Sunday, November 5, 2023

The One Where Furt Tries to Overcome His Crippling Fear of Reading With the Help of a C-Tier Dragonlance Novel and Then Just Ends up Summarizing the Whole Thing

Longtime readers might know that I'm a bundle of anxieties masquerading as a sapient being. Somewhat counterproductively, these anxieties dominate a major facet of my chosen hobby and (if I'm being extremely generous to myself) career path:

I get so upset and agitated sitting and reading long-form text that I would almost call it a phobia.

The feelings that gradually run through me when I try to read something longer than a Wikipedia article in one sitting are a pretty weird mix of issues, most of them probably unrelated in origin, but I can't say that confidently.

The oldest feeling I've always had, ever since I was little, is an excruciating awareness that I am reading something. Within a few minutes of sitting down and trying to focus, I begin to grow restless. My arms get tired from holding up their own weight (and the added weight of the book), or my neck aches from looking down at my desk or lap. My eyes jump and reread the same lines over and over, but even so, my reading comprehension plummets and I find myself forgetting what I read just a few pages or paragraphs ago. This, coupled with the fact that I read as fast or slightly slower than my speaking voice, means I slow to a crawl.

Next I begin to hear the creaking of my joints, and feel the churning of my organs. My breathing is never automatic while I'm awake; I don't know if it's some kind of daytime apnea or what. But here it's soon joined by the sensation that I need to remind myself to blink or swallow, or an awareness of the feeling of my tongue in my mouth and the smell of the inside of my own nose.

Next, as the minutes tick past, comes the guilt. Despite my lack of social media presence I am one of those "terminally online" people. I have far more important personal connections over the internet than face-to-face, and I want to be clear that that part is okay. That's a reality that a lot of people live with this weird, disconnected society that we have in this technologically fortunate corner of the globe that me and statistically most of my audience occupy.

But where it turns into a problem is the way I respond to that reality. By divorcing myself from a screen for so long, or even just looking at a different screen in the case of using an e-reader, I feel as though I'm selfishly disconnecting and shutting myself off from other people who might want or need me- and considering how agitated I get trying to read, I begin to ask myself "for what possible benefit?"

Finally, way back somewhere in my reptile brain, there's always that tickle of existential pain.

Language is two or more unique meat-computers cobbling together a facsimile of mutual understanding through the use of noises that carry with them multiple layers of abstracted meaning. The speaker's brain thinks a thing, then tries to break those thoughts down into constituent parts, then tries to match those parts to words that they then speak to the listener's brain. The listener's brain then receives those words and—shared vocabulary willing—tries to reconstruct the first brain's meaning using its own separate set of building-block connotations between those same noises and the meaning attached to each, which are created through that second brain's fundamentally different lived experience from the first.

If two people are talking about a tree, then there are actually three entirely different trees present: the tree in the speaker's imagination, the tree as it is capable of being rendered in human speech, and the tree in the listener's imagination. And that's the way it has to be. Barring the invention of technology that allows people to accurately and directly beam their thoughts to one another, no one will ever know exactly what another person means. The same goes for art, music, and every other form of expression that tries to communicate the concept of a tree, or infinitely more complex ideas like emotions.

Most people who learn about this concept will make peace with the fact that it's weird, but it is what it is. Or maybe they'll exult in the miracle of language and the amazing humanoid achievements suggested by the fact that we are able to cooperate and communicate at all like this. I was first introduced to the idea by Innuendo Studio's examination of Davey Wreden's The Beginner's Guide, which takes it in stride while diving into semiotics, death of the author, and other stuff like that.

I do not take it in stride. I find the idea painful to deal with. I hate knowing that my interpretation of a story is 'wrong'. It reminds me of how flimsy and subjective our ideas of meaning are, and from there I typically spiral into obsessing over how by extension we are as unreal and invalid as the contents of a book. Then I usually settle into desperately willing the universe to conjure up a bubble of false vacuum decay and please just end it all already.

Keep in mind, this is all happening while I'm trying to read through a breakfast scene in a fricking Redwall book.

So yeah. I have some hang-ups about reading books, and my resulting avoidance of the medium has shaped my life enormously, in ways that I know and probably don't know. As a kid I always felt like I was nerding "wrong" by not being the bookworm or comic book geek. As I've grown older I've started to lament the hypothetical worthwhile experiences I could have had but never did. I'd say the last time I read an entire book purely for my own enjoyment separate from schoolwork was sometime during senior year in high school.

Visual media like shows and video games played a far bigger role in my development, and online gaming had a direct hand in making the creature that I am today. I opt for adaptations of books because even when they flop or grossly conflict with how most people interpret the text, they at least give me someone else's interpretation of the world to replace my own with, and that feels somehow more legitimate and permissible than my own. More official.

This doesn't sit well with me. I know I'm missing out, and it diminishes my enjoyment of other media by proxy. But usually I just avoid the issue entirely. Very rarely, I'll make a half-measure like listening to audiobooks. Sometimes I'll even finish them, but more often than not the extra voices become too distracting for someone who basically lives inside of a Skype call.

Every few years I do take a crack at "real" reading, but it usually only lasts a few pages before I fall off again. I never found a way to incentivize myself to finish a book.

Until now.

Because now, I've had an idea. If I can make myself accountable to an external party, such as you fine Burrowers (and the bots that inflate my site traffic), then I am that much more likely to follow through with the task. Because otherwise, I don't even have a finished story to relay here, and the post will remain an unfinished draft mocking me from my dashboard each and every day.

