Wednesday 18 November 2009

Book review: Kell's Legend

Kell's Legend

By Andy Remic

(Angry Robot, 2009)

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while now probably know that I'm a huge fan of David Gemmell's novels. A hugely gifted storyteller, the great man's work was practically a sub-genre in its own right - no one could weave a tale about a flawed hero battling unspeakable odds (not to mention the darkness in their own soul) better than he could. Gemmell's death in 2006 left a huge vacuum in the British fantasy scene. Over the following years, I watched with interest to see whether a writer would come forward to pick up Gemmell's battleaxe and continue his fine tradition of thematic, emotionally-intensive heroic fantasy.

So when I read that Andy Remic, with his maiden fantasy novel Kell's Legend, was coming to "claim the post-Gemmell world" I sat up and took notice. The words were unmistakably bold and brazen, but the meaning was perfectly clear - someone had finally stepped forward to take up Gemmell's tradition and give it a new lease of life. A foolhardy task perhaps, but then Andy Remic clearly isn't a man to shirk such a challenge.

The classic Gemmell blueprint (which he used to great effect numerous times) was a simple plot, minimal world-building trimmings, and a huge focus on characterisation and development. Remic follows this practically to the letter.

The premise for Kell's Legend is uncomplicated: grizzled old axeman Kell is forced out of retirement when the city of Jalder is occupied by the Army of Iron, led by the merciless Vachine and relying largely on the magic of the terrifying Harvesters to defeat their enemies. Rescuing his granddaughter Nienna and her friend Kat from the invaders' clutches, they escape the city with the help of Saark, a perfumed dandy. Thus begins a desperate race to warn the King of Falanor about the invaders, with the hideous agents of the Vachine hot on their heels. Meanwhile, Anukis - a female Vachine, and an outcast among her kin - begins a painful journey of self-discovery...

Such a simple premise can be effective, but it relies almost entirely on the characters to drive the plot along- meaning that if Remic failed to nail the characterisation, the book would flounder. Fortunately, he delivers on this vital aspect. Some criticism has already been levelled at Kell and Saark, with some readers suggesting they are little more than a carbon-copy of Gemmell's  Druss the Legend and his sidekick, Sieben the Saga Master. Admittedly, the similarities are clear to see, and are not helped by the fact that the pair use some of the same words and phrases - Kell calling Saark laddie, Saark calling Kell old horse (though this is clearly a deliberate nod to Gemmell fans, and I quite liked it because of that). For the first quarter of the book I remained unconvinced, I felt the two characters were struggling to develop their own unique personalities and that perhaps Remic was wearing his Gemmell influences a little too obviously.

I was glad to see, therefore, that as the story progressed, Kell and Saark became their own men. Yes, Kell is clearly cut from the same cloth as Druss, but he's a darker version filled with self-loathing. The same is true of Saark - like Sieben he's a dandy and a womaniser, but he's a man at odds with himself, a man who possesses a self-destructive streak that pleasingly surfaces now and again. While the comparisons and similarities with Gemmell's famous pair will probably always persist, Kell and Saark are distinct enough to stand on their own feet, and Remic handles their relationship and interplay very well.

The rest of the cast are not just there to make up the numbers - Anukis makes for a decent female protagonist, her own story providing an interesting counterpoint to the main narrative drive forged by Kell and Saark. Graal is an intriguing villain, while Vashell is curiously unpredictable - one of those characters you think you're meant to hate, but just enough hints are dropped to make you think that perhaps you're wrong... Nienna and Kat are serviceable characters, but lack the depth of Kell and Saark  (there's no doubt Remic is more at home writing about ass-kicking axemen than teenage girls!).

While Remic does a decent job with the characterisation, he really delivers when it comes to pace and action. Kell's Legend is a blistering read; the pace is frenetic and the action scenes come thick and fast. Most chapters end on a cliffhanger - often in the middle of a combat scene - and this is a device Remic uses to very good effect. He's clearly honed his craft of creating pulsating action scenes during the writing of his military SF novels, for the fight sequences are often electrifying.

Don't make the mistake that this novel is just a big, dumb load of carnage - Remic throws some surprisingly fresh ideas into the mix. The Vachine are a great creation, being a technologically advanced race whose members are half flesh, half clockwork, while the cankers - the result of failed clockwork experiments - are another excellent touch. The whole clockwork element is not just there for show - it provides the motivation for the Vachine's invasion, and is also behind one the best (and most disturbing) scenes in the book. The Vachine society aside, the land of Falanor is fairly standard. That said, it's a pleasingly grim place of dark forests, bleak moors and decrepit cities, with place names that have a pleasing Gemmellian ring about them.

There are flaws of course, but they are relatively minor. Remic's prose is mostly sharp and solid but occasionally a sentence will run away with itself and ruins the writing's flow. The female characters lack the depth of their male counterparts. Some events seemed a little contrived, and/or unlikely. Most glaringly of all, a major event late on in the book takes place almost entirely off-screen, which makes it seem cheap and makes you wonder whether this was because Remic couldn't think of a way to portray it to the reader without it seeming rather ridiculous.

Verdict: Andy Remic may have seemed like an unlikely writer to snatch up Gemmell's battleaxe and continue to carve the fine tradition that the great man started, but he does a surprisingly good job of it. Kell's Legend is a rip-roaring beast of a novel, a whirlwind of frantic battles and fraught relationships against a bleak background of invasion and enslavement. In other words, it takes all the vital ingredients for a good heroic fantasy novel and turns out something very pleasing indeed. Remic is clearly a big Gemmell fan, and this really shines through. Kell's Legend won't be to everyone's tastes, and some may take exception to the similarities with Gemmell's work, but if you can keep an open mind then you may get a real kick out of one of the most surprising novels of the year.

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