Review: Lord of the Isles Series, by David Drake

Rather than reviewing the nine books piecemeal I decided to do a spoiler-free overview of the whole.  This is a series started in the 90s and finished in 2008 that seems to have flown under the radar, but its a good read especially if you are a fan of Greek myths or military fantasy, both of which Drake is well versed in.

David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series is a low magic heroic fantasy saga set in a Greek-influenced archipelago.  The central tension is the rise of the setting’s inherently chaotic magic and the four protagonists, Garric, Sharina, Cashel, and Ilna must rebuild the Kingdom of the Isles to prevent the collapse of all civilization due to rampant magic.

As in his Republic of Cinnabar Navy Series the plots of each novel are self-contained and Drake catches up first time readers in a timely fashion, so readers can begin anywhere without confusion, though I would encourage you to start at the beginning.  Cover blurbs refer to Lord of the Isles as an epic fantasy, but their isn’t much of an overarching plot in the first six books, just a series of adventures featuring the same characters- books 1 and 2, The Lord of the Isles and The Queen of Demons are the only two to share an antagonist or problem beyond the rise of magic, and they are stronger for it.  It is more a series of heroic fantasy stories with the same cast than the unified plot one expects with epic fantasy.

The Greek influences, taken from both daily life and myths, are an interesting change from standard fantasy, as is the reliance on naval travel.  Drake’s use of islands and magical pocket worlds makes the structure quite similar to his Hammer’s Slammers and RCN works with a variety of distinct and clearly defined set pieces, taking the place of planets in his science fiction works.  The frequent use of time travel, other worlds, and references  gives the series a distinctly sci-fi flavor, something that continues throughout the series.

Drake’s focus on gritty military life in other works appears here as well, with an emphasis on the day to day life of a soldier.  The attention to detail in the gear and tactics of the soldiers’ of all factions helps breath life into the world.  Despite the grit the series still feels hopeful in contrast to A Song of Ice and Fire or The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Magic is present but presented as inherently dangerous and unpredictable, more likely to cause problems than solve them.  Drake’s writing makes magic an important aspect of the story without being a Deus Ex Machina.

Character development is excellent when it happens- which is mostly the first two books.  Past this point the starting quad of Garric, Sharina, Ilna and Cashel are mostly set in stone, with supporting characters providing variety when they are introduced.  Make no mistake, the characters are showcased in every book but the price of being able to start anywhere is it becomes repetitive after several books.  I repeat my complaint from RCN here- the characters are fun and interesting when something new happens- but the heroes have largely assumed their mantles by the end of book 2, The Queen of Demons.  This is a refreshing change at first from exceedingly long heroes’ journey plots, such as in The Wheel of Time, but Drake rarely provides opportunities for growth past this- he seems unwilling to introduce complexity that requires reading the previous books or just unwilling to disturb a winning formula.

Supporting characters can carry the weight of character development; for example Chalcus and Carus are the high points of books three, Servant of the Dragon, and four, Mistress of the Catacombs, respectively, when they get the spotlight, but they soon fade into the background again, and no one steps forth to replace them.

The lack of development changes abruptly in the 7th book, and the relationships between the heroes are called into question- it’s interesting and breathes new life into the series and I wish Drake shook things up more often; in my opinion the conflict ends too soon, though the ending trilogy is strong and enjoyable despite this.  Honestly I might recommend skipping some books between two and seven unless you love heroic fantasy- the books are all good but read one after another the repetitiveness is obvious.  The plots are different but we don’t see the characters grow in response to them.

However, the ending is fantastic and in hindsight Drake sets up for it from the beginning. Its part of what makes the ending trilogy feel like epic fantasy, because it is so satisfying and clearly fits with everything that came before it, but I would have liked to have had more hints on where things were going.  In my opinion, Drake has tried too hard to make the Lord of the Isles accessible- nothing feels like it matters since consequences rarely carry over between books beyond the first two and last three- he even shys away from connection within books; the adventures of the four heroes often seem like separate novellas in the middle books.  His permanent characters are interesting but as in RCN, Drake seems too scared of changing things to let them act on each other or let the world act on them in a meaningful way, despite the fact that the series is at its absolute best when he does.  Plenty of new characters and antagonists appear in each book, but they are usually expended or window dressing- all of this is fine in the Hammer’s Slammers or Drake’s standalone novels where we are introduced to new protagonists with each story but in the Lord of the Isles it feels like reading the same book over and over again from book 3 until things shift fast enough to give you whiplash at the end of book seven.

Ultimately, there is a lot that’s good in the Lord of the Isles, but it’s spread thinner than I would like- it holds up well as a series of heroic fantasy novels but only the 1st two and last three books feel like a cohesive series.

Image source and purchase link.

There are some good deals for this book on Amazon; I picked up my former library copy of book three for $4 for a hardback including shipping and handling.

TL,DR:  A fun series of pulpy heroic fantasy with heavy influence from Greek myths, science fiction, and military sci fi.  Pick it up if you like fantasy but aren’t a fan of the vast overarching plots of The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and other epic fantasy novels or the grimmer stories in the genre.

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