I realize that trying to outweigh the pressure of reading by using the pressure of not reading and therefore squandering a blog post I've already started writing is maybe not the healthiest technique. But it's the best plan I've had in a while, so I'm going to give it a shot.

Of course the plan isn't perfect. I can't just start reading anything under artificial duress. I still need it to be something that I have an interest in. Preferably, it's something that I also already have some familiarity with, so that I have an experiential base for my imagination to draw upon. Finally, it should be something bland, low-stakes, and utterly inconsequential to the real world and humanity's place within it.

I know just the thing!

I tease, I tease.

While I've gone on record as saying that Dragonlance is kind of past its prime as an IP (and especially as a moneymaker for its owners), I don't actually dislike it all that much. Like many kids, the original Dragonlance trilogy was one of my first experiences reading through a huge, high fantasy setting- I didn't get around to the LotR books until after high school, and when I did they were in the form of the admittedly wonderful audiobooks by Phil Dragash.

The series' central themes of faith and the balance between good and evil feel increasingly stupid to me the older I get, but the world of Krynn still holds a quaint charm for me, the way you might like certain parts of a mostly cringey '80s cartoon. The huge history always meant that there was something of passing interest to me somewhere, somewhen. It was also the closest thing to a culturally diverse fantasy series that I experienced for a long time, what with its prominent protagonists of vaguely Native American and Black inspiration- although you wouldn't know that from looking at the cover art that makes most of them white.

I really should read Earthsea someday.

Also for some reason I still think it's so cool that Krynn's major continent is in its southern hemisphere, with all the changes to geography and climate that entails? I'm sure fiction writers have been using that trope for a hundred years or more, but these books were what opened my tiny whelpling mind to the fact that you could do something like that and I just think that's neat.

Anyway, yes. I have chosen to read a Dragonlance novel for this little project of mine.

Next, I have to choose which one. Which you might think would be the bigger challenge, given that there are over 200 books in the series, spread across dozens of trilogies, anthologies, sagas, etc., all written by different authors with different abilities and areas of focus. And it's not like my past reading narrows the list down much- I read the original trilogy, the finale/reboot Dragons of Summer Flame, and one book in the Ergoth series. I've never even read the Twins series that is, as I've learned during research for this post, one half of the "Holy Six" that everyone recommends starting their Dragonlance journey with.

But this is one area where my brand of one-trick-ponyism comes in mighty handy.

I'm not even sure which of the 200+ Dragonlance novels this entry is, because every publication list I looked at online gave different numbers depending on which modules or anthologies they included or excluded from the lineup. The Rebellion could be the 140th in the series, or the 152nd, or the 182nd. Suffice it to say it's pretty high up there.

The Stonetellers series is a trilogy set during the latest era of the Dragonlance timeline, the Age of Mortals that started in the wake of the gods' war against their dad (or maybe uncle?) Chaos. Chaos was trapped inside a rock for eons and then decided to erase the gods and their entire world as payback. Obviously he failed, but the whole ordeal combined with the goddess Takhisis' unceasing machinations led to a pretty serious shakeup of the status quo. I talked more about the magical consequences of this in my recent 3E OdditE post about Ambient Tempests.

In hindsight this move was pretty clearly meant by TSR to set Dragonlance up for a new series of books with new protagonists and new challenges (as well as to market the new spin-off RPG using the SAGA system) that ended up not performing so well. The huge changes to the setting split the fanbase, and after a few years the entire story arc was revealed to have been a deception by Takhisis, with the world returning to something closer to what it was beforehand. I see it as a hasty rewrite from corporate to try and course-correct, but I have no evidence for that.

In the aftermath of all that mess, a plethora of Age of Mortals books has released that explore the less well-known parts of the world, far and away from the entrenched protagonist families that became central in the Summer Flame era. You can probably make a comparison here to how liberating or refreshing it is to read a Star Wars Expanded Universe novel that isn't about a Skywalker or a Solo, but of course I've never read any of those either.

The first installment in the Stonetellers series is, as the image above suggests, The Rebellion. In it, a group of goblin slaves find an opportunity to cast off their chains and seize some measure of justice and self-determination after their people have been unrelentingly shat upon for the better part of thousands of years. That is the extent of my knowledge of the book so far, but it's enough to entice me.

Goblins occupy an interesting position in Dragonlance, if you'll allow me to use 'interesting' as a synonym for 'pathetic' for a moment. They typically exist as another species of mooks to be bossed around by bigger and meaner villains, and hobgoblins essentially replace orcs, who are not native to the planet Krynn. But draconians do much of the same- and corrupted dragon people raised from eggs to be Spartanesque soldiers and perfect minions of evil are a touch more compelling and visually exciting than "D&D goblins, again". So goblins have almost always been backup minion fodder on Krynn when the Dragonlords and evil clerics don't have better folks under their employ- a pretty ignominious position to be in.

There are exceptions here and there, like the peaceful and "civilized" Ergothian goblin province of Sikk'et Hul, or the weirdly Blackadder-esque story dedicated to the grotesque but comically lucky little hobgoblin despot, Lord Toede. But those instances are rare and often unserious, so I was surprised to find that someone wrote an entire and sincere trilogy about them. Or at least I'm assuming it's serious- I haven't started reading yet.

