Mistress of the Catacombs is the fourth book in David Drake‘s Lord of the Isles series. Published in 2001, it continues to deliver on the promise of the first few books. I’m not sure I have new words to describe the delightful admixture of classical influences that form this heady concoction of Roman and Greek culture and technology, Sumerian religion, and ancient Mediterranean magic. Suffice to say that it comes across with an appropriately Atlantean feel, and *itty bitty spoilers* that the various wanderings through other worlds never break the feeling of the world(s) that Drake has created. Magic is powerful and scary, and this is made clear not just by the ways in which people react to it but also through the consequences of people’s use of magic. And more than ever before in this series, Drake makes clear his own thoughts about violence as a solution to your problems.
David Drake has had a little foreword in most of his books in this series, mentioning which Roman or Greek writers show up with different names, talking about how the spells that people use in the books are supposed to work according to the understandings of the ancients of our own world, and mentioning his own thoughts on violence. He always makes it very clear: his experience in Vietnam taught him that violence is a solution, but rarely the solution. And it almost never solves something without creating more problems, so he tries to represent that in his writing.
But this is the first book in the Lord of the Isles series that really showcases what happens when you resort to violence to solve all your various problems, and that does it in the action of the main storyline rather than by implication through the history of the world. You crush one problem and more spring up. You look at every problem as something to be solved by murder and violence, and then you’re left sitting in the ashes after everything burns down around your ears. I thought it was actually quite wonderful to watch this happen in the story, as I got to see a character that I had come to like behave more or less in a miserable fashion that was completely in keeping with everything I knew about him. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it really is pretty great.
In my review of Servant of the Dragon, I mentioned that it looked like Drake had already done set up for his next book’s plot, and done it very smoothly at that. It turns out I was right. He really has done a good job of forecasting where the next problem is going to be in such a way as to give you a hint without giving up the story itself. I think he did it again in this book, although perhaps not quite as early on as he did last time. I’d still recommend looking at the way that he brings up potential future problems as a model for introducing trouble in your own stories.
Ah, and remember those few problems that I had mentioned in previous reviews, the unfortunate Damsel-ing of otherwise strong characters? That doesn’t happen this time around either. People are certainly put in need of being rescued, so I suppose you might call them Damsel-ed, but it’s done without much regard for sex and the rescuers aren’t necessarily men. Good stuff.
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