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The Legions of Fire (The Books of the Elements) Hardcover – 11 May 2010

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Amazon.com: 15 reviews
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Better than 95% of fantasy books 5 Feb. 2011
By William Spillman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is the first in a planned 4-book series and therefore spends some time introducing the characters and setting. However, one thing David Drake is very good at is developing characters and settings continually while still moving events forward, so it flows more seamlessly than the vast majority of stand-alone fantasy. In fact, it's far more readable than the Lord of the Rings books, as Drake never need long, drawn-out exposition to explain his backgrounds--he integrates them into his descriptions seamlessly.

Drake's writing is masterful. He can describe more about a setting or person in a sentence than most authors can in a paragraph, and more in a paragraph than most could fit in a chapter. Compared to him, most other authors seem repetitive and long-winded, or even boring. I discovered Drake at an early age, and his writing spoiled me to the point where I find many legendary authors, such as Tolkien, almost unreadable.

The characters are interesting, and develop noticeably during the course of events, both in themselves and in their relationships with one another. Drake has become a master at twining separate plot threads together over the course of the story, so that characters separate and come together at crucial moments, each one working and developing separately but also working together.

The book uses historical Rome, elements of Greco-Roman mythology and Norse mythology, and Drake's unique, somewhat-surreal fantasy-land building to create a world that is gritty and realistic while still bizarre and fantastical. The characters are realistically frightened and perplexed by the mystical places and things happening, but don't get stymied or require other characters to explain every detail of the magical world to them like most fantasy. They just deal with it as it comes, despite their confusion and fear, triumphing through their unique skills, their courage, and their friendship. This is what makes Drake's heroes different than most fantasy heroes who either luck into their victories or are utterly unflappable and do not know the meaning of "fear."

That said, I give this book four stars because it's not QUITE as good as Drake's Lord of the Isles books, which may be the best fantasy series ever written. This may be unfair, as this is only one book and the Lord of the Isles series is ten. Regardless, if you liked the Lord of the Isles books, you'll like this. If you haven't read the Lord of the Isles books, read them. You'll probably read this when you're done with them, anyway.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Starts slow but picks up halfway 15 Aug. 2012
By M. Barry - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Legions of Fire is David Drake's latest foray into the fantasy genre. Being the first book of a planned series, Legions of Fire starts off rather slow since it has to introduce the main characters and explain their backgrounds. About halfway through the story does pick up though so I would rank this as a worthwhile read.

The Pros:
1. A nice blending of Norse, Roman, and Babylonian mythology. This is the kind of thing you would expect from some trashy pulp-fiction novel or even fan-fiction stories but Drake makes it look natural without making it look like he's showing off. He puts his PHD to good use!

2. Magic from mythology. The magic in this novel is the magic our ancient ancestors thought was real. This is not Dungeons and Dragon magic where you cast a spell and get a +2 modifier to your armor. This is the magic we find in stories like Beowulf and the tales of Hercules.

The Cons:
1. Starts slow. Being the first book in the series the book has to take some time to explain the setting and the characters. About midway through the story it does pick up though.

Well worth buying and well worth reading. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the series!
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
historical aspect more enjoyable than the fantasy 15 Oct. 2011
By B. Capossere - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Mass Market Paperback
The Legions of Fire, by David Drake, is a mixed bag of a novel. In one sense, it's literally so, as Drake combines historical and fantasy genres along with Greek and Norse mythology--that's (mostly) the good mix. The not so great mix was in my response to the novel and its characters, which really was all over the map in engagement and enjoyment. It kept me going, though the end was a bit of a struggle, and I'm curious enough to go on to book two, but it isn't without reservations.

The book, as mentioned, is quasi-historical, set (more directly and fully so in the first half of the book) in the city of Carce, which one may as well spell as R-O-M-E as beyond the name, I'm not quite sure what the difference is. I don't consider myself a classical scholar, so I'm sure there are some dissimilarities, but all the major aspects that would be familiar to a general reader are there: references to Sulla and other famous or somewhat famous Romans, to tribunes and senators, to well-known streets and temples, enemies on the borders, a rivalry with Carthage, etc. The setting is concrete, fully wrought, and rich in detail and these early chapters with their Roman background were some of my favorites. His descriptions of class, dress, architecture, gender roles, and food--all of the details of daily life layer one upon the other so the reader truly inhabits the Roman world. It feels as if Drake really knows his stuff, but isn't strutting it; it serves as great background rather than calling attention to his scholarship or mastery of Roman trivia. The latter half of the book moves into more fantastical or simply unfamiliar realms--underworlds, northern lands, and the like--and here the setting feels a bit more like a Hollywood set, looking as it should on the outside, containing all the right images (dryads, nymphs, satyrs, magic swords) but all sort of conveniently placed for us to stroll by and note, but not to look behind. The doors all have the right kind of framing and metalwork, but they don't open.

