I went through a period of reading David Drake a lot. That was more than twenty years ago and I think he's written a bazillion books since then. None, based solely on a reading of the the back covers, have grabbed my attention. There's only so much reading a man can get done and without personal recommendations from buddies it's one of the few ways to pick and choose what to spend time on. (True story: A friend of mine used to buy anything with a D K Sweet cover but then he used to read about a book a day while commuting and in the eighties it sure seemed like D K Sweet painted the covers of almost every other science-fiction or fantasy book).
But David Drake has recently come back into my line of vision and in a great way. In pouring through articles, old anthologies and comments on Amazon I came across Drake's early fantasy stories set in the later Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantius. I've got two under my belt and so far they're aces.
Gary Hoppenstand, it was the first publisher of several Karl Edward Wagner "Kane" stories, including the searing "Lynortis Reprise". Scrolling through the contents for the four issues makes me think it was a pretty cool publication.
"Dragon's Teeth" introduces us to the Roman legate Vettius as he is preparing to unleash an ambush against a column of Sarmatians. Things go off well with death being meted out to the barbarian enemies of Rome until a giant makes an appearance. Seeing it, Vettius realizes that "the horsehair crest wobbling in the waning sunlight increased the figure's titanic height, but even bare-headed the giant would have been half again as tall as the six-foot soldier." And it's covered in bronze armor and helmet. Armed with a giant mace. Suddenly things don't look as optimal for the Romans.
It's similar to one of those James Bond openings (in the good Connery movies) that throw you into the middle of things and get your blood roiling and serving as an appetizer to the rest of the story. It pretty awesome that Drake springs a monster on us so quickly (remember, such awesomeness is one of the primary reasons that we read this stuff).
In this short introductory bit of sword swinging, arrow flinging violence (five pages) there's a tremendous amount of quick historical detail. Before the killing starts we're provided with a vivid description of the nomadic Sarmatians. We also get a picture of Roman arms and armor versus that of their more barbaric opponents.
The rest of the story concerns Vettius and his friend, Cappadocian merchant Dama, as they go of to find and deal with the progenitor of the giant and the nine others that successfully wiped out an equal number of Roman detachments. Their quarry is Hydaspes, a sorcerer who has set himself up amongst the nomads. By the end we get fierce barbarian nobles, creepy monkeys, dark wizards and man-on-giant hand to hand combat. There's not too much more plot to "Dragon's Teeth" than that (though that little bit more is extra awesome). It's the excitement and quick pacing with which Drake relays that plot that makes the story cook.
The other Roman era story I read today was "The Mantichore" which features Dama in the pay of a a necromancer. Chronologically it falls before "Dragon's Teeth" and it was first published in the inestimable "Swords Against Darkness" from 1977 and edited by the genre important (as editor and promoter more than writer) Andrew J. Offutt.
Dama has been hired by the sorcerer Theophanes to bring him and his bodyguard cum manservant, the seven foot tall Hlodovech to a place of safety in the wake of a crackdown on pagans in Antioch by the emperor. Dama finds and brings his customer to an abandoned inn at an oasis almost three weeks out into the desert out from Antioch. There are found a mummified body and cryptic scrawls about the mantichore, the man-eating lion-bodied, man-headed and scorpion-tailed monster from Persian folklore.
What happens next involves Theophanes' nercromancy, Hlodovech's origins, Dama's quick wits and the wisdom of following mysterious warnings. Especially when they're found in places filled with magical power. The story's short, quick and too the very ugly point.
I like these stories a whole lot. So much that I've already ordered the collection "Vettius and His Friends" from Amazon. With luck it'll be with today's mail when I get home tonight. Ahh, to hope.
Part of the reason I enjoyed these stories was Drake's decision to avoid faux-archaic dialogue. His characters speak in a reasonably modern vernacular. When Vettius springs his ambush in "Dragon's Teeth" he yells, "Let's get 'em!". Even Hydaspes avoids old-timey talk when he gives the obligatory madman monologue.
And at the same time as his characters talk in a contemporary way Drake manages to convey the alien nature of life in the fourth century Roman Empire. Vettius and his men have no compunction at slaughtering the women and children of the Sarmatians they attack in the ambush. Pagans are hunted down by imperial inquisitors and there are barren empty spaces on the map between empires. For all the civilization of Rome and Byzantium it's one that's brutal and in a state of decline, under attack from barbarians without and moral and bureaucratic decay from within.
So these are good stories and I'm looking forward to reading the rest. On his own site, David Drake describes the stories as not his best but dear to his heart. He also says one, "The Barrow Troll" comes close to being one of his best. Can't wait.