August 16, 2004

Lord of the Isles
Queen of Demons
Servant of the Dragon
Mistress of the Catacombs
Goddess of the Ice Realm,
by David Drake

If The Lord of the Rings is about resisting great evil in one fell swoop, the Lord of the Isles series is about coping with one damned thing after another. Through to Drake's excellent storytelling we get to come along for the ride, and a fun ride it is.

The world of the Isles consists largely of ocean, with a ring of largish islands (think England rather than Hawaii) that extends from the tropics on the south to the cold regions of the north. At one time the Isles were united under a single king, and it was in that time that civilization in the Isles reached its zenith. The united kingdom fell apart a thousand years prior to the beginning of our story, but the memory of that Golden Age is so strong that even now the lords of the island of Ornifal style themselves "King of the Isles".

The kingdom fell after the death of Carus, last King of the Isles. He was approaching the island of Yole with his warfleet (the Duke of Yole having rebelled) when the Duke's wizard sent him and his warfleet to the bottom of the ocean. The Duke of Yole was thus saved from having to fight Carus' army, but he didn't live to enjoy it; the forces raised by his wizard inadvertantly sank Yole and all its inhabitants beneath the waves.

It seems that every thousand years, the forces of magic are strengthened for a time. Hedge-wizards become strong; great wizards become strong beyond all imagining--and beyond their own understanding. The Duke of Yole's wizard saw that he could drown Carus, fleet and all, but the repercussions were (one presumes) rather a surprise to him.

This increase in magical power has two effects. First, dark-lord-wannabees come out of the woodwork. They have great ambition, and great power, but usually little experience. Second, powers dormant for a thousand years awaken, and endeavour to forward plans which might span millenia. Neither effect is particularly conducive to peace for the Isles and their inhabitants.

Enter Garric-or-Reise, the son of a tavern-keeper in a small village on the island of Haft, and the lineal descendant of King Carus. He's given a medallion by his father, a medallion that commemorates the coronation of Carus himself. And after he begins to wear it, he finds Carus speaking to him, first in his dreams, and then later in his waking moments of abstraction. Carus has knowledge of politics and warfare and royal courts and hand-to-hand combat to share with his descendant; and also the wisdom that comes from 20-20 hindsight and a millenia to reflect upon one's own failings. Garric brings his own contribution to the party; he's big and tough, full of peasant common sense, and thanks to his father, once a court functionary, he can read and is thoroughly grounded in the classic authors. He's no dummy, which is a good thing, for Garric's task is to reunite the Isles so that they can stand together against the forces of evil, whatever they might be.

That's the premise of the series, and it's a surprisingly good one. There's no single Dark Lord to defeat; Garric must deal with both the purely human troubles of courts and politics and ambition, and also the myriad magical threats to the Isles. As a result, the series is nicely open-ended--each book deals with one cosmic threat, while advancing the story of Garric and his friends. As I say, it's just one damned thing after another.

Garric isn't alone, of course. There's his friend Cashel, the shepherd. Cashel's a big guy--the sort who's so wide he looks short until you get close and realize you're looking up at him. He carries a metal-shod hickory staff, and when he starts to spin and swing it he becomes the nearest thing to an immovable object you're likely to run into--unless it's an irresistable force you're in need of. He's not too quick mentally, our Cashel, but he's got his head on straight, he always does what he thinks is right, and his instincts are usually correct. Oh, and he's only half-human. It's not entirely clear what the other half is, but it makes him almost impossible to defeat.

Then there's Cashel's twin sister Ilna, the weaver. She's smarter than Cashel, and colder than Cashel, but just as concerned with doing the right thing, as she sees it. She's a master of her craft, and thanks to a mis-step in the first book of the series she can weave patterns that'll turn your head inside out if you look at them. She's interested in Justice, is our Ilna, and she definitely makes Mercy look good.

And finally there's Garric's sister Sharina, who compared with her brother and his friends is almost refreshingly normal. She's just strong, mentally tough, able to take care of herself in any situation (you learn how to do that, growing up in a tavern), and she has the most amazing knack for making friends when she needs them. (I do not mean that salaciously; she and Cashel are a definite item.)

If the books have a fault, it's that there's a bit of a formula to them. In each book, you know that our heroes are going to be faced with both political and magical problems. You know that the magical threats are going to appear to be coming from several different sources, but they are all going to be linked together in the end. You know that several of our heroes are going to be in some way translated to other magical worlds/planes/eras, and have to find their way back home. You know the bad guys are going down, especially if Cashel is facing them.

And yet, even with all that, none of the books has repeated the pattern exactly; and the latest book, Goddess of the Ice Realm, has a truly chilling twist at the end--no pun intended. Seriously.

When I read the fourth book, I thought the series might be on the verge of becoming tedious--but I admitted at the time that I'd read it while afflicted with a bad cold, which might have affected my opinion. On re-reading it, I think that on the whole it was better than I first thought, but still a little silly. The new book is better, and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 16, 2004 08:11 PM