Jean Rabe, the author, has a somewhat soured reputation among at least one vocal part of the Dragonlance fanbase. Her Dragons of the New Age trilogy was the one that carried the Age of Mortals forward with all its radical alterations, and some of the onus of things being too different and bad is placed upon her writing, or even her personally. In her defense I will say that the changes technically began with Summer Flame, even if it was originally intended by Weis and Hickman to be the Dragonlance finale. Other than that I don't know a thing about her, but she's the first Dragonlance author I've seen write about goblins this way, so I'm going to give her the benefit of a doubt.

It occurs to me that I've been infodumping a lot here to put off actually reading. That stops now.

I am going to make use of my first-ever jump break to mark my first-ever intrapostal time skip for whatever this nightmare is turning into, because I know it will be longwinded. What follows will be my "live" commentary as I work through the book in chunks.

Chapters 1-13

The story is set primarily in and around an iron mine in Taman Busuk. This region is also known as Neraka for its capital city, which is also essentially the capital city of all evil throughout the history of Krynn. It's a harsh and mountainous region in east-central Ansalon where the two halves of the continent, as well as a dozen different 'evil' species, meet and come together.

We are introduced to the plot by vignettes focusing on several characters, normally retreading the few hours leading up to the same fateful event- a massive earthquake. We meet about a half-dozen goblins, one hobgoblin, and one half-elf. More on them later, because I want to talk about the goblins as a group first.

The story starts by characterizing the goblins just a smidge through their names and language. They all seem to have Adjective-Noun style names like Moon-eye, Graytoes, Mudwort, Direfang, etc. Very few goblins have names unlike this, but when they do they are short and simple like Saro-Saro or Thema. The descriptive names are often indicative of some trait or characteristic about the goblin in question, such as Moon-eye's congenitally deformed, milky white right eye. All of them are of course conveniently translated for the reader.

I think it's presumed they are speaking the Goblin language the vast majority of the time, but at the same time the author does that fantasy language thing where there are occasional interjections of untranslated phrases like dard ("fool") and feyrh! ("flee!") into an otherwise plain English sentence in order to add texture and remind the reader that they're speaking something other than Common. It's a contrivance, but an old one that I'm perfectly used to by now.

The goblins come from diverse backgrounds, with many Nerakan clans and tribes represented in the makeup of the supporting cast. Skin color seems to be broadly similar among members of the same tribe, but it's not universal, and in the mining camp there's a wide range of oranges, yellows, reds, browns, and a few greys seen. This is in contrast to the 3rd and 4th Edition eras of goblin art that tended to depict them as different shades of green, but is very at home with the palette of burnt hues later adopted for 5E.

The goblins are also all slaves, laboring in the mine under the orders of the Dark Knights of Neraka who operate the mine and its adjacent processing settlement, Steel Town. The Dark Knights worshiped Takhisis before she died for real a few years earlier, but old habits die even harder, and they're still a bunch of jackbooted authoritarian thugs looking to bring the world to heel in the name of their warped conceptions of honor and order.

Slavery, fictional or otherwise, is a topic that should always be addressed with understanding and tact. The book isn't egregiously bad about this in my opinion, but it's not great. None of the goblins are happy with their lot, and any acts of kindness toward them by the Dark Knights (such as clerical healing) are explicitly framed as pragmatic and economical decisions made while dealing with what they see as nothing more than tools. The goblins rightly hate the knights in turn, and remember the time before they were enslaved- they literally call it the Before Time. But most don't escape or rebel because of a combination of deadly magical wards, occasional enchantment spells to keep the ones with the lowest Will Saving Throws docile, and plain old being ground down by years of servitude. Disobedient goblins get lashed, all of them are starved and dehydrated, most are naked, hundreds of words are devoted to the reek of their blood, sweat, fear, and untreated waste, etc.

But it's all treated in such a way that feels... perfunctory and tropey to me? Maybe it was all intended to come across as rote so that it fits into the systematic, industrialized evil of the whole mining operation. But a lot of it feels like window dressing to me. The same way a sword & sandals story might have a slave galley story arc just because it gives a clear challenge and good motivation for the protagonists.

I hope my feelings on this will improve over time.

A note on nudity, though. Only foremen and other elevated goblins are given clothes, mostly discarded rags and hand-me-downs from the civilian populace of Steel Town. It's never explicit in detail or sexualized in any way, and it only gets highlighted when a character does have clothing for contrast. But it adds to the standardized degradation the goblins live with. Only Direfang among the main cast has clothing- a pair of badly shredded pants. A background goblin male appears briefly wearing a woman's old blouse, its lace flapping in the wind. No one remarks on it, so I don't think it was intended as comedic. I hope not.

Making me give the issue of slavery even more side-eye is the way the goblins are presented.

There's a childlike quality ascribed to the goblins in the blunt, halting way they speak and interact with one another. They seem to only have a rudimentary grasp of their own language, which involves lots of dropped articles, repeating a word three times or gesticulating wildly for emphasis, randomly reversed word order, and the use of simple euphemisms for more complicated concepts they don't seem equipped to articulate- Mudwort's shamanic premonitions about impending disaster get her pegged as mentally ill by many of her fellows, but they call it having a "sour" or "stinky" mind.

This mode of speech helps characterize the goblins as simple and unwordly, but not energetic or precocious like the similarly childlike kender (thankfully). More like grubby, lost orphans. The only 'adult' in the group is Direfang, the one-eared hobgoblin foreman who sometimes speaks in complete sentences and reminds Mugwort to eat now and then. But he's also very irritable and coarse toward his smaller peers, and the narrative likes to dwell on how often he drools for some reason. He's a leader—it's literally in his job description—but he acts more like an older brother begrudgingly looking out for his younger siblings because he doesn't want to get in trouble with mom and dad- mom and dad being a dead goddess' crusader-regime that cut off his ear for trying to escape once before, in this case.

