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Book Review: The Lord of the Isles by David Drake

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I cannot tell you how sick to death I am of derivative epic fantasy novels. But I will. Why don’t people have original thoughts any more? Isn’t there something different you could do to your epic that doesn’t hearken back to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (my most hated ever) series?

I often randomly choose fantasy series to read because I like to discover a good yarn. But these books don’t develop anything close to it.

[ADBLOCKHERE]The Lord of the Isles is over 600 pages that projects into so many confusing directions that half the time I was reading it I wondered what the hell was going on. It starts simply; a young shepherd named Garric discovers that he is the descendant of the once future king or some such, then he and his adopted sister, best friend and best friend’s sister start off on an adventure with the aid of a middle-aged warriorsort and an ancient female wizard.

They leave their island home in some gentle “hamlet” (it really is named Barca’s Hamlet) and all sorts of wondrous and terrible things occur to each one, including dealing with demons, the undead, cannibals and a tree that takes over the soul of one of them. I think. Honestly, I don’t even know. How is it possible that I could have read this tome and come away so utterly clueless?

The writing itself is basically dull. But an even-handed kind of dull. Drake isn’t an especially gifted raconteur and he repeats himself frequently though his writing is much better than books in the Forgotten Realms library (except for anything by R.A. Salvatore) or other pulp-fiction fantasy series.

Still the epic is so slow to get off the ground that it seems a ponderous undertaking. I wonder where his ideas come from. At one point (for half the book) he has half of the major characters adrift at sea in various occasions, which is extremely plodding, and he seems to make up things to happen to them as padding, as if he can’t have them getting to a location too soon.

This stuff is hardly page-turning material. I found myself falling asleep more than once during the three days it took to force myself to finish it. Nothing compelled me to move on in the story except that I wanted it to end.

I have the next four books (I don’t even know if there is more than that) in the series and I don’t know if I am going to read them or return them.

I don’t like any of the characters. None of them have stand-out development. They are all so much like characters from other books that are frankly done much better. Even the characters in Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series are more compelling and I never despised any characters in a book as much. In Lord of the Isles I would have gladly despised a character rather than feel completely and totally nothing about any of them.

I understand that Drake has a military background and he writes like it. Nothing original, nothing emotional or particularly moving and he hasn’t the vaguest idea how to craft a female character except to make them all somewhat masculine interspersed with fits of jealousy and crying. Great. Women I want to be just like.

The men aren’t any better, just cardboard cut-outs of the epic hero and his friend and the dedicated gentle but tough warrior guy and various evil baddies who all seem to meet with hasty deaths when Drake has no idea what to do with them.

Also the names of the characters really bugged me. I don’t mind fantasy names too much, I prefer them not to be overly long and difficult to pronounce but some of these names just seemed so fake. Much like his own name; David Drake. Feh. I hate pen names. I also don’t think anyone should be named Nonnus, especially not the wise elder guide of the entire story. What a wretched name. How could he possibly think this was a good name for a wise warrior? Seriously it sounds like “No Nuts”. Ewwww.

No wonder I had never heard of this lengthy series before; it’s just bogged down rehashing fantasy detritus.

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About Amita

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Buckhorn Dingleberry

    Wow, it’s almost like you read an entirely different book from the one I read. What makes Lord of the Isles interesting is how it runs directly counter to traditional fantasy fiction. The characters are much more developed, they’re non-traditional in that they are common people thrust into a challenging situation. The setting is unusual, because it isn’t the usual pseudo-medievall setting. Plus the magic is not the standard spell-casting,, incantational model of magic. Hell, virtually everything about the book goes against the standard swords and sorcery conventions.

    Buck

  • Amita

    Buck you mayhap have not read other epic fantasy series for believe me they are all the SAME. This series is a rehashing of Robert Jordan almost to the letter.

    You are correct that Drake’s magick is a little different (blood magick) for some of the wizards, but there is so much here that is poorly crafted, especially the characters.

