Nancy Varian Berberick gave the world a rollicking DragonLance prequel, telling the story of Dalamar Argent’s rise to power from humble servitor to Raistlin Majere’s apprentice.
The trouble with prequels is that the reader knows the situation the main character will end up in. That gives the writer a challenge–to write a compelling story where not only will the character survive but end up in a known situation. For example, readers of DragonLance CHRONICLES and LEGENDS (the first six books) know Dalamar as apprentice to Raistlin the Black who was Master of the Tower of High Sorcery in Palanthas. We also know Dalamar is a dark elf, cast out of the light and exiled from elven society for practicing black magic.
That’s where the book had to start and end. He needed to begin a member of elven society in good standing and end as Raistlin’s apprentice. The book has to cover the road between, showing how he got from point A to point B.
Nancy covers the journey very well. Dalamar’s personality in Dalamar the Dark matches his personality in LEGENDS and beyond. There were a couple of places where I thought she had leapt too far, such as Dalamar finding the cave of black magic on page 10 instead of further on. I expected him to have more time learning white magic before that. However, it worked because now he was dabbling in forbidden arts and had to keep it secret immediately.
We follow Dalamar for several years, through the War of the Lance, the flight from Silvanesti (an event during the War of the Lance), the Return to the Woods, his trial and exile, his life as an exile, his Test, and first mission as a full mage before apprenticing to Raistlin.
Speaking of Dalamar’s Test, the book does a great job of presenting it. I will not spoil it, but Dalamar proves that magic means more to him than anything else. That’s not a spoiler because DragonLance readers know that’s what those who pass the Test have to do. Dalamar’s test at Wayreth is spectacular and the choices riveting!
Therein we have the first, major problem with the book. The timeline does not connect properly with DragonLance canon. TIME OF THE TWINS, the first book of the LEGENDS trilogy, states plainly two years have passed since Raistlin entered the tower of Palanthas at the end of CHRONICLES. Between the books, Dalamar became Raistlin’s apprentice and became greatly more skilled in the dark arts under Raistlin’s tutelage. However, in this book, Dalamar’s conviction and exile take place a short time after the third book of CHRONICLES: DRAGONS OF SPRING DAWNING. He then spends at least three years wandering before taking the test (perhaps as many as five). These numbers simply cannot work.
The second major problem is the elven clerics at the beginning of the book. It appears in DALAMAR THE DARK that clerical prayers like healing and strengthen still work. However, as the book begins prior to the Return of the Gods, clerics couldn’t do that. Clerical medallions and prayers did not operate for any race of Krynn between the Cataclysm and events of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT. Even then, only Goldmoon was a true cleric with healing powers until she sent out others in DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT.
One its own, the book is good. It’s those two sticking points that detract. If this were a fantasy in Nancy Varian Berberick’s own setting, I would easily give it five stars. The pacing is on target. The plot is compelling. The characters are crisp and major ones are 3D. Dalamar does have choices to make and they are dilemmas for him. More than one choice even leaves him emotionally scarred.
Overall: 3.5 stars. I simply cannot give it any higher with those timeline problems.
If you want to read other tales about magicians taking a pass or die test, read, “Crucible,” my homage to DragonLance in FANTASTIC SCHOOLS vol I.