Literature: The Death Gate Cycle
Series of seven High Fantasy
novels by Margaret Weis
and Tracy Hickman
, generally considered one of their best works.
In the backstory, nuclear war
devastated Planet Earth, and several new races mutated out of humanity. One was the elves, another the dwarves; but the two most powerful were humans with demigod-like
and the Patryn
. These two races began to war over who would rule; eventually, the Sartan secured victory by remaking the Earth into four separate worlds, one for each element, which would then work together in harmony. (That's their children's catechism quoted above.) They imprisoned the Patryn within a "correctional facility," the Labyrinth, and built Death's Gate itself as the central nexus which made the whole Portal Network
function. It was A Simple Plan
. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Well. The Labyrinth went Off the Rails
in a big way, turning from a giant maze into a Death World
that took the Patryn untold generations to escape. Meanwhile, the four worlds descended into factionalism and chaos as humans, dwarves and elves began to fight amongst themselves. The sole exception was Abbarach, the World of Stone, where the mensch simply died out due to the world's volcanic atmosphere and the Sartan went their own way. None of this was according to plan, and the Sartan called to each other for help that never came. In the end, they declared it someone else's problem
and put themselves into Human Popsicle
beds to let things sort themselves out on their own.
And then the Patryn finally got loose.
The main character of the series is Haplo, a Patryn Villain Protagonist
who, as of the first book, is sent out through Death's Gate to investigate the other worlds on behalf of his master, Lord Xar. His orders are a classic bait-and-switch: if Haplo causes as much chaos and death as possible, Xar can come in as the Big Damn Heroes
later. The Sartan are also returning to finish their plan for utopia
. ...At least, in the worlds where they aren't dead. Alfred, the other main character, is the Last of His Kind
from Arianus, a Sartan whose power is equalled only by his clumsiness. Both races discover, however, that there are far more dangerous things in the universe than each other...
The books are divided into two broad arcs; books 1-4 deal with Haplo's explorations of each of the elemental worlds in turn and the search for answers over the disappearance of the Sartan, while books 5-7 deal with the broader conflict that engulfs all the worlds. They are, in order:
- Dragon Wing
- Elven Star
- Fire Sea
- Serpent Mage
- The Hand of Chaos
- Into the Labyrinth
- The Seventh Gate
The series was adapted into a graphical Adventure Game
called Death Gate
This series provides examples of:
- Above Good and Evil: How the Patryns see themselves. Closer inspection, however, proves that they do have a (rather strict) moral code, no matter how cynically they try to justify it.
- Action Girl: Grundle, Marit, all female Patryns
- Affably Evil: Kleitus, while alive. This largely disappears after he becomes a Lazar (he's certainly still the most affable of the Lazar, but that's not saying a whole lot...)
- After the End: After two ends, actually- an implied nuclear Armageddon, and a definite magical one.
- Always Chaotic Evil: The serpents, justified because they pretty much are Chaotic Evil in person, and the monsters in the Labyrinth, which were created by magic gone haywire. Subverted with the Sartan and the Patryns: Each of those races sees the other this way, but both are shown to be just as capable of good and evil as any other race.
- Animate Dead: the basic spell used by the Sartan necromancers of Abarrach. The problem is, this is a universe based on Equivalent Exchange- for every corpse raised, someone of the same race dies untimely. This is theorized to be the cause of the decline of the Sartan. There's also the slight drawback to bringing someone back from the death too early. Instead of just a zombie, they come back as a lazar, which is far more sentient and far more dangerous.
- Anti-Hero: Haplo, Hugh the Hand
- Anti-Villain: Lord Xar, Samah
- Arc Villain: Each of the first four books has a largely self-contained story with its own antagonist:
- Dragon Wing: Sinistrad
- Elven Star: The tytans
- Fire Sea: Kleitus who remains a supporting antagonist in the last three books
- Serpent Mage: The dragon-snakes who become the primary Big Bad of the remainder of the series.
- As Long as There Is Evil: the serpents will exist for as long as there is darkness in the mortal soul
- As You Know: Said almost word-for-word to Haplo by his benefactor at the start of the first book; in this context, because Xar is speechifying a bit to remind Haplo of the importance of their cause.
