Our book today is David Drake’s brutal, mesmerizing 1979 novel The Dragon Lord, the cover of which (featuring Howard Chaykin artwork, no less) proclaims “The only Arthur who could have been” – a sentiment that’s guaranteed to get people reading (it’s what originally worked on me). The book is the best thing Drake’s ever written, which means it has some formidable competition. And although that cover blurb isn’t right, couldn’t ever be right (if you researched the primary sources for Arthurian Britain all day tomorrow, it’s safe to assume you’d come up with an entirely different King Arthur who could have been – I know I would), this is still a fascinating, fantastic take on the whole body of Arthurian mythos. All the usual characters are here – Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred  – but they’ve been broken down into their raw historical components and rebuilt along grittier and more realistic lines. Like so many writers giving vent to a lifelong interest in Arthurian lore, Drake rises to the occasion in some odd and surprising ways.

But first, he gives us a typically masterful opening. Pardon the indulgence, but this stuff just begs to be read at length:

“I want a dragon,” said the king. His voice was normal, almost too soft to be heard by the man across the table. “I want a thing that will fall out of the night onto a Saxon village, rip the houses apart … leave everything that was alive torn for the neighbors to find in a day or a week.” The king’s voice began to rise. Centuries under Roman rule had smoothed the accents of most British tribes, but the burr was still to be heard among the Votadini. “I want a thing that can breathe on a field at harvest time, can turn its grain and beasts and the men among them to ash!

“Can you do that for me, wizard?”

The other man waited with half a smile for the echoes to die. He was small and should have shaved off his beard. It was dirty, sparse, and ridiculous. He could have been merely a frail old man, except for his eyes that bit what they stared at. “You have your army,” he replied, using the willow switch he carried to dabble in the ale spilled on the intarsia tabletop. “Your Companions kill and burn well enough.”

“Oh, I can beat the Saxons,” said the king offhandedly, “but that won’t make my name live a thousand years.” He was lying Roman fashion on the bench, his long cloak pinned at the shoulder and draped so that it completely covered his feet. He always hid his feet if possible, though all men knew that the right one was twisted inward from birth. The Saxons had named him Unfoot in derision when they first saw him leading a troop of cavalry against them. The name had stuck, but now it had the ring of Hel or Loki in Saxon ears. “I can beat them a dozen times … but I’d have to, wizard, because they won’t surrender to me and there’s too many of them to kill them all. I can bring fifteen hundred men to the field at a time. If the Saxons stood in rows for a week, my Companions’ arms would be numb with throat-cutting. And there would still be Saxons in Britain.”

The wizard looked down at the parquet table and muttered something under his breath. The spilled beer shimmered. For an instant the liquid showed two armies facing each other. The ripples were sword edges and silvered helms, teeth in shouting faces and the jewel-bright highlights of spurting blood.

The king pretended to see nothing. “I’ll give them a symbol, since they won’t surrender to a handful of horsemen. But I want it to be a symbol that kills and burns for a thousand years, kills unless I tell it to stop – or nothing remains. I want a dragon.”

The sheer number of excellent dramatic decisions being made in that excerpt is enough to make most writers green with envy – there’s scarcely a single word out of place. The whole novel is like that, although readers should be warned: the book is mostly composed of the bickering and adventures of the band of warriors who strike out to find the ingredients Merlin needs. Arthur himself – who’s portrayed by Drake as a baby-faced egomaniacal dictator of the froth-spitting variety – and most of the best-known characters from Mallory only appear in the novel’s bracketed framing sequences. They’re gripping when they do appear, but the bulk of the book’s matter is the derring-do and hairsbreadth escapes of a group of secondary characters. But since Drake crafts them with energy and care, all but the most fastidious readers won’t care that the big-ticket Round Table names aren’t in more of the book.

In the past, I’ve called for Drake to write less and craft more, and this book is the perfect place I’d have him start. Not to re-write it – as a sword-and-sorcery adventure in the classic Robert E. Howard mode, it could scarcely be bettered – but to write its companion volume, not about that band of hard-fighting men and women having adventures beyond the frontier, but entirely about this savage Arthur and his double-dealing Merlin, how they came to power, how they hold onto it … the whole of Mallory, only muddied. The glimpses of it given in The Dragon Lord are incredibly tantalizing, for all that the book is a corker on its own.