Out of the Waters by David Drake
Well here’s an author who’s managed to reinvent himself over the years. He started off life writing military SF in the Hammer’s Slammers series. Now he’s more a fantasy writer in a historical vein. Out of the Waters is the second in a new series called The Books of the Elements, and this sees us back in a Roman context. In fact my favourite book of this subgenre is Killer by Drake and Karl Edward Wagner which is an SF/horror/Roman mix. So it was interesting to come back to him with another classical mythology setting. Although, truth be told, we do get our mythologies rather mixed up in this series. Frankly, I thought the first, The Legions of Fire, was a mess with a hopeless conflation of different mythologies and universes, so I was not exactly looking forward to this second instalment. And, after some 100 pages, I was at the point of giving up. To say the characters are wooden and the plot leaden is to understate the level of boredom created.
The set-up is a stage spectacle that gets hijacked by supernatural powers. Instead of a tedious recycling of the exploits of Hercules, the crowd in this arena are suddenly shown what appears to be the destruction of Atlantis by a giant sea monster (or perhaps it’s really a very nice man having a bad day). Whatever the cause of the destruction, the city is very thoroughly flattened, leaving everyone suitably baffled as to what they have seen and why they have seen it. Now our key characters start independent investigations based on their interpretation of this vision. One can talk to trees. Well, to be precise, he can talk to the dryads who live inside trees which is very useful because ordinary humans never think that trees can witness a kidnapping or any other activity for that matter. Another can trip into another dimension and talk to a sybil who’s distinctly annoyed that her quiet life is disrupted by a not very bright human magician who refuses to get serious about his magical abilities. And the trippy guy’s sister goes flying off on the back of a gryphon and falls back through time. So it’s a routine day for most of them.
Anyway, around halfway through the book it vaguely wakes up with two kidnappings. Now suddenly, we have glass men, flying ships, a cyclops and divers other magical inventions all competing for our attention. So let’s begin again. Once upon a time, there was a city full of magicians. One was a royal pain in the afterburner because he was forever messing around with people — just like he’d read The Island of Dr Moreau. None of the others could stand against him except, possibly, one. He’s powerful but gentle. This lack of a killer instinct is a worrying feature so he has to grow into his role as a warrior. Time after time he loses but he keeps on growing stronger. Soon the humans around the conflict will be collateral damage. But, hey, that’s all right as long as the bad magician ends up dead.
After this summary, you’re wondering what all this has to do with Ancient Rome — a reasonable question. The answer is we’re in a multiverse story. The battle from the past is not limited to one timeline or dimension. It can spread and threaten life in all the sequential times or parallel dimensions. Once our hero recognises the risk to his time in Ancient Rome, he’s joining the battle. He may not be the world’s greatest warrior in the military sense of the word, but he’s prepared to sacrifice himself if that’s what it takes to save his version of the world.
So let’s be clear about this. The heart of the story is a not unpleasing metaphor for the process a person has to go through to become a soldier. We’re used to reading about the psychological problems faced by seasoned warriors after they return home from extended tours of duty on active service. Doing what it takes to survive in a theatre of war requires adjustments that do not sit comfortably alongside civilian life. So if David Drake had been prepared to insist TOR publish something the length of Hammer’s Slammers, i.e. around 300 pages in a mass market paperback, we might have had a reasonably good fantasy tale. But this is a 400 page hardback. The result is a story padded out way beyond a sustainable length. Whatever emotional power might have existed in the final resolution is washed away by the blindingly dull recital of facts about the Roman lifestyle, class structure, freeman and slave upward mobility, and so on. We even get taken on a shopping trip to buy dresses and, as all husbands who’ve waited around while their wife tries on yet another dress will know, this is not the most exciting experience in the world.
So if you’re a long-time fan of David Drake, Out of the Waters is yet another book for you to savour. It has all the trademark detail on life as it was in Roman times, plus folk with supernatural abilities, plus a new kind of naval engagement, and some sword (and claw) fighting. But if you’ve not previously tried David Drake, don’t read this. Instead, you should go back to read his earlier military SF which is economically written, excitingly heroic in its action, and often interesting in its assessment of the politics behind the various conflicts.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.