This week we’re looking at the novel Day of the Dragon by… (sigh) Richard A. Knaak. Now, I could have cheated with this one, since Ramses already did a chapter-by-chapter review years ago, but I have some things to say about this book that he didn’t. And at any rate, I cannot ignore this novel, as it introduces one of the foundational concepts of the Warcraft setting as we know it now: the five Dragon Aspects.
It’s the reason why Warcraft no longer depicts its dragons like this:
I’ll start this entry by saying that I’m not terribly fond of Knaak as a Warcraft writer.1 Neither are many other people who read his Warcraft books, though usually for different reasons. If you ask readers what they don’t like about Knaak’s Warcraft books, they’ll probably tell you how his protagonists tend to be “Mary Sue self-inserts”, or how he “shoehorns his characters into plots that are not about them”, or how he contradicts established lore, or how he introduces new terrible lore that everyone hates. And regardless of the validity of these criticisms, which in fairness can also be raised against other Warcraft writers2, my own issues with Knaak’s writing are different.
Specifically, I have issues with…
The Writing Style
There is something I find ineffably clunky and amateurish about Knaak’s prose. It feels like a non-native speaker with a tenuous grasp of English syntax and pragmatics is trying to imitate fantasy classics by noting that they often use rare and obscure words, but as the book How NOT to Write a Novel rightly notes, “this is a form of magical thinking, analogous to the belief that the warrior who dons the pelt of a lion thereby acquires its strength and cunning”.3
Day of the Dragon is not quite The Eye of Argon4 level bad, but it does commit some of the similar sins of purple prose, and not even consistent purple prose at that. Words from different moods of writing intrude and mix into a jarring hodgepodge. Some scenes take twenty words to say what can be said in five. There are awkward word choices all around that wouldn’t feel out of place in the aforementioned Eye of Argon. Women are “females”, eyes are “orbs”, and blood is “life fluids”. When I read a line like…
A tiny rain began underneath the crimson dragon, the monster’s life fluids showering the sea beneath.
…all I can think of is this exchange:
Crow: You mean blood?
Mike: Let’s not jump to conclusions.
It doesn’t stop there. Characters engage in clumsy exposition, telling each other things they already know like they’re quoting Warcraft Wiki articles. The narrator keeps switching between different viewpoint characters mid-chapter; there is even a point where the same scene switches viewpoint characters in the middle.
And it wouldn’t be that bad if the characters had distinct stylistic voices.5 Unfortunately, many don’t, though it gets better closer to the end of the book. Their voices sort of blend together, so as a reader I lose track of who’s saying what, and often there’s not even much distinction between them and the voice of the surrounding narration. To once again quote How NOT to Write a Novel:
At last the crack team of child detectives had solved the dastardly crime. Little suspecting the trap that had been laid for them by the diabolically cunning dowager known as le Lady Leigh, the plucky kids broke into the factory and discovered the stores of prionate extract waiting to be added clandestinely to the beef by-product.
“These stores of prionate extract are destined for the homes of millions of innocent American boys and girls,” Bruno explained to his intrepid friends.
“Should we not act to prevent it, children all over the heartland, from Maine to California, will, sometime between two and thirty years from now, display increased thresholds of irritability,” the cheerful Topsy put in.
“More terrifying still is the prospect of an entire generation going about their lives unaware that they might have turned out in a slightly different manner,”” said Pip, the grump.
“Setting to work quickly, we will avoid detection,” Bruno advised.
They were busily stowing packets of dried calamari in their rucksacks when the bodyguard, Moe, appeared, straight from his hardscrabble immigrant life in Hell‘s Kitchen.
“Desist from your work,” the bodyguard warned. “I am training a gun on your childish heads.”
This is what reading Day of the Dragon felt like to me, at times.
Knaak also seems to hate repeating character names too much. For example, he might avoid constantly calling Vereesa “Vereesa” by using terms like “the elf”, “the ranger”, or “the elven ranger”. While other writers do this too, they usually don’t do it so repeatedly that the habit draws attention to itself.
