Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Dragon Lord by David Drake, a review

Some twenty years before TheWarlord Chronicles, a grim and gritty take on the Arthurian mythos by historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell, David Drake’s The Dragon Lord (1978) covered the same war-torn ground, employing a similar historical Dark Ages realism in the telling. Imagine Arthur as a power-hungry, petulant warlord with a clubbed foot; Launcelot as a hulking Roman Gaul, arrogant and bullying; and Merlin a half-crazed sorcerer barely in control of his own overestimated powers of magic, and you have the basic flavor of Drake’s debut novel.

Cornwell’s trilogy is a good deal superior to Drake’s effort, as the latter is marred by flaws perhaps forgivable of a first time novelist, including a choppy, uneven narrative and an abrupt, rather unsatisfying ending. But The Dragon Lord has a curious power of its own, perhaps because it manages to successfully straddle both the historical fiction and fantasy genres; it feels something like the Northern-inspired novels of Poul Anderson. If you like that stuff, you’ll probably like The Dragon Lord.

Like Cornwell, who relays his Warlord Chronicles through the viewpoint of the Saxon Derfel, Drake employs a pair of non-Arthurian characters to tell his tale. Mael and Starkad are unlikely allies in that the former is an Irishman and the latter a Dane, a people who conducted extensive raids of pillage and plunder on the Irish coastline. The two friends are extraordinarily deadly: Starkad is a bear of a man who wields an axe capable of felling a small sapling with a single stroke and shearing through shields and ring-mail with equal ease; the former is deadly with a sword and one of the few men on the earth the equal of Starkad in a fight. After a decade spent as soldiers, merchants, and pirates, the two outlaws find themselves on the run and flee to Britain. There they enlist to fight for Arthur’s Companions, a mercenary/dark ages equivalent of the round table. Arthur is swelling his ranks for a great battle against the Saxons under King Aelle in the North.

Severely outnumbered (though his forces are better armed and armored), Arthur asks Merlin to summon a dragon to his side to help ensure victory. Summoning the beast is not so easy, however, and a couple of quests are necessary to obtain the proper material components. Mael and Starkad undertake a pair of dangerous missions to obtain the skull of a sea beast and an ancient shield and spear. Along the way they fall in with Veleda, a beautiful white-haired sorceress.

The Dragon Lord is well-written and Mael and Starkad are reasonably well-drawn characters. Perhaps the book’s best feature is its eye for historical detail. Drake indulges the reader with forays into ancient boatmaking and armor and weapon making techniques. We learn of strange pagan rituals, including a bog drowning sacrifice to appease the gods, and the peerless horsemanship and bowmanship of the Huns. But The Dragon Lord is also a-historical and mythic; unlike The Saxon Chronicles (whose “magical” elements all have natural explanations), The Dragon Lord incorporates elements of outright fantasy. These include a barrow wight, a sea monster, spellcasting, and a wyvern (what a wyvern it is; Drake writes a good dragon). The Dragon Lord also shines in its depiction of combat, which runs the gamut from a wonderful mock-weapon duel between Mael and Launcelot to a full-scale battle between Arthur’s forces and the Saxons at a river crossing. The battles are bloody and desperate and well-done.

Unfortunately the book often feels like a series of interesting scenes stitched together by a threadbare plot; for example there’s no compelling reason why Starkad and Mael keep returning to Arthur, whom they distrust and dislike. There’s also some jarring modern military language in here, perhaps a spillover from Drake’s time in the service (his personal bio lists him as a Vietnam veteran, which helps to explain anachronistic terms like “squad leader” and “noncom” cropping up in the narrative).

I was also irked by Drake’s treatment of Arthur and his Companions. This is not a roundtable founded upon chivalry and dedicated to spreading peace in a dark age; Drake’s Companions and their king are bastards, a ruthless, conquering army intent on annihilating and exterminating the Saxons, not merely conquering them on the field of battle. As such they’re utterly unlikeable. They’re also too incompetent for my tastes: The Companions are supposed to be feared and infamous yet they are constantly upstaged by the heroes. Mael, Starkad, and Veleda are the rough equivalents of Arthur, Launcelot, and Merlin, respectively, yet prove themselves superior leaders, fighters, and sorcerers. Arthur in particular is a petulant whiner who seems to be a king only by virtue of his utter ruthlessness. Drake obviously doesn’t have a lot of love for the old tales of Camelot. Nevertheless The Dragon Lord is a solid if unspectacular read and a gritty and fun addition to the Arthur mythos (***1/2 stars out of *****).

Note: For a well-done review of the novel with additional details on how it was originally intended to be a pastiche of the Robert E. Howard character Cormac mac Art, check out Ryan Harvey’s informative piece at Sword and Sorcery.


Charles R. Rutledge said...

I have a copy of this somewhere but haven't gotten around to reading it. I'll dig it out.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Yeah I enjoyed it more as a Pastiche than as a stand-alone.. alas that link you posted doesn't work however.

Tex said...

Try this one...

(pulling his first Rockford of the month)

David J. West said...

I'm with Lagomorph Rex, I enjoyed it greatly substituing Mael and Starkard for Cormac and Wulfhere. I really got into Tigers of the Sea and The Dragon Lord filled a need that the Gael stories by Offutt never really did.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Tex, I fixed the link.