I had always thought of David Drake as a military sci-fi author. He has a long history of writing exactly that, with Hammer’s Slammers and Northworld being the examples I’m most familiar with. So when I came across Lord of the Isles while browsing his wikipedia page, I was a little surprised. A renowned sci-fi author tries his hand at epic fantasy?
I shouldn’t have been skeptical.
As it turns out, David Drake knows what he’s doing. Lord of the Isles came out in 1997, and as the first novel of a series it does all of the necessary work and does it well. What’s more, even though it clearly follows many of the well established traditions of the epic fantasy genre, with peasant main characters coming to greatness & fighting against the unspeakable evils that beset the land, Drake’s setting is itself quite fresh.
Well, maybe fresh isn’t the right word for it. More like the musty scent of old books, the way libraries are supposed to smell. He pulls his inspiration liberally from ancient sources, repurposing Greek and Roman poets and writers to provide a literary background for his own setting, and cobbling together a world from tales of Atlantis, Sumerian religious beliefs, and sacrificial magic. It’s all exceedingly juicy, and never mind the fact that that isn’t a word I want to associate with books.
Back on the topic of established traditions, I also quite admired the clarity with which each character followed a variant of the Hero’s Journey. That isn’t terribly innovative (more like old as dirt) but the cycle is quite simply as classic as it gets, and Drake shows that he’s very good at writing it. And he gets kudos for giving nearly every main character an easily identifiable version of it.
And finally, *SPOILER WARNING*
If there’s anything that I have concerns about in the book, it’s that Drake ties things up too neatly at the end. Not such that the characters have nowhere to go, but that there’s been so much resolution and return to a balanced existence that it would take some significant movement to get them back into action. I also have a problem with the persistance of the Damsel in Distress trope, but I’m willing to give Drake the benefit of the doubt for book one of a longer series. I expect him to change up who’s getting distressed in the future (and not just have it be women), which should mitigate the problem. I’ll say more on this as I read more of the series.