I won’t list all examples of clunky prose I highlighted when reading this book, or we’d be here all day. Here are just a few indicative examples of how fractally broken Knaak’s writing style is:
“Have we all so soon forgotten the tragedy of the Third Fleet of Kul Tiras? I suspect that Lord Admiral Daelin Proudmoore never will. After all, he lost his eldest son and everyone else aboard those six great ships when the monstrous red leviathans fell upon them. Proudmoore would likely honor Deathwing with a medal if it proved true that the black beast was responsible for these two deaths.”
The aforementioned “characters infodumping Warcraft Wiki at each other” problem.
The fact that the combat had been entirely aerial and, therefore, far out of their reach apparently had not dampened their holy enthusiasm nor struck a chord with their common sense, Rhonin thought wryly.
Her personality had altered so much that the observing wizard could scarce believe this was the same female who had ridden as his guide and his guard for the past several days.
These two quotes are simply stylistic nightmares.
A face seemingly elven but with a flatter nose, a slit of a mouth, and teeth as sharp as a dragon greeted the newcomer.
Krasus rotated slowly so as to keep Malygos in front of him at all times.
Nekros fingered the Demon Soul, trying to decide his next move.
The ground swallowed her up. Dirt filled the elf’s mouth, then, seemingly, her hungry lungs.
A frown formed on the feminine mouth.
“Human, elf, you have my gratitude for finally enabling me to avenge my children! Now, though, there are others who need my aid, however minuscule it might prove!”
And these are just unintentionally funny.
Beautiful prose, to me, is like icing on the cake. When I’m immersed in reading, I picture the story in my head, but beautiful choices of words and sentences make me appreciate the author’s efforts all the more, making the style of the prose a work of art by itself. Ugly prose, on the other hand, constantly distracts me. Either it slows my reading speed to a crawl as my brain tries to process the detail despite the strange wording, or I end up quickly skimming through the paragraphs to get the gist of what’s happening, then move on to the next slog of a chapter.
Now that I’ve got this rant off my chest, let’s look at…
Like I said before, Ramses did an excellent chapter by chapter summary of the book. I won’t go into as much detail.
We start with a really awkward infodump where the Council of Six, the ruling body of the Kirin Tor of Dalaran, is busy telling each other things they already know in a stilted manner, like I noted earlier. None of them register any distinct personalities except Krasus. The Council is concerned about Deathwing’s survival and the Dragonmaw orcs’ continued captivity of Dragonqueen Alexstrasza, so they decide to send a mage to investigate. Since they rule a whole city of mages, naturally the only mage they can spare6 is Rhonin, our protagonist, an incompetent maverick.
Krasus, however, has other ideas, secret to the rest of the Council. He approaches Rhonin privately and tells him that his real mission is not just to observe the Dragonmaw. It is to free Alexstrasza.
The Wedge in the Alliance
The B-plot deals with Alliance politics, going into refreshingly more detail than Warcraft 2 did. Basically, after the Second War, there’s a question of what to do with Alterac. King Terenas of Lordaeron wants to install a new ruler loyal to him, Genn Greymane of Gilneas7 backs a distant relative of the deposed Perenolde to expand Gilnean naval reach at Kul Tiras’s expense, and Thoras Trollbane of Stromgarde wants to annex half of Alterac as war reparations.
The disagreements are doused, however, when a charismatic Alteraci noble named Lord Prestor comes to the scene, soothing Terenas with the mere sight of his “strong, ebony orbs”.
Crow: You mean his eyes?
Mike: Let’s not jump to conclusions.
Soon, he charms all three leaders, as well as Daelin Proudmoore of Kul Tiras, with his plan to save the Alliance from the tensions tearing it apart, and earns their trust to the point that they all agree to make the new king of Alterac. Unknown to them, Prestor is in fact the black dragon Deathwing in disguise, and his charm is actually mind control. He promises them all what they want to hear, then wipes their memories to forget the actual wording of his suggestions, remembering only that they were appealing.
This is the first time in the entire Warcraft franchise that we learn dragons can masquerade as humanoids.