- Asskicking Equals Authority: The Patryns pretty much work this way; Lord Xar is the most powerful living Patryn, and all of his immediate subordinates are also highly Badass. On the Sartan side of things, Samah is both the head of the Sartan Council and the most powerful Sartan in history or so he thinks, but it's unclear if the head of the Council is always the most powerful.
- Awesomeness-Induced Amnesia: Alfred manages to pull off incredible feats of magic as he used to be a master wizard but adopted a bumbling, useless personality which took over to the point that he only shows his skills a few times and reverts to his bumbling personality with no memory of what he did.
- Axe Crazy: The Lazar
- Badass Normal: Hugh the Hand- even cursed, he's the one mensch Badass enough to survive the Labyrinth
- His curse renders him incapable of dying, so that isn't a good example. A better one would be his killing the single most powerful human mage on his world in single combat, even though he temporarily died doing it.
- The entire dwarven race of Abarrach. The elves and humans died so long ago they are considered myths, while the dwarves lasted almost as long as the Sartans-without magic to boot.
- Balance Between Good and Evil: one of the main themes of the series, literally hard-wired into the metaphysics of its world; see Functional Magic below for more elaboration
- Bald of Evil: Sinistrad, to the point of being completely hairless.
- Bastard Understudy: Bane is only ten years old, and already coming up with plans to rule Arianus and off his father as soon as he no longer needs him
- Big Bad: Lord Xar initially appears to be this; the situation later develops into more of a Big Bad Ensemble with the addition of Kleitus, Samah later replaced by Ramu and the serpents who prove to be the greatest threat and the incarnation of evil and chaos.
- Big Friendly Dog: Haplo's dog, who, contrary to one of the trope's requirements, is quite smart.
- Bigger Bad: The Royal One is the ultimate ruler of the serpents, but he only plays a major role in Serpent Mage. He gets killed off by Alfred at the end of the book, returns to life in Hand of Chaos, and afterwards plays no meaningful role in the story, with Sang-drax taking over as The Heavy and The Face of the serpents as a faction. Haplo also speculates that the serpents are merely the minions of some even greater evil power, but if so, such a being's existence is never confirmed.
- Black and White Morality: The serpents versus the dragons, who are the literal embodiements of the good and evil within the mortal character
- Black Cloak: The Kir monks, Sinistrad, the necromancers of Abarrach, and sometimes Xar wear these.
- Blessed with Suck: Hugh the Hand gets resurrected by Alfred and made immortal to boot, for the price of no longer being able to kill anything. Since he's an assassin, it's easy to see why he's not happy with this situation.
- "Blind Idiot" Translation: The Dutch version.
- Came Back Wrong: Sartan necromancer Jonathon tries to raise his recently killed wife Jera from the dead, but is too impatient to wait the requisite three days to allow her soul to safely depart. The result is a creature with echoes of Jera's personality, but is also completely insane, super-Sartanly powerful, and hellbent on revenge and making more of its kind. This is the origin of the lazar.
- Canine Companion: Dog, who is always with Haplo even when it should be physically impossible. Justified because Dog is the literal manifestation of Haplo's soul.
- Can't Argue with Elves: Subverted. The Elves certainly think they're the superior race, but the other races have no problem with strongly disagreeing. Of course, it's not that hard when the elves of Arianus are The Empire, the elves of Pryan are elitist snobs, and the elves of Chelestra wear the hat of being a bunch of genius ditzes (Their magic is awesome, their diplomatic skills unrivaled. Their culture is... eccentric).
- In any case, the true elves of this setting are the Sartans and the Patryns, who really don't like mere mortals arguing with them, but it's made pretty clear that they should - both have major faults they refuse to acknowledge.
- Card-Carrying Villain: Sinistrad. It's all in the name.
- Charm Person: Bane was given an enchantment by Sinistrad that makes everyone dote on him. Not love him - there's a significant difference between the two that becomes a minor plot point.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Zifnab full stop. The Elves of Chelestra also have a reputation of being a more mild version of this, while the "ordinary" dead of Abarrach (who possess all their memories but not the consciousness to make sense of them) come off a a more deeply creepy version.
