Monday, 4 May 2020

Ravenheart by David Gemmell

Good grief, you haven't reviewed this yet?

No and what are you doing back here-

I am here, fellow me, in order to rein you in a little. Because I know you, and I know you're going to need it, particularly since those nice W&W folk aren't used to you in full ramble. You need less self-indulging and more restraint-

Me arguing with myself isn't indulgent?

Hush your fuss. Anyway. Ravenheart. Rebellions. Hope.

*glares at alter-ego*

Ahem. Ravenheart is one of my favourite books ever, one I can review from heart. There were a few books I considered reviewing for the theme of rebellion, also among my favourites. Tigana. The Traitor. Night Watch. But while they might deal better with the logistics and intrigue, Ravenheart is near peerless for its sense of emotion. And today's prompt is "rebellions are built on hope", not "rebellions are built on large piles of cash and the workings of disturbed connivers", so Ravenheart it is.

At heart, Ravenheart is a simple story, that of a young man coming of age in a conquered and oppressed people (a loose expy of 18th century Scotland) who chafe at the yoke. The complexity comes from the numerous PoVs used, both Keltoi (Scots) and Varlish (English), young and old, rich and poor, good and bad. It is the range of viewpoint that gives the book its ability to talk of rebellion and hope - that and Gemmell's canny insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to violence and growing up marginalized.

Sounds like there's a hint of autobiography here.

Yes. For those unfamiliar with David Gemmell, he grew post-WW2 in working class London with an absent father, a fact he took more than a few beatings for. The central figure of his life was his stepfather, Bill Woodford, who taught him boxing to stand up for himself. The gruff honest veteran who guides the youngster through his fears is a common Gemmell figure throughout his book. When Woodford died during the writing of Ravenheart, that archetype was made far more central to the book, and maybe the boyhood experiences too.

Rambling. Back to the story.

Ravenheart is the soul-name of the young man here; Kaelin Ring. The prologue sees Ring's father die, the first chapter sees Ring being beaten by a bigoted Varlish school teacher. This book isn't grimdark, but it's not particularly given to pulling its punches. Ring walks away, bloodied but unbowed, but with a clear growing sense of anger. As Gemmell establishes the story, we see why. The Keltoi are oppressed and discriminated against with legal restrictions, semi-official state brutality, casual racism, and the rewriting of their history. Kaelin's aunt, Maev, and his mentor, Jaim, bear the injustices easier, but you can see how it chafes them. Jaim wonders if it wouldn't have been better for the Keltoi to die; fears for Kaelin's safety.  They don't hope for a rebellion or a free land.

It would be easy to present the Varlish as monsters. And some are, such as local lord The Moidart and Sergeant Bindoe. Some aren't. The Moidart's son, Gaise, and his tutor, Mulgrave, are openly ashamed of Varlish actions. An apothecary is completely apolitical and respectful to all. The most interesting characters though are where it's complicated. The schoolteacher clearly believes in Varlish superiority as a matter of logic and learning, yet dedicates his life to service ahead of wealth and behind his fear, is willing to listen to others' logic. Captain Galliot is friendly and affable to all, with no Varlish supremacy convictions yet willing to go along with it for the sake of society. And then there's Taybard, Kaelin's rival, impoverished and embittered by it. But he grows.

All of them grow. Kaelin grows angrier. The atmosphere grows more volatile. And soon we have a story, which I shall not spoil here. But what it is built on is this base. Humans capable of great kindness look like - act like - monsters. Constant belittlement builds great rage, rage that explodes, sometimes unpredictably and unfairly. Yet it is understandable. And human, just like the monstrosities. There are times when humanity's nature makes the book feel bleak. Yet there's always hope.

Enough thematic waffling. What sort of story is it?

It's a true Gemmell, which is to say the prose is straight-forwards, sometimes a little stark and laconic, with many quotable lines. Each character has their own voice, with the finest example being The Moidart's elegant, chilling malevolence. His style is a little old fashioned in how willing he is to precede action scenes with the story of how a character came to be there, but what this lacks in direct, exposition free storytelling, it gains in terms of establishing humanity. I'm certainly not against it.

While there's a few daring escapades, most of the action scenes are fights - fist fights, duels, full battles, bloody ambushes, street fights, all the fights. If there's one area where Gemmell will be an eternal fantasy great, it is his ability to write fights, so as long as the reader is down for it, is a strength. If they were hoping for lots of stealthy scenes, or detailed magic, or flirtation, or prolonged debates, then not so much with one fantastic exception at the end. There's enough variety to keep it from being stale but Gemmell sticks to his strengths - characterisation, dialogues, and fighting.

And what about hope?

Here is a truth that I think is absent from most stories of rebellion - indeed, most stories of warfare in the genre. Conflicts are not ended by violently compelling one's enemy to cease resisting. Oh, wars are won, but if that's the only way they're won, then the peace treaty is simply the father of the next war. Conflict ends when both sides find a version of reality they can agree with. Yes, Kaelin helps win a war. But the true victory is won by Maev and Jaim, and the schoolteacher, inspiring both Keltoi and Varlish to see a reality they can share.

Rebellions are started and sustained by the hope of victory, the hope of a better life. Gemmell covers both of these well enough. But military victory is not enough for Gemmell. He wants conciliation. And we get it, although not without cost. There's no other book that makes my eyes well up at the end so reliably. 

Ravenheart is a tale of redemption and healing. It's about finding the ability to be a better person. It's about being able to overcome pain to live the life you want. It's about gaining the courage needed to takes the risks, make the sacrifices, that are sometimes necessary for doing the actions that make us proud. There may be better books about rebellion, but none with more heart, none more uplifting.

And none more full of hope.

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