David Gemmell's Drenai novels are notable for their low-fantasy setting; while supernatural elements are present in them, they mostly tend to be fairly minor and rarely have a major influence on the stories. These novels are primarily about human beings, and their flaws and foibles. They are character-driven; this has always been their strength.
Winter Warriors is the black sheep of the Drenai family, because it boasts far more prevalent supernatural elements than the other novels in the series.
The reason for this, according to rumour (I'm unsure as to whether it was ever confirmed), is that the book was not originally written as a Drenai novel; instead, it was intended as an individual title like Dark Moon, Echoes of the Great Song, Morning Star and Knights of Dark Renown. Like Winter Warriors, all of these novels feature much stronger supernatural elements than the Drenai books. However, Gemmell's publisher allegedly persuaded him to change the novel's setting on the basis that the book would achieve greater sales if it could be marketed as a Drenai novel.
This is certainly a good explanation as to why Winter Warriors features more fantastical elements than the rest of the novels in the Drenai saga: demons and vampires, enchanted swords and prophecies abound.
Yet like most of Gemmell's novels, the premise is simple: upon the death of three kings, a race of demons will return to take back the world that they view as theirs by right, and to take their vengeance on mankind. Two of the kings are dead, the third - an unborn child - is hunted by the terrifying Krayakin, Lords of the Undead.
Driven from the luxurious surroundings she is used to, the pregnant queen finds herself forced to flee for her life through dark forests and over snow-capped mountains, as the demonic forces snap at her heels.
Yet she is not alone. Protecting her are three warriors, who have been dismissed from the Drenai army because of their age: Nogusta the Swordsman, Bison the fighter, and Kebra the Bowman. Their loyalty is unquestionable, their experience invaluable, their talents almost without match. Yet they are old men; their best years are behind them.
As their enemies close around them, one question remains - can these three aged warriors prevent the world from sliding into darkness?
Despite these high-fantasy elements (which curiously are at odds with Gemmell's brand of low-fantasy), Winter Warriors is still very much a book where the characters take centre stage. The plot may be a little more driven by the unfolding events than many of his other books, yet his strong grasp of characterisation remains intact.
The novel's strongest point are the three principal characters, and the dynamics of their relationships with each other; they are quintessential Gemmell heroes. All of them have flaws and personal demons that they must do battle with. Nogusta is forced to confront the horror of his past at every turn, while Bison fights a different enemy - the knowledge that age has caught up with him, and that his soldiering days are almost over. Kebra, meanwhile, struggles with his fading eyesight and the lack of discipline that characterises his newfound existence. Their personal struggles are just as enthralling as their battles against the sinister, black-armoured Krayakin, and their personalities are judged perfectly: Nogusta's nobility and Kebra's brevity combine seamlessly with Bison's affable crudeness, lending genuine depth to their friendship as well as allowing for several amusing exchanges and moments throughout the novel.
The other characters are also well drawn, such as the young Drenai officer Diagoras, who battles self-doubt, and the arrogant Ventrian swordsman Antikas Karios, another man who must confront the darkness that lurks in his own soul. The development arc and changing personality of the queen, Axiana, is handled well, as is that of the priestess Ulmenetha. Interestingly, Gemmell also provides POVs from the demonic side of the story, and these are no less interesting than their human counterparts; the Krayakin are suitably threatening antagonists. Gemmell uses these different perspectives to explore several ideas about love and hate, revenge and redemption - themes which, as with all his books, permeate the story.
Speaking of the story, it's gripping and rips along at a very satisfying pace. The tension is cranked up wonderfully, there are a number of intriguing twists and revelations, and just when you think you're going to get the classic Gemmell device of a battle where defenders face overwhelming odds, you end up with something rather different. As the action hots up, the line between hero and villain becomes ever more blurred.
This is the fourth time I've read Winter Warriors, yet its potency has not lessened. I'm still transfixed by the same duels, I still laugh at the same jokes, I still engage completely with these characters and their hopes and fears. Put simply, it really is utterly riveting stuff.
I think it's the romantic undertone of the novel that speaks to me the most - the idea of three old men risking everything to save a kingdom that has cast them aside, speaks to me very deeply.
Gemmell's best novels are hugely inspiring; the heroism in them never fails to lift my spirits. Winter Warriors is no exception.