- The Corrupter: Basically the serpents' hat, though Sang-drax does it the most on-page
- Creepy Child: Bane
- Deadpan Snarker: Zifnab's nameless dragon. Haplo also does this at times.
- Death World: in the Labyrinth, everything will try and kill you (though the magic compels it to give you a fighting chance). Abarrach is almost as bad.
- This needs some explaining. The Labyrinth itself is literally out to kill you. Imagine yourself walking down a beach when you suddenly trip on a rock. The Labyrinth put it there when you weren't looking. Imagine yourself climbing up a hill when your handhold gives way, sending you rolling to the bottom. The Labyrinth did it. And imagine yourself camping out in a forest that's been cleared already when you hear the howls of a pack of wolfen closing in. Guess who called them in?
- Decoy Protagonist: In Dragon Wing, Hugh the Hand seems like the main character right up until he dies. Elven Star has an entire cast of these, although this time you'd already be aware that the most important character in the book is actually Haplo. From Fire Sea onwards Haplo and Alfred are the obvious primary protagnists.
- Deus Exit Machina: In Dragon Wing, either Haplo or Alfred could solve all the problems of the book in about two minutes. Unfortunately, Haplo dares not use his Patryn powers for fear of alerting the Sartan, and Alfred passes out every time something important happens.
- The Dragon: Haplo starts out as this to Lord Xar, ironic because he's still the main character. Sang-drax can be said to take this role; in a way he is the Big Bad, but he's more the avatar it takes to communicate with mortals than the core of its consciousness.
- Dyson Sphere: Pryan
- Eccentric Mentor: Zifnab
- Precious Puppies: Why Dog is, well, a dog, given that he's actually a familiar of Haplo's.
- Evil Overlord: Subverted with Lord Xar, who fully intends to take over the universe and rule it with an iron fist, but is beloved by his Patryn followers and genuinely cares about them. Played straight with Kleitus.
- Evil Sorcerer: Sinistrad and Kleitus
- Expy: Zifnab bears a distinct resemblance (down to the letters of his name) to Fizban from Dragonlance, though the two have very different backstories and motivations.
- According to Alfred, Zifnab spends his time after the series is done walking around and claiming he's God. Probably a nod towards Fizban being Paladine. However, Weiss and Hickman have Jossed the theory that he's a deity.
- Although he demonstrates abilities beyond what anyone would expect from even an old and powerful Sartan; like living for thousands years and escaping from a cell meant to hold Samah.
- Justified. It's heavily implied that Zifnab read the Dragonlance-novels in his youth.
- Fearless Undead
- Fighting a Shadow: You can't kill the serpents permanently: if you try, they'll just re-form in a few days, twice as powerful as before.
- Disc One Final Boss: Sinistrad is built up as Big Bad in the first book, but cosmically he's a little fish, especially when compared to the real bad guys
- Fantastic Racism: Hoo boy. Sartan and Patryns hate each other, the mensch races hate each other, the Sartan and Patryns look down on the mensch, and the mensch resent the "demigods". The serpents, of course, love all this.
- The one aversion is the world of Chelestra, where interspecies rivalry amongst the mensch is strong... but their commitment towards alliance and peaceful coexistence is stronger. This leads to both a Crowning Moment of Awesome and a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming when mensch leaders are present at the first contact between Patryn and Sartan in thousands of years... and, seeing their hostility, offer to mediate.
- Functional Magic
- Instant Runes: Sartan and Patryns both use runes to create their spells. Sartan summon their runes out of midair as part of their elaborate spellcasting rituals; Patryns avert this trope by simply tattooing the runes directly on their bodies for maximum ease of use.
- Power Glows: Patryn and Sartan runes both glow when magic is being used, as do Patryn tattoos when their wearer is in danger: evidently, the Patryn have a...
- Winds of Destiny, Change: the universe is encompassed by "The Omniwave," which is the set of all possibilities in existence and is constantly working to keep itself in balance. Rune-magic works by allowing the user to select a new possibility and weave it into the extant fabric of the universe. In other words, the Patryn and Sartan literally alter probability until what they want comes into being. (It also leads to less extravagant spellcasting than usual; while summoning a fireball might work, opening a hole in the floor to escape through is closer to the current reality and thus easier to invoke.)
