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Monsters of the Earth by David Drake

November 26, 2013 Leave a comment

MOnsters of the Earth

Monsters of the Earth by David Drake (Tor, 2013) Books of the Elements 3, sees us following the story of this fictitious version of Rome. With our heroes returned to a placid life of decadent luxury “by local standards” after saving the multiverse from Atlantean destruction, we’re treated to another round of historical drudgery with the first third of the book traipsing round the households and going on a shopping trip to get us in the mood for some exciting fantasy action. For those of you who want to get the full flavour of life in “those times”, this is an indispensable part of the book. In structural terms, it confirms the imminent arrival of another cataclysmic threat. Yes, two large crystalline beasts, somewhat along the lines of caterpillar vacuum cleaners, are going to emerge from the earth and scour the surface until there’s no life left. No-one will care what happens next because there will be no-one around to care.

Our self-deprecating hero who prefers not to think of himself as the greatest magician of his age, feels under pressure to save the world (again). There’s just one problem. He has absolutely no idea how to do it. All he knows is that once released, these worms are unstoppable until they either run out of surface to consume, or they are stopped. Note the slight paradox there. His vision tells him the worms of doom have already been activated and so are unstoppable, yet they are not yet into scouring mode and so are stoppable. Or something. If you still care enough, you can read this to split the hairs and come up with the answers which revolve around this book of magic. It seems whoever holds the book may have some say in the doom thing. So, not surprisingly, the plot has two major expeditions to recover said tome. Yes, there are two magicians who want the book. Well, there are actually three magicians, not counting the hero, the tree whisperer and the griffin wrangler, but only two of them are book collectors. There’s a nonhuman magician as well but she’s only along for the ride and, for those of you counting, there’s also a demon with magical powers who gets dragged around and told what to do (life can be tough when you’re an imprisoned demon).

David Drake

David Drake

Anyway, back to the original two magicians: one has come up with a magnificent way of distracting the guardian of the cave where the pivotal book is kept. This involves the hero’s mother and, depending on your point of view, this should not happen to a dog let alone a dignified Roman matriarch. But it does, so we all have to get over it without cracking too many jokes at the end. This magician has good powers and can step straight through a mirror portal from his bedroom to the island where the cave is to be found. The second magician who has our hero as his passenger is moderately powerful, but it only extends to recruiting a crew to row a small(ish) boat to the island. Needless to say, he gets there too late. The third magician who has no interest in the book manages to move through interdimensional doors. He puts together a small army of big creatures called Ethiopes, and they trample backwards and forwards and across time in search of the Egg. Yes, I knew that would recapture your interest. We do eventually find out what the Egg is. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s worth the wait.

To sum up, people who will later be of interest move around this alternate version of Rome for the first third of the book. A fancy piece of headgear is purchased at an exclusive store but has no real significance or importance later in the book. We meet four “captured” lizard men who agree to stay captured for quite some time. And then it’s off we go in the underwhelming quest as our group of regulars, all starting from different points, contrive to end up at the same place and time for the climactic ending with the wormy caterpillar things actually chewing up the landscape. If we were to take not less than one-hundred pages out of this volume, Monsters of the Earth would be a reasonable plot. As it is, this is a tediously boring read.

For reviews of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Night & Demons
Out of the Waters
The Road of Danger.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake

July 11, 2013 2 comments

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Well off we go with another of these military SF novels that adds to a growing series, this time based on the exploits of Byzantine commander Belisarius. As you’ll probably guess from the source material, the basic plots have been supplied by David Drake which, in the first instance, were written into full novels by S M Stirling, We’ve watched humanity conquer the stars and develop a high-technology civilisation only to fall again. There was a glitch and, without warning, all the infrastructure and most of the machines that had depended on that technology failed. This plunged each of the worlds into chaos. The first series under the heading of The General told the story of Raj Whitehall who reunited the planet of Bellevue with the help of Center, a pre-Collapse battle computer. Once that world was restored, they sent out interstellar probes to all of the worlds occupied by humans. Each of these probes contained a download of Raj Whitehall’s personality and Center. Once a probe lands, it can communicate with one individual and attempt to guide that planet back up to full civilisation. The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake (Baen, 2013) is opening a new front on the planet of Duisberg, creating a third follow-on series.

