David Drake has written fantasies before, but the Lord of the Isles series is his first full-on venture into Jordan-style multibook VLFN saga-spinning. And I'm sad to say that it's an abject disaster. Like so many books of its kind, Lord of the Isles is a handsomely mounted yawner. With its transmission permanently stuck in first gear, the novel diffidently putts along, only rarely revving up into any level of excitement. And Drake doesn't exactly feel a burning need to establish a story with any great urgency. You slog through it all, wondering where it's going, and only too late do you realize it just isn't going anywhere. This is one novel that won't appeal to anyone beyond those folks predisposed to love any overlong fantasy that has the Tor logo on it.
Lord of the Isles is set within a vast archipelago, hence the title, and it begins in bravura fashion. When the island of Yole sinks as the result of some backfiring magic wielded in a fierce battle between Yole's Duke Tedry and Carus, King of the Isles, the wizard-woman Tenoctris saves herself from the cataclysm by transporting herself a thousand years into the future. She washes ashore on the island of Haft, where she is rescued by Garric, a young shepherd from the town of Barca's Hamlet.
Immediately Drake makes one crucial mistake. Not only does there seem to be no appreciable change in society and culture from Tenoctris' time to the present, but Tenoctris herself has absolutely no problem fitting in to the bucolic society of Barca's Hamlet. Language, evidently, hasn't evolved at all; she communicates perfectly. The reason this little detail is so frustrating is that I know Drake is educated in history and researches his work meticulously. In many of his other books, he's explained that he uses modern speech idioms, weights and measures, and the like, simply to make his story accessible to readers. Okay, I accept that principle. But here, Drake had an opportunity to add a level of authenticity to his drama and his worldcraft, and by ignoring it, sacrificed some believability. Having, say, characters from ancient Rome speak English and not Latin for your readers' sake is one thing; having a character from the distant past thrust into the far future and act like she's been there all her life is quite another.
Shortly after Tenoctris' arrival, life in Barca's Hamlet becomes rather exciting — for them, if not for us. A military trireme shows up from the distant island of Ornifal, having barely escaped a horrible storm. It bears the aristocratic Asera and the brash, arrogant young magician Meder. Both these folks immediately realize there's something special about Garric's sister Sharina, and a quick magical test (nice thing about fantasy novels — plot points become immediately resolved with a little bit of spell casting) reveals that she is really a long-lost royal heir. The clichés are piling up nicely.
Asera and Meder insist that Sharina must accompany them, and as it seems she has no choice, she consents, but only on the grounds that the local hermit/sage Nonnus comes along too. It seems there would be little reason for Nonnus to consent to go (particularly as his departure effectively deprives Barca's Hamlet of its only healer), beyond the formulaic imperative that a VLFN needs its Gandalf. That appears to be enough for Drake, so off they go.
Soon, even more strangers arrive in town. The mysterious Benlo, who also has magical abilities, and his hot young daughter Liane lead a retinue of folks who ostensibly want to buy a flock of sheep to take to the neighboring island of Sandrakkan, where, I suppose, they have no sheep. In truth, Benlo is looking for Garric, about whom there is also Something Special. But Benlo claims to be working under the strict orders of an employer over whose intentions there rests complete obscurity. So Garric joins Benlo's team, along with his friend Cashel (who's heartsick over Sharina's departure) and Cashel's sister Ilna (who has a similar unrequited love for Garric and wants to make damn sure that bitch Liane keeps her hands off him). Tenoctris comes too.
And...hmm, let's see...oh, yes. Apparently Garric is possessed by the spirit of King Carus from a thousand years ago, and there's some shadowy evil figure called the Hooded One who's, you know, evil and stuff. The Hooded One is behind everything, as shadowy evil figures are wont to be, though in this instance, what the "everything" is is anyone's guess.
As lengthy a string of tired clichés as Lord of the Isles is, Drake still could have turned in, if nothing else, a whip-smart exercise in fast-paced, escapist action-adventure. But no, Lord of the Isles intends to be taken seriously. Thus Drake gives us endless exposition at the expense of dramatic tension, or hell, anything resembling a plot at all. Drake seems to have fallen victim to the misguided notion that the first novel in a series doesn't have to be anything but set-up. Wrong, sir; there's no such thing as a 600-page prologue, and even if there were, you would still have to make the proceedings compelling and exciting enough to persuade readers to line up for volume two. Events in Lord of the Isles have little to no logical continuity, and take forever, to boot. Case in point...
At one point in their ocean journey, Sharina, Nonnus, Asera, Meder and company land on the island of Tegma, which Meder has magically raised from the ocean depths. (One potentially interesting concept Drake does introduce in this book is the idea that magic is poorly understood even by those who make a career of practicing it.) On Tegma, a little more inept magic on Meder's part results in the resurrection of Tegma's entire extinct population. And wouldn't you know it, they're all vicious monsters! There follows a briefly exciting scene in which everyone is beseiged (yes, yes, I know, how does a race of vicious monsters learn to build cities in the first place?), before Meder does a little more magic and saves the day. So here's the long and short of the whole sequence: arrive on island; resurrect monsters; fight monsters; leave. Nothing at all in the way of a plot is served or advanced here. Like a bad game of D&D, the whole scene exists only so that the book can have a monster fight.
I could list similarly frustrating flaws, but why bother? I think you get the point by now. I'm aware that VLFN fans have an insatiable appetite for new stories, but Lord of the Isles simply doesn't provide adequate nourishment.