    I totally disagree however that anything in the book goes against standard swords and sorcery conventions – Drake has lame-limped his characters into a derivitive vortex that frustrated me so much I thought my head might explode.

    You’ve got the four young people from the small hamlet who end up going on these massive adventures when all they’ve done previously is tend sheep or work in the kitchen. Yet each one of them is the amazing – “whatever” – warrior, wizard, witch – nerves of steel etc. I mean come on! Like every single epic before.

    It’s just plain bad.

  • http://www.eclecticlibrarian.net/ Anna

    I was curious about your pen name comment, so I looked him up. If it is a pen name, it’s the only one he’s claiming on his website. Thanks for the warning about the book.

  • http://www.magickrituals.com Amita

    Actually it may NOT be a pen name though it probably is – I was actually very surprised a few years ago to discover that many of my favorite sci-fi fantasy authors had several pen names and identities!

  • Buckhorn Dingleberry

    David Drake’s name isn’t a pen name. What a strange idea.

    As for comparisons with other fantasy, I’ve slogged my way through one awful Robert Jordan book and on the warning of a friend that they got even worse didn’t read any others. The similarities between the work of the two authors are nonexistent. Jordan writes tedious, derivative romance novels with a pseudo-fantasy setting, plus he’s a painfully awful writer.

    Drake is a sharp writer with strong plots and interesting characters, and if his work is similar to anyone it’s someone like Lawrence Watt-Evans. If you think Drake is derivative of the swords and sorcery tradition I suspect you’re not familiar with the mainstream of that tradition.

    Buck

  • Amita

    Dingleberry – which seems appropriate to call you now that my review has somehow caused you to question my background in reading the works of this genre –

    I agree with your assessment of Jordan (which incidentally IS a pen name, as many authors in this genre have – Drake’s sounds as such too, which I don’t think is strange to discuss) however there is nothing sharp about Drake’s writing.

    I found it dull and ploddingly repetitive. The demons all tended to look alike and his battle/fight scenes were simply laughable. Tell me where the main characters learned such incredible fighting techniques that allowed them to defeat professional soldiers? From tending sheep? Yeah, this is some kind of fantasy all right.

    But those are just minor details – the characters have no depth and no emotion and the plot is simply ridiculous. It careens out of control into dead-ends. His conventions are weak and simplistic. When in doubt (like Goodkind) he goes for the immature gross-out. This is clearly writing for 15 year old boys who think that kind of thing is cool and would love to be the guy like Garric, the main character, with the two babes fighting over him.

    Since you didn’t read Jordan all the way through (even though it’s similarly awful) you cannot comment on how much Drake has ripped him off. Trust me, he has.

    These characters are so wooden, so emotionally bereft, that I came to care nothing for any of them – not even “No Nuts” who dies so pathetically at the end, simply, I believe because Drake had no idea what to do with the character. I couldn’t stand any of the characters, but his female characters – oh wow – they were some of the worst I’ve ever read in fantasy fiction.

    You aren’t a George R. R. Martin fan are you? That would explain much.

  • Buckhorn Dingleberry

    George R. R. Martin is a genius, yes. Not so much his new work which is okay, but not stellar, as his older science fiction work, of course. For good contemporary swords and sorcery style fantasy I’d recommend Greg Keyes.

    As for Drake’s characterization you’re just dead wrong. His characters in this series have far more depth than is typical in a lot of fantasy fiction. Even stranger I found his female characters to be particularly interesting.

    What’s an example of something you liked? Do you like any epic fantasy at all, even the classics? Do you like Tolkein – his characterization is virtually nonexistent. Do you like Moorcock and his characters who are symbols rather than people? Or are you more of a Weis-Hickman tedious pastiche of generic pablum fan?

  • Buckhorn Dingleberry

    LOL. I meant it as a joke. I really did. Then I went and read your one other review. You actually like franchise fiction – the MacDonalds of fantasy literature. Everything is clear now. You wouldn’t know an original plot or character if it bit you on the ass.