The result of this effort is successful because of David Drake’s unifying presence. Even though there are now three partner authors, the overall plot development remains under coherent control. Too often when multiple authors make individual contributions to a shared universe, the compromises between the authors and the editorial staff produce spotty results. This time, the vision remains consistent and the variations in style are less intrusive. Indeed, this particular book has a quite intriguing political context for a reconnaissance mission and set-piece battle. The level of technology has been manipulated by a surviving planetary defence AI. This machine has determined the ideal approach to maintaining the planet is to deny the humans access to any advanced technology. The military is restricted to ball muskets fitted with bayonets, and untempered knives and swords. All manufacturing is under the control of the priests who have been taught to worship the AI as their god. This means every command is obeyed with zealous enthusiasm. To limit progress, the AI cycles two competing societies. One is agrarian and based in the valleys. The other is desert-based and nomadic. Periodically, the nomads mass and cull the farmers. This keeps the overall population numbers steady and inhibits development as the raiders kill off all those showing any signs of independent thought.

David Drake and Tony Daniel do signing duty

David Drake and Tony Daniel do signing duty

Raj and Center enter the mind of a six-year old boy. He’s the son of a provincial military commander and the book is a form of coming-of-age story as he grows up and slowly accumulates experience out in the field. What makes the book interesting is the interaction between the boy and the two quite different personalities inhabiting his mind. Despite the ability to give him stunningly different intellectual experiences, the boy remains slightly sceptical of the voices’ motivation. As someone born into a nontechnological society, the idea his “god” is a machine and, worse, actively manipulating its worshippers to their detriment is not easily accepted. Although he relies on the voices for help and advice, he’s really just biding his time until evidence comes from an independent source to confirm or deny the truth of what has happened to his world. The result is a team effort to survive the various military challenges without giving himself away to the watching priests. In the end, our boy becomes a young commander in the field and faces an invading force from the desert. He’s outnumbered two-to-one but, despite the religious limitations, he comes up with strategies to even the odds. The problem is that all uses of unsanctioned technology represents heresy and the priests burn heretics. So even if he wins the battle, he could still be chained to a post and burned.

Overall, Tony Daniel does a good job in expanding the plot outline supplied by David Drake. There’s a vivid quality to his descriptions of the different physical and political challenges that carries the reader through to a well-paced battle at the end. The Heretic is a good addition to the series as two AIs ready themselves to square off against each other through human agents. I confess that I’m not always impressed by military SF, but this is one of the best I’ve read for a year and more.

For reviews of other books by David Drake, see:
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
Out of the Waters
The Road of Danger

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Night & Demons by David Drake

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Night & Demons

Night & Demons by David Drake (Baen, 2012) has some of the most interesting introductions I’ve read for a long time. Too often authors throw us an occasional crumb from their tables. Putting all these pages together gives a real autobiographical insight into how the stories came to be written and what their significance is.

“The Red Leer” is a classic piece of writing, nicely setting up the situation and elegantly arriving at the not unexpected conclusion. This is not to undervalue the story in any way. Once you begin with two men breaking into a Red Indian burial site, you know the likely outcomes. This is as good as it gets with this type of story. “A Land of Romance” is one of these pleasingly humorous fantasy stories in the style of Sprague de Camp. As is required we have a bright young man who, when presented with an opportunity, particularly one involving a pretty young girl, manages to come out smelling of roses (or some other appropriate flower). “Smokie Joe” is a nice long-spoon story in which the Devil gently muscles into organised crime and pushes sins to the corruptible for the rewards they bring. It displays a slightly unsual sense of humour about the entire operation which means some may find the descriptions of sexual disease a little daunting. But that’s the point of “horror” stories, isn’t it? “Awakening” is a very short piece that speculates on how far you can take denial. “Denkirch” is the first story he published. It’s a direct invocation of the Lovecraft formula with obsessed scientist driven to use himself as the test subject in his latest experiment. Who needs books and spells when you have the advantages of modern science. It almost certainly wouldn’t sell today but, in its time, it was passable. “Dragon, the Book” is another elegant fantasy which reruns the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. “The False Prophet” takes us into the classical realm where Drake is particularly comfortable with a fine story of a charlatan who isn’t quite what his loyal followers take him to be. It’s another of these stories where “adventure” and “mystery” shade into an atmosphere piece with fantasy, supernatural and, perhaps, even science fictional possibilities. One or two moments made me smile which is unusual in stories of this type. “Black Iron continues with the same characters in a story with different tempo as the merchant member of the duo explains how he came into possession of an interesting sword. The final contribution to this mini trilogy is “The Shortest Way” which suggests a reason for civility when asking for directions. We then get back into vaguely Lovecraftian territory with a nod and a wink to the worship of large tentacled underwater creatures.

