Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: Song of the Dragon by Tracy Hickman

Genre: Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: DAW Hardcover
Publication Date: July 6, 2010
ISBN-10: 0756406072
ISBN-13: 978-0756406073
Author Website: Tracy Hickman

Song of the Dragon is the latest novel from New York Times bestselling author Tracy Hickman, best known for his collaborations with Margaret Weis on Dragonlance and the Death Gate Cycle. The story here is entirely Hickman’s own, and though retaining elements of his collaborations with Weis, showcases just why Hickman is a better writer in collaboration than on by himself.

The tale is of a human slave named Drakis. Serving as an Impress warrior for a minor house in the large and brutal Elven empire, Drakis seeks nothing but the honor of his house and the love of the woman Marla. In the world of Song of the Dragon humans are rare, a defeated race that serve as slaves (along with manticores, chimerians, goblins, and the occasional dwarf) to the elves. These elves retain little of the traditional form, being rather alien in appearance, with conical heads, pitch black eyes, and an aversion to the forest. These conquerors use magic drawn from Aether wells to control their slaves, remaking them through daily devotions to suit their nefarious and despicable needs. But when Drakis, through coincidence, begins to free himself from the mental shackles, he learns that he may be a prophesied hero come to destroy the Elven Empire that has stood for a thousand years.

Hickman starts his story off with a bang. The reader is dropped into a lengthy protracted battle (over 50 pages of material) between the elves and their northern nemeses the dwarves. Drakis is a small cog in this engine of war but it his perspective that is used to tell the story. This is the sort of battle description that would normally occur at the end of a novel, to wrap the story up in excitement and leave the reader hungering for more. But not for Hickman. He prefers to begin this way, and so makes the excitement palpable from the very first page. Leaving aside the difficulty of blast of fantasy world jargon that Hickman dumps on the reader, the real problem of beginning this way is that the rest of the narrative ends up being rather a let down, s if the remainder of the novel is just one long denouement rather than a story. All of the emotion and suspense of the novel really occurs in the first 50 pages of the book.

After this battle, the reader then follows Drakis and his companions as they escape their captivity and head north for a rendezvous with destiny. Followed by the elf Soen (the character who provides the personal face of the villain, which is the empire itself) the mismatched set of companions moves through the world, encountering various other races, supposedly developing character as they go.

The setting itself is creative. Hickman uses some of the tropes of traditional fantasy, but twists them. The elves and their alien appearance and motivations differ widely from the traditional depiction. The use of humanoid chimera and manticores, creatures from Greek myth not often seen outside of stories directly related to those myths, is a clever way to do something new that epic fantasy readers may not have seen before. The world itself is fully realized, with multiple countries and motivations within them, eschewing the sometimes monolithic approach to species, where everyone in a species is essentially the same, agrees with each other, and despise anyone not of their race. There are factions within the races, as evidenced by the rebel faction of elves (mentioned but not encountered) and the split personality of the manticores – which plays a key part in the character development of RuuKag, one of Drakis’ companions.

But though the setting is fully realized and fairly complex, the character development is where this story falls apart. None of the characters have enough depth to get the reader to really care about them. Even Drakis and Soen, the two characters the reader becomes most intimate with, lack anything to make them empathetic. The characters swim though the pool of plot without really having any depth of feeling. Sure, Hickman describes them having feelings, even reacting to events with different emotions, but it is hard to believe these characters are really having them, even when Drakis is attempting to reconcile his mind to his returned memories. Though there are obvious attempts at giving the characters depth, they are either heavy-handed or simply do not do so, and readers looking for character driven fantasy will find instead a setting driven one.

It is the setting which really moves the plot. After the well-described battle at the beginning of the book, the remainder of the plot is simply a race, in which Drakis and his companions attempt to stay one foot ahead of Soen and the might of the Elven Empire. Along the way, we encounter lots of that great world-building Hickman indulges in, but the story itself lacks any luster. When the narrative was finally over, I was grateful that I no longer had to read of Drakis and his companions meeting some other fantasy trope that Hickman had twisted for his story. Even though the story ended on a cliffhanger, I’m not sure I care enough about these characters to want to read more about them. I loved the world, and would gladly read about other characters in this setting, but Hickman’s own are sadly without appeal.

It is obvious that Hickman, separate from Weis, is great at setting, poor on character, and since it is characters that really make a story truly compelling, I would recommend that epic fantasy readers looking for new fiction to read spend their monies elsewhere.