Fortress Draconis by Michael Stackpole is a sequel to the military fantasy novel The Dark Glory War and is book one in the DragonCrown War Cycle. This book, however, is epic in scope and much more character-driven then the previous book. Itís a good start to the series, marred only by one of the main characters being an incredible bore.
Will, an orphaned thief in the slums of Yslin, steals a prized artifact from an exiled Elf. This artifact attracts the notice of Resolute, a Vorquelf who is determined to redeem his fallen homeland, and Kedynís Crow, a renowned yet secretive warrior. This artifact also gets him involved with events that will impact the entire world, setting him on the path to a destiny that he could not have foreseen and probably doesnít even want. Chytrine, the witch from the North, recognizes this destiny and tries to destroy him before he can fulfill it.
Twenty-five years ago, Chytrine attacked Fortress Draconis, the fortress that was keeping her from invading the South. She failed, and an expedition went north to find her and destroy her once and for all. The expedition failed, and now the members of it (save one) serve Chytrine as magically controlled creatures who can only be killed by magic weapons. The one who returned, Tarrant Hawkins, has been branded a traitor and a coward, and stories about his betrayal flow across the land. Other stories of prophecy, such as the fact that a Norrington man will be the one who ultimately defeats her, are also widespread.
The three of them join a new generation of heroes who take up arms to defeat Chytrine and her evil plans. Alexia, the princess of a nation that fell to Chytrine many years ago, leads an army against her. The wizards of Vilwan have created their own hero, Kerrigan Reese, who has abilities in magic that have not been seen in a human being for many lifetimes. They all must combine to try and stop Chytrine from gaining more fragments of the shattered Dragon Crown, the crown that controls the dragons of the world. Will our heroes be able to stop her? Or will the squabbling among the nations of the South ensure that Chytrine will be able to invade unchecked and prevent the heroes from fulfilling their destiny?
The Dark Glory War was an interesting set-up for this story. It ended on a final note that, if you wanted to stop reading, you could have. However, it did entice you to get the next book. This is that book, and it is much better than the previous one. First, Fortress Draconis is not simply military fantasy. It is much deeper than that, and the emphasis is not on violence, blood flowing, heads flying off, and battle tactics. These things are in the book, so itís still not for the squeamish. But Stackpole adds scope to the plot, making it have a much grander feel. I really appreciated that.
Second, he adds deeper characterization to the mix. The story has a number of viewpoint characters, so we learn details about more than just the narrator. Alexia, Will and Kerrigan are the main viewpoint characters, though we do see some sections from minor viewpoints as well. This was a great addition, as one of the problems with The Dark Glory War was the fact that Tarrant was the only person I felt I knew after reading it. Stackpole also does a better job of characterizing the people from whom we donít see the viewpoints. I get the feeling that he didnít care as much about the characterization in the first book because of the type of book it was, but this time he seems to have worked a lot harder at it.
The only failure in this aspect of the novel is Kerrigan. He is the ultimate innocent, formed by his wizard mentors to be the most powerful wizard that has been seen in quite awhile. However, he has been sheltered and thus doesnít know very much about life. When we first meet him, he is brought to tears because he has a cut. I see what Stackpole is trying to do with this character, but unfortunately it doesnít work for me. He is boring, and the book screeches to a stop whenever heís the viewpoint character. Heís arrogant, but he also whines a lot when things donít go his way. When his not knowing how to act results in a death, he whines some more. Itís an understandable reaction, but the way Stackpole writes him, I felt more annoyance at him than sympathy for his situation. He does get a bit better as time goes on, and I can tell Stackpole has some big plans for him. Hopefully, this upward cycle will continue and he wonít be as annoying in the next book.
Stackpoleís plotting and writing are nice as well. I liked the choices that he made. One of my complaints about the previous book was that Chytrine was actually made a character in the last section of the book, and I felt she was too simply written. This time, Stackpole seems to have taken a lesson from Lord of the Rings. She is not on-screen at all, except as seen in the distance. In LotR, we never see Sauron, and I think thatís a good thing. In this case, Chytrine becomes an ominous presence and not a character to roll your eyes at. I was very impressed. Instead, we see the ďheroesĒ of the previous expedition to destroy her, and we see how they have been corrupted. If the reader is familiar with them from having read the previous book, there is a sense of tragedy in this as well, and it really works. The prose is not outstanding, but it services the plot well. There are no glowing passages, but there are also no clunkers reveling in their purpleness.
Thankfully, there is no need to have read the previous book, as most of the information a reader needs to understand what is going on is included in this book. Some of the revelations will mean more, but thatís not a big thing.
The only other minor problem with this book is that it still feels a bit like a fantasy role-playing game set to novel form. The party of heroes is even a classic party from one of those games: a wizard, a thief, and three fighters. Healing is done by the wizard, so thereís no need for a cleric. Thus you get the feeling you could follow along in your game if you wanted to. However, that doesnít detract from the enjoyment of reading this book. It manages to lift itself beyond the typical role-playing fiction by providing interesting characters (except Kerrigan, of course) and intriguing situations. If you donít mind a little blood spilt and some severed limbs, then you canít go wrong with this one.