Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Book review: Sword in the Storm

Sword in the Storm

By David Gemmell

(Bantam Press, 1998)

I realised recently that I'd not read a David Gemmell novel for quite some time, so decided to finally crack open the first of his Rigante novels that I bought on the cheap off Amazon well over a year ago. Gemmell's novels are a bit like a favourite old armchair; comfortable and reliable. You know you're always going to get a decent story with a plot that rips along and the fully-fleshed characters that Gemmell is so well known for.

I was surprised to find that Sword in the Storm therefore proves something of an anomaly. It's unmistakably Gemmell, but at the same time it feels slightly different.

Perhaps this perceived difference is the result of the secondary world that Gemmell created for the Rigante series. The flavour of the novel is heavily influenced by the Celts, both in terms of the scenery (woods, hills and mountains) and also in terms of the people. The Rigante of the novel bear many resemblances to the Celts. There are other influences too; the people of Stone for example are clearly modelled on the Romans, while the Sea Wolves share similarities to the vikings.

Cynics might suggest there's little innovation here, that Gemmell has made little effort to build a more unique world. This argument rather misses the point that Gemmell's novels never have been about the world, but are always about the people that inhabited them. Gemmell wasn't interested in worldbuilding, he was interested in characters and the flaws that lurk in the human soul. The setting in his novels has always been a means to an end, and so it is here. There's nothing exciting about the world of the Rigante, but it serves its purpose well enough.

The novel focuses on the story of Connavar, following his story over the course of several years, charting his rise from mischievous youngster to fully-fledged hero of the Rigante. Gemmell displays his characterisation skills early on, introducing several prominent figures and building complex relationships between them. After this promising start I was surprised to find that as the novel progressed there were a number of problems with the characters.

The main flaw lies with Connavar, the protagonist. In many ways he's a vintage Gemmell hero: brave and bold, but also struggling with darker elements of his personality. There's no doubt he's a well-rounded character. In fact, he's arguably one of the best characters Gemmell ever created, as he manages to inspire such mixed emotions in the reader and is a clear demonstration that heroes aren't all golden-haired, pure and virtuous. The problem however lies in the fact that his rise from village boy to legend is in parts unconvincing. At the age of eighteen for example, he's already capable of taking on three grown men and killing them with ease. He demonstrates deadly ability with weapons, yet we never see him receiving any instruction or tutelage. His skill seems to come out of nowhere. We're told that he spends months with a foreign merchant, who allegedly teaches him many things, but this isn't enough to explain where his martial prowess came from. Furthermore, Connavar is skilled to such an extent that it means all the scraps he finds himself in have a pre-determined edge, as we know he's going to triumph without serious injury. This detracts from the tension generated by such confrontations.

The other problem with the characterisation is that none of the other characters are really that interesting. They're all fleshed out well, but only a few have any real appeal. Some could have maybe benefited from more 'screen time' while others had potential to become more absorbing but just don't deliver on their early promise.

The plot itself is also not without its problems. Strangely for a Gemmell novel, the story itself takes a while to really get going. This can be explained by the fact that Gemmell is introducing a new setting and new characters, but it still seemed to take a while for the momentum to build up. This momentum is then lost by a weak middle third, during which I actually felt my interest waning - a very rare reaction to a Gemmell novel, and one that I've felt only once before when reading his numerous books. The momentum and action picks up again in the final third and while the book becomes much more absorbing later on, it doesn't quite paper over the earlier cracks.

As always, Gemmell explores plenty of themes such as loss, loyalty and sacrifice. Few authors manage to evoke such themes as well as he did, and they give an extra layer to the characters and a more cutting edge to the events. The idea of sacrifice is represented particularly well.
Sword in the Storm is a difficult book to judge. There are many strong aspects, but also several weaker ones. I'd never before had reason to question Gemmell's characterisation but found myself doing so while reading this book. The plot, while picking up dramatically later on, is not one of his tightest. Nonetheless, Sword in the Storm is a solid, if unspectacular, read and there's enough here to please Gemmell fans. I'll definitely be checking out the rest of the Rigante series.

Verdict: ddd


ThRiNiDiR said...

Enjoyed reading the review. I've only scratched the legend that is Gemmell (read his first three books in Drenai series) so I'm not exactly an expert, but from what I've heard his latest Troy trilogy and the John Shannow novels are supposed to be top-notch.

James said...

Indeed, I've not read his Troy trilogy but many have said it is his finest work.

My favourites are still the classic Drenai novels - Legend and Waylander. And Winter Warriors is excellent as well, rather under-rated in my opinion.

banzai cat said...

My assessment with this book is that this is Gemmell's only story that actually looks into the development of a character from day 1. Usually Gemmell shows the characters as already developed, not as being developing. Think Legend, Morningstar, Waylander, etc. This also affected his plotting, I think, in that it had a tendency to be slow (whereas Gemmell dropped the reader straight in the action in Legend and the rest of his other books).

James said...

That's a good point and one that did not go unnoticed, even if I didn't raise it in the review.

banzai cat said...

Hehe no worries. It was only a realization I came to while reading your review. And yes, I always thought Winter Warriors as especially poignant. (But then again, Gemmell was quite good at exploring the idea of "what do legends do afterwards".)