- Some mensch also have (lesser) magical powers; human wizards have Elemental Powers, while elven wizards make Magitek. Even the most powerful of these, though, are said to be less than the lowest levels of Sartan/Patryn power.
- Garden of Evil: Parts of the Labyrinth are like this; the rest is more like Mordor. Different flavors of lethal environment for everyone!
- God: Implied to exist in some form, though it's left unclear whether there's a personal deity out there or if the impersonal force of cosmic balance is the Ultimate.
- Gray and Gray Morality: The Sartan versus the Patryn. Neither race is anything close to Always Chaotic Evil, but if you're a mensch, neither is exactly friendly, either...
- Half-Human Hybrid: A notable aversion; the different races explicitly can't have children together, the only exception being Sartan and Patryns. This is strong proof that they are actually the same race with very different philosophies on magic... just don't tell them that.
- It's stated that both Sartan and Patryn are evolved humans, so technically the same race.
- To be fair to the prejudice, the only explicit hybrid mentioned that his Sartan magic wasn't at the level of a pure Sartan, though whether this is due to his Patryn blood, Patryn tattoos, or Patryn upbringing is unclear.
- Healing Factor: Patryns can trance to heal most injuries. Having another Patryn on hand to lend their magic speeds the process up exponentially.
- Liquid Assets: however, when two Patryns "join the circle", the uninjured one literally shares his/her strength with the other, leaving both of them half-hurt.
- Human Subspecies: Elves, dwarves, Sartan and Patryn all evolved out of basic human stock.
- I Know Your True Name: The true name of a Sartan holds power over them, which is why most Sartan never reveal their true names to anyone but family or closest friends, using mundane names in public. The only exceptions are Samah and his council, who are so powerful that they have no need to fear their names being used against them.
- Patryns' true names have power too, but they generally don't have to worry about this form of attack, as their spoken names are just approximations of their real names- the runes tattooed over their hearts, which they only let those who are close to them read. This does lead to another form of Achilles' Heel, though, because if the "heart-rune" is attacked or damage, a Patryn's whole magical essence will begin to unravel.
- Patryn magic is actually based on this concept. A Patryn enchantment works by identifying the Name of the object that the caster wishes to cast a spell on and altering it so that it becomes the Name of what the caster wishes to have. Said object then changes to match the Name.
- Implacable Man: The Lazar, which will keep coming even after they've been dismembered.
- Also the tytans, who slaughter their way across an empire, go around an ocean to the next part of civilization, then begin to kill everything there as well. The only things that have an effect on them are arrows in the shape of dragons, and even that only makes them scared.
- Inept Mage: Alfred has the distinction of being an inept mage with a tremendous amount of raw talent- he's inadvertatnly raised the dead and turned himself into a dragon. Haplo at one point remarks that Alfred's only talents are raising the dead and tailoring.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Lord Xar does this in the last three books though it might be more fair to say that Sang-drax pushed him off. Haplo manages to stop him before he hits bottom.
- Living Labyrinth
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: the seven books of the Death Gate Cycle were written by Alfred and Haplo themselves, and occasionally contain footnotes from the two to clarify various in-world concepts or provide elaborative details.
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- Lotus-Eater Machine: Alfred defeats a serpent by trapping it in its own mind.
- Magic A Is Magic A: To the point where the authors actually wrote appendices to some of the books explaining in great detail how the magic system of the series works.
- Magic Knight: The Patryns are experts at combining their magic with physical combat skills.
- Magitek: Both the Sartan and the elves use this a lot; Patryns often use runes to enhance their tools and weapons, which might be considered a primitive form of Magitek.
- Manipulative Bastard: Sang-drax, Sinistrad, Bane
- Meaningful Name: Bane, Xar (Czar), Sinistrad. To be fair, the last two were names that were deliberately taken and the first was deliberately given.
- Also Haplo, which means "alone" or "lonely" in the Patryn tongue; its roots are in Greek where it means "single" or "simple".