  • Amita

    You are amazingly hostile my friend about something utterly benign. I enjoyed the Weis-Hickman fantasies from the eighties. They were gentle and amusing. It was not great writing but it was entertaining. There are many reasons to read books of course, which I believe you are discounting.

    I don’t know why you are attacking my review so much or attacking my taste in books. Perhaps it makes you feel better about yourself.

    If that is the case then I am happy to oblige. Please, attack my taste in books all you want. I’ve written three reviews on blogcritics, which does not even begin to tap into the scores of literature that I have read in my life.

    I thought George R. R. Martin’s series, A Song of Fire & Ice was abjectly cruel and over the top in gore and sex with children. Therefore not a favorite of mine.

    I can appreciate that many men enjoyed his books too, and while I did not rate the subject matter high, I thought the writing was exceptionally good. Drake is not as good a writer as Martin certainly but as for not bogging himself down in horrific bloodshed and 12 year old girls eating still beating hearts and that such (while be taken sexually by men in their forties), I absolutely respect him.

    As for you Dingleberry, please continue to eschew and berate my taste i fantasy books if it pleases you for I enjoy bringing happiness to people wherever I can.

  • Amita

    Vole, no I never said I didn’t like Drake because he was not politically correct. I said I didn’t like Martin because he wrote for the major gross-out with un-ending violence, bloodletting and sex with children. Hey if that is your bag – whatever – it’s pretty sick.

    Your commentary is very meaningful to me. You are both so clever that I..I..really am in awe.

    Thank you for setting me straight on everything. From now on I will read Drake and Martin and enjoy them. Whew – dodged a bullet then with my happy bunny FANTASY reading. Thanks fellas.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    So you’re squeamish. That’s not a sin. No need to get all sarcastic about it. I liked the first few books in the Drake series but got bored. I didn’t notice much gore in them. As for the Martin books, they’re much better, but badguys being evil and monstrous doesn’t put me in a tizzy.

    Like Buck earlier I’d love to hear some examples of fantasy you DO like. Have you ever read Martha Wells or Paula Volsky? They’re about as far from Drake as you can get.

    Dave

  • Amita

    Hi Dave, I give as I get – nothing more nothing less. And even though I don’t feel the atmosphere here is that friendly I will list some of my favorites:

    Elizabeth Haydon: Symphony of the Ages series

    Guy Gavriel Kay: Tigana, The Lions of al-Rassan, Sarantine Mosiac duology, Song for Arbonne, some parts of the Fionavar Tapestry

    Carol Berg: Transformation, Restoration, The Bridge of D’Arnath series

    Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials trilogy

    Tad Williams: Memory, Sorrow & Thorn series

    Kate Forsyth: The Witches of Eileanan series

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    If you’re vicious in critiquing the work of a popular author, be prepared to deal with people who are unhappy about that. Be prepared to deal with sharper unhappiness if some of your critiques are demonstrably inaccurate (For example, if you claim the author writes under a pen name, find out whether or not that’s true before attacking them for it.)

    In comment 9 you state there are many reasons to read books. Yet your review fails to acknowledge this, setting you up for an unfriendly reception from any author’s fans.

    I was a bit irked with you myself, although not a rabid fan of all of Drake’s work, until Mr. Nalle finally managed to get you to state your high opinion of Guy Gavriel Kay (among others). If you can perceive the greatness of Kay, you can’t be all bad, even if you are one of those people who insist on misspelling the word “magic” at every opportunity.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I prefer to call it ‘magique’ myself.

    As for her choice of authors, it does say a lot about her preferences. I kind of like Kay myself. Same for Williams and Pullman. But they’re of an entirely different branch of fantasy, one which is much more passive and ‘high concept’ than Drake or Martin. More in the tradition of Peake or Eddison rather than Howard or de Camp.

    Dave

  • Amita

    Victor,

    I said it sounded like a pen name. Yeah, the inference was there but I mean really. Talk about picking on innuendo. I just said I hate pen names. That was not necessarily an attack as much as opinion.

