Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Dragons of Spring Dawning

Dungeons & Dragons & Novels: Revisiting Dragons of Spring Dawning

I don’t think it’s presumptuous of me to have assumed that Dragons of Spring Dawning, the third novel in Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s beloved first Dragonlance trilogy, would heavily feature… well, dragonlances. These books kicked off the brand-new Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, introduced the dragon-filled world of Krynn, and chronicled the epic War of the Lance in which our heroes had to face the evil dragon goddess Takhisis. Also, the series is called Dragonlance. And yet somehow, Spring Dawning is mostly dragonlance-free.

Alas, it’s not the only disappointment to be found in the final volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, nor is it the only baffling decision made by Weis and Hickman in the book. Spring Dawning frequently reads if it was a rush job, where the duo didn’t have time to fully think out the plot and was forced to use a variety of deus ex machinas to keep the story churning. This honestly may well have been the case, as Spring Dawning was published in September of 1985, a mere two months after the previous novel, Dragons of Winter Night. (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, for the record, came out in November of 1984.)

Let me explain. The primary adventure of the novel is Tanis and his comrades’ attempt to bring Berem — aka the Green Gem Man — to the Temple of Takhisis at Neraka so he can do something that will help seal the goddess away again. Takhisis is well-aware of Berem and sends her draconian armies and dragons to find him, because if she gets her claws on him, she’ll be free and unbeatable. It’s hard to get too invested in Berem as a character or his journey because we’ve spent no previous time with him — he was barely in either of the first two books and never spoke a line of dialogue, so the discovery that he’s the McGuffin that’s going to save the world isn’t satisfying. And it’s even less satisfying when you learn the reason why he’s the McGuffin, later in the book: hundreds of years ago, he and his sister spotted a jeweled column in the woods. In true Smeagol fashion, Berem was consumed by greed, tried to grab a jewel, and accidentally knocked his sister down and killed her. Apparently, the column had imprisoned Takhisis and the removal of the gem allowed the goddess a little bit of freedom, which is why she’s causing trouble in the present. But all it’s going to take to save the world is to take a bit of super-glue and sticking the gem back on the column. It all feels quite banal, especially compared to throwing the most powerful enchanted item on the planet into an open volcano.

In one of his attempts to stay out of the hands of the forces of Takhisis, Berem sails his ship, along with Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Tika, Riverwind, and Goodmoon, directly into a deadly maelstrom in the middle of the ocean where the ship breaks and they all get sucked into the whirlpool. Weis and Hickman take their time returning to their storyline as if anyone reading would believe they’d killed more than half of the trilogy’s main characters in the first few chapters of the book, but the way the authors write themselves out of the corner stinks. Suddenly, sea elves exist, and even though they don’t care about the surface world, apparently they occasionally rescue drowning people by taking them to the conveniently placed ancient city full of breathable air on the bottom of the seabed. When the sea elves return Tanis and the others to the surface, the heroes don’t even remember what happened to them. The shipwreck is solely for shock value, but the deus ex machina robs it of its power, and the memory wipe makes it a total waste of time.

However, my least favourite moment in Spring Dawning — and maybe in the entire trilogy — is when Kitiara sends a message to Laurana, who has been kicking the draconian asses of Takhisis’ forces all across Krynn. She’s a tactical genius, all the disparate groups under her control believe in her fully, and she’s known as the “Golden General” to her troops and the townsfolk. Unfortunately, all these battles almost exclusively happen as asides, and these are the only battles in which people actually ride on good dragons while wielding dragonlances, so they’re only in the book by proxy (minus a single scene where a hapless Tasslehoff and Flint get drawn into a dragon-fight and have to figure out how to use the lance). The War of the Lance is basically reduced to a brief montage.

Matt Stawicki's cover for the reprint, which replaces Tika with the twins' half-sister Kitiara. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Matt Stawicki’s cover for the reprint, which replaces Tika with the twins’ half-sister Kitiara. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

But I was talking about the message Kitiara sends to Laurana, which states Tanis is dying and wants to see the elf-general before he dies. All Laurana needs to do is bring an evil commander she’d captured for a hostage exchange and to come alone. Laurana offers no proof that she has Tanis, and Tas and Flint explain repeatedly that they know Kitiara and she’s definitely lying — but ignoring the war, the pivotal role she plays in it, the troops that need her in command, and the people she’s supposed to protect, Laurana goes anyway, like she’s the moon-eyed girl from Autumn Twilight. She’s captured instantly, of course. Again, it’s like Weis and Hickman knew they wanted Laurana at the Temple of Takhisis for the final act but were given 10 minutes to brainstorm on a narratively satisfying way they could make it happen, and this is the best they could come up with. Oh, also, Kitiara tells all the combined forces of good they have three weeks to unequivocally surrender and let the literal embodiment of evil rule over Krynn or Laurana will be killed. Admittedly, Laurana was extremely good at her job, but why would they choose eternal darkness and subjugation over a single person? Why would the forces of evil think they would? It’s just dumb.

