Wednesday, November 07, 2018

David Drake's THE SPARK is an Entertaining Re-Imagining of Arthurian Tales

The Spark by David Drake


Though David Drake is probably best known for his Military Science fiction, with the exception of REDLINERS, I'm of the opinion that it is his Fantasy writing that truly highlights his literary talents. This is because David often writes against existing trends in the genre. While other writers of Epic Fantasy were mining the Nibelungenleid, Tolkien, and European history to form the foundations of their tales, David used Sumerian mythology as the foundation of his Lord of the Isle series.

With THE SPARK, David breaks even further from the current trends in Fantasy writing. The current market is filled with a wonderful collection of door stopper thick Epic Fantasies, picaresque tales, and urban fantasy. It's a golden age for each of these genre. The Game of Thrones series, The Licanius Trilogy, and the Kingkiller Chronicles are but three wonderful Epic Fantasies in the current market. The Greatcoats and Gentlemen Bastard books are exciting tales of swordsmen and rogues. The list of popular urban fantasy is too long to even consider, though The Dresden Files, Iron Druid Chronicles, and Monster Hunter Incorporated would all be among the most fun. None of this even considers the mountain of Steampunk books out there. These are well walked trails in the modern fantasy market and it takes a talented writer to find what is overlooked. David Drake is that writer and the overlooked source he found is one that is surprising.

It's surprising because one wouldn't think that a story based on the tales of King Arthur could be considered overlooked. The sheer volume of fiction inspired by Arthurian tales includes over 11,000 works ( But it is overlooked in the modern market. Not because bildungsroman about boys who would be king are rare. Those are still common. What is lacking, or rare, are tales based on the storytelling techniques of Arthurian Legends. The Romances, rather than the Cycle, are where the rich untapped vein of stories lays. This is where David Drake found his inspiration for THE SPARK.

THE SPARK was inspired by both the PROSE LANCELOT and THE IDYLLS OF THE KING, the first for the narratives and the hopeful tone from Tennyson. The resulting book is a delight, but one that might take some getting used to for modern readers. The Romance is an interesting genre. Yes, it is filled with "romance" in the modern understanding, but literary romances are tales of heroes. They are often disjointed tales of heroes where a Knight goes from one quest to another with no transition or overarching narrative. There is just the heroic theme and the tales. There is also very little world building as these tales expect you to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the time and place. This is the kind of tale David tells in THE SPARK.

THE SPARK focuses on several of the adventures of the heroic character Pal and his faithful dog Buck as he transitions from Aspirant to Knight Arrant. The world(s) in which Pal lives had some major cataclysm centuries ago that led to humankind becoming fractured and in a state of technological decline. It's similar to what happens to some places in Asimov's FOUNDATION series, or at least what was feared would happen. These fractured and scattered human communities are connected by The Road. What The Road is in actuality is never revealed. It could be an actual road between scattered cities or it could be walkable wormholes between scattered communities on distant planets. What it is though is the means by which one makes it from one to another of the communities located in what is called Here. As with The Road, we are never told exactly what Here, only that Here is what is not Not Here. We also know that The Road is surrounded by The Wastes, a place of danger and chaos, that may or may not be Not Here. Our protagonist doesn't know, so neither do we. One can travel through The Wastes either using an animal to see within them (not recommended and likely lethal) or using a Boat, a vehicle of some sort that can travel through The Wastes.

In my version of THE SPARK, and one of the wonderful things about THE SPARK is that different readers will experience different worlds, Here is comprised of communities on distant planets where the collective consciousness of mankind has enforced stability on the locale. The Wastes are unexplored, ill understood, areas where that collective consciousness has not taken root. My Not Here is comprised of areas where the collective consciousness of "beasts" (David's truly inhuman version of Faerie) has taken root. In my version, unoccupied places are as unknown and unstable as the empty space on a map. David leaves all of these details up to MY imagination to fill, and I deeply appreciate that.

As for Pal's tales, they are inspired by the tales of Percival, Galahad, Gawain, and Bors. He's a delightfully GOOD and forthright character. His forthrightness is a virtue, but it does lead to complications and challenges. He is a capable warrior who has talents most warriors lack, but he is not "the greatest" at any of the things he does. Like the knights who inspired his creation, he is heroic without being a Larry Stu. Okay, Galahad is a Larry Stu, but the others aren't and that's why their stories are so appealing.

What was most striking to me was how well David wrote a character who could be strongly morally forthright without being preachy or judgemental. He leads by moral example and exemplifies the ability to forgive and through that forgiveness potentially redeem others. Not everyone is redeemed by him, because not everyone wants to be redeemed, but he provides inspiration for those who want to become better people. To use D&D terms for a minute, if you wanted to read a perfect example of why I think Paladins should always be Lawful Good and how that isn't limiting, then you should read THE SPARK.

Heck, if you want to read a wonderful work of Science Fantasy that trusts its readers ability to fill in the gaps and be co creators with the author, then this is your book.

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