The Dragon Lord
By David Drake
Tor, 1979 (Currently published by Baen)
Reviewed by Ryan HarveyThe Story
In fifth-century Britain, King Arthur Pendragon ruthlessly pursues war against the Saxon tribes under their chieftain Aelle. But Arthur wants a fearsome weapon to aid in crushing his foes: he wants a dragon. The wizard Merlin says he can summon a dragon if he has the skull of an Irish water monster. The task of retrieving the skull falls to a recruit for Arthur's Companions, the grim Irishman Mael mac Ronan and his enormous Danish friend Starkard. In their quest they will encounter the beautiful witch Veleda, warfare with the furious Saxons, undead horror, and eventually face the consequences of Arthur's main plan to use an uncontrollable dragon to scorch the lands of his enemies.
The Dragon Lord comes as close to a Robert E. Howard pastiche as possible without actually using any of his character names. This should come as no surprise, since in its original conception, The Dragon Lord was supposed to be a new adventure of Howard's fifth-century Irish reaver, Cormac mac Art. Cormac appeared in a few historical swashbuckler stories that Howard unsuccessfully tried to sell to Adventure in the 1930s. None of the Cormac stories appeared in print in Howard's lifetime, but during the boom in popularity of sword-and-sorcery in the 1970s, most of his secondary characters returned to life, not only in Howard anthologies, but also in new adventures written by popular contemporary authors. Zebra Books slated Cormac to join the list of Howard heroes getting a new lease on fictional life.
This brings us to the unusual origin of The Dragon Lord. In the late 1970s, David Drake had been publishing short military science-fiction stories in the "Hammer's Slammers" series for nearly a decade, but according to him, he had never gotten through anything longer than a fifteen hundred word novella. In 1977, novelist Andrew J. Offut (who had written a number of Cormac novels) offered to pay Drake a fee to write a plot for a Cormac mac Art pastiche for Zebra Books, and Drake complied with a dense, detailed, historically researched outline. But when Offut no longer needed it due to problems with Zebra Books, Drake decided to take the plunge and write the novel himself, changing the names of Cormac mac Art and his Danish comrade-in-arms Wulfhere Skullsplitter into Mael mac Ronan and Starkard Cruncher.
(Drake would eventually get a chance to write a true Cormac mac Art story with his novella "The Land Beyond Sunset," which appears in the Baen anthology Cormac Mac Art that collects all of Howard's Cormac stories and fragments.)
All of this results in two important facts about The Dragon Lord: 1) It approaches as near to Howard-style fantasy as sword-and-sorcery fans will likely find. 2) The author, at this point in his career, felt unsure with the novel-length format. David Drake himself sums it up perfectly: "I had things to learn about plotting, but there's a lot of neat stuff in this book."
Aye, indeed. The Dragon Lord makes for a sloppy novel, but it contains enough horror, fantasy, well-researched Dark Age bloodshed, and gore-stained helms and axes to entertain any fan of sword-and-sorcery.
The story occurs in Dark Age Britain after the departure of Roman forces and amidst the violent jockeying between Saxons, Danes, Britons, and Gauls over the power-vacuum. Drake meticulously researched the era, and it shows in his wealth of believable details about this violent, primitive world awash in internecine warring groups. He provides intricate looks at the weaponry, armor, and tactics of the time to increase the verisimilitude. Although he uses Arthurian characters in supporting roles, no Camelot or Sir Thomas Mallory clichés appear here. Arthur schemes like a ruthless super-villain in his crusade to wipe the Saxons from Britain, Merlin works as Arthur's magical (and not always successful) tool, and Lancelot plays a huffing and puffing pompous Gaul. Drake, who admitted he had no interest in Arthurian romance prior to writing the book, seems to take great joy in thrusting the courtly love image of Camelot into a gore-and-grime realistic setting.
Heroes Mael and Starkard do not exactly correlate on a one-to-one ratio with their Howard counterparts, although they come close. The reader meets them in an exciting training sequence in an old Roman coliseum, where they show their mettle before the supercilious thug Lancelot. Starkard plays the swaggering Nordic carouser, and Mael the grimly driven hero with a red-stained past. Mael's tragic background is Drake's signature contribution to Howard's Cormac mac Art character, and the contemplative passages in the middle of the novel where Mael relives the bloody lost romance that drove him from Ireland contain some of the best writing in the story, although Drake drops most of this back-story in the later sections.
