February 11, 2003

Lord of the Isles, by David Drake

Every so often I take a shot at a hazard and find something unexpectedly wonderful, and that's definitely the case here. What's even more wonderful is that this is the first book in a series--and I've come to it late enough that I think that the entire thing has been written. I just need to go about and buy the subsequent books.

Lord of the Isles is the beginning of an epic fantasy with a number of interesting and original twists. The world in which it is set is divided into two oceans, the Outer Sea and the Inner Sea, by a roughly circular ring of islands. At one time the islands were united under a single king, but that last king, Carus of Haft, was brought down by a would-be usurper; the ensuing struggles ushered in a thousand years of chaos.

There are many wizards in the world of the Isles, and one interesting twist is that few of them know what they are doing. They've got kibbles and bits of learning, but few of them can perceive the forces they manipulate by rote. The results they get can be wildly at variance with their intentions. I like this because it turns one of my pet peeves on its head--the hero who has exceptionally strong magic powers, but has no idea how to harness them. Andre Norton wrote a good many of these, but she's not alone; Robert Jordan has turned the idea into a saga that stands at ten books and counting. And the thing that annoys me about it is the whole deus ex machina thing. Just when the hero has gotten into a fix and is facing certain death, he reaches down to the depths of his soul and in a triumph of nebulous, overwrought prose does the dirty to his enemies in a blaze of wild magic. Which he still won't know how to control when it's all over. I think Drake's take on it is much more amusing.

The problem is enhanced because there are magical tides of a sort. Wizards can draw on two sources of power, the "Sun", which is a good principle, or Malkar, which is an evil principle. Most drawn on a mixture of the two. But the sources are stronger at some times than at others, and just as happened a thousand years earlier when Carus was overthrown, Malkar is becoming ever more strong in the world. So these various wizards not only don't know what they are doing, not only can't they see where their power is coming from, but they are far stronger than they would have been a hundred years earlier. They are like children playing with molotov cocktails instead of matches.

On top of this interesting setting, Drake has created a set of intriguing characters.

There's Tenoctris, a wizard from an earlier age, cast forward in time by the magic cataclysm that killed King Carus. Unlike most of the wizards we run into, Tenoctris' powers are extremely weak. But unlike them she's a scholar; and on top of that she can see the forces they manipulate blindly.

There's Garric, a descendant of King Carus, with whom he has some kind of arcane link; he's clearly destined to be the next King of the Isles, though it's nothing he desires.

There's Cashel, shepherd, adept of the quarterstaff, and (though he doesn't think about it) a strong wizard in his own right. He doesn't draw circles and cast spells like the others; instead, he uses it instinctively. He's a man of character and integrity, and his magic is part of that (as Tenoctris says, he has good instincts). He's also, I gather, half sprite, which may explain things.

There's Sharina, Garric's sister. There are two factions trying to regain rule of all of the islands, and when she is discovered to be the long and well-lost daughter of the Duke of Haft, and thus heir to Carus, she becomes a pawn in their hands. But she's well able to take care of herself.

And there are as many others that I don't have time to write about. I like many of them. And they don't bicker incessantly like Robert Jordan's characters, which is just about worth the price of admission.

The bottom-line is, if you have any taste for epic fantasy, buy it. You'll like it.

Posted by Will Duquette at February 11, 2003 08:14 PM