This sticks out to me because presenting a group of people as simple, primitive, and childlike was one of the standard methods of dehumanization used to justify their enslavement and/or paternalistic domination in real life for hundreds of years. It's not a good look.

We also get a peek inside the head of the main antagonist early and often.

Grallik N'sera is a half-elf Knight of the Thorn, the arcane spellcasting branch of the Dark Knights. He fricking hates his life in a way that's almost relatable, if you forget how he's a ranking officer in the whole evil empire thing. The dry, dusty weather gives him a chronic cough, his post is like a dead-end job with extremely monotonous work, he has no social life to speak of, and his body is badly scarred from when his family died in a fire as a child. I guessed and was almost immediately proven correct that he was the one who accidentally burned their house down when his magic awakened but he lacked control of it.

When the earthquake finally hits, his dormitory is destroyed and he loses absolutely everything of magical value he owned- the proverbial wizard whom the DM decides to take the spellbook away from. Even when his commanding officer gets badly injured and he gets promoted like he so deeply craved, he's left salvaging the mess that the quake caused. Of course he doesn't hate it all enough to actually do something about it. Besides griping and snarking, he seems content to remain a cog in an exploitative machine He's such a sour and unhappy dick that I quickly took to calling him Garlic.

I personally like the work Garlic does, even if he hates it. He uses his fire magic to melt the iron right out of the ore mined from the mountains to make steel production easier and faster. I love mundane applications of magic like this. While that can cheapen magic in certain genres of fantasy, I think it makes a lived-in and thoroughly magic-saturated kind of fantasy world feel more believable, because people will always find imaginative ways to harness their environment and make work simpler.

Through Garlic we see more of Steel Town beyond the mines and the slave pens. It's a boomtown still on the ascent, but with none of the amenities or local color that make that trope appealing in Wild West settings. The dust from the mine coats everything in a dreary grey-brown haze here, water is heavily rationed since the well dried up, and it generally smells awful. The food's surprisingly good, though- Garlic sits down for a meal in the tavern at one point and gets a mutton and fruit pie with a side of spinach pudding and some dessert. That sweet-and-savory flavor profile is extremely indicative of upper-class post-antiquity Europe, which explains the medieval chef Jean Rabe credits at the front of the book.

We also learn that Steel Town was built in the shadow of three active volcanoes.

I'd say we also learn here that the Dark Knights are gods-damned stupid, but anyone who's read a few Dragonlance novels should already know that. They just managed to be less stupid than their enemies much of the time.

These aren't the 'occasionally smoking at the top' kind of active volcanoes, either. These are 'watch the ribbons of lava flowing down the sides of the mountain at night while ooh'ing and ahh'ing at the pretty colors' active. I realize the area is extremely rich in minerals, but couldn't they have pulled the town a few kilomiles back from the direct path of a pyroclastic flow?

You don't need Mudwort's omens about the earth being nervous to know where this is all heading, is what I'm saying.

When the earthquake does finally hit all points of view, it's pretty bad. Much of Steel Town and the mines collapse, swallowing up hundreds of goblins and not nearly as many Dark Knights in the process. We get vivid depictions of people clinging to the edges of crevasses before getting snapped up as if by the jaws of a dragon, and repeat imagery of broken goblin limbs sticking out of the roiling earth as the tunnels cave in.

The earthquake also wake up the hatori.

Not to be confused with the Japanese surname Hatori (which led me to happen upon some distractingly pretty anime guys while I was doing research), the Dragonlance hatori is basically a gigantic crocodile-dragon, highly territorial and native to the deserts it enjoys burrowing through. They can grow to be almost 60 feet long, and they can bite a human in half.

Naturally the Dark Knights saw fit to buy one off the ogre slavers they normally get their goblins from, drug it 24/7 so that it's blitzed out of its mind and compliant enough to work for snacks, then set it to work digging in the mine. When it wakes up and the earthquake has ruined its buzz, the results are predictable.

Like I said, the Dark Knights are not smart.

Once the quake is over, a prolonged quiet settles over the ruins as the Dark Knights try to enact damage control and the goblins either gather their dead or begin to realize that they overwhelmingly outnumber the disorganized knights. What's more, some of them discover that the explosive runes surrounding each slave pen to deter escapees were broken by the tremors.

There are other aspects of goblin characterization in this book that I really quite like. Direfang drags Mudwort back into the mines after the quake with an almost single-minded determination to find every last goblin, alive or dead. Those they find alive, like the pregnant Graytoes and her mate Moon-eye refusing to leave her side, they get to safety. Those whom they find dead, Direfang mutilates. Goblin beliefs posit that the spirit becomes trapped in the body after death and requires a way to exit, leading to a scene in which Direfang frantically yet reverently rips the arms and legs off of cadavers left and right, breaking the bodies so that the souls within can be freed.

Goblin remains must be thoroughly destroyed so the spirit doesn't try to return afterward and mess up the cycle of reincarnation, however. Some exposition on the different goblin clans reveals a diversity of traditions; sky burial, mulching for compost, bone artwork, partial cannibalism in one instance. But all clans recognize cremation as a valid funerary rite. 

Ironically, the Dark Knights burn goblin corpses en masse because it's easier than burial, and because they don't respect them enough to care about burying them in a fashion that they consider proper. Task failed successfully, I guess. Meanwhile the goblins silently mock or pity the knights for interring their dead, which they believe traps them inside their vessels for eternity. It must be a cruel and spiteful demand from their gods, Direfang muses at one point.

