You can tell my copy of this book is old because even the Canadian price is several dollars less than a new paperback today. I bought it in 7th grade during the winter, and at a now out of business Waldenbooks that turned into a TGI Fridays. It’s probably a Starbucks now. Haven’t been in that area in years. The old Waldenbooks was a shallow bookstore, but the shelves were high. It was one of those places where you couldn’t even see what was up top (and that’s saying a lot since I’m almost six and a half feet.) They had those rolling ladders that went along the shelves and the register was a kiosk in the middle of the store. There was no coffee shop or membership card, and certainly no Kindle and its kin. They just had books and magazines.

I mentioned in a previous entry that I’m a sucker for cover art, and that’s the whole reason I bought this one, other than looking for a dragon story. If anything picking the book up again reminded me of Larry Elmore’s art. He does such amazing fantasy work, in particular his dragons, and he’s the only reason I became interested in drawing them myself. It was the closest thing to being high a twelve year old kid could legally experience. From browsing Amazon, the new editions are done by someone else, but my cover looks like this:

Just with text.

That dragon is bad ass. I can’t say so much for his ambiguously gendered friends, but he’s awesome. It’s funny how the dragon’s gender is easier to guess than the humanoid characters. It’s got to be a he. Right? I also can’t count how many times I’ve seen that same dragon copied by artists on the internet trying to draw one.

I don’t remember why this was, but that year I slept in my parents’ room. We had an extra guest bed with a brass railing. It was like that bed from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but it didn’t take me to a magic cartoon land. I remember having the book there and reading bits of it. There was a convenient set of shelves built into the wall right next to it so I could leave my things there, and this included all of my Nintendo Powers. I was admittedly a bad reader then. It wasn’t a comprehension issue. It was simply that I skimmed and skipped freely, looking for the “good” parts in most anything I read. Up until my teenage years, there was little I actually read all the way through. Some books I skipped huge sections. This is probably why I didn’t remember a thing about Dragons of Winter Night (aka DOWN) other than some of the prechapter drawings.

I learned this time that the plot involves a mixed group of your typical fantasy races like elves and dwarfs looking for this magic dragon orb that’ll give them the power to control the dragons that are being used to take over the land of Krynn. I understand the books are based on the Dungeons and Dragons games that I never played–it seemed all the kids doing this were smoking pot–but even then it sure feels like I’m reading someone’s extended roleplaying session. In particular a group of teenagers who think they’re more clever than they really are. The authors Weis and Hickman have their moments, but overall the writing’s about the quality you’d get from a decent high school writer. I tried writing a book in my late teens. This only sounds marginally better. Judging from the professional and fan reviews over at Amazon, I must have read a different book.

To be fair, I’m sure I would have better understood the characters and their motivations if I had read the previous book. This is part two of three. But even then I never felt fully into any of the protagonists. For the most part they lacked depth, and there are so many characters who end up scattered in so many places it’s difficult for a newcomer to keep track of who’s who. I did like Tanis, the half human, half elf, and what he had to deal with from both sides because of this, along with his perceived history with one of the dragon lords, Kitiara. She (guessing that’s her on the cover) was far and away the strongest character in the book, but she was only there for a few brief moments. More like her and it could have been much better. There was just so little development for anyone I was supposed to care about. It felt like the characters were there to be game pieces and just move along to their goal.

That’s a shame because I would have liked to know more about them. This extends to dragons. We see early on that they’re intelligent. They can talk. They have their own thoughts. But do we ever learn anything about any of them? No, other than they’re apparently deserving to be wiped out completely. It began with promise as we see one of the blue dragons, Skie, showing us how he sees the world, but after that one scene he never says another thing. We don’t even see him again until nearly 400 pages later, and at that point the book’s over. I really wanted to know more about at least him, dangit. At least Kitiara treats him well. It makes me wonder what about them is supposed to be so evil. Yes, they’ve burned down cities, but in war these things happen. I’m supposed to hate these characters, but I felt rather sorry for them, especially two dragons who were horrifically slayed near the end. At least one of the protagonists was as repulsed as I felt, though it seemed like a chance for a forced bit of morality. It didn’t feel that natural, especially with someone’s actions in the following scene.

Kitiara was too fair (hell, she gave someone back her weapon who was wanting to kill her) to really come off as evil. The dragons did nothing to seem evil. Any negative act was caused by someone else’s direction. You can’t have empathy for each other and be evil. So, I have a hard time buying that they are, despite what I’m told. I have to wonder if there’s intentional vagueness about it, despite that being a modern trend (this book’s from the 80s,) or if it’s just a failure on the authors’ part. I honestly feel confused and let down.

Despite disappointments, and that I can’t really recommend it unless you loved the first book, I am happy I finally finished DOWN. It was a change of pace to read a more traditional fantasy. I’m almost wanting to read the next book to see how the characters I did like develop. Maybe some other day though since I’m not counting on it.

Did I mention it had awesome cover art?