Rage of the dragons

Michael Stackpole's DragonCrown Cycle is an underrated epic fantasy gem

Rage of the dragons
Image: Andrew Liptak 
This post originally appeared on Barnes & Noble's Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog in April 2016. It's been lightly updated and edited.

This past winter, in a nostalgic mood, I’ve went browsing my bookshelves looking for something for an old favorite to dig into, and rediscovered a series of books that I haven’t thought about for ages: Michael A. Stackpole’s DragonCrown War Cycle.

These books hit all my buttons when the first installment hit stores in 2002. It’s an epic fantasy series with a classic bent, and its four novels have everything you could ask for: a wonderful fantasy world steeped in history and legend, a band of lovable heroes, a malevolent ruler bent on acquiring a powerful artifact.

While Stackpole originally conceived of the series as a trilogy, he found that he'd written enough material to warrant a prelude novel that set up the action of the main three books: The Dark Glory War, which hit stores in 2000. The story starts off a quarter century before the events of the main trilogy, when four friends discover the start of an invasion of their home, Oriosa, at the hands of Queen Chytrine of Aurolan. As they fight to save their people, they discover a magical sword that grants incredible, but ultimately debilitating power to its wielder, and a prophesy that might mean the queen’s undoing. Their adventures come to a brutal end, leaving everyone changed.

The main trilogy picks up the action a quarter-century later in Fortress Draconis. It follows a street thief named Will, who lives in a fallen city of Yslin. When he steals a magical artifact, he’s believed to be the subject of a prophecy, the man that a Vorquelf named Resolute and a man named Crow, one of the survivors of that earlier quest, have been searching for.

Stackpole has put together an exciting coming of age story that isn’t a carbon copy of epics like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. Over the course of the novel, a band of heroes forms at the center of the resistance against Chytrine and her armies. Her goal is to reassemble the DragonCrown, an artifact that allows her to control dragons, and the novel rockets through massive battles as the heroes work to keep the remaining pieces out of her hands.

In the next book, When Dragons Rage, the stakes are even higher. Crow has been imprisoned, while Will and the other members of the group find themselves in the midst of a larger political tangle. All sides begin to realize that in order to survive, they will need to ally themselves with the dragons and converge on Dragonholm to plead their case.

Where the first book in the trilogy is purely a quest novel, the second steps back from the action (though there remains quite a bit), and focuses on how society has begun to push against Chytrine and her forces. Stackpole plays with high fantasy tropes, and there’s definitely an awareness that he’s writing in the wake of much larger fantasy epics, which gives him a chance to poke around with how the genre works.

Final installment The Grand Crusade finds the the world coping with the possibility that their prophesy might be incorrect: Will might not be a savior as predicted. By this volume, the story has truly grown: what began with a small adventure between friends has come to involve the fate of the entire world. It’s a fitting end to an excellent narrative.

Stackpole’s work resonated with the types of fantasy stories I loved in high school: books such as The Lord of the Rings and Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Looking back, with a bit more awareness of fantasy literature, I still think they hold up nicely. They wear their influences on their sleeves, to be sure, but they also provide all the major tropes that make for a fulfilling, old-school fantasy read. They have an earnestness that makes them doubly enjoyable, especially in modern fantasy environment dominated by far grimmer takes on the genre. This is a series of epic proportions, in the classic sense of the word.