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Dragon Wing (Death Gate Cycle #1), by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
"Dragon Wing" is the first book in Weis and Hickman's "Death Gate Cycle" heptalogy (for those playing at home, that means that there are seven books in the series). The "Death Gate Cycle" was, until I read "The Wheel of Time," the most complicated fantasy series I had ever read.
At some time in the future of an Earth that has humans, elves, dwarves, and wizards (and dragons -- don't forget the dragons), the wizards, who were a species unto themselves, split into factions and then declared war on each other. The faction that won, the Sartan, destroyed the Earth in order to keep the others, the Patryn, down. It seems, from what is said in the books, that the wizards lived openly among the humans, but the elves and dwarves were in hiding until after the war. I'm not sure about the dragons. I guess they would have been out in the open, since it would be hard to hide a dragon.
When I say "destroyed," I mean that the Sartan (now that I work in a Walmart in Texas, that name always makes me thing of "sartén," the Spanish word for "frying pan") broke the planet up into separate worlds based on the four classical elements -- air, fire, stone, and water -- and then locked the Patryn up in the Labyrinth, a prison that was designed to do the Sartan only knew what. Then the Sartan disappeared.
"Dragon Wing" takes place on Arianus, the world of air. There is no planet, so far as we know, in the world of air. There is, instead, a creature called a coral grub. Coral grubs create stone imbued with helium or some similar lighter-than-air molecule. As a result, the world consists of floating islands of stone with other heavier elements mixed in. Humans travel from island to island on dragonback. The elves are talented in making magical inventions, and they travel in ships that are designed to look like dragons. Actual dragon heads and wings are used in the creation of the ships.
Water is in extremely short supply on Arianus. As a result, they use a water standard as their currency. The elves use their ships to travel down below the "maelstrom," a continuous storm that contains most of the water in the world, and harvest the water, which they then sell to humans for exorbitant prices. The human unit of currency is the "barl," which is the value of one barrel of water.
"Dragon Wing" has three intersecting stories. We start out with Haplo, one of the Patryn, who is being sent by another Patryn, at this point only known as his "Lord," into the four worlds to upset the balance of power in these worlds. The plan is for the "Lord" to then come in and set everything to rights, seizing power in the process.
Second, we have the tale of Hugh the Hand, an assassin-for-hire, who is given the assignment of killing an eight-year-old boy. This boy is the son of the rulers of the human islands. His client? The rulers of the human islands themselves. Hugh ends up accompanied in his travels by one of the family retainers, Alfred Montbank, who has an interesting backstory of his own.
Third, we have the story of Limbeck Bolttightener, a "Geg" who lives on the lowest islands of the airy confection of Arianus. The Gegs (who are actually Dwarves) serve the Kicksey-winsey, a machine that seems to have its own purposes. The Kicksey-winsey randomly builds and destroys (and occasionally builds and then destroys) with no rhyme or reason that the Gegs can discover. Well, most of the Gegs serve the Kicksey-winsey. The Gegs were told to work on the machine by those they believe were gods, and generation after generation, they have done so with an unquestioning faith. Limbeck has dared to ask why they are doing these things.
I always have enjoyed Weis and Hickman's books immensely. Strangely, even though Weis and Hickman are probably most famous for the "Dragonlance" books, I read those books relatively late, as I couldn't quite figure out where to start. I believe that this was the first book by the pair that I had ever read. For what it is worth, I still have only read those "Dragonlance" books that were written by Weis and Hickman. Their reviews will follow. Someday.
One of the features of this book that I particularly enjoy is the footnotes. As the book progresses, there are little notes scattered throughout explaining things such as the nature of the "barl." I enjoy the change in pace between the narrative and the little asides to the reader.
I noticed one strange inconsistency that I wonder about. When they first arrive in the land of the Gegs, Hugh, Alfred, and Bane (who all grew up in the drought-stricken middle layer of Arianus) get caught in a thunderstorm and run for shelter. I have lived in South Texas long enough to know that after an extended drought, people will just stand and watch the rain. I would expect that people from a place that is in drought all the time, would not run for shelter, at least at first. They would stare up into the rain in wonder.