Dragon Wing: Not very good

book review The Deathgate Cycle WeisDragon Wing by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

The Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman novels make up one of those corners of the Fantasy genre that you either enjoyed in your teens (and remember fondly)… or you didn’t. I have to admit that I’m of the latter camp, and while I strongly suspect that there was a time when I could have greatly enjoyed Dragon Wing, that time has passed me by. These days, I’m a little too jaded and I’ve read a few too many works in a very similar vein. Dragon Wing isn’t bad, necessarily, but I’d be lying if I said I particularly like it.

It starts well, mind you, as master assassin Hugh the Hand is employed by the king for that most politically fraught of missions: killing the crown prince. Hugh is, above all, a pragmatist, and so long as he’s getting paid he’s willing to undertake any contract… or so he thinks. When he learns that the crown prince is only a young boy, the assassin finds himself struggling with unusual flickers of conscience. Meanwhile, a dwarf named Limbeck is struggling to incite a social revolution amongst his people, the Gegs (dwarves), who for time out of mind have maintained a vast machine despite no longer remembering what it even does. They worship humans and elves as gods of a world above, but Limbeck alone knows that the so-called deities of the Gegs are only too mortal. Finally, the mysterious Haplo, a traveler from the other side of the Death Gate (whatever that is) appears with the goal of fomenting chaos and striking against an ancient nemesis.

So far, so good. The characters are admittedly pretty easy to peg into their respective archetypes (and some, like Limbeck, are practically out-and-out caricature), but the plot seems interesting and while the prose won’t be winning any awards, it definitely has its moments of charm. Then we have the world-building, which is really quite fun and innovative. Sure, we have the usual elves, dwarves, and wizards from every single LotR/D&D spin-off since Tolkien, but we have to remember that this was the 1990s, and was thus published a good way before the LORD OF THE RINGS pastiche really breathed its last. It was a reasonably acceptable form at the time, and Weis and Hickman make the world their own with floating islands, skyships, and a far-reaching cosmology. What’s more, despite the greater-than-usual complexity of their created world, they largely resist the temptation to fling out dollops of exposition. Instead, they allow information to trickle out more or less organically, and the story feels much stronger for it.

In fact, my notes for Dragon Wing — up to about the 60 – 70% mark — are overall fairly positive. A number of interesting plot twists come along, and our characters work their way out of problems with brains as often as the usual sword-swinging or magical fiat. The simplistic character designs and motivations continued to trouble me, but I reminded myself I was reading a novel aimed at children and mentally pegged the book at about a B-/C+, depending on how well Weis and Hickman stuck the landing.

That was around the point, unfortunately, when things began to fall apart. The plot had been weakening, but I had hoped that it was just the usual middle-of-the-novel slump, what Jim Butcher calls “the great swampy middle.” Weis and Hickman would hardly have been the first authors to wander a little in between setting up the dominoes and knocking them over. I assumed things would smooth out once we got into the final act. Instead, the novel ends with a very rushed and frankly silly finale wherein all the main characters meet up and head off to hobnob with the villain (leaving a long line of baffling coincidences and gaping plot holes in their wake). Much of the interesting build-up in the earlier portions of the novel doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere (and no, I don’t mean that they’re just being left for book 2), and even those threads that achieve some resolution tend to do so in very clumsy or contrived fashion.

Dragon Wing’s pacing, previously not too bad, careens out of Weis and Hickman’s control in the climax, becoming so frenetic that events begin to lack emotional impact. A character falls in love in two pages, and it’s important, but no it’s not, but it really is, but forget about that, here comes something even more important! It’s as though Weis and Hickman spotted the finish line and completely lost their heads.

There is an effort to tie things up in an epilogue, and Weis and Hickman drop a lot of hints right at the end about how important the events you’ve just seen have been, but it feels like too little too late. Yes, the world-building is good. No complaints there. But none of the characters even managed to live up to what was fairly modest potential (with the possible exception of Haplo), and the plot descended into chaos.

In fairness, I do think children will enjoy this novel far better than I did, and it is explicitly intended for younger audiences (the villain is honest-to-God named Sinistrad of Castle Sinister, for example). However, a flub-up is a flub-up, and whether your audience is forgiving or not, I can’t enthusiastically recommend Dragon Wing to 9-year-olds when works like HIS DARK MATERIALS and THE DARK IS RISING exist in the same genre.

In conclusion, the experience of reading this novel was overall like watching an ambitious juggler try something a bit too complicated for him. He starts out fine, tossing his pins into the air one at a time. At first, you’re quite impressed as he adds more pins and more and more. You do notice that he’s begun to perspire a little, but you shrug and assume it must be the heat. But then he begins to fumble. A pin clatters to the ground, then another, and you wince as you watch, hoping that he can pull it out. But now the desperate juggler is blurring his hands in every direction, panicking, and in the end all that happens is that everything comes crashing down at once. In the echoing aftermath, the juggler gives you a sickly little grin and takes a bow amidst all his fallen pins.

Feeling sorry for him, you paste on a mirroring smile and try to quietly sidle away, but before you can escape he hurries over and tells you that this was only the warm-up. The proper performances are going to start in a moment. So you ask him what he’s planning to try next. He tips you a huge wink, slides a companionable arm around your shoulders, and says that if you’d like to find out, you should stay for the next six acts. You look over and notice that, indeed, he’s got six more cases all lined up, with knives and torches and hundreds of multi-colored balls.

That’s when you have to make your decision. Maybe you could hang around. After all, everyone deserves a second chance, and all those cases do look impressive. You could give it a try.

Or, alternately, you could just duck under his arm and run for it.


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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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4 comments

  1. The name Limbeck made me go check the pub-date and, as you said later in the review, it was 1990. That name has GOT to be a mash-up of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck.

    Epilogues, like a lot of voice-over narration in most movies, is a big sign of narrative failure. (There certainly are exceptions, particularly in movies.)

  2. The book may not be very good, but your review is priceless.

  3. So many excellent insights in this review, it almost feels wasted on a book like this. I too have a soft spot for the Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlance Legends (Caramon and Raistlin, my favorite twins!), which I read at the PERFECT target age back in junior high. I liked that series so much that 20 years later I read the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy to my daughter as a bedtime story (in tiny increments, you can imagine), and was at a loss to understand where the magic had gone. Then I realized it was I who had lost that magic by growing up into a less innocent, more demanding adult reader. Ah well, it was great at the time…

  4. Mitch /

    It’s too bad that this book really seems to lose peoples interest. It isn’t the strongest book 1, but if you continue with the series you will find one of the most amazing fantasy stories ever written. Book 2 even starts a little week, but by the end of that on, there is nothing, but an immensely original fantasy story that you will remember long after you forget the plot of books you’ve read since.

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