Dragon Wing is a 1990 fantasy novel by Dragonlance core authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and the first in the seven-volume Death Gate Cycle. Here, in one of four realms created following the apocalyptic sundering of the earth, an assassin is hired by the king to kill the prince, a dwarf works for social reform among his people, and the vanguard of a powerful, long-imprisoned race foments discord while searching for his erstwhile captors.
In Dragon Wing, Weis and Hickman have taken the old, worn blocks of fantasy fiction – elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards – and constructed something very interesting. The vertical world of Arianus is imaginative in terms of both its geography and its denizens. Yes, a number of characters wander too far into caricature at times, and if the evil wizard had a mustache, he would twirl it every chance he got, but the protagonists feel natural: there are no real heroes, only people with conflicting agendas, and for the most part, their arcs are well handled (although in the interest of time, Limbeck’s arc falls rather by the wayside at the end in a manner the reader may find disappointing).
This lack of an obvious hero (apart from Limbeck) gives the book suspense and uncertainty, and the authors use it to good advantage, as the plot takes several nice turns. Dragon Wing also shows evidence of a well-thought-out magic system, which is vital to fantasy of this sort.
While Dragon Wing does a lot of obvious setup for the rest of the series, it also works well as a stand-alone novel (in fact, the protagonist of the series doesn’t appear until page 120, and is never more than a supporting character). The world building – and there’s a fair amount of it – is never unduly expository. There are footnotes, an appendix, and sheet music, but most of the backstory and setup are incorporated naturally into the story itself (given the inclusion of four distinct worlds in this series, the authors are forced to paint much of Arianus with broad strokes and vignettes, but it suffices).
In the end, while it has some rough edges, Dragon Wing amounts to considerably more than the sum of its parts. It’s immersive and cleverly done, and it practically begs further reading of the series.