Knights of Dark Renown
By David Gemmell
While perhaps being most famous for his Drenai series of novels, David Gemmell also wrote a number of standalone fantasy books - Morningstar, Echoes of the Great Song, Dark Moon and Knights of Dark Renown. The main difference between these standalone books and the Drenai saga (aside from the fact that they employ different settings) is the much more pronounced use of magic in these individual titles, as well as more significant use of genre elements such as the undead, and so on.
They are also, in my opinion, distinguished from the Drenai novels by the fact that they're not as good (by that I don't mean they're bad, because they're not - they just don't match the sustained excellence of the Drenai novels). I therefore picked up Knights of Dark Renown expecting the same sort of experience.
To my considerable delight, the novel proved me wrong - Knights of Dark Renown may not be up there with Gemmell's best work, but it certainly matches most of the Drenai novels in terms of quality.
As is always the case with Gemmell novels, the premise is pleasingly simple. The Knights of Gabala were the shining light of justice and order in the Nine Duchies, until they disappeared through a portal to another world on a mission to defeat the ultimate source of evil. They never returned. In their absence, a new, sinister order of knights have emerged and have gained total influence with the king. As a result, the world is sliding into chaos - people of nomad descent are being slaughtered in their thousands in a bid to 'cleanse' the lands of their 'impurity', while law and order are non-existent.
Mannanan is the Coward Knight. A Knight of Gabala, he held back when his brothers rode through the dark portal, consumed by his own fear. Now he lives in shame, forever tormented by his failure. Yet as madness consumes the kingdom, Mannanan must confront his fears and finally ride through the portal in a desperate attempt to find the lost Knights of Gabala, who are the doomed kingdom's only hope. Meanwhile, in the Forest of the Ocean, a reluctant outlaw - Llaw Gyffes - finds himself the focus of a rebellion that he has no wish to be part of. But as the stakes increase, Llaw realises he must help spark the fires of freedom, even though it will mean his own death...
Mannanan is a classic Gemmell protagonist - he's a broken man hounded by his past failures, yet he refuses to accept his fate and is determined to do whatever it takes to make things right, even though that means confronting his greatest fear. The supporting cast are equally strong, with satisfying development arcs (particularly with regards to Groundsel, Lhamfada and Nuada). As always, Gemmell handles the relationships and emotional reactions between the characters extremely well, revealing how their own hopes and desires affect their choices and decisions, leading to some powerful scenes.
Gemmell books are known for their exploration of themes, and Knights of Dark Renown is no different. The predominant theme is heroism, with Gemmell asking the question of what constitutes a hero. Are they defined by who they are, what they do, or both? Is it possible for a murderer and a rapist to become a hero, or are they forever tarnished by their past deeds? The theme of sacrifice is also prevalent, particularly in relation to the characters of Nuada and Groundsel, whose respective storylines make for some poignant moments.
Though Knights of Dark Renown is one of Gemmell's earlier novels, the prose shows a distinct improvement over preceding novels such as Legend and Waylander, particularly in terms of the dialogue, which is more natural. Pacing is excellent with not a dull moment or a wasted scene, the plot is very well constructed, and the action scenes are - as always - vivid and gripping. There's even a good twist that no doubt plenty of readers saw coming, but I didn't (and I'm glad I didn't, because it was one of those moments when you momentarily put the book down and think "Yep, you totally got me there.").
My only real complaint with the novel is that I felt the conclusion (the last fifty or so pages) was a little rushed, not justifying the careful, gradual build-up. This also meant that the fate of some characters didn't perhaps carry the weight they could have done. There are also two duels that prove totally pivotal to the plot, yet they're over very quickly - these probably should have been beefed up a bit to justify the importance placed on them (or because of the importance placed on them).
Verdict: Knights of Dark Renown is the best of Gemmell's standalone novels, a potent mix of magic, battles and individual journeys of discovery against a backdrop of madness and disorder. With Gemmell's masterly grasp of characterisation, pleasing exploration of themes and plenty of action, Knights of Dark Renown is a hugely enjoyable, meaningful read - and yet another reminder (as if we needed one) of the gap that Gemmell's death left in the genre.