Fans of historical fantasies will want to add the page-turning Out of the Waters by David Drake, the second installment in The Books of the Elements series to their reading lists. In the fictional European city of Carce (introduced in the first book of the series, The Legions of Fire) during the later Roman Empire, Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa sanctions a public religious production of Hercules creating a city on the Lusitania Sea, a long, elaborate performance known as a “mime.” Saxa has spared no expense to have the mime put on but displays his great wealth - like parading a line of eight hundred mules in front of the audience to display “the treasures of Lusitania.” They have been “fitted with shelves which displayed silver and gold plate, bronze statuary, silks, and expensive pottery.”
The audience receives the play well, particularly when they’re treated to a spectacular, unplanned part of the mime where a many-tentacled monster, Typhon, rises “out of the waters,” to destroy the city. The city has been transformed to resemble the ancient descriptions of Atlantis as a nine-ringed city composed of circular islands. When Typhon rises up, he is not a product of especially inventive early masters of special effects, though, ancestors perhaps of Ray Harryhausen. What the audience sees is really happening right before their stunned and appreciative eyes: the monster Typhon destroying Atlantis, plowing through ring after ring, until the sea rushes in to spell its ultimate demise.
The question is, who is causing the sudden and dramatic shift in the play’s direction? Who is working the magic that has brought the legend to life? What, if anything, does it mean for the future of Carce? Saxa is clueless, thinking that the amazing scenes are the result of stage trickery, but Saxa’s son, Lord Varus, knows that what took place on the stage was the result of someone working powerful magic. Lord Varus and his friend, the soldier Corylus, ran into more than their share of magic in the first book of the series, The Legions of Fire, so he knows magic when he sees it.
Besides Lord Varus and Corylus’s interest in getting to the bottom of who is behind the unscheduled additions to the play, the pair’s teacher, Pandareus, seeks the same answer, as does Pandareus’ friend, the erudite Master Atilius Priscas. Saxa’s adulterous but headstrong Amazonian wife, Hedia, and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Alphena, both have an interest in learning the truth, as well.
Hedia and Alphena played major roles in the first book of the series, with Hedia rescuing her stepdaughter from the Underworld, and they have significant roles again in Out of the Waters. Hedia’s dream or vision about crystal men aboard flying ships dream comes true during the play. At one point, Typhon seems to change into the shape of a giant man with a club in his hand, who destroys the city before him as Typhon has been doing. The flying ships attack him, and he throws heavy slabs of land at them, breaking one in half. In addition to the strangeness of Hedia’s vision becoming reality, both have a crush on Corylus, and Alphena resents Hedia flirting with him.
David Drake has done much research on the Roman Empire and how it was to live there during that era, bringing realism to the novel to balance out its fantasy aspects. He writes in the Author’s Note at the start of the novel that despite the realistic aspects of it, “Things occur in this novel and in all The Books of Elements which did not happen and could not have happened in the historical Rome of A.D. 30. This is a fantasy novel, not a historical novel with fantasy elements.” Carce is a fictional city as well, but he goes on to say that he has “hewed closely to Roman culture and to events from Roman history in creating the background of the series.” Although Drake has written a fantasy novel--a spectacular one--it is grounded well enough in actual history and facts about the Roman Empire to make it come alive, almost taking you back in time to walk the streets of Carce yourself.
Out of the Waters is a breathtaking sequel to The Legions of Fire, a strong quest fantasy that will keep you reading until late into the night. Drake is perhaps best known for his excellent military science fiction novels, but he has also written extremely fine fantasy novels, many for Tor. This is a must-read if you’re already a David Drake fan, and one that will turn you into a fan if you’re not one already.