Naturally, the Kirin Tor is concerned that Prestor leaves Dalaran out of the negotiations (he actually does because he fears they’ll see past his disguise). Krasus tries to scry on him, barely survives an uber-spell of hungering tentacles that Deathwing put as protection, and realizes who he’s up against, as this spell is beyond the means of any mortal spellcaster.
Woes of the Dragonmaw
In the C-plot, the position of the Dragonmaw clan is not rosy either. Alexstrasza’s last remaining consort Tyranastrasz is dying of disease, and Nekros Skullcrusher, the warlock with a hilariously awkward name assigned to oversee her, fears that clan chieftain Zuluhed will have his head if the Dragonqueen cannot produce any more children. We learn that he controls Alexstrasza with a mysterious golden disc.
To make things worse, there are rumors that an Alliance army is marching on Grim Batol, where Nekros keeps Alexstrasza chained. Nekros starts preparing for an evacuation, just in case.
Rhonin meets his assigned guide, the elven ranger Vereesa. Her job is to escort him to the port town of Hasic, where he’ll take a boat to Khaz Modan, while avoiding roaming orcs.
What should be a simple trip through friendly territory goes awry as the two encounter orc dragon riders, who are then chased away by dwarven gryphon riders. Rhonin and Vereesa are then captured by Knights of the Silver Hand who just happened to be passing near the battle site in a contrived coincidence. Their leader, Lord Duncan Sentarus, is distrustful of wizards in general and particularly Rhonin, especially after he is involved in some suspicious circumstances.
After several misadventures, they arrive in the port of Hasic, which is also attacked by orc dragon riders, and is saved again by the gryphon riders led by Falstad Dragonreaver (sic). Unfortunately, all the ships are burned down, so Vereesa asks the gryphon riders to take them to Khaz Modan by air instead. Duncan also insists on coming along.
This is not Beyond the Dark Portal. And yet we get a human mage who’s not Khadgar, a human paladin who’s not Turalyon, a dwarven gryphon rider who’s not Kurdran, and the token woman in the form of an elven ranger who’s not Alleria.8 Could Knaak please borrow from his source material less overtly?
Anyway, they get attacked by orc dragon riders again, and Duncan sacrifices himself to kill one of the dragons. Rhonin’s gryphon gets killed, but before he can plummet to his doom, he’s saved by, of all things, Deathwing.9 The black dragon tells him that he’s seeking to free Alexstrasza, and gives him a magic amulet made from his own scale to keep in touch. He selectively tells Rhonin the truth, mentioning an ancient war that wiped out nearly all dragonkind — and giving us the first hint of an ancient race that will later become an integral part of Warcraft lore.
It took a few seconds for the suspicious mage to identify the tiny figures as elves, but not elves like Vereesa. These elves were beautiful in their own way, too, but it was a cold, haughty beauty, one that, in the end, repelled him.
Though Rhonin doesn’t trust Deathwing, he has little choice but to comply. Deathwing guides his to infiltrate Grim Batol, sometimes ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL of his body through the amulet.
Meanwhile, Vereesa and Falstad are led into a trap by Deathwing’s goblin minion, who wants to make sure they don’t meddle in Deathwing’s plans for Rhonin by burying them alive in a heap of dirt.
Krasus Seeks Allies
Krasus is revealed to also be a dragon in disguise. Specifically, he’s Korialstrasz, one of Alexstrasza’s youngest consorts, and he seeks to free his loved one. He tries to enlist the help of three other ancient dragons, who are revealed to be Aspects, caretakers of different forces of the world.
Malygos the blue, driven mad by Deathwing exterminating his kind long ago, says that he’ll only “consider” helping. Nozdormu the bronze, lord of time, is annoyed by Korialstrasz’s intrusion, as he considers the affairs of the present unworthy of his attention, and rewinds time so their conversation never happens in the first place.
Finally, Krasus uses a tiny dose of a lethal poison to induce sleep so deep that he might reach Ysera the green, mistress of dreams, in his dream. And he does, while seeing some interesting cryptic visions as he falls asleep.
