The Legions of Fire
Because we here at Two Dudes are committed to bringing our readers only best, most relevant commentary, we’re very excited to piggyback on the recent release of the second book in a new series by reviewing the first book, now in paperback. This is the kind of cutting edge scoop that we pledge to deliver at least once every few months or so. So with Out of the Waters hitting stores over the summer, let’s take a look at the first book in Drake’s Roman Empire with crazy magic series.
I’ll set out my biases now, so that anyone who disagrees with this paragraph can save themselves the trouble of reading any further. I’m a big fan of David Drake, who writes my favorite military SF. I find him just as interesting as his books; in the countless interviews and podcasts scattered round the internet, he always comes across as a fascinating character. Anytime a Duke law student with a background in the classics gets sent off to Vietnam to witness and participate in horrific events, drama will ensue. Drake’s books are a pretty clear window into the soul of a man who really just wanted to read Virgil, but is tormented by what he’s seen and done. I wrote previously about Redliners and confessed that his books haven’t been the same since; there’s something about treading on the edge of madness that makes for books I can’t put down. Now that Drake is more at peace with himself, his writing is somewhat less compelling. With The Legions of Fire, however, he is opening up a setting that plays right to his strengths and encourages mad creativity. How does it all hold up?
Drake sets his story in the city of Carce and goes to great pains to explain that, even though Carce looks a lot like Rome circa 30 AD and the rest of the world is basically our world in 30 AD, Carce is not Rome. It is, however, pretty much Rome, but with magic and some other mystical stuff. This is a good thing, as Drake’s extensive knowledge of the era makes for a convincing stage. It is also refreshing to escape the Middle Ages, or any derivative thereof, with the usual variations on swords, knights, elves traipsing through the glen, etc. Magic is present in Carce, but it is wild, untamed, and uncivilized. Proper gentlemen keep their distance from the stuff, preferring logic and rhetoric. Magic is relegated to the periphery and practiced only by hairy barbarians. (Or so, at least, is the popular wisdom in Carce.)
The story is a variation of the usual “Youths of destiny come of age while saving the world from unspeakable evil,” though I get the feeling that Drake is beating that dead horse because it is fun, not because he is incapable of anything else. Some authors lack the creativity or courage to tell any story but a pale Tolkien imitation. In this case, however, I can imagine Drake saying to himself, “Fire demons rampaging out of Vesuvius is good. Such a waste to only roast Carce though. Hmm, said demons are summoned by bald, skeletal Hyboreans, foretold by the stars, and opposed by ambiguous, prophetic manuscripts. Why not just destroy all of creation? I’m David Drake, and I can do what I want!” It works for me. The Legions of Fire is, on the surface, predictable and cliché, but this is a densely plotted book, taking convoluted paths towards a familiar end. The good guys are definitely good (though only one is unambiguously awesome), but the bad guys are confusingly bad. Who is opposing whom, and to what end? Which pawns are being manipulated by which side, and for what purpose? And who are all these side characters and what are they after?
The supporting cast is one of the best parts of the book. The spirits, gods, and supernatural creatures here are best avoided by the living. Their factions are intentionally left unexplained, so the experience as a reader is much like what the characters are seeing. Is this lovely and flirtatious dryad going to help me? Or am I going to be trapped in a fairy ring, dancing until I keel over? What about all these dead people? Is that spell that allegedly binds them to my service really working? What are its limits, and what happens when I cross them? Who are these crazy, bald geezers on the blasted heath anyway? This is most definitely not Fantasia. As might be expected of Drake, Legions is not a gentle book. There is lots of violence and an assortment of naughty bits. The violence is realistic, but not as graphic as, say, Hammers Slammers, and the naughty bits are mostly just weird, considering the personalities and nature of creatures involved.
For those keeping score at home, Legions loses some points for its rather conventional overarching structure, but makes most of them back with a complex, demanding plot. Rome is a much more fun place to spend some time than a thinly veiled Middle Earth – Olde England hybrid; I certainly wouldn’t cage fight the author over its authenticity either. The human characters are alright, even though some of them “grow” by the end of the story, while the supporting cast of weird creatures is endless entertainment. (Though I shudder to think what the tree sprites in my back yard might look like. Judging from our trees, they’d probably be Russian babushkas.) As mentioned above, Drake’s writing has lost some of its edge of late, now that he keeps the madness at bay. Legions lacks the psychological pyrotechnics of Northworld or Redliners, but I liked it more than other recent concoctions. Still, anyone who already dislikes Drake’s books won’t change their mind with this one.
Rating: For violence and skullduggery in the ancient metropolis, Two Dudes recommends the Roma – Lazio derby!