Reaction: Dark Heart

The second question likely to be asked here, after “what’s that?” is probably “why are you bothering to review that?” – followed, perhaps, by “why do you even own that?” Certainly all legitimate questions…

Dark Heart is the third volume of a Dragonlance ‘series’ named “The Meetings Sextet”; the questioning quotation marks are there because this ‘series’ is really a group of novels by different authors united by little more than a marketing strategy. This particular author is Tina Daniell, and Dark Heart was her first novel. In the (nearly) twenty years since, she has published two other novels: Dragonlance: Meetings: Volume Six: The Companions (the culmination of the series, written a year later – if you haven’t read it, it’s terrible) and Dragonlance: Warriors: Volume Two: Marquesta Kar-Thon (written two years after that, one of a series about the heroic tales of extremely minor Dragonlance characters – I believe Marquesta sailed a ship in one chapter of Chronicles. I haven’t read this book, but I suspect that it’s terrible). So, it’s a minor book in a minor spin-off series in a D&D setting not known for literary quality even by the standards of D&D, and it’s the debut work by an author who has only written three novels in her life, all of which were for minor or less-than-minor Dragonlance series. It would be easy, and as it happens entirely correct, to assume that this is not a well-written book.

For those who don’t know, or would like to be reminded, the Dragonlance setting revolves around the Chronicles, telling the stories of a small group of adventurers who meet again after five years at the Inn of the Last Home in the idyllic town of Solace. In order to capitalise on the success of the novels, and exploit and advertise the Dragonlance D&D campaign setting, TSR went on to write series after series not only about the world but specifically about these characters. And, as we know what happened to them, the natural way to go was back. Prequels and Prequels II told the stories of that five year gap; Meetings goes further back, to tell the origin stories of the characters, and how they happened to meet. Dark Heart, the third of the series, deals with the origins of the fabled warrior-woman and hero/antihero/villain Kitiara Uth Matar – and although it contains no meetings per se, it also features the birth and childhoods of her half-brothers, Caramon and Raistlin Majere.

Well, that’s what it is – why do I own it, and why have I just read it? I own it because once, long ago, I was donated a huge box of TSR novels by a relative no longer interested in the series – this was one of the things that got me fully into fantasy. Dark Heart was one of those novels; and one year, browsing through a second-hand bookshop long after he had taken his books back out of nostalgia, I saw the book, remembered the name and that I liked it, and bought it. Ever since, it has sat ashamedly on my shelves among the other terrible fantasy novels I own (which have their own bookcase).

I decided to read it for, perhaps, three reasons. One, of course, was the uncharitable desire to mock and ridicule it – it’s always more fun to review things you hater. Another was curiosity – just how bad was it? The third was the more peculiar desire to ‘fill out’ the spectrum of reviews, to avoid everything being listed as ‘Good’ – I was fairly sure that this would require a new category of not-good.

In the event, however, I can’t make fun of it, because I liked it too much. I find this fact fascinating, because I’m not sure how much of this is virtue on the part of the book and how much is simply a pitiable wretchedness on my own part. You see, although the book is truly bad, it has a single redeeming feature: the character of Kitiara. I am, let’s be honest, a geek, and although I may be less secluded, shallow and pathetic than my earlier teenage-geek incarnation, I still can’t dislike anything with Kit in it. She’s a curly-haired, lithe brunette, intrepid, tomboyish, very good in a fight, pleasantly unromantic and practical, and extremely intelligent – she might not make my heart flutter any more, and I’m unlikely to swoon these days at the thought of her, but still… Kit was precisely designed for a particular market, and the design was successful in my case.

However! I honestly don’t think it’s just a teenage fixation reasserting itself here. Daniell has a genuine feel for the character of Kit (we may note that two of her three novels feature the feisty horseback adventurer woman, Kit, and the other features the feisty ship captain and adventurer woman, Marquesta Kar-Thon). Here, Kit is far more believable, and appealing, than the cartoonishly sensual and villainous Kitiara of the Chronicles. Instead, she’s a simple tomboy, desperate to escape the triple captivity of femininity, a terrible home life, and the boredom of a small town, who transfers her dreams onto the unobtainable character of Gregor Uth Matar, her father, who left her behind to adventure in the north, leaving only a wooden sword.