What follows is the first full-throated endorsement of atheism (or more accurately, a mix of antitheism and outright misotheism) I have ever seen made by a society in Dragonlance. The gods never did anything for goblins, even when the worshiped them. They never protected the goblins and their kin when other faithful followers of the gods killed, exploited, or bullied them. The goblins see the gods' activity on Krynn as plain meddling, and would consider it hellish to spend an eternal afterlife in one of their realms. Just as the gods have ignored the goblins, the goblins now ignore the gods.


A haphazard plan to escape finally develops among the goblins led by Direfang, who is informed by Mudwort that another earthquake is imminent. Word spreads to the various slave pens, but they try to hold off for as long as they can to ensure that as many wounded goblins as possible get healing first. The night drags on long and quiet, with nothing but the crackle of the goblin corpse pyre and the quaver of Moon-eye's singing voice.

Throughout the book Moon-eye sings to Graytoes. It's always the same old song with the same old lyrics that he's always sung, to the point that many goblins including Mudwort just block it out. I was going to too at first because one of the few adaptations I did pick up from reading fantasy at an early age was to gloss over all the cringey musical or poetic bits unless it's telegraphed that they're going to be plot-relevant. This one gets repeated enough through the book that I'm going to take a guess and say it is. There are a few verses, but this is the most commonly repeated one:

Low sun in the warm valleys
All goblins watch the orange sky
Looking for shadows of ogres
Knowing the time’s come to die

The Knights of the Skull, the clerical wing of the Dark Knights, finally minister to the goblins after everyone else in Steel Town has been stabilized. By this point it's been more than a day after the first quake. Cuts, scrapes, breaks, and infections are treated one by one through the slats in the pens, because the knights refuse to go inside, and gag at the smell of the pens even from an arm's distance.

Until they get to Graytoes.

The Skull Knight mending her leg is able to determine that the fetus inside her is positioned wrong, perhaps a breach birth waiting to happen. It might resolve itself with time, or it might kill them both, but his magic cannot do anything to fix it. But it can remove the issue entirely, to get her back to work sooner.

So he does.

"Forced magical abortion" was not on my Dragonlance bingo card. It was so tonally unexpected and jarring to read, I'm not even sure what to say about it.

The earth begins to shake moments later, as if sympathetic to the collective rage of the goblins at what they just witnessed, and the second quake begins. Both quakes in this book are extremely pointed and cinematic in their destruction. Pits open up to swallow people and animals before closing and crushing them, like the dragon's jaws imagery from before. The earth tears open to reveal huge areas of jagged stone ready to skewer anyone that falls upon them, like all-natural punji pits. Clouds of noxious gas spew forth to envelop Steel Town in an even greater dinginess than usual. Cracks spiderweb outward for miles from the epicenter, which is of course exactly where our characters are located. As indiscriminate as the quake's violence is, it also feels pointed and guided as if by malicious misintent. And considering this is a world with gods and dragons, it very well may be.

With the beginning of the second quake, so too begins The Rebellion.

Chapters 14-25

In the dark of night, Direfang crashes right through the wall of the pen carrying a still-grieving Graytoes like a football with her mate Moon-eye close behind. He leads a wave of goblins to make a break for it. Countless die to fissures in the earth, or are cut down by the knights or burned by Grallik's fire once he arrives on the scene, but many more scramble beyond their reach in the confusion. Some of them even drag down and beat a few knights to death with their bare hands.

When Grallik conjures a wall of fire to cut off the remaining goblins, the escape grinds down to a halt. Evidently he took the Spell Mastery feat for his favorite fire magic, because I don't know why he would've had that spell prepared a few days prior, before the earthquake and the loss of his spellbooks. He does have a few hints of Hollywood pyromania, after all. The escape ends as Grallik witnesses Mudwort flexing her earth magic powers one more time, by opening a tunnel underneath his fire for a few more goblins to escape through.

The goblins scatter far and wide over the surrounding hill country, with slightly more than half choosing to follow Direfang. He was a leader in servitude, and unfortunately for him he's a leader in freedom too. This holds true even through the goblins' misgivings over his plan to take a contingent and march right back into Steel Town to steal supplies and rescue their fellows who couldn't escape.

The attack goes surprisingly well. Direfang leads the goblins to loot the graves of all the recently deceased knights for the weapons they're buried with, then ambush the haggard few remaining live ones while shouting such rallying war cries as "Water!" Direfang and others manage to kill multiple highly trained dark knights (including several cavalrymen with lances) despite never having held weapons before. Their own body count remains surprisingly low meanwhile, and they even manage to rescue Mudwort, who was stuck behind during the escape.

I'd find this spectacular victory less immersion-breaking if it didn't follow immediately after that random episode of reproductive violence. Tonal whiplash goes both ways.

The message meant to be delivered is how the goblins can achieve great things when they work together, and true enough.

Not everyone is willing to work together, however.

The skull knights used the last of their spell slots enchanting the remaining goblins in captivity before the battle, brainwashing them to stay put in Steel Town where it's "safe". Direfang and company struggle to snap them out of it before their final flight from the mining camp. Some get literally slapped out of it, or just carried away by friends and loved ones, but dozens remain staring dumbly, addled and afraid of the unknown. As if to drive the point into the reader's mind like a nail, Mudwort declares them all 'sheep' before the ramshackle army heads south.