- Mordor: Abarrach is basically a Single-Biome Planet of subterranean Mordor. Parts of the Labyrinth are Mordor-like as well.
- Motive Decay: Xar goes from wanting to build a better future for the Patryns to wanting to lead the Patryns to conquer the universe because it's their birthright to wanting to conquer the universe for his own benefit. This is spelled out in tear-jerking fashion in The Seventh Gate when he wonders exactly how he got from "Save my people" to "Evil Overlord". —And then hears the sound of Sang-drax's laughter in his mind...
- Muggles: the mensch races
- Murder, Inc.: The Brotherhood of the Hand, the guild of assassins of Arianus.
- Necromancer: What the Sartan of Abarrach have degenerated into. Xar learns the spells too later on, but isn't very good at them (much to his frustration).
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Jonathon. His planet was already on the way down but his accidental creation of the Lazar nearly finished off every living thing on it.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Several times. Alfred's done it so much that even he no longer believes he's competent, Zifnab's dragon pretends to be a ravening beast when he's one of the wisest characters in the series, and even Zifnab's weirdness isn't all genuine (just most of it). Sinistrad is an odd variation: Rather than pretending to be stupid, he casts himself as a deliberately over-the-top Card-Carrying Villain, causing the other mysteriarchs to dismiss him as a harmless eccentric. They are very wrong.
- Omnicidal Maniac: Subverted twice. The tytans look like this but all they want is to go home; Haplo mistakes the serpents for this, but as Sang-drax points out, they need mortal suffering in order to survive, so destroying the world is just about the one thing that would kill them too.
- Omniscient Morality License: Many of the Sartan believe they operate under one of these.
- Only Sane Man: Zifnab's dragon often has this sort of attitude. Seeing as it's coming from a several-ton green reptile who half the time acts like a butler and might well be considered a minor deity, this is distinctly humorous in and of itself.
- Order Versus Chaos: the Sartan, an entire culture of The Fettered, versus the Patryn, Ineffectual Loners whose highest loyalty is to the family.
- Ironically, their magic systems reverse this trend- Sartan magic is much more spiritual and mystical and is treated as an art, while Patryn magic is incredibly structured and treated like a science.
- Our Elves Are Better: No, they're not. Depending on the world you go to, they're either The Empire, incredibly stuck-up, or well-meaning but rather silly.
- Our Dragons Are Different: The dragon-snakes and the dragons of Pryan aren't actually dragons, just immensely powerful shapechangers who often appear in that form. There are also a couple of different dragon species on Arianus (intelligent but not sentient, often enspelled and trained by humans as mounts) the fire dragons of Abarrach (think giant black snakes that live in lava) and the blood dragons of the Labyrinth (some of the most powerful creatures in the series and basically have Torture Technician as their Hat).
- Our Dwarves Are All the Same: Averted with the "Gegs" of Arianus, who are a race of peaceful factory workers oppressed by the Tribus Elves. Played straight with the dwarves on the other two mensch worlds, which are much more in line with traditional stereotypes.
- It's stated in the first book that they are oppressed by the elves because the elves are afraid of what would happen if they realized they're actually a Proud Warrior Race.
- They later realise it. Elves don't like it a one bit.
- Our Giants Are Bigger: The Tytans, artificial creatures created by the Sartan to operate their Magitek and police the mensch. With their creators gone, the Tytans now rampage across Pryan, annihilating everything in their path.
- Our Zombies Are Different: The cadavers of Abarrach represent the "mindless servant" type (mostly). The lazar, on the other hand, are basically what you get by combining Our Zombies Are Different with Our Liches Are Different and a little bit of Our Vampires Are Different on the side. They're extremely intelligent, retain the magical powers they had in life (and are capable of learning new ones) and are completely Ax-Crazy, driven by a need to kill the living and create more of their kind.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The Sartan and Patryns have outgrown the "silly superstition" of gods, and the Sartan at least discourage any mensch under their influence from believing in such beings either. Of course, the series proves them very wrong when actual divine beings show up, and unfortunately the most proactive of them are the vile serpents...
- Pet the Dog: Literal, with Haplo.