Drake also crafts reflective passages about the time period and the change from paganism to Christianity. Mael's suspicions about Christianity and his favor toward the older polygot faiths recall the way Howard handled the same themes in his work. "But now that I've seen Ireland again," Mael mourns to Veleda, "I—well, I'll be glad enough to leave it to its Christians."
The plotting, as Drake himself has commented, is often weak. The entire novel consists of two different quests hinged loosely together—the quest for the skull of the water monster, the quest for the shield and spear of Biargram—with a lengthy military campaign tacked on at the end. In all cases, Drake moves clumsily between the events and uses obvious devices to advance the plot, such as the convenient removing of Starkard not once but twice from the adventure so that Mael has to soldier on his own. Veleda drops in and out of the action without much motivation, and the mystery that surrounds her never emerges as a large part of the story. However, her spellcraft appears effectively in the various action and horror sections. The way her mysterious magic causes revulsion in Mael's is a very Howardian touch.
The parts of the novel bridging the quest sections are the least interesting, and in these places the meticulous historical details turn into a hindrance. Reading about the intricacies and uses of weapons when they relate directly to battles and duels is engaging, but details about wattle and daub huts and food preparation when nothing else dramatic is occurring makes for dull reading. The overwritten explanation of Merlin's ceremony to summon the dragon (and the inappropriately anachronistic science-fantasy explanation for it) has no notable effect, although the ironic conclusion to the spell creates some chuckles. Some prolonged sequences, such as a rescue of a Saxon girl, turn out as nothing more than cul-de-sacs, neither adding nor detracting to the narrative. Other confusing lacunae, such as early on when it isn't clear with whom Mael is sailing to Ireland, or why Veleda suddenly wants Biargram's spear and shield, show how unfamiliar Drake felt with the longer format of a book.
If Drake was a neophyte at novel construction, he was already a pro at style, with ten years of writing experience under his baldric. The prose flows easily, and when the action starts the book excels and turns into a bloody good ride. The novel's top-notch sequence involves a fight near a water-monster infested lake; Drake manages to create an action scene far different from the usual hack n' slash of sword-and-sorcery, with a desperately wounded hero trying to crawl away from a blinded, enraged giant swinging a stone sledgehammer. The scene accents tension instead of speedy action, and the suspense rises to a feverish pitch as Drake keeps the pressure on for the whole chapter.
Tension also highlights the requisite horror-fantasy scene, where Mael confronts a walking corpse within a sealed tomb. The grotesque setting and nightmarish struggle, which Mael seems almost certain of losing, make it one of the most memorable passages in the book. The denoument, however, disappoints when the hero gets off too easily.
The dragon, although almost an afterthought (it principally serves as a motivation for the plot instead of an actual participant in it), does makes an enjoyable contrast to the overly intelligent and talkative dragons of standard heroic fantasy. This wyvern rears its snake-like head, quite appropriately, from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Beowulf: two-legged, fierce, feral.
Considering the success of most of the action in The Dragon Lord, the lengthy military clash between Arthur and the Saxons arrives as an anticlimax. Drake tries to imitate the battle scenes that Howard crafted so well in stories like "Kings of the Night," "Black Colossus," and "The Grey God Passes," but his version feels distanced and coldly orchestrated, and not until the end do our heroes get physically involved in the fight.
It is intriguing to compare The Dragon Lord to Drake's later return to heroic fantasy, The Lord of the Isles. The latter book, which moves more in the territory of Robert Jordan's epic fantasies, shows the author deftly juggling three or four plot strands at once and evenly balancing multiple characters without a trace of confusion. The Dragon Lord, on the other hand, seems a stumbling and scattered exercise in structure. But for all that, it has a joyous Dark Age fury that still makes it enjoyable after all these years, especially for Howard fans. Readers who also aspire to writing will find it fascinating watching a major author finding his feet in the world of novel-writing.
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