Direfang displays another shred of interiority during the march, when he wills himself to relive all the awful memories of the place he's finally leaving behind- in order to force himself to cry so that his tears will wash away the dirt in his eyes. Of course he marches to the front of the army while he does this, so no one can see him cry. I've never seen someone lifehack their toxic masculinity like that.

Mudwort hasn't figured as much in my writing as a character because she hasn't had a lot of impact outside of her premonitions. Besides her magic, there's little going on with her. Her magic is a large reason for that, and is the main cause for how unmoored from worldly issues she tends to be. But when she is around and present, she's almost callously indifferent to those around her. She doesn't care for most of the goblins, with the exception of Direfang, who in turn comes to rely upon her powers and passive-aggressive counsel while he deals with the stresses of his unwanted leadership position.

Speaking of which, her magic really starts to come into its own in this third of the book. She graduates from tunneling through dirt to astral projecting herself (or at least her senses) through miles of earth in order to scout for the goblin army or suss out why the earth is still so angry. It's through this that she learns that there's going to be a proper volcanic eruption following the earthquakes, to add to the list of bad news the escapees have to deal with. She also learns that there is something very bad awaiting them in the south, but she keeps that part to herself for the time being.

Other notable moments during the march south include an incident in which the goblins find, slaughter, and then eat an entire village of ogre slavers in the Khalkist Mountains in order to momentarily sate the growing logistical nightmare that is managing 1,000 starving, freedom-intoxicated goblins.

Er. Praxis...?

I don't think goblin cannibalism is being presented in a villainous manner here, just highly pragmatic. But then again my personal qualms with cannibalism are more a matter of ethics and disease prevention than the standard Western taboo, so I might be an easier audience to keep in willing suspension of disbelief than most. The same goes for all the instances of goblins eating worms, insects, and other viable protein sources throughout this book- although they could at least wash and cook them first.

Chapters 26-End

While picking through the ruins of the ogre village and doing some basic organizing, Direfang and the old goblin Hurbear first throw around the concept of a goblin nation. The disparate goblins and their clans have been cooperating surprisingly well up to that point without whips and knights behind them. The two muse that the roving army might have the makings of a society, if they can just make it south past the rest of Neraka, the dwarves of Thoradin, the ogres of Blöde, and whoever's still alive and in control of Silvanesti to reach the Plains of Dust.

The Plains of Dust dominate the bottom fifth or so of the continent of Ansalon. It's a vast, subarctic semi-desert that used to be a relatively verdant steppe before the Cataclysm wrecked the place and dried up hundreds of miles of coastline. I think when the Heroes of the Lance split up in the original trilogy, one group traveled to the landlocked former port city of Tarsis there. The place has gotten greener since the start of the Age of Mortals, though- it got terraformed by some space dragons from an alien planet or something.

Dragonlance is fricking goofy.

The conversation is then cut short by a sudden attack from giant centipedes attracted by all the movement and spilled ogre blood, because not even novelizations of D&D can escape rolling on the random encounter table.

The battle is chaotic at first, but Direfang gets his bug squashing on and helps turn the tide, until a dire centipede bigger than the hatori bursts forth from the ground and prepares to mash him into paste. But then a pillar of fire erupts from the sky and cooks the centipede so violently that it explodes in a shower of reeking, scorched gore across the entire village, like a pizza roll left overlong in a microwave.

The caster of this deus ex machina fire spell? Our old friend, spicy Garlic.

After vanishing from the narrative for a good chunk of the book, Grallik reappears at the edge of the ogre village with 3 surviving knights- two from his squad or talon, and one remaining skull knight. They arrive looking bedraggled all to hell, and barely standing. But they still have the energy to be galling. They come with an offer of diplomacy, of all things.

Grallik explains during a tense parley between he and Direfang (and the wall of fire separating them) that Steel Town is dead, along with most of the other knights- his commanding officer included. But the nature of their departure from Steel Town is vague, and it's implied Grallik had to win his companions to his side before leaving. They're defectors- traitors, even.

With all the desperation and feigned humility of an SS officer surrendering himself to a group of American soldiers while the Red Army breathes down his neck, Grallik and co. hand over their every worldly possession and appeal to Direfang's concern for the health of his fellows- as well as the infected cut festering on his left arm. The priest, Horace, offers his healing abilities to the goblins, and in return they are to join the army's march unharmed.

Hesitantly, Direfang agrees and Hurbear helps quell goblin calls for blood and vengeance by volunteering to be healed first, to show it isn't a ruse.

Surprisingly, the goblins accept this arrangement. They strip the knights almost-naked and throw them in the ogres' slave pen overnight, but still they agree.

If this is the beginning of some kind of redemption arc where Garlic learns the error of his ways by being briefly subjected to the same indignities as the people he helped keep enslaved for years, I am going to be so salty. I don't know that for a fact yet though.

What I do know is that he's only tenuously in charge of this group of breakaway knights. His two surviving talon members, Kenosh and Aneas, were the most difficult to convince to leave with him- and Aneas only agreed after reserving the right to bail out at any moment, which Grallik expects him to do soon. Horace was the easiest to convince, because he isn't especially devoted to the cause. He just wants to get the hell back home to Ergoth if it suits the whims of his goddess Zeboim, Chaotic Evil deity of the sea, storms, and spite.

Grallik has some measure of camaraderie with the knights under his command, but he doesn't much care for Horace, because of the latter's lack of loyalty to the order.

You know, the order that Grallik has now deserted from instead of loyally facing a potential demotion?

