For a book that I nearly abandoned halfway through (more on that in a bit), There Be Dragons turned out to be a solid, enjoyable read. Peter Hallett has taken the 'war is hell' story of American soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, deftly incorporated all of the elements that you'd expect, and then added a pair of new twists to make the story his own.
This is a story that, right off the bat, evokes memories of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Tour of Duty. Hallett nails the Vietnam setting, effectively capturing the familiar depiction of life and death within the jungle. He incorporates the conspiracy theories, the media presence, and the feeling of being abandoned by one's country, but goes a step further. Instead of merely settling for a war that few people understood, and ever fewer wanted to fight, he provides a rather incredible, but effective, justification for America's most unpopular war.
You see, in Hallett's version, there do indeed be dragons. They're a bit smaller than their epic fantasy counterparts, but just as mean, just as vicious, and just as dangerous with their talons and their fire. He smartly keeps them off the page for most of the novel, introducing the very concept of them as something crazy, something questionable, something to be dismissed. Even once he's exposed them to the reader, he keeps them largely in the background, keeping the focus on the soldiers and their struggle for survival.
Along with the dragons, he introduces an interesting twist in terms of political strategy, with cold war foes entering the fray not out of a misguided sense of justice, but in order to control the secrets of the dragons. This sets up the capture and torture of our hero, which keeps the story grounded in the human element. The strength of the entire story rests on the shoulders of Jacob, and he proves himself more than capable of carrying so much violence and drama on his back.
If I were to have one complaint (I promised I'd get back to it), it's that the spiritual element was a bit too heavy for my taste. The whole idea that are no atheists in foxholes is something I disagree with entirely, but it's a common enough theme that I can often overlook it. Paired with a rather prolonged soapbox speech about how dragons are proof of Noah's ark and creationism, however, it becomes an issue. While I think the existence of dragons could be used to raise some interesting questions, I think the story could have benefited from some balance.
The spiritual element aside, this was a strong, enjoyable read. I grew tired of Vietnam war stories a long time ago, but Hallett has done enough here to make it interesting again. There Be Dragons is a compelling tale, well-told, with a strong understanding of human relationships, and a great sense of how to balance the monstrous with the human. Worth a read.