David Drake still enjoying the little things in life

David Drake still enjoying the little things in life

“The Land Toward Sunset” is a story of mighty heroism as a character out of Karl Wagner’s universe is given a whistle-stop tour of the remnant of Atlantis. I suppose it’s quite good as an example of the older style of high fantasy sword and sorcery writing but it goes on too long for my taste. “Children of the Forest” is one of these wise fantasies that sets out to tell the reader about the choices we make as humans. Necessity, real or imagined, often forces decisions we later regret. Sometimes, when we have only instinct to rely on, we run home — a choice that can bring disaster following close behind. “The Barrow Troll” is an old idea but very elegantly told in this story of a Northern berserker’s quest for the gold reputedly guarded by a troll. The casual brutality of the man contrasts sharply with the “soft” German priest whose involuntary role is, perhaps surprisingly, to bless the venture. “Than Curse the Darkness” is a excellent Lovecraftian Mythos story in which a very determined and knowledgeable woman steps up when the threat is maturing and speaks the words of power before the full awakening. It’s very nicely done in a period style with lots of interesting background information on how life used to be in the Congo. Moving back up North, “The Song of the Bone” is nicely unexpected as, with the right music, you wake like a bear with a sore head. “The Master of Demons” is magnificently ironic as, in the shortest of stories, a reckless magician comes to understand the magnitude of his error.

“The Dancer in the Flames” is a fascinating fusion as a conventional war story set in Vietnam becomes a supernatural communion with a woman in a tricky situation. “Codex” is another highly original variation on an old theme, this time using the information from an old book for arranging a trading opportunity with a not wholly unpredictable outcome. The fun comes in the nature of the book and in guessing what will happen. “Firefight” is a taut and exciting page ripped from Vietnam’s bloody history books and converted into a confrontation between a battle-hardened US unit and a supernatural threat. This is one of the best stories in the collection. Almost as good, “Best of Luck” has an enemy within the troop so, when the Viet Cong appears, the soldiers are between a rock and a hard place. “Arclight” continues the absorption of military experience into a supernatural context. This time the troop discovers a small temple with big trouble written all over it. Perhaps the idol represents a power that can follow them wherever they go. Perhaps there are other powers that might have a say in that. Then comes “Something Had to be Done” which is the best of the lot. It’s a thankless task to visit the homes of those who’ve been killed on active duty to report the circumstances of each son’s death. This time, the sergeant who was with the soldier on his last mission draws the short straw.

“The Waiting Bullet” gets us back into conventional supernatural territory with a pleasing ghost story. It’s beautifully set up with a nice plot to unwind as the first sight of the ghost triggers the slow release of the backstory to the cabin where the hero is staying. “The Elf House” is a rather fey fantasy that lacks an edge. It moves along very professionally but has no real sense of danger. This contrasts sharply with “The Hunting Ground” which is another of these Vets under pressure stories. This time, two men recently returned from combat find an unexpected threat in their neighbourhood. Fortunately, they are able to give as good as they get. “The Automatic Rifleman” beat me. I had it back-to-front when I was reading it so the ending caught me by surprise. It’s very clever, taking a simple story of an assassination and turning it into something altogether more strange. “Blood Debt” deals with a slightly awkward social question. What exactly do we owe a family member who dies? Must we take revenge? If so, what price must we pay? This is a very effective story of witchcraft in a modern setting but with traditional results. Finally, “Men Like Us” takes us into a post-apocalyptic future where a dedicated team ensures no-one will continue the use of nuclear power. Overall this makes for a remarkably eclectic collection with the majority of the earlier stories holding up extremely well. Those with a military background are particularly effective as David Drake mines his past for backgrounds and characters. Definitely a book to savour.

For reviews of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Out of the Waters
The Road of Danger

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Road of Danger by David Drake

July 4, 2012 2 comments

Ahoy, me hearties and avast, ye lubbers! I’d recommend ye be looking fer a berth on the Bonny Lass. Why? Because no-one in their right minds would want to become one of the Sissies. Even being a eunuch is better in status terms. So, maties, we’re going to get into hot water to avoid me timbers shivering, and square off against pirates and warships of the line depending on which flag they’re flying for today. But, above all else, us macho naval men and women will avoid becoming sissies, i.e. people regarded as effeminate or cowardly, unless we decide to follow the Johnny Cash line and teach all our sailors to be butch by calling them Sue (after Sue Kerr Hicks, the man who prosecuted in the Scopes trial).

