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Friday, September 26, 2003

I'm trying to go a dozen blogs without referring to a certain film currently in production that shall remain nameless.

I do other things besides dissecting religious controversy for fun and nonprofit.

Like, say, reading! And not just "religious stuff", either, although I obviously do plenty of that. I am a certified sci-fi/fantasy geek, and I've made the mistake of launching into a new, open-ended fantasy series that I'm happy to recommend.

It's the Lord of the Isles by David Drake. Drake is a recovering attorney who served as an interrogator for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment--the Blackhorse--in Vietnam. That this experience has echoed into everything I've read by him is obvious. He also has a St. Blog's connection, to boot: tenacious writer and comment-boxer Sandra Miesel knows him personally, and has collaborated with him on a few occasions.

Drake's always worth a read, and if you're looking at military SF, try the Hammer's Slammers series, which is explicitly based on his time with the Blackhorse. Likewise, I can recommend his collaborative efforts with S.M. Stirling, whose military SF style is a perfect blend with Drake's. Drake/Stirling's The General series, whose first five books are set on a planet struggling to recover from the collapse of galactic civilization, belongs on every SF bookshelf. They also happen to be based on the life and campaigns of Byzantium's great captain, Belisarius--a hero of mine. As a bonus, there's an amusing reinterpretation of the split between Arian and Orthodox Christianity, as read through the lens of a society that had gotten a little too infatuated with technology. Finally, there's the last functioning military computer, an artificially intelligent machine called "Center," determined to push man back to civilization. The catch? It needs a talented, free-willed and (very importantly) moral instrument, which it finds in the person of Raj Whitehall, the Belisarius to the ambitious, paranoid and untrustworthy Barholm Clerett (Justinian). Whitehall is charismatic, loyal and brilliant. Barholm is the third. For its part, Center acts as an occasionally tart-tounged tutor/mentor to Whitehall, but never as a chess master. Whitehall is left to make the essential military and related moral decisions affecting the fate of a planet. As Center constantly reminds Whitehall, the wrong step means the fragile civilization he fights for will spiral downward to a place where men hunt each other for food. Indeed, what may be best for civilization may be worst for Whitehall himself.

Set in a well-imagined world, peopled by the descendants of American soldiers, Mexicans, Texans, Arab Muslims, and funny/frightening barbarian Quebecois psychos (the influence of the Canadian Stirling), as with all things Drake and Stirling, it's not for the squeamish--war is not sanitary, and both of them make you know it. But you'll blast through the first five in nothing flat. Number 6, The Chosen, is a must for readers of Stirling's terrifying Draka series (more on that another time).

The General is important for its theme that civilization--no matter how corrupt, or open to corruption and domination by evil men--is far better than the barbaric alternative, and must be fought for.

Likewise Redliners, a book that still haunts. Set in a future where humanity is locked in an endless war against the cat-like Kalendru, Redliners is the story of a burnt-out ("redlined") company of troops pulled out of frontline combat by Earth's authoritarian government and assigned to escort duty for a motley lot of involuntary colonists. Unfortunately for both groups, they crash-land in the wrong spof of what can only be described as a death world, where even the foliage is hostile to non-natives. The troops, exhausted and unused to civilians, are forced to herd the hapless men, women and children and protect them from everything the hostile terrain can throw at them. Which, as it turns out, is a lot more than anyone could have reasonably expected. Not a light read by any means (Drake is all too willing to remind us that war kills innocents--and innocence), it's one that sticks with you long after you put it down.

All of this is a lengthy lead-in to the Lord of the Isles, a rare foray into straight fantasy by Drake. LOTI, currently at four books, follows the lives of four villagers, a repentant hermit and a likeably humble female mage from the past. None of the characters is quite what he or she seems at the beginning--even to him- or herself. Set on an archipelago where the last High King (the Lord of the title) fell trying to keep civilization from collapsing a thousand years earlier, the series follows the exploits of the characters, who are caught up in struggles they can dimly see. For the most part, wizardry is an ugly thing done by ugly, ambitious men and women. Generally, the more powerful a mage happens to be, the worse he is. The system has an Egyptian-gnostic flavor, with repetitiously-chanted power words and material foci being essential. Worse yet for its wielders, magic is cyclical and karmic in flavor. Cyclical in that it waxes and wanes over the millenia, and karmic in that it can quickly turn on the wielder and bite him or her on the tuchus. Yes, you might be able to use magic to sink the enemy's entire fleet--but the backlash could sink your island. The main wizard character, Tenoctris, is a woman whose skills are not flashy (she's more a sage or diviner of magic than anything else), but whose awareness of her limitations and temptations serve her far better than the powers of those who can sink fleets.

The essential storyline rotates around the struggle of the characters to save civilization and themselves in the face of a waxing cycle of magic and a series of natural and supernatural foes whose actions threaten to destroy humanity once and for all.

There is more than a little Robert E. Howard in the depiction of swords and wizardry--for those of you who remember, Conan spent a lot of time threatening to dispatch or actually dispatching mages, who tended to be thoroughly rotten. In Drake, like Howard, a good piece of steel is often better than the flashiest wizardry. Likewise, Drake is agnostic about the existence of the Great Gods (two of whom, unlike the indifferent Crom, are depicted as benevolent), although a possible heaven is visited, and, for one of the main characters, Hell is all too real. And the theme of the mentor is imported nicely from The General to LOTI in the form of a magic medallion embodying the essence of--well, no spoilers.

It's not flawless. It seems jumpy in parts, moving either too quickly or too slowly to resolution. Some characters are introduced but never developed. Some of the main characters are less-well realized, and tend to devolve into types. To his credit, however, Drake is willing to let his characters make mistakes, and, surprisingly for fantasy, kill them off.

The problems with the books are quibbles, as it is also a profoundly moral series, where temptations to do the wrong thing, or the right thing for the wrong reason, are continually present. The theme of repentance is, for two of the characters, essential. As Sandra Miesel puts it, a major theme of Drake's works is the redemption of imperfect men in an imperfect world. It is a central theme here, and is, as it should be, both tragic and moving.

Prepare to be surprised.

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