Book Review: “Lord of the Isles” by David Drake

Not a very attractive cover.

Title: Lord of the Isles
Author: David Drake
Format: Novel; first in series of 9
Pages: 625
Published: 1997, by Tor
Reason for Beginning: I grabbed a used copy for $1 at a university library sale, and wanted to read a fantasy about which I knew nothing. This fit the bill.
Reason for Finishing: Sheer dogged stubbornness.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In a world that is essentially a large archipelago, the young, handsome residents of a small seaport find themselves drawn into the struggles and intrigue surrounding the archipelago’s sovereignty, while “the elemental forces that empower magic are rising to a thousand-year peak” (cover jacket). A complicated, but ultimately fairly standard, fantasy quest ensues.
Story Re-readability: Not high. The writing is competent and workmanlike, but doesn’t offer anything memorable in the way of engrossing scenes, poetic or sharp descriptions, or even notably rousing narrative. Story, for all the nice complexity of detail put into the world, nonetheless feels rote and predictable. It also doesn’t end. What you have is basically 100 pages of the first part of a decent novel stretched out to 600 pages, and cut off with a cliffhanger that will apparently take 8 more such novels to solve, and thus renders the majority of this first novel largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of the saga, as far as I can tell. I have no intention of continuing this saga.
Author Re-readability: Only if someone I trusted swore that another book of his was truly excellent, would I give him a second chance. Otherwise, no. He’s not a terrible writer at all – in fact, I’ve read quite worse – but he just isn’t worth my time. He also doesn’t seem to have an editor who is willing to tell him that the scores of pages on ancient ship design and architecture should really be cut out.
Recommendation: There are worse fantasy novels out there, but there are also far more excellent ones. I’d rather you read those instead.

Key Thoughts

I always admire authors who do lots of research for a story, in order to find realistic ways to portray societies and places that none of us have ever seen. Drake seems to have done his research very admirably. His epic involves an awful lot sea travel; well, he clearly has studied medieval shipbuilding and sailing techniques in great depth, down to the kind of wood they used and how they cut it. Two of his main characters are shepherds from a small seaport; their daily routines, cares, and dreams are all believably set out, again in great detail. The trick for such an author, however, is to let that detail fade into the woodwork and focus instead on the colors of the storied tapestry on which it is to be hung.

Drake hasn’t quite mastered that trick. Part of what stretches the book out so long are the agonizing asides in which he elaborates on some particular physical feature or process of his world. He shows off his research to embarrassing lengths, to the detriment of the story. Superfluous details appear for no other reason than to say “Hey reader, I know how this kind of stuff actually works!” The seams between his imagination and his academic knowledge are glaring.

(For examples where such seams between research and imagination are invisible, see authors Rosemary Sutcliff or Guy Gavriel Kay.)

Sometimes I feel that Drake’s narrative language is too modern. The choice of diction in a fantasy novel is always tricky, for not everyone can pull off the Tolkien way of narration that genuinely feels at home in a medieval mythic setting (though many have tried). One does not need to imitate medieval writing styles to write in a medieval setting. But still, it is jarring when overtly, perhaps exclusively, modern terms frequently appear. Take this example, where Drake is describing an attack by an army of fantastic creatures:

“The Archai waiting in tawny masses were the assault troops who would climb the trunks, using the coarse bark as a nonskid surface for their clawed limbs.”

See what I mean? “Assault troops” brings to mind machine guns, scoped rifles, and hand grenades. “Nonskid surface” sounds like an advertisement for kitchen linoleum. I am no longer in the middle of a myth-infused fantasy epic, but rather a Tom Clancy novel. I have heard it said that Drake purposely avoids the overwrought purple prose of standard fantasy. All well and good, for prose that is too fancy and faux-medieval will also throw a reader out of the subcreated world of the story. But I don’t think Drake has found an effective solution to that problem.

Ultimately his prose is competent, but devoid of passion and wonder. He goes through the motions, but does not seem very interested in his own tale.

Is it time yet for another positive? Okay, I’ll give Drake another positive mention. I like his characters. They’re nice people. They are fairly well developed. I wanted them to succeed and be recognized for heroics, and have happy lives ever after. Aside from an excruciating instance where he pulled an evil plot device out of the air simply to force one heroine to act completely out of character for about 300 pages, and for numerous smaller instances where he railroaded characters to make the plot go where he wanted, I mostly was invested in their choices and actions. Unfortunately, the story structure doesn’t encourage such investment.

By that I mean that there are technically four main protagonists, and each chapter switches between their points of view. This could be fine, except that for most of the book they are all separated from each other. Which in turn means that there are three or four separate subplots running simultaneously. We are never with one subplot (or main character) for very long before we jump to one of the others. It becomes a constant pattern of leaving every single chapter on a cliffhanger, only to return to that subplot forty pages later and be underwhelmed with the resolution, just in time to face another contrived cliffhanger and be whisked off to someone else’s problem. Every day, every character faces something like archaic alien creatures bent on conquest, gargantuan turtles that function as islands, barbarian drifter colonies on the sea (think Waterworld), or transdimensional demon spiders. Not kidding. And it gets boring. We don’t get enough time with the characters we like, and each episode is so dramatic, but rather random, and ultimately everything that happens becomes diluted of its dramatic power, including the main plot itself, which frequently gets forgotten amidst all the hullabaloo.

This all makes reading Lord of the Isles a laborious process.

Which is a pity, because it is a waste of a perfectly decent world and characters. Oh, and the main plot? I won’t tell you the details, out of my respect for my own readers who may not like spoilers, but suffice to stay this volume one is heading the series down a very standard and predictable route. There are some interesting and puzzling detours on the way, but they feel more like curiosities than anything genuinely important. A real pity.


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Lord of the Isles” by David Drake”

  1. David Drake is well known for his military SciFi series, “Hammer’s Slammers,” see the link to Probably explains a lot of his approach to fantasy. I remember enjoying the first few installments of the series when it first came out but haven’t read any of it for many years.

    1. Yes, that would indeed explain his style. I just got tired of seeing him trot out the same overused tropes I’ve encountered in so many other epic multi-volume sagas of the past twenty years. I don’t know if he consciously was using those tropes as a template or if this was really the best plot he could come up with, but it really felt forced. And like I said, his characters were good and there was lots of great detail in the world. Perhaps he is more at home in sci-fi, then.

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