I wasn't totally sure what to expect with Ravenheart, the third novel in David Gemmell's Rigante series. The first book, Sword in the Storm, was something of a disappointment, while the second, Midnight Falcon, is a superb novel that ranks alongside Gemmell classics like Legend and Waylander. I was therefore intrigued to see how Ravenheart turned out.
The action kicks off some 800 years after the events of Midnight Falcon. The Rigante are now a conquered people, living under the yoke of their cruel Varlish conquerors, led by the black-hearted Moidart. The story centres on Kaelin Ring, a young Rigante descended from the legendary King Connovar. Along with his mentor, the huge highlander Jaim Grymauch, Kaelin rises up against the Varlish and becomes a figurehead for the Rigante rebellion.
With Sword in the Storm, Gemmell had to introduce a new world and new characters, as well as laying the foundations for the events in Midnight Falcon. The same is largely true of Ravenheart; the world has changed much since the events of the previous novel, and Gemmell is forced to spend some time illustrating this (although all four Rigante books can be read on their own, they technically form two separate duologies that are only tenuously linked). Fortunately, he manages to do this without hindering the pacing of the novel (which I felt was one of the problems with Sword in the Storm).
The world itself is roughly equivalent to early eighteenth century Europe, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the English Civil War was a strong influence in the novel's development. This new level of technology means that we have guns and cannons, and this adds a fresh dynamic to the mix. Gemmell was always good at traditional battle scenes, and here he proves equally adept at describing black powder warfare. The strong mystical element of the previous novels remains intact, so the end result is an appealing combination of magic and technology which works extremely well.
Anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with Gemmell's work knows the sort of characters he always created - heroes with a touch of evil in them, villains with a touch of good, courageous men that commit cowardly acts and cowardly men that commit brave acts. Gemmell's most enduring quality is his characterisation, and this is again evident in Ravenheart. Kaelin Ring at first is perhaps a little similar to his ancestors Connovar and Bane, but he eventually develops his own personality and soul. Jaim Grymauch is a vintage Gemmell hero. Physically strong, brave and kind-hearted, he's a lovable rogue that always does what is right rather than what is easy, and the sacrifice he is forced to make lends tremendous emotional weight to the novel's climax.
Yet interestingly for a Gemmell novel, one of the most interesting characters is not one that wields a weapon. The Varlish schoolmaster, Alterith Shaddler, goes on to play a crucial role in the story. The subsequent character development and progression of Shaddler is extremely satisfying to watch unfold, not to mention inspirational (in fact, the sacrifice he makes - and the strength it takes him to do so - is comparable to that of Grymauch). As always, the villain of the piece - the Moidart - is not all he's cracked up to be, and the flaws of his character (of which there are many) are convincingly explained.
The plot of Midnight Falcon was more expansive and unpredictable than many of Gemmell's other work, and Ravenheart continues in this vein. The result is a number of sub-plots that weave skilfully around the main plot and all reach satisfying conclusions. Interestingly, rather than ending with a huge battle (the staple Gemmell ending) the novel's climax is much smaller scale, but packed with action and emotion. Interestingly, it involves a court case - and Gemmell shows he could handle this sort of scene just as well as battle scenes.
Thematically, the usual Gemmell themes abound: loyalty, courage, justice and so on. But this time around Gemmell explores something that he's not really touched on before - discrimination, and the negative affect on society this causes when widespread (and encouraged). Like most of Gemmell's major themes, this aspect is explored deftly without the novel ever becoming preachy, and it adds another layer of depth to the proceedings.
Verdict: Like most of his novels, Ravenheart packs a real emotional punch, is filled with well-drawn, believable characters, and has some excellent combat sequences. But more than this, the exploration of discrimination and the focus on less martial characters show how Gemmell really matured as a writer in the last few years of his life. Ravenheart doesn't scale the lofty heights of his best work, but it's a damned fine read all the same.