The main premise of The Legions of Fire is that Carce, and the world as a whole, is about to be threatened by the rise of the fire god Surtr and his fire demons who will cleanse the world in flame. A vision of this is given to the four main characters very early in the novel and the rest of the book deals with their attempts to prevent the cataclysm as well as save themselves from the strange situations they find themselves in. Two are the children of a Senator: bookish horrible-poet Varus and his sister Alphena who is somewhat of a scandal for her temper and for her training as a man with a sword. Their stepmother Hedia is another main character. The group is rounded out by Varus' best friend Corylus, a military brat and son of a recently retired knight. They begin the novel together but soon are put onto different paths. Corylus ends in the north where he meets Odin, runs into dryads and nymphs, and converses with the "vengeance" or ghost of a dead man, among other adventures. The other three end up in even stranger realms and meet creatures who are equally fantastical or even more so. While I enjoyed the mix of mythologies, as mentioned, these realms felt less fully constructed. The adventures as well felt a bit perfunctory, partly due to their episodic nature. Only Corylus' felt like it had a real narrative, cohesive focus to it; the others sort of moved from place to place, encounter to encounter, and as a reader I never truly felt attached or engaged to what they were doing--their acts lacked a sense of urgency or suspense or drama despite the situations themselves having all three.

I varied in my response to the characters themselves. Corylus is certainly likable, but a bit dull to be honest--a competent military man of whom I never had any doubt in terms of him doing what needed to be done, which robbed his scenes of some suspense or nervousness. Varus is also likable, but his character is more passive than active and moves so often in a fog that the same fog sort of settled over me as a reader. Alphena, though much more active, was also a bit monotone. The standout character by far I thought was Hedia. At first presented, one thinks she'll fall into the stereotypical stepmother haughty bitch role--there are rumors she poisoned her first husband, servants are terrified of her, and so on. But she turns out to be much more complex and is certainly the most vibrant, the most engaging character of the entire novel; the book gets a real spring in its step when we return to her storyline and I certainly hope she plays as major a role in the sequel. All the characters are very well drawn as characters--we're given sharp details; real-life motivations for how they are and what they do; they move through their situations as real people and not as "heroes". But save for Hedia, none are really particularly compelling.

The same, unfortunately, is true of the ending. Considering the stakes (end of the world, death of humanity . . .) and the sheer dramatic potential of the on-stage performers (fire god, fire demons, nasty bald wizard, nymphs, magic sword, a magic flute . . . ), the ending falls curiously (and fully) flat. I have to admit that it was difficult not to simply skim through the final scenes. I wanted to know what happened, both to the world and these characters, but the prose and the scenes themselves did nothing to convince me that a skim or a summary by someone who'd read the book would have given me any more pleasure. I actually found the opening chapters, set in plain old Rom, um, Carce, with plain old folks to be much more compelling than the end-of-the-world magic-all-around dozen-demons-dancing magic-sword-a-swinging climax. I seriously hope Drake ups that aspect of the writing in the follow-up, which appears to involved some sort of sea monster (Release the Kraken?)

The Legions of Fire kept me reading, though barely by the end. The characters were all well drawn and likable, but save for one great exception a bit dull. The historical setting was particularly strong, the fantastical ones less so. The mix of mythologies was interesting but not executed strongly or vividly enough. And the ending was a letdown dramatically. Thus, a mixed bag. My recommendation now is to hold off to see how the series shakes out before picking up book one of what is projected as a four-book series.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
excellent historical fantasy 14 May 2010
By Harriet Klausner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In Carce, the center of civilization, bookworm Varus, son of Senator Gaius Saxa, is to do a reading. Attending it is his classmate and friend Corylus, son of commander Publius Cispius. At the recital of the epic poem, Varus abruptly makes strange predictions of the end of days beginning count down.

His young shrewish stepmother Hedia holds the avaricious wizard Nemastes culpable for Varus' outrageous embarrassing behavior. However, besides Varus, Corylus and his sister Alphena were engulfed by visions during the recital. None are aware that to the north on a remote volcanic isle, mages have begun a final ritual that will enable beasts from beyond this realm to enter and destroy mankind. Four residents of Carce with diverse skills are all that stand in the way to prevent total extinction.

