No doubt at all that Gordon R. Dickson is celebrated most for his ambitious sci-fi series featuring the Dorsai. But once in a while the man would let his hair down, kick up his feet, and write lighthearted stories about Jim Eckert, a modern day American catapulted to a magical 14th Century. There, Jim finds himself a knight and a Baron (mostly because he lied and said he was) and with the ability to shapeshift into a dragon. And, under the peevish tutelage of Carolinus, a AAA+ rated mage, Jim sallies forth on adventures fraught with enchantment and derring-do. THE DRAGON AT WAR is the fourth book in the Dragon Knight series, and it stays pretty much true to formula: Sir James Eckert righting wrongs, deflecting villainous plots (mostly from the sneaky French), using his contemporary knowledge to come up with innovative uses for his magic, and trying not to foul up too much in the ways of knighthood.
THE DRAGON AT WAR picks up almost right where The Dragon on the Border leaves off, and has that extra kick of being more action-packed than THE DRAGON ON THE BORDER. Jim Eckert has just arrived home from his adventures in Northumbria, having helped to exterminate the Hollow Men, having vanquished a loathly Worm, and thus averted an invasion by Scotland and France and temporarily wrecked the Dark Powers' insidious plotting to offset the balance between the natural forces of History and Chance. But Jim - or as he's known in these Middle Ages: Sir James, Baron of Malencontri et Riveroak - had hardly taken a breath when he's already embroiled in another quest, this time brought about by renowned knight Sir John Chandos and an ailing Carolinus.
France just won't give up in its attempt to conquer England. This time the plot involves an Italian sorcerer and thousands of fearsome sea serpents mobilizing on England's shores. Recently promoted to Class "C" status as a magician, Jim is tasked with unearthing the mastermind behind France's latest scheme. This mission will lead him to a perilous underwater adventure and a consultation with a Kraken, a stealthy excursion into the innermost chambers of the enemy, and a no-holds-barred tussle with pirates on the high seas.
It all culminates with Jim and his friends defending Castle Malencontri and, by extension, England from the sea serpents' onslaught. It's interesting to note that while dragons are some of the most feared creatures on land, they don't measure up to sea serpents in terms of sheer mass and intimidation. That dragons and sea serpents are mortal enemies plays into Jim's off-the-cuff strategies to ward off France and the sea serpents. Still, the main event features Jim all by his lonesome, in his dragon form, engaged in single combat with the head sea serpent.
THE DRAGON AT WAR is a rollicking medieval adventure with heaps of fantasy elements piled on. As usual, part of the fun lies in that Jim Eckert - a contemporary dude, a graduate student, and an assistant college instructor - continues to adapt to the 14th Century, its casual brutality and rigid social customs. As ever, Jim is more the thinking man and doesn't do so well with the martial aspects of knighthood. This, to me, makes him a more intriguing protagonist.
Jim's cast of regulars are back. His wife Angie is back and you can't blame her for getting upset that Jim is gone so much, out gallivanting and adventuring while she's forced to mind the castle and run roughshod over the castle servants. Jim's best pals - the very capable but near destitute Sir Brian Neville-Smythe and the peerless Welsh bowman Dafydd Ap Hywe - pretty much accompany him in all his quests, and again they prove invaluable. Brian once again proves his fighting stones by taking on the impressive pirate chief Bloody Boots. There's a new twist with Secoh, the diminutive but feisty dragon, who this time isn't always a dragon. Sir Giles, another of Jim's friends, shows up but then disappears halfway thru the book, only to casually resurface, as if he'd been there all along (and, to be honest, this threw me off). The mage Carolinus, by the way, is even more unreasonably cranky than the norm. Maybe it's because he's forced into a magical duel with an Oriental magician? The implacable English Wolf Aargh - one of my favorite characters in the series - is also somewhere here and still scoffing at our silly human ways.
Dickson also introduces a neat new semi-recurring character in the form of Rrrnlf, the gigantic, inversely proportioned sea devil who seeks his stolen Lady. Rrrnlf would play a crucial role in the story.
The previous novel in the series, THE DRAGON ON THE BORDER, came skimpy with the action and had a more measured pace, even though it was still a good read. THE DRAGON AT WAR makes for a nice change of pace. It features plenty of nicely-detailed battle sequences, magical encounters, and harrowing situations, all this underscored by Dickson's knack for droll narrative and a touch which is lighthearted but thankfully never too silly. I think it's one of the best books in the Dragon Knight series.