OK so I’m taking the Mickey here (not to be confused with a Mickey Finn and a free, all-inclusive pleasure cruise to Shanghai). By their nature, books that grow into series have an identifiable set of literary conventions. This targets a particular market niche where people are interested in those particular conventions. Take Patrick O’Brian for example. He’s well-known for the Aubrey-Maturin series which is based on actual historical events. If for nothing else, his fame rests on the incorporation of all the jargon and techniques of nineteenth century life under sail. You hear the rigging creek as the wind picks up and, if there’s anything you don’t understand, there’s always a dictionary. The author never explained any of the jargon for landlubbers. You’re supposed to pick up the mechanics of sailing through the experience of reading about it. So may your binnacles always glow even when you’re close-hauled, the spindrift races above you and you’ve got sprung butts lower down — you should always watch your butt.

David Drake warns, “Like my book or I’ll gut you like a fish!”

Now let’s come to The Road of Danger by David Drake. Like O’Brian, this author mines history for “interesting” situations and then recreates them in either fantasy or military SF. This novel is based on the exploits of Hamilcar after the Battle of Zama had forced the end of the Second Punic War. He was supposed to be a Carthaginian who was left behind the lines in Italy to provoke civil unrest. In fact, he turned out to be quite a successful military leader, so Rome sent a delegation to Carthage and demanded they repatriate their man, or else. David Drake translates this into the ninth outing in the RCN series for Captain Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy. They are given the no-win task of going to recover “Freedom”, the man leading an insurrection on a distant planet. You will understand the problems. No-one actually knows who he is nor how to contact him. He is, after all, the leader of an underground resistance movement. But the fact he’s managed to acquire some heavy-duty hardware and used it in some of the battles suggests he has the support of “governments”, so the politics of this proposed extraction are not going to be easy to navigate.

In describing the story in this way, I’m confirming it as fascinating. Although this relocation to space opera is not exact given this novel’s version of Carthage has not lost the war and so is not quite under the same pressure as the original, it nevertheless retains all the flavour of the problem. Immediately after the end of the Second Punic War, much of Italy and the greater European land mass was in a chaotic situation. Hannibal and his elephants had seriously disrupted the centralised control of Rome, allowing many of the original tribal units to quietly reassert their independence. So it is here. During this lull in active hostilities, many of the planets in this more distant part of human space have agendas that may diverge from the policy interests of both the major power blocs. Hence, there’s considerable lawlessness with pirates disrupting trade and corrupt officials feathering their own nests.

Had all this been packaged as a straightforward political thriller with military SF overtones, I would have been happy to explore the political ramifications and watch our heroes cut through the bullshit with a well-placed broadside of missiles when talking was no longer enough on its own. But the language used by David Drake kept getting in the way. The model of military cunning and brains borrowed from O’Brian works well in Leary and Mundy, but the transplantation of nineteenth century naval traditions and jargon does not. Let’s start with the gap between the officers and the crew. In the days of sail, you needed to be strong, fit and fearless to crew a ship of the line. Living in appalling conditions by modern standards, the men would have to cope with everything the sea could throw at them and then fight equally tough enemies. This did not require them to be well-endowed in the brain department. The primary requirement was they be loyal. The job of captains was to keep them motivated. Jack Aubry and Daniel Leary do it by giving rousing speeches and being supremely competent in battles — never sink a prize ship if it will pay the crew a big bonus when it gets back to port. So the people crewing the Princess Cecile (the Sissies) are as thick as two short planks. Interestingly, Lt Leary also has Hogg as his personal servant (and bodyguard). He’s one of these poacher/gamekeeper figures who steals to order and is not averse to shooting anyone who threatens the master. From this you will understand both Leary and Mundy come from the ranks of the nobility and so are used to telling the peasants what to do. Anyway, the crew is highly competent but intellectually challenged, while the higher class officers are continuing the training meted out by our two leaders. They are improving but still lack the spark of greatness. All this would be bearable if David Drake didn’t constantly distort everything to fit his nineteenth century model. People and machines have to conform to period linguistic conventions.

So there’s your choice laid out as fairly as I can. If you can bear to read a military SF novel written as if it’s describing a series of nineteenth century naval engagements, this is the book for you. It’s got everything including an ingenious way of shooting at an enemy that would not have been available to Jack Aubrey. But if the prose style is important to you, this is probably a book to avoid.

The artwork is by the ever reliable Steve Hickman.

For a review of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
Out of the Waters.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Out of the Waters by David Drake

Out of the Waters

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.

David Drake showing good things can come in little packages

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.

For a review of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
The Road of Danger.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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