    My review is not about why I read books but focused on this one book. I am frankly stunned that all these David Drake admirers have come out of the woodwork when on Amazon this book rates only THREE STARS and the reviews are abysmal (even the good ones are not too impressed).

    As for Kay – he is my favorite author; I have read his unfortunately small body of work time and time again. His stories engage me, overwhelm me and often wrench an emotional reaction out of me that leaves me stunned and amazed. Pardon me, I am gushing.

    In the future I will try to temper my criticisms with more examples.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    I’d say Kay bridges the categories better than any other author I’ve read, particularly in his later works. That is, while definitely deserving the title of “high fantasy,” he also paints true to life characters who develop in realistic ways, unlike Tolkien or Eddison (can’t say much about Peake, as I haven’t yet read any of his work).

    Martin also bridges these categories, just not so well as Kay does (in my opinion).

    I’ll agree with you that Drake doesn’t aim for the high fantasy laurels, though. His aims are different. Not necessarily worse or better, but unmistakably different.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Drake gets the most credit in my book for mentoring/inspiring the whole new generation of military SF writers, which is quite an achievement. He basically launched the genre which has brought us David Weber, John Ringo and Eric Flint, and that’s a real contribution.

    Dave

  • Amita

    Given Drake’s military background (which I honestly believe can come in handy in helping to create realistic battles and fight scenes) I am surprised the fighting is NOT more believable. With the exception of the onslaught on the island of the arachnid/bug type creatures, most of the fighting left me cold. Oh there was actually a good lich battle early on too but that same energy seemed to fail in the rest of the book particularly in the final fight that Nonnus has.

    I found George R. R. Martin’s battles and fighting to be very on-target in scope but then got bogged down with the gross-out. Shock-value as opposed to real impact, though initially in Game of Thrones, it was better (very early in the book) and then disintegrated into too many still beating hearts and trailing intestines.

    While I recognize we are talking about fighting with swords here and death at the hands of one is not pretty I also wonder why there has to be so much DEATH and dismemberment. I’d love to see characters weight the moral implications before charging in and killing everything and everyone.

    Of course many of these books have to do with war of one kind or another so that is understandable but are there any books out there that deal with less killing and more cerebral, moral, ethical questions?

    I would love to read some to just shake things up a bit.

    Whomever offered Martha Wells and Paula Volsky – yes I have read them.

  • Amita

    I am currently re-reading The Legend of Drizzt, Exile by R. A. Salvatore. It’s excellent thus far. Extremely good characterizations of the main character though the “evil” characters seem a bit cardboard cut-out and there was already one still-beating heart pulled out. Oh, man. What is it with authors and the still-beating hearts?

  • crypple

    I have to agree. This work was probably one of the most uninspiring and contrived pieces of fantasy I’ve read to date. The plot is thin to say the least and the character development is marginal and not at all personal. The ‘trials and tribulations’ are completely unexplained, not in the way a genius such as Steven Erikson ‘forces you to keep up’ (if you haven’t gotten into his ‘Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen’ series you are missing out) but in a ‘what the f$%k was that’ kind of way.

    I quite honestly hated this book, even more so because I was for some reason compelled to finish it. Like when you can’t look away from a car wreck i guess. When he had a mummified corpse come to life and scream “Monster! Loathsome Monster!”… I felt dirty, like I was reading a well used romance novel.

    I give it 2/10 and only then because somehow Tor published it. And while I’m on that, shame on you Terry Goodkind, your review made me buy this book, I’ve lost faith in you.

  • kodichi

    Where do the Sara Douglass, Robin Hobb type authors come in? I love Robert Jordan actually, my taste in authors definately show I’m a romantic at heart. Is there some beef against female authors? The fantasy not “high” enuf? Sara Douglass’s Axis Trilogy is a great book and it has romance, battle, a bit of gore and realistic characters.