That it took me four years to get around to reading this sequel to David Drake's narcotizing Lord of the Isles should indicate just how unexcited I was to continue the series. One of the biggest challenges reviewers face is to remain open-minded about work you just haven't enjoyed. But it's a challenge I know I must embrace. Otherwise, there'd just be way too much SF and fantasy I'd never read, and I might close myself off from a writer's improvements. True, sometimes your open-mindedness is "rewarded" by more books as bad as the ones you hated initially. But sometimes you make happy discoveries. If I'd let my powerful dislike of Liz Williams' debut The Ghost Sister completely turn me off to her, I'd have never had the joy of experiencing her second, Empire of Bones, which was fabulous. It's always better to be receptive than prejudiced. Even if it means reading a book like Queen of Demons.
Queen of Demons is one of the strangest novels I've read in all of fantasy. There are times when it's hard to tell if the book is some kind of experimental, surrealist masterpiece, or just a piece of ill-conceived, muddled crap. We are treated to spectacles such as a tower full of men and man-like creatures who nightly defend themselves against an onslaught of monsters, yet we never learn who they are, who they represent, where they come from, where the monsters come from, or how any of them came to be there. It's dazzling and head-scratching in equal measure. Drake's characters, both major and minor, move from one place to the next, one event to the next, with virtually no rhyme or reason. It often feels like, instead of outlining a plot, Drake simply decided what would happen from chapter to chapter by rolling a d20. The book is so fractured it would be unpublishable had anyone other than an established name written it. But its slipshod quality gives it an undeniably dreamlike weirdness at times.
Garric, the humble small town youth who discovered he was the long-lost descendent of Carus, King of the Isles from a thousand years before, shares an intimate psychic bond with the spirit of his ancestor. Apparently the forces of good and evil square off every millennium to duke it out for control of, well, everything. The last time, the world was shattered into the islands that exist today. So it falls on Garric's shoulders to win this round and prevent the kingdom from falling to evil once and for all.
The discovery of the corpse of a Scaled Man, something so evil it shouldn't exist in this world at all, hurls Garric and his companions into another quest. As in all big fantasy quests, they are immediately separated, this time by a magical storm that trashes their ship and kills everyone on board but our four protagonists. (So if an evil wizard did create the storm just to kill them, he kinda needs to work on his aim.)
From this point on, our characters are lost, and spend the next 200 l-o-n-g pages wandering around trying to reunite with one another. They are transported from place to place magically (and sometimes accidentally), by portals the existence and nature of which are never understood. This is really all that goes on. An entirely adequate synopsis of this part of the book could be "Things happen." Characters end up in one place, things happen, then they move on to another place where more things happen, repeat. Promising villains and colorful supporting characters are introduced, then disappear, sometimes within the space of a few pages. The narrative becomes so episodic that the book starts to feel like a collection of short fiction whose stories are only thinly related.
It isn't until we are nearly halfway through this hefty, meandering tome that a clear narrative goal reveals itself. Garric — finally — ends up in Valles, the seat of power. King Valence has lost his mind and is under the control of his queen, Azalais, whom Garric's traveling companion Tenoctris is convinced is a demon in human form. She's right enough. Garric, in a reasonably bravura sequence that nonetheless pales alongside any one of the action scenes in Drake's Hammer or Lt. Leary stories, manages to rally the populace in Valles to drive the queen from her castle. But it will take a much bigger fight to defeat her once and for all. Meanwhile, in other story threads, everybody else is still lost and wandering.
It was a fascinating experience reading this book alongside some of the space opera Drake was writing the same year. While enduring Queen, I was having all kinds of fun reading With the Lightnings, and the contrast between that book and this are like night and day. While the Lt. Leary novels aren't exactly paragons of originality themselves, at least it's dead obvious Drake has his heart in writing them. He's having a high old time, and it shows in just how tightly focused and concise his action and plotting are, and in the appeal of his characters.
I just don't feel that heart in this saga. While it is a slight improvement upon Lord of the Isles, Queen of Demons is still boilerplate VLFN all the way. Its characters just aren't terribly interesting. I wouldn't remember most of their names had I not taken notes. Some are plain unlikable, like Ilna. They certainly never come to life, the way the heroes of the best fantasy sagas do. And their story, such as it is, is a humdrum, arduous slog, lacking dramatic focus and only providing brief moments of the excitement Drake is more than capable of when he's on form. The impression I get is that these books are just an exercise by Drake in churning out bestselling fantasy. It's as if, like so many authors in the 90's, he looked at Robert Jordan's stupefying sales figures and thought, "I need to be doing that." Maybe that isn't true. But for a man whose space operas clearly reveal he knows what he's doing at the keyboard to turn out such dreary work as a fantasist either means the same dedication isn't there, or he's just out of his element.
Or maybe he's the Marcel Duchamps of fantasy and I'm not getting it. Somehow I don't think so.