There are still several things that work in Spring Dawning, however! Tanis’ self-loathing is a lot more palatable when he has concrete reasons for it, namely the fact he begins the novel literally sleeping with the enemy, and I think his twisted relationship with Kitiara feels authentically self-destructive. It makes his character arc more satisfying, and it pays off well in the story’s final act, when he uses his toxic relationship to rejoin the forces of evil in hopes of freeing Laurana.

Speaking of evil, this is the book where Raistlin finally goes full black robes, first by teleporting himself off the maelstrom-bound ship, abandoning everyone else, including his devastated twin brother Caramon. Still, Weis and Hickman manage to give the new black mage shades of grey by having him join the forces of Takhisis, only to help Tanis kill the goddess’ most powerful acolyte, Emperor Ariakis. Then Raistlin allows Berem to return the gem to the column to lock the divine dragon away. Sure, he makes clear he’s done all of this because it’s made him the most powerful force of evil on Krynn, but then he still saves Tasslehoff and Tika from death. He’s evil, but he still has a soft side in there somewhere, which has caused him to be one of Dungeons & Dragons’ most beloved characters.

Additionally, the book’s final act is just great. Once you get past the nonsense of Laurana’s capture, Tanis, Caramon, Tika, and Tasslehoff’s three-pronged assault is wonderfully plotted and edited together for maximum energy. I’m not sure Tanis and Kitiara’s plan, or the plans they’ve kept secret from each other, would all make sense under close scrutiny, but it was exciting enough that I didn’t care, especially when everything at the Temple of Takhisis devolved into total chaos anyway. And there were some wonderful character beats: Caramon’s pathetic plea for Raistlin to take him on his new journey towards evil is heartbreaking, especially when he’s standing right next to Tika, the woman who loves him; Kitiara’s decision to let Tanis and Laurana leave, possibly out of kindness to the half-elf she loved, but possibly to make sure Tanis’ can never get her out of his mind and fully commit to a relationship with Laurana, is perfectly enigmatic.

There’s enough good in here to make the entire original Dragonlance trilogy worth rereading to be sure, but as its own book and as a conclusion to the series, Dragons of Spring Dawning is a disappointment, especially after reading its predecessors. But again, this first Dragonlance trilogy overall is better than any D&D trilogy I’ve read so far. I can certainly understand why it’s beloved, but I can’t in good conscience call Spring Dawning better than its predecessors. Thus, it rolls a 14 on its 1d20, below Winter Night’s 17 and Autumn Twilight’s 16, and same as the Forgotten Realms novel Shadowdale. It feels harsh but fair: Spring Dawning is a mostly good book that is permeated with small bits of atrocious plotting.

After reading three good Dragonlance novels in a row, I feel like I should try another presumably horrible Gary Gygax/Greyhawk joint to balance it out… but I truly do not want to. So instead, let’s finish out R.A. Salvatore’s original Icewind Dale trilogy and look back at The Halfling’s Gem. See you next month!

Full original cover by Larry Elmore. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)
Full original cover by Larry Elmore. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Assorted Musings:

  • The entity that Raistlin made his mysterious deal with to defeat the green dragon Cyan Bloodbane in Winter Night turns out to have been the ancient (and dead) evil wizard Fistandantilus. It’s Raistlin’s second deal with Fistandantilus that allows him to live after nearly dying using the Dragon Orb to escape the sinking ship. The partnership makes the mage powerful enough to be of use to — and eventually defeat — Takhisis. I’m under the impression this gets explored a great deal more in Weis and Hickman’s subsequent trilogy, Dragonlance Legends.
  • It turns out the reason that the good, metallic dragons had been keeping out of the fight was because the evil, chromatic dragons had stolen the good dragons’ eggs and were holding them hostage. But Laurana’s brother Gilthanas went on a fact-finding mission and discovered those eggs were being transformed into the half-dragon, half-man draconians that made up Takhisis’ army. This struck me as weird when I was a kid, and it strikes me as weird now because there seem to be hundreds or maybe even thousands of dragons on each side, but the evil, humanoid draconians seem to number in the tens of thousands, if not more! How did the bad guys get their hands on so many eggs from the good dragons? Do good dragons lay eggs like chickens? How does this work?
  • Flint dies of a heart attack along the way to Neraka. Since it’s such a mundane death by D&D standards, it actually has more power than it would if he fell in battle against a dragon or some such. The wizard Fizban takes him to Dragonlance heaven, mostly so Fizban has an excuse not to take part in the final fight. And that’s presumably because he’s secretly Palantine, the god of good that stands in eternal opposition to Takhisis. Why he allows himself to be in situations where he dies horribly — like when he falls dozens of feet and smashes into the ground while trying and failing to cast feather fall back in Autumn Twilight — is completely unknown
  • The most messed-up thing in the book is another diatribe about the importance of keeping the balance between good and evil, as if evil was an OK part of the equation. But Spring Dawning takes it a wild step further, as per this quote about the problems with goodness: “[Good] breeds intolerance, rigidity, a belief that because I am right, those who don’t believe as I do are wrong. We gods saw the danger this complacency was bringing upon the world. We saw that good was being destroyed simply because it wasn’t understood.” I’m not going to even try to begin to unpack that.

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