Elven Star, second novel in THE DEATHGATE CYCLE, is almost exactly the same as book one, save that the progression of the plot’s quality is inverted. That sounds confusing, I’m sure, but I will explain. In case the reader didn’t look at my review of Dragon Wing, my thoughts were more or less as follows: fun YA premise, good world-building, somewhat simplistic characters, and it all came crashing down into rushed nonsense right at the end. Elven Star has the same fun YA premise, similarly decent world-building, and even more simplistic characters. The only difference is that it starts as rushed nonsense and evens out to something more focused and enjoyable right at the end. All in all, I can’t say that there’s been much qualitative change, but at least we ended on a high note this time.
We begin the action in (once again) a fun, novel, and interesting world full of bland, one-note, and tedious characters. The squandered potential made me very sad, and the more Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman gushingly info-dumped about their imagined world, the sadder I felt. Yes, I know it’s a cool premise! I have no idea why more authors don’t write stuff like this. A world full of trees so vast that people can live on the moss between branches and never see the ground? Awesome! But I’m still not going to care about the setting unless you populate it with interesting personalities. I want to love your series! I beseech you, no more simplistic goofballs!
But Weis and Hickman are deaf to my pleas, and so they introduce a family of merchant-class elves called Quindiniar (so named, one assumes, because Weis and Hickman read the entirety of The Silmarillion, and now the world is going to pay). Though pretty much every character in this book stays lovingly close to one archetype or another, the Quindiniars take the cake. We have the lovable old eccentric, the shrewish spinster, the easy-going flake, and the self-obsessed bimbo. That’s about it. There’s really nothing else going on for these people. The spinster is a bony stick with a face that seems to be 50% cheekbones and 50% lemon-sucking expression. The eccentric is a childlike old sweetie-poo whose sanity slid sideways when his wife died. The bimbo is a blonde exhibitionist who seems to be built along the lines of a Barbie doll and flirts with everything male. It’s like slipping into some strange alternate universe where the concept of cliché doesn’t exist.
Anyway, the story finally gets into (first) gear about a hundred pages in, when it is revealed that this treetop civilization is being attacked by enormous, apparently unstoppable giants called Tytans. “Seid ihr das Essen? Nein, wir sind der Jäger,” and all that. In fact, if you like the idea of gargantuan humanoids attacking a pre-industrial civilization (and who wouldn’t?), you should probably just watch Attack on Titan instead. Elven Star‘s version is much more tepid, and at points seems to exist solely to provide an opportunity for various human/elf couples to hook up.
Mind you, the biggest problem with the Tytan attack is that it happens much too quickly and dovetails far too neatly with the arrival of Haplo (the one character who carries over from Dragon Wing to Elven Star). Had the Tytan assault been an ongoing problem before Haplo’s arrival, the plot would feel much more palatable. Likewise, if the book covered more time and a good deal more character development after he got there, things could have worked out better. Unfortunately, Weis and Hickman want to do a well-intentioned if heavy-handed message on bigotry that would probably be more difficult if they were forced to start with their bickering races already in the middle of a long war against a mutual threat. Meanwhile, they also want the whole thing to be a relatively contained episode in Haplo’s life. Consequently, we end up with a rushed and unlikely narrative in which a centuries-old period of “life as usual” abruptly ends at the exact same time that Haplo chooses to show up, at which point the entire civilization comes crashing down like a collapsing Jenga tower. It would be one thing if Haplo was somehow the spark that ignited a long-standing powder keg, but in fact he seems almost entirely peripheral to events until the very end of the story. He mostly just loafs around talking to his dog.
In fact, it’s hard to say that anyone in the story really has much impact on early events, with the exception of Zifnab. Who’s Zifnab? Well, it turns out that Weis and Hickman’s works often seem to contain a bonkers old wizard who breaks the fourth wall and rambles on about pop culture to a group of annoyed but bizarrely tolerant “regular characters.” In NIGHTSWORD, he’s called Zanfib. In DRAGONLANCE, he’s Fizban. Here, he’s Zifnab, and he likes to make jokes about Gandalf and the stock market. I imagine that Zifnab could be a divisive character, and the individual reader’s mileage will probably vary depending on how seriously s/he wanted to take this series. Personally, I went back and forth. On the one hand, I found Zifnab aggravating and out of place when paired with Haplo, but I didn’t mind him so much when placed alongside one of the other flatter characters.
I suppose that says something positive about my feelings for Haplo. Did I like him? Yes, actually. He was the one character in book one who seemed to be nursing a bit of real depth, and Weis and Hickman prove in book two that it wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately, he also spends much of the novel in a supporting role, and his story only begins to become central toward the end (although I should note that as it does, the novel also seems to finally find its footing). I’m becoming convinced that the overarching narrative of this series (i.e. Haplo’s story) is where Weis and Hickman’s real interest lies, and I hope that they begin to focus more on it moving forward. This business with situating the interesting stuff in the background of basic fantasy schlock isn’t working very well so far, and I’d like to see the flat “mensch” characters left by the wayside so that Haplo can become more central.
Overall, there are definitely things to like about Elven Star — Haplo shows increasing promise, the world-building is interesting, and the larger narrative seems like fun — but Weis and Hickman don’t often seem to know what to do with all of their pretty toys. They create a fascinating world and then use it for a plot that not only could have taken place in Generic Fantasy Kingdom #2073 but actually might have made more sense there. They invent a godlike magician and then jump through hoops to keep him from using magic. I see a lot of potential here, but as yet it’s largely unrealized. THE DEATHGATE CYCLE — thus far, anyway — is like someone getting up onstage at a concert hall, lifting an expensive violin to his chin, and playing Baa Baa Black Sheep. The setting is lush and the instrument is fine, but at the end of the day it’s still just a basic ditty most of us have heard before.