Monday, 18 May 2020

Why David Gemmell Is The Man

Day 18 of Wyrd & Wonder. Author appreciation.

There's a bunch of people I could do. Pratchett is my favourite author ever, but in fairness, it's not like there's much to be said there that hasn't been said. Everybody knows about Pratchett. They mightn't have read him, but he remains a colossus of the genre. Maybe I will do a Pratchett appreciation post one day but it's almost like doing a Tolkien appreciation post.

There's many other authors. I remain convinced that Katherine Kerr should be a lot bigger than she is but I may have talked about her a hell of a lot recently. Imyril's shout out for Jacqueline Carey is a good one. There's authors like RJ Barker, Aliette de Bodard, and Max Gladstone that I've developed big appreciations for. There's childhood favourites like Brian Jacques and Rosemary Sutcliff that I still think are great. I wanted to do just one though and I want to do someone whose fiction has meant a big deal to me for a looooong time. And if I'm not doing Pratchett, then it is David Gemmell. Sure, he's a big name, but he's not so big I don't see a need to big him up. The nature of time is that most great authors get forgotten; I don't think that should happen with Gemmell.

I think the first Gemmell I read was Legend but it is so long ago I'm really not sure. He was one of the authors I discovered when finding the fantasy genre beyond Tolkien, back when ransacking various library shelves and browsing various bookshops that no longer exist like the Bromley Glades Ottakars and the second hand bookshop in Newport IoW. One of the big things about growing up is how your tastes change and I have to say, I mostly enjoy the same books and authors as I did when I was young, but by and large I don't enjoy them in the same way.

Gemmell is one of the few where I enjoy the books more.

For those who don't know, David Gemmell wrote fiction that was bloody and brutal, yet filled with big moments of compassion and friendship. Violence and redemption were his big themes, action and adventure his playground. It's not everyone's thing but among those who did it, he was the best. Some of his stories had huge fantastical conceits, some barely included fantasy at all, but they all worked because Gemmell was always about humanity, and the horrifying and amazing things we do to each other. I think it's that tone, that acknowledgement that the world was frequently terrible and determination that people shouldn't just take that, that makes his work just grow for me.

His career was an interesting one. His first novel, Legend, was written while he had a terminal cancer diagnosis (obviously not entirely correctly). He channeled that sense of mutating hope and despair into the book, an Alamo-esque tale of a frightened young man and an ageing saga hero fighting against a seemingly invincible foe. I love that book, the way we get the heartbreak of people dying again and again, the depth invested into minor characters. The King Beyond The Gate had a similar last stand motif, but here the main character was a man hiding the emptiness caused by rejection from both his parents' heritage and losing the only family he'd had behind a sense of preternatural calm.

Waylander lost him his job due to using thinly veiled versions of the staff at the paper at which he then worked in the secondary plot; his editor called it a 'poisonous attack on his integrity'. Perhaps more interesting than that was Waylander, the first of his heroes truly haunted by their actions, and his struggle against his nature and past. Waylander was a man who had to change to be happy, to put aside his self-destructive behaviours and delibrate self-punishment.

Like many authors, when Gemmell got hold of an idea, it often took him a few books to get it out of his system. The haunted hero was a major part of Knights of Dark Renown and Quest for Lost Heroes, both of which also did a fine job of breathing fresh life into the well-worn stories of plucky forest dwellers rebelling against the evil crown and young boy seeks to rescue his love.

Around 96/97 he seemingly became obsessed about the idea of common enemies uniting against an implacable demonic army let loose out of nowhere. Winter Warriors (one of my favourites) mixed that with the premise of old warriors good for one last fight. Dark Moon mixed it with characters trying to escape the shadow of abusive pasts. Echoes of the Great Song was the most endearingly batshit of all, full of huge mythic conceits anchored into the reality of brutal colonisers and violent rebels having to find a compromise. It was a conceit that would return again in Hero in the Shadows, Waylander's final outing.

Gemmell's finest hour came with the Rigante series, two loosely linked duologies featuring the Keltoi battling for independence and the corrosive effect that, and missing fathers, have on people. There was a somewhat autobiographical element to that and perhaps that's what fed the outpouring of emotional truth that elevated his work a step higher than anything else he did. He always had a core of feel-good and bittersweet moments, but he turned it up to eleven with the Rigante. In particular, the Ravenheart/Stormrider pairing would make compelling TV.

But he did a lot of things. Some of them weren't quite as successful as others. He didn't much care for his portrayal of a selfish female character in Ironhand's Daughter and perhaps didn't do it justice. I didn't much care for his take on Arthurian legend and Morningstar felt a little lacklustre. But even his most lacklustre books were enjoyable reads. I never read a Gemmell that didn't feel like it was meant to entertain first and foremost, and I never a read a Gemmell that was short of a message.

He won't be for everyone. His fantasy works didn't go in much for mystery or intrigue. He never gave anyone a huge multi-book character narrative, being one for interconnected and episodic. His books very much reflect a world of men and the cultural mores of old white London and the English countryside, without much malice for those outside that world but also without much consideration. I would say thought that if one were to pick a book mostly about men then better to pick Gemmell who actually wrote about men in a way that meant something, than one of the many authors who wrote men without thinking. And Gemmell rarely wrote an enemy without humanity, even when dealing with demons. That's not always that common, even today.

I make little bones about having a taste set by the era in which I first discovered fantasy, and not always finding it easy to meet works that match that taste today. Yet I'll also make little bones about the objective quality of those works. They were big because lots of people liked them, which doesn't always mean love. A lot of authors like Feist, Brooks, Lackey, and so on will become historical curiosities like the work of Anderson and Leiber have become, and like many of today's big authors will one day become in turn. Only a few authors manage to have that sense of universal applicability, truth and entertainment that lets them escape that truth.

Let David Gemmell be one of them.

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