(Bantam Press, 2002)
An interesting quality of David Gemmell's work is the addictive quality it has. As I've probably mentioned at some point, I once read all 11 of his Drenai novels in a row, and after finishing I'd quite happily have started all over again. There's just something about his novels that inspire genuine involvement on behalf of the reader, and it's easy to become addicted to his unique brand of storytelling. So after finishing Ravenheart, I figured I'd just jump straight into the final novel in the Rigante quartet - Stormrider.
The novel picks up the story some four years after the events of Ravenheart. The prospect of civil war between the King's forces and the Covenanters (only briefly alluded to towards the end of the previous novel) has now exploded into a grim, brutal reality. As it becomes ever more apparent that the ruthless Winter Kay and his zealous Knights of the Sacrifice are bending the course of the war to their own sinister ends, the Rigante and the Moidart - two sworn enemies - find themselves allied to a common cause.
At the centre of this bloodbath are Gaise Macon, the Moidart's son, and Kaelin Ring, now a respected member of the Rigante. Both are heroes in their own right and share a common ancestor, yet they are enemies and struggle to fight alongside each other. And as the war reaches its height, one of them is forced to make a terrible sacrifice to ensure the birth of a new world...
As with all of Gemmell's work, Stormrider is driven by its characters. Some old faces re-appear, alongside one or two new ones. Gemmell was always fascinated by the idea of redemption and the darkness that lurks in men's souls, and this is reflected in the character of Gaise Macon. The son of the Moidart struggles against his inner demons, and as the war turns against him, it's fascinating to wonder which Gaise Macon will triumph - the noble, dashing young cavalry officer, or the cold, ruthless killer of men. As always, you know pretty well how things will pan out, but this doesn't detract from the emotional impact of the ending (and what a good ending it is).
The Moidart really comes to the fore in Stormrider, and subsequently goes down as one of Gemmell's best characters. Gemmell shows wonderful skill at taking a man you think you know everything about, and then reinventing him. The process of the change to the Moidart's character is subtle and extremely well handled. Gemmell imbues this man with such sorrow and pain, that despite his obvious failings he's still a figure that inspires sympathy. His transformation, in the end, is very satisfying indeed.
Characters aside, Stormrider has the usual enjoyable mix of battles and adventure. The emergence of a powerful magical relic adds a further dimension and enables Gemmell to make use of a number of supernatural devices that were a staple of the Drenai novels. Like all Gemmell novels, various themes are explored deftly (this time around, we have redemption, the futility of war, and the question of whether evil is ever justified) without hindering the novel's plotting or pacing.
Quibbles are few and far between. You could argue that with the exception of Maeve Ring, the novel lacks a strong female character. Some might also find that the novel wears its influences a little too brazenly (Stormrider is very clearly based on the English Civil War, much as the earlier Rigante novels are undeniably based on the conquests of Ancient Rome) but this wasn't a problem for me. In fact, in Midnight Falcon it is revealed that the war being fought is in fact being mirrored on other worlds by similar factions, one of which is directly named as Rome. You could therefore argue that any clear connection to history in the Rigante novels was deliberate on Gemmell's part, as he seems to have viewed his worlds as being part of a larger multiverse that included Earth.
Probably the weakest aspect of the novel is the fact that Gemmell somewhat reverts to type and creates a climax based around his favoured defenders-facing-impossible-odds scenario. For me this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the novel at all, but admittedly the whole situation did seem rather familiar (as I've probably mentioned before, this plot device was used by Gemmell numerous times throughout his writing career).
Verdict: Not up there with his finest novels (in fact, out of the four Rigante novels I'd place it third in terms of quality, behind Midnight Falcon and Ravenheart) but still a solid novel, that encompasses the best elements of Gemmell's work. While at times certain elements seem over-familiar, Stormrider is an entertaining and meaningful read, with strong characters and an absorbing mix of magic, battles and political intrigue.