- Physical God: Sartan and Patryns are this compared to the mensch, and are generally referred to as "demigods" throughout the books
- Planet of Hats: Played straight with the mensch races, all of whom are rather hatty (though which race his which hat varies from world to world). Deconstructed with the "demigods"
- Power Nullifier: The seawater of Chelestra, created by the rules of the universe to counter the imbalance caused by Sartan and Patryn magic. Any "demigod" who gets dunked in it will find him or herself all too mortal until they dry out.
- Professional Killer: Hugh is an assassin, and is later revealed to be part of an assassin's guild (well, they mostly do assassinations, but have a hand in a lot of other crime on Arianus as well).
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Patryns can be quite brutal and ruthless enemies, but they take great pride in their cultural identitity and combat skills, and follow an uncompromising code of honor- at least among each other. Several of the mensch cultures also qualify.
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: And the Serpents are Genre Savvy about it. This trope is the reason their default form is giant snakes.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: How the Sartan see the Patryns. The Patryns in turn see themselves as a Sealed Good in a Can. They are unquestionably Sealed Badasses In A Can
- The Serpents too, though their can was a block of ice that formed around them naturally rather than a deliberate act of imprisonment.
- Secret Relationship: King Stephen and Queen Anne, who entered an Arranged Marriage to end a feud between the Kingdom of Uylandia (his) and the Volkaran Isles (hers). Zigzagged Trope: they are married to each other. They have bitter shouting matches in court... which keeps the Evil Chancellors off-balance. Behind closed doors, they are very Happily Married.
- Soul Fragment / Soul Jar: Haplo's dog
- Squishy Wizard: Many Sartan, especially Alfred
- Standard Female Grab Area: Only it's a dwarf doing the grabbing, so it's lower than usual.
- Starter Villain: Sinistrad.
- The Undead: Two basic kinds. The first, just called "cadavers", are semi-sentient and can be trained to do simple tasks (and complex ones if they have an overseer). A corpse raied too quickly, however, becomes a Lazar- its soul hasn't had time to fully depart, and the resulting creature is completely sentient and quite insane. There's also Hugh the Hand, who was turned into an undead by Alfred's improvising and is apparently unique.
- Too Dumb to Live: One family member of the elven main character of Elven Star is this, as she's so fixated on running the family business that she repeatedly dismisses alarm horns as drills and even with omnicidal, giant magical creatures practically at the house's doorstep just thinks everyone else is being crazy. Unsurprisingly, she dies.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Dog loves sausages.
- True Companions: Patryn culture is pretty much made of this. They're not a friendly or openly affectionate people by any stretch, but if they accept you as part of their family, they will remain loyal practically to their dying breath (and expect the same in return).
- Utopia Justifies the Means: Samah's motivation in a nutshell
- Villain Protagonist: Arguably Haplo in the first two books; starting in book three he becomes a more solid Anti-Hero as he starts to question his Lord and be pitted against people far worse than he is.
- Villains Never Lie: Sinistrad outright told his wife to be that he is evil, and that she would regret her decision to be with him. "If you marry me, you marry darkness." She thought he was being romantic and mysterious. Possibly a Take That at the more rabid Raistlin-fangirls.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: Serpents and dragons can change their form into whatever they want (Sang-drax, for example, is fond of appearing as an elven aristocrat). Alfred can also change his form to that of a green-and-golden dragon.
- Warm Bloodbags Are Everywhere: The Lazar have this problem, though it's not so much that they need to feed on the living as the presence of living beings simply sends them into Axe Crazy fits. Jonathon can resist this; Kleitus can too, but only when it suits his purposes.
- We Are as Mayflies: Humans are easily the shortest-lived of the major races. Elves and dwarves both have a couple of centuries in them, it's never explicitly spelled out how long Sartan and Patryns live beyond that it's a really long time, and dragons and serpents are functionally immortal.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Samah; Balthazar in Fire Sea, though he grows into a more purely heroic character by Seventh Gate, Xar until his murder for refusing to disastrously reunite the worlds.
- Witch Species: Sartan and Patryns.
- Zombie Apocalypse: The Lazar cause one of these on Abarrach.