When Dragons Rage by Michael Stackpole is the continuation of the DragonCrown War Cycle. While it is still a very enjoyably read, it does suffer from a few minor problems that take it out of the realm of ďgreatĒ and into ďgood but flawed.Ē Unfortunately, its biggest flaw is almost unforgivable: itís dreadfully boring at times. And thatís not like Stackpole.
Kedynís Crow, long-time nemesis of the evil Chytrine and faithful companion to the good guys, has been revealed to be Tarrant Hawkins, who long ago was declared a traitor by the Southlands for abandoning the first expedition against Chytrine to its fate twenty-five years ago. The charges were trumped up because the rulers in the South did not want to hear his warning that Chytrine would be coming. Now she has come, and they donít know what to do about it. They dither and scheme among themselves, some wondering whether to ally with Chytrine while others wonder if they did the right thing all those years ago. Will Norrington, who seemingly fits the prophecy that a Norrington will bring about Chytrineís destruction, has grown from a selfish and conniving thief to a noble lad who has not only accepted his place in the world, but developed noble principles and a compassion that was formerly alien to him. Crow and he, along with their friends, must untangle the political knot that is keeping the South tied down in order to save the South not only from Chytrine, but from itself as well.
Meanwhile, across the land, General Adrogans continues the invasion of the Chytrine-occupied land of Okrannel. Heís mystified about the seeming ease of the invasion, and wary as well. Is there some surprise waiting for him and his troops? Will he succeed in his mission? And if he does, will it spell doom for them all? Finally, Kerrigan Reese is a young mage who has been developed as a weapon to be used against Chytrine. Now that he has been traveling with Crow and the others, he has become his own person as well. Kerrigan continues his development as a wizard and as a man. His magical abilities seem to be growing beyond any known to mankind since the creator of the Dragoncrown lived. But will it be enough to stop Chytrine from stealing all of the pieces of the crown in order to control the dragons of the world? And when the dragons actually get involved in all this, what role will they finally play? Whose side will they take?
When Dragons Rage suffers from an acute case of middle-book syndrome. It seems at times that the characters, introduced and developed in the first book, just move around the board in preparation for their final use in the last book of the series. They go through some more development in this one, and they are for the most part interesting. But I canít help feeling that this is a place-holder book rather than a continuation. Even Stackpole seems to feel that way, as it lacks in large part his characteristic military action. Oh, donít get me wrong. It is there and, when it is, Stackpole excels as he usually does. However, Stackpole goes on for long passages about things that arenít really that interesting. He gives great gory detail about the magic system in this world, telling us the whys and wherefores of many of Kerriganís spells as he works out exactly what his abilities are. The spell descriptions get tedious after a while, and he spends pages on them. Dullness is not a good thing when weíre talking about an action book.
The characters are usually just as interesting as the first book, and Kerrigan actually gets less annoying (which I didnít think was possible). In fact, when Stackpole isnít boring us with the explanation of how magic works, Kerrigan is actually a pretty interesting character as he comes under a new tutor who isnít all that he seems; the revelation about this tutor actually comes as a shock. Will continues his fine progress on the road to being a good man. Heís still naÔve at times, but heís growing into a strong young man, and itís not as unlikely as it was before that he would be the man to finally beat Chytrine.
Princess Alexia and Crow also remain interesting characters, but there are aspects that I found a little suspect, or at least unsupported and coming out of nowhere. As part of a plan to help Crow get out of his mess, Alexia offers to marry him in order to make him a non-citizen of the Southlands and thus make him harder to try as a criminal. But they develop a love for each other that makes them wish for the end of all this conflict so they can get on with their lives. While I understand how a love can grow when youíre in constant proximity to another person, there is no development of this other than a scene where Alexia thinks back to their time together and realizes that she wants his touch. We donít see any of this time, unfortunately. Itís all in Alexiaís thoughts. It wasnít a surprise that this happened, but it would have been nice to see some of it before Stackpole just presents it to us.
Even Chytrine is characterized in this book, unlike the first one where she is presented as only an unstoppable force similar to Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Not only that, but Stackpole gives her another dimension which makes her less a caricature. Unfortunately, that other dimension is given by interacting with a ďdaughterĒ that she has taken earlier from the South. The reason this is unfortunate is because Isaura is a dull character. She must have been introduced to set up her role in the third book. I canít think of any other reason why Stackpole would include her. She does do a couple of important things, but overall sheís useless. Sheís yet another innocent character who goes on and on about how innocent they are. She has never seen the Southlands before, so Chytrine sends her on one of the expeditions to the South. She observes, she does some things in the main city that donít really have much of an explanation, and then she goes home. Innocent does not have to mean boring, but unfortunately Stackpole doesnít seem to realize that. Kerrigan suffered from this in the first book. There seems to be a quota of boring innocent characters in this series, and when one moves beyond it, another one must take its place.
The plot of the book is pretty good overall, though as I said, there are long passages of tedium. Crowís problem stretches on for the first hundred pages or so, and not all of them are needed. There are long chapters of Kerrigan trying to work out spells. Some of the other character exposition is interesting, though. The ending, however, is magnificent and really does leave you longing for the last book so you can see how it ends. We finally get to see some more information about the dragons in the world (instead of their being a small plot device) and some startling events happen that take your breath away if youíve been following these characters. Most of the action takes place in the last half of the book (in fact, at times Androgansí invasion seems like an attempt to get some action in the first part of the book, though I know his story is more important than that). There are still plenty of heads flying and limbs being chopped off, but there is much less than previous books.
It's a shame, because Stackpole is a fantastic action writer. He seems to be working on his characters, though, and I have to admit that he does a much better job overall with them. While this is not a wonderful book, it does its work well. Try to get through the boring parts for the meat at the end. There are some things at the beginning to hold your interest, so take heart. And get ready for a rollicking conclusion. Iím sure itís coming. Donít you dare disappoint me, Michael.