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Dragon Wing by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Cover art by Keith Parkenson

Maps by Jeffrey L. Ward

Published by Bantam Spectra

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman originally made a name for themselves as the writers of the Dragonlance novels for TSR. Since they were tie-ins for a role-playing game, the writers had to work within the constraints of the elements that make for good role-playing but may not necessarily be ideal for fiction. However, their work was sufficiently popular that they were in demand as writers of epic fantasy, and Bantam gave them the opportunity to write their own ticket for an original-universe epic fantasy series. The result was the Death Gate Cycle, of which this novel is the first installment.

An author who undertakes to create a new epic fantasy series must navigate the delicate web of expectations that have been created by earlier series, particularly major ones such as J.R.R.Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. On one hand, one must not appear to be overly derivative, merely rehashing the same old ideas in new patterns. On the other, one cannot depart too far from the boundaries that have been created by reader expectations by introducing elements that are not only innovative, but also too far outside those expectations.

Weis and Hickman tread a very thin line with the world (or rather worlds, as we eventually find out) they have created for this series. We've got the standard Mysterious Hints and Schemes prolog, in which an unknown and unseen interlocutor is telling a character known as Haplo some Very Important Things about his upcoming mission, which also has the virtue of clueing in us the readers about some key facts about the story world we are entering. And then we're tossed into an execution scene that seems almost standard-issue thud-and-blunder fantasy -- until we discover that "Mid Realm" doesn't mean a realm in the center of a continent, but the central part of a weird world of endlessly churning tiny "islands" of floating rock in an atmosphere that is painfully thin at the top and juicily thick at the bottom. So perhaps we can forgive the authors for starting the story with the narrowly averted execution of Hugh the Hand, an assassin of considerable repute. Or even their use of footnotes to impart bits of information about the world, such as the basing of the world's currency upon barrels of water, or the ecology of dragons.

Still, the politics of the Mid Realm doesn't depart that much from one's typical high fantasy. There are elves and humans, each people arranged in kingdoms that apparently have some kind of hereditary succession, although the precise details are never specified, it being only of relevance to the story because of the concerns about the changeling child who has been put in the nursery of the human King Stephen and his Queen, much to their consternation. This child, Bane, is protected by a spell that compels those around him to care for him, much as they would like to kill him as an interloper. Even his origin is mysterious, but it is believed that he is somehow related to the mysterious wizards of the High Realm.

These wizards, commonly called the mysteriarchs, are known only by reputation in the Mid Realm, as the only communities of humans completely independent of the elves. While the humans of the Mid Realm are technologically and magically inferior to the elves, and thus are only nominally independent, the wizards of the High Realm bow to no elf.

However, they have their own problems -- in particular, the air of the High Realm is so thin that humans are hard-pressed to live there, and human children do not thrive. This is the rationale for the switch of Bane for the actual child of King Stephen and his Queen. And thus the reason for King Stephen's decision to order Hugh's execution stayed -- he believes that this assassin will be able to evade the enchantment about Bane and kill him where all others have failed.

But it is with the Low Realm that Weis and Hickman really go out on a limb, testing the limits of exactly what one can get away with in writing a novel of epic fantasy. There dwell a people who call themselves the Gegs, but are clearly the dwarves that form the final part of the typical fantasy triad of races. While it is traditional for dwarves to be portrayed as living underground and being engaged with craftsmanship and mechanical things, Weis and Hickman take it considerably further. The Gegs dwell in caves amidst an ancient machine known as the Kicksey-winsey, which constantly expands itself in mysterious fashion, sometimes even devouring the caverns in which the Gegs live. The Kicksey-winsey was built by the mysterious Mangers, now long gone, who arranged the Gegs into their scrifts to labor on it in a fashion that is downright industrial. But over that they have laid a layer of superstitious awe, regarding this ancient machine as something divine.

Thus is it any surprise that the major character in this part of the world should be one Limbeck Bolttightener, organizer of the Worshippers United for Progress or Prosperity, commonly abbreviated WUPP? Or that his rhetoric should sound an awful lot like a Marxist diatribe about the class struggle? Or that some of his followers should have decided to take violent action against the Kicksey-winsey, a deed that has brought the authorities down not only upon them, but upon Limbeck for having promulgated such heretical ideas?

It's important to remember this novel was published in 1990, a time when the Soviet Union was still in existence, if on its last legs and rapidly crumbling, and that it still was officially a Communist state. Young people reading it today may well have no real sense of the fear of Communism that many of those original readers would have been brought up with, hearing Ronald Reagan speak of the Evil Empire and demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev (the Soviet leader in the second half of the 1980's) tear down the Berlin Wall, a hated symbol of the division of Germany, and of Europe at large, into two hostile camps, one in which the people were not free to leave, or even to move about the country.

Given that climate of opinion, it's remarkable that Weis and Hickman manage to make Limbeck a sympathetic figure even as he spouts phrases that would be virtually guaranteed to evoke Soviet slogans. Part of it may be the cognitive dissonance that is created by the image of a dwarf, a typical high-fantasy character, operating in such a blatantly industrial situation, yet belonging to no clearly identifiable historical period. Alternatively, given the worn-down forms of their language (Manger for Manager, froman for foreman, scrift for shift, etc.) and the general level of superstition in which the general populace of the Gegs live, the rationality and independent thought shown by Limbeck makes us willing to overlook the similarity of some of his thought to that of the creator of Communism. And given that his organization's initials are reminiscent of those of many American labor unions' names, it may well become easier to see him as more of a fantasy Samuel Gompers, just wanting to make sure that labor gets a fair shake but willing to let the capitalists have a reasonable profit upon their investments, rather than a firebrand like Leon Trotsky.

In any case, the Geg authorities are not exactly happy to have to deal with Limbeck -- even if his followers hadn't committed sacrilege by attacking the Kicksey-winsey, he's threatening to disturb the status quo. And of course the status quo is nice and comfortable for them, even if it means misery for the rest of the population. So they decide to toss him off the edge of one of the sky islands of the Low Realm and into the Maelstrom, the endless storm that fills that part of their world.

Except it doesn't work quite as planned. Remember Haplo, the mysterious person to whom the unseen interlocutor was talking in the prolog? Well, he's just managed to find his way into the World of Sky, and has found and rescued Limbeck. And of course he decides to take the dissident Geg back to his home island, much to the consternation of the High Froman and the other authorities. But it's the only way that Haplo can find transportation to the upper realms, where he believes his true target lies.

Weis and Hickman not only make a socialist rebellion in a high-fantasy world plausible, but they even have us the readers cheering the workers on. And then Haplo's off to the upper realms for that confrontation with the mysteriarchs, who seem to grow more sinister with every new bit of information we learn about them.

Review posted February 18, 2009.

Buy Dragon Wing (The Death Gate Cycle, Book 1) from Amazon.com