This reviewer has read quite a lot of fantasy. Indeed, I would not be qualified to review fantasy books on a website like SFCrowsnest if I had not. Usually, I expect to review fantasy novels by authors who have not published in any other genre and often I will be reviewing their first or second book. David Drake does not fall into this category.
He is probably most familiar to readers for his ‘Hammer’s Slammers’ series of military SF. However for the last fifteen years he has consistently churned out his ‘Lord Of The Isles’ series of which ‘Goddess Of The Ice Realm’ is the fifth novel.
This novel does not fall into the usual categories of `modern fairy tale’ or `bloodthirsty gothic horror’ or even `Tolkien rip-off’. Instead this is best categorised as military fantasy in that it is set in an imagined fantasy world with thousands of years of history and nice map at the start of the book but also has a lot of military characters and armies clashing in strategic engagements. The requisite magic and monsters are present as well. I must admit to being bit of a fan as I do enjoy military SF and find it quite refreshing to find similar tropes in a fantasy.
As might be expected from a seasoned writer the text flows comfortably and evokes the pleasant familiarity of a well-written fantasy. The action is dynamically presented and accurately described. The characters are well-portrayed and Drake deftly introduces them all at the start of the fifth book in a way that gets the new reader straight in there but will not bore the reader of previous volumes. This is quite a nifty trick which shows Drake’s skill at an on-going series.
Interestingly, my first impression of the most central character somewhat recalled David Edding’s ‘Belgariad’. Similar to that story, the character is the descendant of kings who has been raised on a farm to hide him from enemies. However, this is the only analogue I have been able to find as Drake clearly possesses a fertile imagination, so laden with ideas is this book.
There are six or so major characters whom are spirited off to different worlds separated by time and/or dimensions so that we have essentially three of four stories that are being told concurrently, which only really come all together in the last couple of chapters. The other worlds are pretty wildly inventive with settings that reach somewhat beyond the usual swords and sorcery setting.
One character named Cashel is magically transported by a wizard to another dimension or place or time (the book never reveals where he is transported to) so that he can use his magically augmented combat skills to protect the native people from a powerful inter-dimensional and magical visitor. This story is completely separate of the main quest and Cashel rejoins the main characters at a convenient point some 300 pages later.
Twenty pages after Cashel is removed, the Garric’s sister, Sharina, is also magically transported by a trap this time to some other world where she falls in with a wizards’ band hunting down various magical items. Once again, 300 pages later, she returns through a portal for the last few chapters. Other main characters sail away to deal with pirates and rogue nobles while the main plot meanders its way through various martial engagements. All these stories are quite fun and enjoyable in their own right but generally have little to do with the main plot. This is quite unusual and feels like an abundance of creative ideas all crammed in rather without purpose.
However, for all this dynamism there are some drawbacks. I’m sure many other readers like me find that when I get to the end of ‘The Fellowship Of The Ring’, I sometimes wish that Tolkien had interleaved the chapters in ‘The Two Towers’ a bit more so that once I am five chapters into the Aragorn, etc. story, I am really wondering where Frodo and Sam have got to. Not so with Drake! We may have four different stories being told and in a given chapter we might visit all four stories.
But, oh, not in big chunks, no. We might visit each story in turn for maybe a couple of pages at a time so that we have skipped from storyline to storyline eight or maybe twelve times per chapter. This can be a little frustrating as we hit multiple cliff-hangers in each chapter. It can make the reader feel slightly schizophrenic in a ‘What’s happening to who know?’ kind of way.
I also realised that the first hundred pages of the book are essentially all the characters getting along with each other in the course of their normal lives. The diaspora to different stories doesn’t happen until that far into the book. I didn’t hate this as it gave me chance to understand the characters but it felt unusual but I think I know why.
At the end of the book after the climax, there is… nothing. Now OK maybe ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ does go on a bit after the climax and I’m not saying you have to write four or five chapters but I do like maybe a chapter so I know how the characters are getting on after the trauma. In this case, we basically get ‘after they beat the bad guy they knew they would be all right’. Maybe two of three lines of text. Not enough. So maybe Drake has to make up for this in the next novel so we can see that the characters actually have a normal life aside from their adventures?
Another issue with this book is that Drake has to remain quite silent about the nature of the antagonist so that the twist towards the end works. I understand why this is necessary but it can leave the reader feeling that the quest is all against in ill defined and invisible bad guy.
Throughout the latter part of the book, there feels like a surprising focus on the more supporting characters. I wondered if this is because it is the fifth book in the series so it is time for them to shine. Also some of the separate storylines, while wildly inventive, also feel like a bit of busy work for the characters to fill up page count before we hit the main climax. While I did like the ideas and invention, I did wonder if it could have been edited down a bit further to speed the novel up a bit. Still this is a minor criticism as I suspect most readers of modern fantasy don’t balk at a large page count.
Overall, I felt the invention, dynamic writing and unusually militaristic feel outweighed the drawbacks. Indeed it is hard to criticise a book too much when I have gone and spent my own hard-earned cash on the first two books in the sequence so I go back to the beginning and see if my instinct to compare the start to Eddings is fair. The thing is if ‘The Belgariad’ is your thing then you might want to think carefully before trying Drake. All that military stuff is a very different kettle of fish indeed.
‘Goddess Of The Ice Realm’ is a pleasantly easy to read continuation of an established series. It ticks lots of the correct boxes for an enjoyable and inventive fantasy. But it comes with a caveat in that it has quite a military focus. If this is your sort of thing then you know who you are and I have no qualms at all about recommending this heavily to you. Other folk may want to approach with caution.
(pub: TOR, 2003. 496 page hardback. Price: $27.95 (US), $38.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-312-87388-3
pub: Gollancz, 2004. 496 page paperback. Price: £ 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07570-8)