Garlic is quickly cementing himself as the absolute worst.

An ulterior motive for Grallik (other than not dying) quickly comes to light. He saw the magic wielded by Mudwort at Steel Town and was at once shocked and enraptured by it. Before he has so much as spoken to the goblin or determined that she doesn't want to wear his intestines as a fashionably asymmetrical belt, he has begun to imagine her teaching him, and unlocking all-new secrets of magic for him that will make up for all the tomes and research he had to leave smoldering in a pit back home. This aspiration mostly amounts to him making eyes at her through the slats of the slave pen from afar like a creep, before he manages to establish contact.

During all of that leering, Grallik discovers that Moon-eye also has magic, of a sort. He doesn't seem to be able to sense earthquakes or move rock on his own, but his sense of smell that was previously presented as just incredibly acute now takes on supernatural qualities, when he acts as an assistant to Mudwort's earth-communing rituals and comments that the stones still smell 'pained' where they are.

They also mix their magic together in a way that Grallik, still a dyed-in-the-wool wizard, deems impossible. I've been reading through a lot of the D&D 3E Dragonlance setting books in parallel with The Rebellion, and that description tells me with some finality that what these two are using is primal sorcery- elemental magic of the land, plus a bit of all-purpose matter manipulation. I'm slightly bummed that Mudwort isn't a mystic, but I'm sure we'll be getting one of those sometime soon.

Mudwort clues Moon-eye in to the unknown bad something awaiting them in the south, but again she declines to tell Direfang about it. Either she just really doesn't want to disappoint her buddy now that he's on a roll, or she's planning something.

The army leaves just ahead of more steaming fissures opening up in the earth around the village, reminding us that this whole stretch of the Khalkists is apparently a ticking timebomb. Tremors and rockslides chase them across the narrow mountain paths, sending many goblins and their baggage tumbling to their deaths.

We're treated to another pair of goblin language phrases here: gosjall-giyerafajra, meaning "mountains of fiery war" or volcanoes; and eldura-bundok, meaning "mountain fire" or lava.

I was going to pick these phrases apart and be a know-nothing conlang snob about how neither of them share distinct elements that the reader could identify with the root words they share... but then I typed the words into Google and realized that half of the constituent parts are ripped directly from Tagalog. Giyera is Tagalog for "war", and bundok is "mountain" without the diacritic- it's also where we get the English word boondocks. Fajra also appears to be the Esperanto word for "fiery", as a random bonus. No idea where gosjall or eldura come from, if they are derivatives of anything.

The use of Austronesian words in Dragonlance actually has a lot of precedent, as weirdly specific as that sounds. As the story goes, while Tracy Hickman was off doing his Mormon missionary thing in Java in the '70s, he picked up some of the Indonesian language, a variety of Malay. When he went on to cowrite Dragonlance, he modeled Magius (the language of magic) loosely on Indonesian, including a few actual words. It's been with the setting ever since, and my guess is that Jean wanted to do something similar but distinct for goblins.

I don't know how I feel about practices like this, partly because I'm guilty of them myself. Words in other languages often carry a certain aesthetic flavor for non-native speakers, or maybe the flavor is applied to the former by the latter through so many layered lenses of culture and sociopolitical experience. It's part of why English speakers like saying je ne sais quoi so much, to use a self-demonstrating example.

I don't know if there's a nonharmful way to do it with the language of a formerly colonized people as a Westerner. It's not that the words are being used here specifically to convey that the goblins are Filipino in a weird Fantasy Counterpart Culture way- there's too little connective tissue present to make a claim like that, unlike how you can make a very easy case that the nomadic humans of Krynn are an explicit pastiche of Great Plains tribes and nations. But even if it isn't epistemic violence at play, it can feel a little tacky.

And I'm not coming down on Jean in particular for this. I feel like most high fantasy does this at some point. Case in point, over on the D&D side of Dragonlance, some writers decided to name nomadic hobgoblin leaders murzas and their tribes auls- and I didn't complain one bit at the time because my brain was too wrapped up in the usual "oh sweet, Central Asian steppe influence!" reflex.

Anyway. Dragonlance is goofy and I am longwinded, but we knew both of those already.

The incredibly cinematic volcanic eruption and the escape from it dominate the last few pages of the book. As it turns out, all the peaks we've been seeing in the distance this whole time weren't individual volcanoes: Mudwort reports that the earth says all of them are mouths of a single volcano, fed by a single massive magma lake deep below. Now that the earthquake awakened it, they're all awake. The proverbial dragon that had snapped up so many people in its maws has finally breathed flame.

You get everything you'd expect; people trying to outrun pyroclastic flows, leaping over rivers of lava, flashes of volcanic lightning in the ash columns, etc. Several named goblins that survived the rebellion and the ogre camp die horribly here, as does the knight Aneas. Direfang, still acting like a leader despite himself, feels responsible for every death. Moon-eye's song becomes outright prophetic by this point, as just about every verse has occurred in some deadly fashion. Surprisingly, Graytoes and Moon-eye survive despite being perhaps the worst-off goblins in the whole army after so much hardship and trauma.

The survivors—less than 500 of the previously 1,000+ strong army—are rewarded with a torrential rainstorm, which they gulp down without fear or ill effect from all of the ashes and carcinogens that must be suspended in the water.

Mudwort leads them up and down several mountains in a days-long climb to escape the advancing lava, following that magical pull that she finally reveals to the reader to be entirely selfish- something in the south is of interest to her, rather than her people, and she just wanted an army at her back while she made the trek. That explains how selective with her auguries she was.