The plot of the novel is dull and mostly pointless. I’m going to spoil it for you, because if you read this book for the thrill of unexpected plot twists, you’re going to be disappointed either way.

Kit is the daughter of Gregor, a mercenary knight, and a local girl – but her mother’s argumentativeness, and continual sickliness, drive Gregor to leave town in the night, leaving Kit only a practice sword and a horse. One day a year or so later, at the age of eight, two things happen: she meets a flamboyant stranger, named Ursa, and her mother goes into labour. The result is two twins, Caramon and Raistlin. The younger brother is sickly from birth – Kitiara has to work flat-out to keep the baby breathing while the midwife cares for her mother. Both survive – but Raistlin is weak, and their mother is from then on both too weak to work and prone to madness and delusion, which become more and more constant. With her kindly-but-slow step-father out labouring all day to bring in money, Kitiara is left to look after her brothers, her mother, and the house. She becomes a competent cook and homemaker, but detests those abilities as symbolic of her entrapment; she is continually exhausted, but does her best to put on a good face for the twins. Both she and her step-father are relieved to finally get Raistlin enrolled at a magic school, and out of their hair – though Kit has great affection for the silent child whose life she saved, and who she gave a name to.

One day, about five or six years later, Kit (who only has one friend) discovers Ursa plotting with some friends at a fair in Solace, and conspires to work her way into their plan to steal a chest of gold being transported through the mountains some distance away. Along the way, Kit loses her virginity by having meaningless sex with a big black man, El-Navar who doesn’t say very much – and who, though she only finds out later, transforms into an animal, mostly at night. If you can, please stifle your laughter and/or accusations of racist symbolism here, I’m sure it’s unintentional. Well, mostly sure. Probably. And yes, he is the only black man in the book and no, there’s no explanation of what he’s doing there other than seducing pre-teen white girls with his heady bestial pheromones. But anyway… the plan goes awry, and a nobleman gets killed (ripped to shreds by Kit’s one-night-stand). They get the money, but they renege on the deal, leaving Kit with nothing. Kit is forced to work as a kitchen maid for bed and board, eventually managing to collect some coins due to her domestic competence. She works for a few months, making a new friend, who gets murdered. She returns home to the cage of Solace once more.

Some years later, she meets a dashing stranger in Solace, Patric, who falls in love with her, and proposes marriage. She is reluctant, but agrees to travel with him to his homeland. On the boat, she realises that Patric, indecisive and terrified of his mother, is not going to marry her at all – she’s only one of a string of women he has proposed to and then left. Angry, she plots revenge… but he is murdered mysteriously and she has to flee. She meets up with Ursa and some of the others from the gang years back, and although she’s angry she agrees to work with them again – until magical forces bring death and destruction. It’s revealed that all of this is due to the aftermath of the robbery/murder years before, and Kit and a companion journey back to confront the villain. For various reasons, everybody dies, and Kit wanders off.

Where should we start? The plot rarely makes sense, being far too reliant on coincidental meetings, and at the end dips into farcical melodrama. It has no real end point – it fails to show how Kit ends up how we know she ends up, and only shows a couple of her early adventures – but since she goes on to have lots more before she reappears in other stories, there’s no strong reason for the novel to stop where it does. The big problem the climax solves is only introduced more than halfway through the novel, making it all seem a bit trivial, and the characters of the twins, important at first, are abandoned for long stretches, making the book seem unbalanced. Minor characters are killed off heartlessly and for no apparent reason – perhaps it makes Kit more isolated, but she never really seems to feel the losses, and it seems more as though the constant death is just a way to tie up loose ends. El-Navar is left alive, so that Kit can symbolically choose not to follow him (hence both asserting her independence and putting an end to her adolescent half-romantic daydreams), but he’s been a permanent panther for some time by then, so that Kit never has to talk to him or deal with any consequences of their dalliance. Indeed, the lack of consequences is a recurring factor – although her part in the nobleman’s death eventually catches up with her, no consequences of anything ever return to Solace, which is kept isolated from the world as a perfectly safe haven. For instance, Kit leaves Solace sort-of-engaged, and her notable husband gets murdered on board ship, and she jumps overboard rather than face ‘justice’ – but when she gets back to Solace some time later, there’s never any sign that people have heard about this, or even any questions as to what’s happened (even though her family have presumably been writing to their supposed in-laws at the address she gave the entire time…)

