The Legions of Fire: Kept me reading, though barely

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDavid Drake The Legions of FireThe Legions of Fire by David Drake

The Legions of Fire by David Drake is a mixed bag of a novel. In one sense, it’s literally so, as Drake combines historical and fantasy genres along with Greek and Norse mythology — that’s (mostly) the good mix. The not-so-great mix was in my response to the novel and its characters, which really was all over the map in terms of engagement and enjoyment. The book kept me going, though the end was a bit of a struggle, and I’m curious enough to go on to book two but not without reservations.

The Legions of Fire is quasi-historical, set (more directly and fully so in the first half of the book) in the city of Carce, which one may as well spell as R-O-M-E, as beyond the name I’m not quite sure what the difference is. I don’t consider myself a classical scholar, so I’m sure there are some dissimilarities, but all the major aspects that would be familiar to a general reader are there: references to Sulla and other famous or somewhat famous Romans, to tribunes and senators, to well-known streets and temples, enemies on the borders, a rivalry with Carthage, etc. The setting is concrete, fully wrought, and rich in detail. These early chapters with their Roman background were some of my favorites. His descriptions of class, dress, architecture, gender roles, and food — all of the details of daily life — layer one upon the other so the reader truly inhabits the Roman world. It feels as if Drake really knows his stuff, but isn’t strutting it; it serves as great background rather than calling attention to his scholarship or mastery of Roman trivia. The latter half of the book moves into more fantastical or simply unfamiliar realms — underworlds, northern lands, and the like — and here the setting feels a bit more like a Hollywood set. It looks as it should on the outside, containing all the right images (dryads, nymphs, satyrs, magic swords) but all seems conveniently placed for us to stroll by and note, but not to look behind. The doors all have the right kind of framing and metalwork, but they don’t open.

The main premise of The Legions of Fire is that Carce, and the world as a whole, is about to be threatened by the rise of the fire god Surtr and his fire demons who will cleanse the world in flame. A vision of this is given to the four main characters very early in the novel, and the rest of the book deals with their attempts to prevent the cataclysm as well as save themselves from the strange situations they find themselves in. Two are the children of a Senator: bookish horrible-poet Varus and his sister Alphena who is somewhat of a scandal for her temper and for her training as a man with a sword. Their stepmother Hedia is another main character. The group is rounded out by Varus’ best friend Corylus, a military brat and son of a recently retired knight. They begin the novel together but soon are put onto different paths. Corylus ends in the north where he meets Odin, runs into dryads and nymphs, and converses with the “vengeance” or ghost of a dead man, among other adventures. The other three end up in even stranger realms and meet creatures who are equally fantastical or even more so. While I enjoyed the mix of mythologies, as mentioned, these realms felt less fully constructed. The adventures as well felt a bit perfunctory, partly due to their episodic nature. Only Corylus’ felt like it had a cohesive narrative focus to it; the others sort of moved from place to place, encounter to encounter, and as a reader I never truly felt attached or engaged to what they were doing. Their acts lacked a sense of urgency or suspense or drama despite the situations themselves having all three.

I varied in my response to the characters themselves. Corylus, a competent military man, is certainly likable, but a bit dull. I never had any doubt that he would do what needed to be done, which robbed his scenes of some suspense. Varus is also likable, but his character is more passive than active and moves so often in a fog that the same fog sort of settled over me as a reader. Alphena, though much more active, was also a bit monotone. The standout character by far was Hedia. At first presented, one thinks she’ll fall into the stereotypical stepmother haughty bitch role: there are rumors she poisoned her first husband, servants are terrified of her, and so on. But she turns out to be much more complex and is certainly the most vibrant, the most engaging character of the entire novel; the book gets a real spring in its step when we return to her storyline and I certainly hope she plays as major a role in the sequel. All the characters are very well drawn as characters. We’re given sharp details and real-life motivations for how they are and what they do; they move through their situations as real people and not as “heroes.” But save for Hedia, none are particularly compelling.

The same, unfortunately, is true of the ending. Considering the stakes (end of the world, death of humanity…) and the sheer dramatic potential of the on-stage performers (fire god, fire demons, nasty bald wizard, nymphs, magic sword, a magic flute…), the ending falls curiously (and fully) flat. It was difficult not to simply skim through the final scenes. I wanted to know what happened, both to the world and these characters, but the prose and the scenes themselves did nothing to convince me that a skim or a summary by someone who’d read the book would have given me any less pleasure. I actually found the opening chapters, set in plain old Rom- um, Carce, with plain old folks to be much more compelling than the end-of-the-world magic-all-around dozen-demons-dancing magic-sword-a-swinging climax. I seriously hope Drake ups that aspect of the writing in the follow-up, which appears to involve some sort of sea monster (Release the Kraken?).

The Legions of Fire kept me reading, though barely by the end. The characters are all well drawn and likable, but save for one great exception a bit dull. The historical setting is particularly strong, the fantastical ones less so. The mix of mythologies is interesting but not executed strongly or vividly enough. And the ending is a letdown dramatically. Thus, a mixed bag. My recommendation now is to hold off to see how the series shakes out before picking up book one of what is projected as a four-book series.

The Books of the Elements — (2010-2013) Publisher: From the Bestselling author of the Lord of the Isles… In this novel of magical menace to the survival of all humanity, David Drake introduces a new fantasy world, Carce, based on Europe during the later Roman Empire. Far in the north, a group of magicians perform a strange dance on a volcanic island intended to open a gateway for supernatural creatures that will allow them to devastate the whole Earth and destroy all life. Not knowing the cause, two young men, Corylus and Varus, and two women, Hedia and Alphena, each separately pursue the answer to mysterious and threatening happenings that prefigure disaster  in  the great city of Carce, the center of civilization.  Through magical voyages in other realities where fantastic creatures, and even gods, help or hinder them, each of them must succeed or not just the city but the world will end in fire. The Legions of Fire is the first of a fantasy quartet set in the world of the city of Carce.

David Drake Books of the Elements 1. Legions of FireDavid Drake Books of the Elements 1. Legions of Fire 2. Out of the Watersfantasy and science fiction book reviews


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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