upset about the letter? Why is she breaking the oath? It's just well done.

For the most part, the first 30 pages were about what I expected with a few surprises I don't think my 13 year old self would have noticed. I'm going to watch for the way the beard symbol plays out. I think it's pretty important for Tanis, who I am paying close attention to, seeing what I can learn about him as a character since he was the character that I liked the most when I was younger.

Next post: Chapters 3-6. Post might be up Sunday. Keep your eyes out.

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