The setting is confused and incredibly shallow. It seems an amalgam of sources – medieval Europe, fairy tales, and American High Schools. This last was emphasised by the sometimes American vocabulary – the children have ‘candy’ and sit on ‘bleachers’, among other things. The scenes with the school bullies (why is there even a school?) are laughably bad, and the mage school is as badly handled as the ridiculous concept deserves. The children, other than Kit, are portrayed without the slightest finesse, seemingly meandering in maturity between the ages of 3 and 30 without regard for realism – particularly in the case of Raistlin, who is clearly a super-genius at the age of six. The continual childishness of both brothers is in sharp contrast to the maturity of Kit – Kit is more adult at six than they are at sixteen, it seems (although a final letter from the boys to Kit after the death of their father is touching in how it shows their sudden transition to adulthood). Half the time, the setting seems to try for gritty realism; the half, it flies into the most purple and regurgitated fantasies.

The prose, likewise, cannot decide whether to imbue itself with high medieval archaisms or else imitate the schoolyard slang on nineties America – or anywhere between. It veers erratically in tone without any apparent correlation with content. Many sentences, particularly when an archaic voice has been reached for, are confusing, inapt, or extremely inelegant, and the modernities are jarring. Above the level of the sentence, moments depicting any sort of action are frequently over-vague in their description or misleading, with characters teleporting from place to place, important actions overlooked and minor ones depicted in detail. These are strung into scenes that condense content almost to a summary while expanding nothingness into pages of skippable irrelevance – in particular, there are many travelling scenes that tell us nothing notable of either the characters or the environment they are in. Dialogue is abysmal, neither elegant nor depictive of character. Indeed, nothing is depictive of character. Aside from Kit, only two characters (Patric and Colo) evoked any degree of sympathy – the first for his originality, the second because, as I’ve said, I’m fairly shallow and geeky, and, well, she IS a feisty tomboyish adventurer. In the whole book, only Kit feels truly real.

She, however, is handled well. Daniell would have been far better off scrapping the fantasy and the adventure and keeping Kit in the kitchen. Her pride in, and self-revulsion for, her ability to manage the house and kitchen is delicately sketched; her respect for, yet rivalry with and non-acceptance of, her step-father; her love of, pride in, and protective instincts toward her step-brothers, alongside her intense jealousy of them for taking all of their mother’s attention, and her hatred of them for their birth destroying her life; her agonising love/hate of her mother, in which a little child’s continually-defeated hope that her mother will get better is dashed against a teenager’s resentment of the weak, pathetic woman whose inability to look after herself is the cause of her lost childhood; her desire for attention, and her desire to go unnoticed; her pride in her ability to accept responsibility, and the desperate lust to be irresponsible; her simple, innocent, flickerings of romance and her dispassionate coupling (the one part of her character that could have done with more emphasis – we get no real glimpse of any physical lust on her part, though in other books we see her being promiscuous); her constant desire to be loved, and her desire to be adult and independent and self-sufficient, which provokes respect but pushes away any hope of love (both her mother and her step-father are said to be unsure how to treat he because she becomes adult so quickly); her idolisation of, and resentment toward, her absent father; her gradual construction of an increasingly hard, emotionless shell that keeps her from pain… Daniell takes the well-worn trope of the warrior-woman and makes it painfully believable, painfully sympathetic, painfully normal and understandable. Many authors would have made such a character by putting some great violence or abuse in her childhood, but at core Daniell does it through constructing an everyday tragedy of well-meaning neglect, the result of economics and of medical limitations rather than villainy or apocalypse. The rest – all that adventuring stuff – seems tacked around the edges and is far less well handled: the real character development comes at home.