The first visions were murky ones, simple images from the sleeper’s subconscious. However, they were soon followed by more distinct and much starker apparitions. Winged figures both draconic and otherwise fluttered about, seeming to scatter in panic. A looming man in black mocked him from a distance. A child raced along a winding, sun-drenched hill… a child who suddenly transformed into a twisted, undead thing of evil.
Of the three Aspects, Ysera is the most cooperative and actually agrees to help.
The Battle of Grim Batol
Eventually, the three plots converge at Grim Batol.
Rhonin gets captured by Nekros, who — as both Deathwing and Krasus planned — mistakes him for a forward scout of an advancing Alliance army and orders an immediate evacuation of Grim Batol, including Alexstrasza, Tyranastrasz, and the clutches of red dragon eggs. Krasus actually used Rhonin as his pawn, a decision he regrets, and, driven by his conscience, he flies south, towards Grim Batol. So does Deathwing, whose plan is to capture the eggs and raise Alexstrasza’s progeny as his own, since black dragons are nearly extinct.
Meanwhile, Vereesa and Falstad are saved from immediate death by cannibalistic trolls10, who are about to eat them when they’re rescued by other dwarves. Vereesa learns that one of them is an agent of Krasus communicating with him through a magical amulet similar to the one Deathwing gave Rhonin.
(There’s also some interesting tidbit where Vereesa uses some kind of nature magic to talk to trees and encourage their growth. This is the first and last time, to my knowledge, that an elven ranger displays such an ability.)
They break into Grim Batol, which is in chaos from Nekros’s evacuation orders, and rescue Rhonin. They’re almost buried under rubble, but just before Rhonin’s shield spell fails against the collapsing ceiling, he teleports them all to safety outside the fortress.11 Nekros uses the golden disc to subdue the arriving Korialstrasz, then soon after, fails to use it on Deathwing, who goes straight for Alexstrasza’s eggs, taunting her.
With his last strength, Korialstrasz teleports Rhonin to him to tell him the history of the golden disc, which is called the Demon Soul. It doesn’t affect Deathwing because he was the one who created it, talking the other Aspects into pouring their power into it and then betraying them. Suddenly, Ysera appears in the form of an ethereal green-haired woman, bringing Malygos and Nozdormu with her. Korialstrasz says that the day can still be saved if Rhonin takes the Demon Soul from Nekros.
Through some bravery trickery, our heroes manage to acquire the artifact. Nekros almost crushes Rhonin’s neck in the process, but when the Demon Soul is taken away from him, Alexstrasza breaks free and freaking eats Nekros. The four Aspects engage Deathwing, but with their powers sapped, he is too strong even for all of them together. It is Rhonin who saves the day — by breaking the Demon Soul with the only thing that can harm him, namely the piece of Deathwing’s scale in his possession. With their powers restored, the Aspects overpower Deathwing, who flees.
Malygos brought the very clouds to him, clouds with suffocating holds around the black dragon’s jaws and nostrils. Nozdormu turned time forward for Deathwing alone, sapping his adversary of strength by forcing Deathwing to suffer weeks, months, then years without rest. His defenses already crippled by these assaults, Ysera had no trouble invading his mind, turning the armored behemoth’s thoughts to his worst nightmares.
Only then did Alexstrasza rise before him, the terrible nemesis. She gazed at Deathwing, still in part with pity, and said, “Life is my Aspect, dark one, and I, like all mothers, know both the pain and wonder that entails! For the past several years, I have watched my children be raised as instruments of war, slaughtered if they proved insufficient or too willful! I have lived knowing that so many died that I could do nothing for!”
“Your words mean nothing to me,” Deathwing roared as he futilely struggled to shrug off the others’ horrific assaults.“Nothing!”
“No, they likely do not . . . which is why I shall let you experience firsthand all that I have suffered….”
And she did just that. Against any other attack, even the nightmares of Ysera, Deathwing could summon some defense, but against Alexstrasza’s he had no weapon upon which to draw. She attacked with pain, butherpain. She dealt not with agony as he knew it, but with that of a loving mother who suffered with each child torn from her, with each child turned into something terrible.
