By habit I read more than one book at a time. It keeps me from getting bored, and sometimes the odd juxtaposition of ideas gives me something unique for a review. Right now I'm reading a horror story so bad I regret agreeing to review it and a mystery story that makes too great an effort to be literature. It's slow going at best. The third volume is (or rather, was) this, Gordon Dickson's fourth in his dragon series. It took me exactly three days to read this hefty (500+ page) small print book from cover to cover, and I am not a speed reader. The other books just had to wait.
What makes Dickson so good that he has managed to author two major series (the dragon series and the Dorsai series) and innumerable other novels and collections? Personally I would call it superior plot making, intense dedication to details, and yes, heaps of talent. Dickson always takes the necessary time to draw his characters out fully, be they James Eckhart the knight/apprentice mage/sometimes dragon who is the hero of the story or the lowly master carpenter who keeps James in everything from chairs to outhouses. And he goes to know end of trouble to make sure that the reader painlessly acquires enough 14th century lore to make sense out of the goings on.
This volume finds James at Malencontri, his castle, trying to cope with both a plague of Plantagenet nobility and the very real plague which is advancing into James part of England. In addition, Carolinus, James mage master (one of the three AAA+ mages in the world, he'll have you know) is insisting that the King be protected at all costs. The Plantagenets on hand are Prince Edward the Fourth, the king's son and the beautiful Countess Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. All they want is James assistance in a plot to make Edward the Third fond of Edward the Fourth again. This plot becomes ever more complicated until James finds himself commanded to appear before the King at Tiverton, where Edward III has retired to avoid the plague in London.
While this complexity develops James works overtime to prepare Malencontri against the plague. Since James and his wife Angie are actually visitors from our time who were unexpectedly thrust into the 14th century of an alternate earth, they know something of germs and disease protection. Since magic will not work on diseases, it is this knowledge which it their only hope. In the midst of all this confusion and stress, the EcKharts, their closest friends and Hob (the castle hobgoblin) are off to Tiverton to see the King.
Thanks to Hob, James is able to discover that an evil plot is afoot at Tiverton. Goblins, who are spreading the plague in order to take over the world, have slain the real castle staff and are now running it in disguise. James, due to his commitment to keep the king alive, goes into action. Since this is less that a third of the way into the book, it should be no surprise that Jim manages to use a small handful of men and knights (plus the unstoppable Hob and his buddy the hob of Tiverton) to completely mop up the Goblins and airlift everyone to Malencontri. Unfortunately James comes down with both the plague and magickal exhaustion simultaneously. Does he survive? Of course! Does he spend the rest of the book frantically trying to save Malencontri and the rest of England? You bet, but I will leave the rest of the plot for the reader to discover.
With this, ninth, volume in the series, it is getting a bit harder to simply pick up a volume and follow along. First of all you keep getting the feeling that you have missed several really good books, which you have. Secondly, there is simply too much background after eight solid novels to present enough information to the reader. This isn't all bad though, you will get to read several very good fantasy tales. And if you do wind up reading it first, you will still love it enough to come back to read a second time. Highly recommended.