My only complaint concerning Kitiara is that it’s too little of her story – it doesn’t turn her into who she’s meant to end up as. She’s hurt, she’s cold, she’s pragmatic, she’s alienated… but she is not actually evil. On the contrary, she’s positively noble at times. The book works better as a character study than it does as an explanation of the origin of Kitiara – and it does an even worse job for the brothers, who eventually got their own books devoted to their childhood. In my opinion, they and all the other characters (if they can even be called ‘characters’) should have had far less screentime, with the focus entirely on Kit. The adventure could mostly have been done away with as irrelevant – certainly the cliché conclusion. By contrast, the whole Patric sub-plot required a lot more attention – not only was Patric the only other character that showed flickers of originality or depth, but he briefly brought out an entirely different side of Kit. Likewise, her one-night-stand with El-Navar needed more. Perhaps the powers that be (mysteriously) decided that the sexual/romantic/identity confusions and explorations of a teenage girl weren’t good material for their audience of teenage boys – or perhaps Daniell just didn’t feel comfortable addressing them. Either way, it’s a shame, as it would have enhanced her character – and because the glimmers we do see, while slender, have a note of authenticity about them. [Tangent: I have a great weakness for romantic stories – from which I am saved by the horrifically low standards of craft and originality in romance stories, and by the appallingly boring and/or irritating characters who inhabit them. I know of only two good romantic comedy films: Four Weddings, and Being John Malkovich (and I admit to having had a weak moment when watching Sleepless in Seattle as a child). A romance novel about Kit… would be in danger of making me uncomfortably swoony and fanboyish. If any such or similar novel is out there, don’t tell me about it, as it would have a strongly deleterious effect on my self-respect]

So, I liked this book. Partly because Daniell handles the character of Kit with considerable confidence and instinct, and partly because Kit is simply an archetype with which I have unfinished business, so to speak [the heroine of the novel I’m currently writing, for instance, has a great deal of Kit in her, I think, though the setting is entirely different, and it’s buried in her].

On the other hand, let’s be honest – the actual craft in the book is at an extremely low level, and whether from disinterest or from ineptitude, anything outside Kit’s interactions with her domestic environment is poorly handled.

So… numbers!

Adrenaline: 2/5. For an adventure novel, it’s pretty slow and dull. I skimmed some sections in the interests of my will to live. On the other hand, I did skim through to the resolutiony-bits, which shows I was at least slightly hooked – the travel scenes are just too slow for where they are in the book. And actually, I read it a lot quicker than I thought I would, and when I stopped overnight just before the end, I finished it first thing in the morning. But still… no actual heartbeat-rising moments.

Emotion: 3/5. There’s only one character in it capable of provoking emotion, and there were no greatly emotional moments. On the other hand, I personally found it quite affecting, watching the quiet desperation Kit feels trapped in her domestic cage.

Thought: 2/5. The only vaguely interesting thing was that Kit isn’t entirely clichéd as a character in this depiction, and the part-focus on family life is refreshing in a family novel, even if the book didn’t have the courage to focus on it more fully.

Beauty: 1/5. Well, Kit’s a beautiful character, and the delicate agony of her situation is beautiful in its way, so… oh, I give up, it’s a 1. There’s not an elegant sentence in the book, there’s not an interesting simile or involving image. The beauty of the character and situation is something you have to draw out yourself, as the book doesn’t have the skill to just show you it.

Craft: 1/5. It could have been worse, in that some passages with Kit at home were unobjectionable. This, however, only made the unevenness of the book more apparent, as you’re unable to settle into a steady expectation of awfulness. Instead, I forgot how bad it was at points, only to be rudely reminded.

Endearingness: 4/5. *stands with arms crossed, defiantly* If it weren’t objectionably awful, this would be a wonderful curl-up read, damn it.

Originality: 2/5. Not much to say here. If you read Dragonlance books, this won’t be on the list of most clichéd and predictable – although the adventure subplots would be. It might possibly be surprising to somebody who’s never read an epic fantasy novel. Almost avoids trying to be epic!


Overall: 3/7: Bad, but with redeeming features. Well, one redeeming feature, really.

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