Tuesday 19 February 2008

Recommended reading: David Gemmell

I thought it would be fun to do a series of short articles about some of the authors I've enjoyed reading in the past, giving a brief introduction to their work and suggesting a starting point for those that are unfamiliar with their work.

The first author I've chosen to write about is one of my all-time favourites: legendary English fantasy author, David Gemmell. I don't use the term legendary lightly. Gemmell, who sadly died in 2006 from coronary artery disease, was a hugely influential figure (both in person and through his writing) and wrote 32 novels in his lifetime.
I don't want to go on at length about Gemmell himself; there are numerous obituaries that do a far finer job than I could. It will suffice to say that he was a thoroughly decent man, whose strong moral beliefs and ideas about the nature of humanity infused his work. The fact that thousands of fans signed the online condolence book set up after his death illustrates to some degree both his popularity and the influence he had on so many people, both readers and writers alike.

Gemmell's writing is what I want to focus on here. Although his Troy trilogy (of which the third book he was still writing shortly before his death) has had rave reviews, he will always be best known for his Drenai novels. Heralded as the 'finest living writer of heroic fantasy' during his lifetime, it's easy to see why. Largely eschewing world-building in favour of strong characterisation, Gemmell created a slew of memorable characters, such as Druss the Legend, the assassin Waylander, Skilgannon the Damned and Tarantio the swordsman with two souls.
What made Gemmell's characters stand out was their sheer humanity. All were flawed to some extent, whether it was their inability (or refusal) to accept the inevitable (such as Druss and his battle against old age and impossible odds) or the demons of their past (Waylander and Skilgannon). The struggles of these characters, and their ultimate redemption is what makes them so endearing.
As mentioned above, Gemmell's beliefs about humanity and his moral code permeated his works, reflected in the actions of his heroes. All of them - flawed as they are - are similar in that they always try to do the right thing, no matter how hard. Gemmell believed that redemption was always possible, that victory was always achievable despite the odds. Subsequently his characters always strove for the greater good, even it involved personal sacrifice. Gemmell's creations are not just characters, they are heroes, examples of the potential of human nature and illustrating what can be achieved when one tries their utmost. Yet he was adept at showing the darker side of humanity. I always remember the way Gemmell introduced the Jiamads (werewolf-like creatures) as mindless beasts, yet skilfully changed the way they were portrayed so that in the end it was mankind that was revealed as the true animal.

Gemmell was known not just for his masterly characterisation, but also for his battle scenes. Few authors can match the power and urgency of his combat sequences. His prose is sharp and concise, without flowery ornamentation. Gemmell once remarked that he was more interested in making things happen than describing the surroundings, and this is reflected in his work time and time again. His plotting is tight and without any baggage; to this day, his debut novel Legend is a great example of a perfectly plotted book, with scarcely a single unnecessary line.

No one writes quite like David Gemmell did. His sense of pace, battle scenes, emotionally-scarred characters, the various themes of love, redemption and heroism...all of these combine to make his books unique. Few authors can portray human nature as well as Gemmell did.
It is to my eternal disappointment that I never had the chance to meet David Gemmell, but there's no doubt his legacy lives on in his writing.

Recommended first purchase: Legend

Gemmell's debut novel, written while he was being tested for cancer. While some of the prose is clunky, the story is timeless: a huge, impenetrable fortress faced with the biggest army ever assembled. A classic siege story, with wonderful characters and deep themes. Druss the Legend's first appearance. Probably Gemmell's most famous work and arguably his best (it certainly gets my vote).

Recommended follow-up purchase: Waylander

Another of Gemmell's most popular novels, not to mention one of his best characters. Notable for causing Gemmell to lose his journalism job, after his managing director dismissed the novel as a 'poisonous attack on his integrity.' The novel follows Waylander on his attempt to find the Armour of Bronze, in a bid to save the kingdom whose king he had previously murdered. A fantastic example of Gemmell's powerful characterisation, with riveting action sequences. And Waylander's dual crossbow is possibly the coolest ranged weapon ever.

Recommended 'wildcard' purchase: Lord of the Silver Bow

If you don't fancy starting with Gemmell's Drenai novels, this is probably the best other place to start. I've not read the novel (I'm saving it), but Gemmell's Troy trilogy is regarded by many as his best work. Lord of the Silver Bow is the first in the trilogy, and by all accounts contains everything that makes Gemmell's work so appealing.

For further info, check out these links:

Wikipedia entry (includes extensive, interesting biographical info): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gemmell

Guide to Drenai saga: http://www.drenai.com/


Anonymous said...

It's always nice to see David get some love. I'll never forget the feeling I had after first reading Legend all those years go. I remember how pumped up I was from the action and characterization, but I'll never forget how it brought back my faith in humanity. He was truly (I apologize for the pun) a legend and he is missed. No one to this day makes me feel for their characters like David did.

James said...

Well said Joshua, I couldn't have put it better myself.

Legend really is an inspirational book.

Todd Newton said...

Awesome. I appreciate the recommendation and will definitely check out the books you noted. I've still got The Blood Knight (Keyes) to start and finish as well as a bunch of For Dummies books (we've given up all video-style entertainment for Lent and instead of reading nothing but Fantasy I've opted to do a bit of learning instead) plus some nonfiction recommendations on top of that!

But, since I think we have similar attitudes, I will trust wholeheartedly in your endorsement of this particular author. I've never actually heard of him so I wonder how circulated his work was in the States... but, then again, I am still fairly new to Fantasy because of my hiatus from reading.

James said...

I'm not surprised you've not heard of Gemmell, T.D, as I don't think his work ever really took off in the States; his fanbase was pretty Euro-centric, especially strong here in the UK given that he was a British author. I'm sure his books are available in the US though, if you look hard enough. As I said in the article, I'd definitely start with Legend. If you do check it out at some point, let me know how you get on with it.

Todd Newton said...

I just placed some holds on Legend, Waylander, and Lord of the Silver Bow at the Library so I may pick up one of them today. I'll definitely let you know how I feel about them.

Anonymous said...

I never felt terribly pulled in by the packaging on Gemmell's books and as a result, never got around to reading him. One of these days perhaps :)

Todd Newton said...

Picked up Waylander at the library - I'll read it as soon as I finish World History for Dummies.

Todd Newton said...

Waylander = Fantastic. Seriously. Gemmell's writing is very to the point (which is why the book is considerably shorter than a J.V. Jones novel) but it doesn't sacrifice anything in weight. Great story with good characters and a very solid ending. Thanks again for the recommendation; I have two more from the library and I will have to add the rest as I go along.