Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Out of the Waters by David Drake

Out of the Waters is the second novel in David Drake's “Books of the Elements” fantasy series, following The Legions of Fire. I recommend reading the first book before this one, though Out of the Waters is a self-contained story and stands up well on its own.

Like its predecessor, Out of the Waters centers on the city of Carce, the capital of a sprawling empire. Gaius Alphenus Saxa, a wealthy aristocrat, has been newly appointed as the governor of Lusitania, one of the provinces of Carce's vast empire, and is financing a lavish public spectacle to celebrate. The performance is going as planned when a shocking sight appears in the theater- images of a great city defended by strange flying ships, being attacked by a monstrous many-limbed creature from the sea that grows larger and larger as it advances on the city.

As the rest of the crowd continues to watch, enraptured, Saxa's son Varus has a prophetic vision. He realizes that they are witnessing a scene from the distant past, the destruction of ancient Atlantis by the mythical beast known as the Typhon- a vast, monstrous being that will soon return to lay waste to the entire world. His stepmother Hedia, a woman who fears almost nothing, is transfixed with terror at the sight of strange men made out of glass walking the battlements of the siege city- the same creatures she has seen in a series of recent nightmares. And his younger sister Alphena, watching the cataclysmic scene of destruction, doesn't see the monstrous Typhon at all- she sees a man.

Saxa and the crowd are delighted, thinking it must be some amazing feat of stagecraft, but Varus, Alphena, Hedia, and Varus' friend Corylus - have already witnessed too much to confuse the vision with some sort of stage trickery. Together, the five have already saved Carce from a doom foreseen in one of Varus' visions, and now they must find a way to do so again. There are many dangers in their path and many mysteries to unravel- the reason for Atlantis' terrible fate, the origins and nature of the Typhon itself, and how they can possibly stop something that crushed a civilization even more advanced than Carce, and said in myth to be so terrible that only Zeus himself was able to stop it.

I really liked Out of the Waters. The book follows a similar structure as The Legions of Fire, splitting up the heroes early on and sending them on separate journeys that eventually converge again, and like its predecessor this format works quite well. The plot is exciting and interesting, especially as the true nature and origins of the Typhon are revealed, and Drake does a really good job of actually making a grotesque, world-destroying monstrosity the heart of a very emotionally engaging story.

The different strands of the plot are written such that each of the four main viewpoint characters has a very distinctive voice, and Drake is very effective in using this to bring them to life. Varus' sister Alphena gets to take a more active role in the story this time, and it was interesting to see her grow as a person compared to who she was at the start of the first book.

The setting is unusual for this sort of fantasy in that Carce, its empire, and its culture are quite explicitly Rome in all but name- aside from “Carce,” even names are kept the same. In addition to making Carce feel very different from a more typical fantasy setting, Drake's attention to historical detail frequently makes Carce seem much more foreign to a modern reader than many imaginary worlds, even during mundane events. There are aspects of it that you'll get more out of if you already have some knowledge of the period, but the book explains things well enough that its not a requirement to understand what's going on. The Typhon is inspired by an interesting mixture of Classical and American Indian (Cherokee, more specifically) mythology, and Drake's combination and interpretation of them result in something that is both horrifying and poignant.

Many aspects of the book- lost Atlantis, the Typhon, some of the places the characters journey to- put me in mind of early American fantasy and “weird fiction” authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, or (to some extent) H.P. Lovecraft, not so much in their specifics but in the way they evoke the the sense of the cosmos as something frighteningly vast, in both space and time. This contributes to the overall tone of the book, which (like most of Drake's fantasy, now that I think about it) is probably best described as a high fantasy story set in a sword-and-sorcery universe. The world is indifferent to humanity and its fate, magic and the supernatural tend to be frightening, disturbing things, human life is frequently very cheap, and there's no sign of any sort of higher power watching over mankind, but the protagonists are nevertheless heroic figures who will undergo whatever it takes to protect the world.

I highly recommend Out of the Waters for fans of fantasy, and especially for fans of Drake's previous work.

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