With each child who perished.
“You will go through all I have gone through, dark one. Let us see if you fare any better than I did.”
But Deathwing had no experience in such suffering. It tore at him where the pain of vicious talons or ripping teeth could not, for it tore at him in his very being.
And the dwarves of Khaz Modan, together with our heroes, defeat the Dragonmaw orcs, now deprived of their greatest weapon.
In the epilogue, with Lord Prestor gone, the Alliance launches inquiries into his past, and Alterac remains a contentious issue threatening to drive a wedge between the other kingdoms. The Council of Six convenes again, and without revealing his true identity, Krasus resigns, wishing to spend time with his newly returned wife instead.
Significance for the Setting
Warcraft 2, which introduced dragons, didn’t develop them much. The Horde probably used them because they were among the traditionally evil fantasy creatures, like orcs, ogres, trolls and goblins, whereas the Alliance had all the traditionally good races. Still, even then, things were not that simple, as it was said that the Dragonmaw clan held Alexstrasza captive against her will.
Day of the Dragon introduced the five Dragon Aspects as we know them now, with their responsibilities. Some details are still missing; for example, Deathwing is only known by that name, leaving him the odd name out. They’re properly mysterious, mostly above mortal concerns, and actually have unique characterization and distinct stylistic voices.12 You can’t help but be curious where they came from and who bestowed them with these powers.
There are also hints at the ancient history of the world, a long-forgotten time when dragons reigned, and at ancient elves who were not like the elves of today’s Quel’Thalas. Suddenly, the world was more ancient and mysterious than even the most learned wizards of the present day thought.
And of course, this book introduces the idea of dragons transforming into humanoid forms willy-nilly.
We’ll ponder the ramifications of all this when we get to stories that heavily feature the Dragon Aspects, particularly Cataclysm and Dragonflight.
I’ll close with the observation that this novel is clearly supposed to take place between Tides of Darkness and Beyond the Dark Portal. The latter game states in no uncertain terms that Alexstrasza had already been rescued by then. In the novel, it has only been eight months since the Second War ended, and while Doomhammer’s war machine has been broken, its fragments, like the Dragonmaw clan in Khaz Modan, still linger. Day of the Dragon explains why Ner’zhul’s expedition in Beyond the Dark Portal needed a new source of their dragon mounts, why Deathwing was interested in escaping Azeroth for Draenor, and how the Alliance fractured in the interim. It all fits like a glove.
…What do you mean they retconned the timeline?
Next we’ll be taking a look at Lord of the Clans, the novel adaptation of the ill-fated game. We’ll get a more detailed account of how Thrall, son of Durotan, escaped captivity, freed and rallied his people, and became Warchief of the renewed Horde.
And this time, hopefully without any silly puzzles in a dragon’s stomach.
I haven’t read any of his non-Warcraft books, and thus can’t comment on them. ↩
Even Chris Metzen. Especially Chris Metzen. ↩
Another quote from that book that I appreciate: “Generally, saying ‘edifice’ instead of ‘building’ doesn‘t tell your reader anything more about the building; it tells the reader that you know the word edifice.” ↩
Yoda, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Mordin Solus are good examples of strong stylistic voices, in that they stay immediately recognizable even in writing. ↩
Yes, they actually say that. ↩
Terenas describes Genn as “nothing less than a bear who had learned to clothe himself, albeit somewhat crudely”. This will be funny later. ↩
Of course, in an astonishing coincidence, it later retroactively turns out that Vereesa is Alleria’s sister, and Falstad is Kurdran’s brother. ↩
Deathwing’s movements until the final act are not made entirely clear. He’s supposed to be in Lordaeron masquerading as Lord Prestor, yet he also intervenes in Rhonin’s quest at critical moments. Does he just teleport offscreen? But if he can do that, why does he have to fly all the way to Grim Batol at the end? ↩
Who don’t act anything like the trolls of Warcraft 3, and have weird names: Shnel, Gree, and Vorsh. ↩
This is the first instance of teleportation in Warcraft lore that doesn’t involve the Dark Portal. ↩