Eventually, Horace reveals to Direfang that she's led them straight to Godshome.

Readers of the main series might recognize this hidden vale in the mountains as the place where Flint died, and that doddering old twit Fizban finally revealed himself to be god Paladine. Several other major events have happened here, because it used to be where all the gods (or at least their avatars) hung out. Hundreds of years ago there used to be a whole city of Godshome where all of the gods (except the nature and moon deities) were represented by a district and temple that people from all over the world visited in pilgrimage, back before the ascendant theocratic xenophobes from Istar destroyed it and the gods dropped a flaming mountain on the planet as collective punishment. Now the city is a ruin, and no gods abode in the secret vale.

But their power remains. At the center of the vale rests a disk of polished black stone that always reflects the constellations of the night sky- even when it's daytime, or the sky is snarled in volcanic clouds. And because it's stone, a certain pair of goblins can touch it and delve into it with their magic. Mudwort and Moon-eye project their consciousnesses into the disk, which projects them into the sky, and suddenly they find themselves flying across the entirety of Ansalon.

They search far and wide for the lands where other goblins dwell, or where they might be able to settle. They see the south pole, the northern islands, the hunted and beleaguered tribes of the south, the scarred wilderness of Qualinesti, the urban towns and cities of Sikk'et Hul (rendered as Sikkei 'Hul in Mudwort's dialect), and the Hordes of Ankhar warring with Solamnia.

That last vision helps anchor the events of this book somewhere between 425 and 427 AC, concurrent with the The Rise of Solamnia trilogy in which those battles take place; assuming the sparse and rarely up-to-date Dragonlance fandom page is accurate, of course. In case calendar years are meaningless to you, the War of the Lance was over 70 years ago by this time. There are probably some nods and references to other books in that montage, but if there are I didn't catch them.

All of this and more gets projected onto the mirror for the entire goblin army to watch in awe. I wasn't expecting to encounter Google-Maps-turned-lightshow in this book, and I don't think they were either.

Mudwort becomes lost in the euphoria of the search until a third goblin joins their little ritual- the very ungobliny-named Boliver, who helped her open up that tunnel in the dirt back during the escape from Steel Town. I think Jean kind of forgot to include him at any other point in the march, and hastily shoved him and his history as a shaman before enslavement into the story here at the last minute. Mr. Exposition finally gives name to what they've been doing this whole time: Stonetelling.

Once more masking her draw toward a place of primal magical power as something undertaken in the goblins' interests, Mudwort has Direfang move the goalpost on their journey south. The forests of Qualinesti, abandoned by the elves after a succession of invasions, are ripe for the taking- as are their secrets. Murmurs of a goblin nation spread up and down the column again as the battered but unbowed remnants of the army exit the Godshome vale.

Moon-eye lingers behind for a little longer, though. The experience with the black mirror had been almost as exhilarating for him as for Mudwort, and he wishes to glean a few more experiences from it before moving on forever. He sweeps this way and that, and even hovers over his fellow goblins for a time- long enough to unwittingly hear a conversation carried on in secret by the goblins Saro-Saro and Krumb.

An undercurrent of resentment toward Direfang from other goblins, mostly tribal heads, has been present throughout the book. They had their doubts about him, but didn't decide he actually needed to be killed until it became apparent that he really could lead the goblins into liberation and self-determination. Upon hearing Mudwort's hyped-up story of how verdant and free Qualinesti forest is, they decide the time is fast-approaching to stab Direfang and all his allies to death in their sleep so that the self-important little potbelly Saro-Saro can rule.

Poor Moon-eye had a better sense of smell than sense of discretion, and he makes the mistake of sharing this revelation with Spikehollow, the first goblin whom he finds while catching up to the departing army. Spikehollow shanks him for his trouble as soon as his back's turned and leaves his body in the ash, sans one finger. And I saw this coming a full page in advance, because as Moon-eye was running his mind wandered to all the stories he would tell to his future children, once he and Graytoes tried again.

So ends the first book in the trilogy, with the inchoate dream of a nation already threatened by deceit and petty jockeying for position at the as-of-yet nonexistent top. And there's still a long, long march ahead.


This book took me the better part of a month to work through, not that it was particularly long. Less than 300 pages with a pretty generous font size, I think. Many days I'd open the PDF first thing in the morning, and just couldn't bring myself to touch it again before bedtime. It was going to be the same way it always goes down, and I'd give up like before. But then when I'd think about all I've already written, as well as how I went the entirety of October without posting anything, the negative motivation returned. 

In the end, it actually paid off. And I don't regret it?

Of course I had plenty of gripes with the book- you just got done reading that whole mess. But they were gripes that I felt valid and comfortable enough talking about, which is a rare luxury for me. And I didn't hate it. There were parts I enjoyed, or at least found interesting. Despite the flaws that I see in it, I'd actually like to know where the trilogy goes from here.

This is a weird feeling to process, so I'm going to put it off for now and thank you for reading this far instead. I didn't expect the post to balloon the way it did, and I don't know if I'll give the other two books the same treatment, if/when I get around to reading them. But I took a tiny baby step here, and I have you to thank for that in some weird, reverse-parasocial way.

And if any of you folks are currently struggling with motivation for NaNoWriMo, let this be a bit of encouragement for you.

If I of all people can bring myself to finish the two-hundred-and-whatever-the-hellth Dragonlance book, somebody out there is going to devour and love your story, guaranteed.

Just try to do it for the both of you, if you can.

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