The key to this sort of historical fantasy is how wonderfully David Drake captures the essence of the patrician nobility of Rome, which brings freshness to the quest. The quartet of heroes is fully developed with different skills, knowledge and attitudes. Corylus brings military strategic experience to the mix; Alphena possesses combat skills; Hedia is brilliant though volatile; and Varus has a connection to the beyond. Together they may save the realm; separately they have no chance as the Legion of Fire is an enjoyable first tale.

Harriet Klausner
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The Thirteenth Sorcerer 9 Oct. 2010
By Arthur W. Jordin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Legions of Fire (2010) is the first Fantasy novel in The Books of the Elements series. It is set within Carce, an empire very much like Rome in 30 AD. Magic is part of the belief system, but most citizens have little experience with thaumaturgy.

In this novel, Publius Corylus is a Knight of Carce and the son of a Publius Cispius, a former tribune in the Carce legions. Corylus is an army brat and only wishes to become an army officer. But first he needs training in Philosophy and Rhetoric.

Marcus Pulto is Corylus's servant. He had been a striker for the senior Publius before they retired and had practically raised Corylus. Pulto is married to Anna when he retired.

Anna is the wife of Pulto. She had been the nursemaid for Corylus and then housekeeper for the Publius family. She believes in many things that the public considers superstitions.

Gaius Alphenus Varius is the son of Gaius Saxa, a Senator. He and Corylus have the same Rhetoric instructor and have become friends. Varius even lets Corylus take instruction and practice in the family gymnasium.

Gaius Alphena is the daughter of Saxa. Her father is rather confused and lets her do many things. Alphena has almost forgotten that she is a girl.

Hedia is Saxa's second wife. She had been married to his cousin, who died mysteriously. Hedia truly cares for Saxa and his children, but Alphena does not like her stepmother.

Lenatus is a former freelance swordsmaster. Now he is the trainer for the Gaius household. His services are not used by Saxa or Varius, but he does teach Corylus and Alphena. He is a friend of Pulto.

Pandaerus of Athens is a philosopher and instructor in Rhetoric for a dozen young men. Only Corylus and Varius are really serious about learning public speaking.

Nemastes is a Hyperborean sorcerer. He has gained the attention of Saxa and greatly influences him. Nemastes can talk the Senator into just about anything.

In this story, Corylus and Pulto are on their way to a reading by Varius. Pulto is even wearing a toga, but he still has on his on his hobnailed boots. When they arrive, Corylus lets Pulto leave, so the servant goes to visit Lenatus.

The courtyard is crowded. Not many are there to hear the poetry of Varius, but Corylus and Pandareus are truly listening to every word. Of course, Corylus may tease Varius and Pandareus will critique him after the reading.

However, the reading doesn't go as planned. Corylus is trying to stay awake and suddenly experiences a vision Then Varius sees twelve sorcerers dancing near a cliff. The others also see strange things.

Alphena sees her brother go into a trance. Then the room shudders and the air becomes cold. She gets off her bench and slaps Varius.

The room returns to normal, but the crowd is milling in confusion. Then the audience rushes out of the courtyard. Saxa and Nemastes enter to observe about the disturbance, but soon leave.

Varius and Corylus are clinging to each other, looking stunned. Pandareus suggests that they leave the courtyard to get away from the spectators. Alphena decides to adjourn to the gymnasium.

Pulto lead Pandareus, Alphena, Varius and Corylus to the gym, with Lenatus at the rear. Pulto clears the way as they cross the courtyard and checks the gym for witnesses. Then he and Lenatus guard the door.

After Pandareus closes the door, he questions the two youths. Corylus explains his dream of a snowy forest. Alphena asks if he saw anything else. He says that he had seen hairy elephants. He also admits that he had seen Saxa and Nemastes just before awaking.

Then Pandareus questions Varius about the object in his hand. Varius doesn't know anything about the object, but adamantly claims it as his own. Upon further questioning, Varius admits seeing dancers.

Meanwhile, Hedia questions Saxa about the affair. Saxa says that she will just have to trust him. She replies that she does trust him, but suggests that the Emperor may not if he continues to associate with sorcerers.

This tale takes Varius, Corylus, Alphena and Hedia into dream worlds where weird events happen. They meet nymphs, fauns, ghosts, savages and other supernatural creatures. They face strange and terrifying trials.

Corylus and Varius survive the fiery disasters. The next installment -- Out of the Waters -- will address the element of water. Read and enjoy!

Highly recommended for Drake fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of the ancient world, magical incidents, and persevering young people.

-Arthur W. Jordin
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