Rex Draconis: Under the Dragon Moon by Richard A. Knaak
With the Rex Draconis RPG and novel setting, Richard A. Knaak is attempting to rekindle that elusive magic that swirled around the sorely-missed Dragonlance world. Under The Dragon Moon, the first Rex Draconis novel, is a promising first step. Knaak is off and running in a world that feels both fully-formed and ready to be explored. Despite clocking in at a lean 159 pages, Under the Dragon Moon is chock-full of the familiar hallmarks that endeared Dragonlance to so many readers. Exotic ports of call, diametrically opposed political factions and fantastical races, knights, elves, mages—and, of course dragons. Throw in a dwarf with an identify crisis here, a new race called the Kwillum there and what you have is the best kind of nostalgia-filled trope-fest. Under the Dragon Moon checks every box a Dragonlance fan—or a fan of traditional “sword and sorcery” or adventure fantasy could want.
Discovering the Dragonlance world was a watershed moment for many readers of my generation. Krynn, Middle Earth and the world of David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon were my “gateway drugs.” Without Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles I’m not sitting here today, typing this review. Serialized, shared-world novels—particularly those published by the venerable TSR Inc. as tie-ins to the original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game—were everywhere in the 1980s and 1990s. Dragonlance lead to Forgotten Realms, which lead to Spelljammer and even a Ravenloft book or two. A kid with imagination and a healthy appetite for the fantastic could get lost in these worlds for years.
Rex Draconis has the potential to reach such lofty heights.
Under the Dragon Moon starts strong. On the remote island of Bab, in the middle of the Trapped Sea, an ill-advised excursion by a small fleet of minotaur seafarers quickly escalates when the Wheyr, a race of jackal-men prone to piracy, launch a surprise attack. Taking heavy losses and reeling from the unexpected rout, Rath—the de facto leader of minotaur survivors on Bab—leads a hasty retreat to the minotaur ships floating just off shore.
As the minotaurs try to outrun the Wheyr fleet in open water, the dawning realization that they are caught in something more nefarious than a simple run-in with pirates hits Rath and the survivors. As the seas begin to roil, the minotaurs fight to hold onto their ship…to no avail.
In Aryon, the neutral kingdom whose lone port is situated at the narrow passage from the Great Ocean to the Trapped Sea, the human and minotaur empires both endeavor to keep the peace while rumors of war begin to stir. Sir Erik Konstantin, a young Knight of the Crown, quickly finds himself swept up in a series of events that transcend the Knighthood’s charter. And in the sky above, the Shatter looms—a broken moon bringing with it the spectre of unnatural darkness and wild magic.
Eventually, the two stories converge as Knaak weaves a tale fraught with ancient perils and even older magic. The Fafni and Afafni—magical dragonborn beings locked in an ancient struggle for dominance—have once again made themselves known, and all free races will be touched by the war that is coming.
Under the Dragon Moon doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel, and is better for it. The allusions to Dragonlance aren’t buried in subtext and Easter eggs. It is all there, right on the surface, to be unabashedly enjoyed. And that is why the novel works so well.
When Dragonlance was originally conceived, it was, perhaps, a simpler marketplace populated with simpler stories. Then the Internet happened and things changed. Pulpy adventure stories and serialized fell out of vogue in favor of epics like Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Erikson’s Malazan series or Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Grimdark happened. Rothfuss happened. And readers growing up in the early 21st Century went searching for something different.
Different, of course, doesn’t equal better or worse. It just equals different. Now, more than ever before, there is room in the marketplace for everything. Amazon has created a bookselling environment where literal shelf space is no longer an issue. Self-publishing—and the quality of self-published fantasy—are both on the rise. If Wizards of the Coast or Paizo can’t sustain novel lines, there is nothing stopping a writer like Knaak—who penned the Dragonlance classics The Legend of Huma and Kaz the Minotaur—from creating something like Rex Draconis to fill a perceived void in the marketplace.
Under the Dragon Moon is exactly what it hold itself out to be: a classic fantasy tale of the Dragonlance variety. It isn’t The Name of the Wind or The Darkness That Comes Before because it neither has nor wants to be. As someone who reads between 50-70 novels per year—most of them some type of fantasy—I love being able to take a break from the grim, dark and epic with something like Under the Dragon Moon or one of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels.
At some point in the last 18 years, it seems like being a fun adventure tale stopped being enough. Being entertaining was sacrificed on the altar of “depth” and “craft.” Entertaining a reader is an art in and of itself, and Knaak has mastered it. That isn’t to say that the novel is without depth—far from it. The worldbuilding on display is fascinating. Being the first book in an open-ended series, every allusion to the history of Tiberos has an air of excitement. When Knaak alludes to things like the Shatter, the Ogre Wars and the Shadowtimes the sense that the world of Tiberos is fully-formed immediately comes through. While the series may be in its infancy, the Rex Draconis world clearly is not. There is a history to Tiberos that intrigues me the same way references to The Clone Wars intrigued me as a young child. There’s an excitement attendant to discovering a new world, particularly when you know it isn’t designed to sustain itself only for a trilogy or two.
That isn’t to say Under the Dragon Moon is perfect. No novel and no setting is. The length of this book is, perhaps, its biggest weakness. While I’m not privy to the Rex Draconis publishing schedule, Knaak did say on Twitter that the next book would be out sometime in the middle of 2018. Even on a twice-yearly cycle, 159 pages feels short. While Knaak employs an economy of word that is impressive, I often found myself wanting more. More setup. More exposition. More characterization. I understand that the idea is to keep the reader coming back for each new installment, but I can’t help but think that a length more akin to a Dragonlance novel—somewhere in the range of 274 – 385 pages—may have been a better choice. The short length will be a turnoff to some.
Some secondary characters are decidedly one-dimensional and would benefit from a bit more “page time.” And I had a difficult time separating the Fafni and Afafni. Either a different naming scheme or more time spent on each group would likely alleviate the confusion I experienced. Under the Dragon Moon feels a bit rushed at times, as if it assumes a certain level of knowledge coming into the book.
Its minor flaws aside, Under the Dragon Moon and Rex Draconis are well worth a reader’s time. It is a fast, fun read. If you’re a fan of Dragonlance or just need a break from the grim, the dark or the dense, Rex Draconis: Under the Dragon Moon is for you.