The essence of a good book, a good story, is the right mix of the familiar and the surprising. Robert Heinlein was a master of this: Boy Scouts on Ganymede, the Chamber of Commerce on the Moon, that sort of thing.
Robert Kroese also seems to be a master of it:
In the 23rd century, humanity has been hunted to the verge of extinction by an alien race. When an exploratory ship accidentally travels back in time to Viking-age Scandinavia, the human race is given a second chance.
We have interstellar travel (through wormholes), war with an alien race, time travel and…Vikings.
While the first is familiar from various books and films going back 80 years or more, and the next two going back all the way to H. G. Wells, Kroese manages to bring a fresh perspective and make his universe both logical and plausible. It turns out that while both humans and their rival race, the Cho-ta’an, can use the wormholes for interstellar travel, nobody understands exactly how they work. Like all good science fiction, after a certain point in the book the reader doesn’t think about these things any more, just enjoys the events and story, because the universe of the book is plausible and accepted in his or her mind.
The Vikings are…real. The author has obviously done a lot of work and study to get the details of his Vikings right (they’re Norwegian, by the way, and really don’t like the Danes). Viking weapons, tactics, ships, social organization and customs all seem solid, and fit together to make a holistic picture of the society the 23rd century spacers find themselves dropped into.
So the plot and setting are well done, but wait, there’s more! Something I noticed when I read Kroese’s Schrödinger’s Gat a couple of years ago was his mastery of character, the human details and short, vivid bits of dialogue that make his characters memorable and real. This is on display again in The Dream of the Iron Dragon and is a big part of why I like this book so much–the people in it. That includes the ship’s crew, the Vikings and also the Cho-ta’an, the “aliens” who appear in person extensively and who Kroese makes into believable “people,” too.
The Dream of the Iron Dragon reminds me of Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, which those with some knowledge of classic science fiction will recognize as high praise. But Kroese’s work is not derivative in any way, instead it’s original, well-written and it satisfies.