Once upon a time a lonely nineteen year-old, recently moved to a grimy and unforgiving London, walked into a sci-fi bookshop and picked up a copy of Wolf in Shadow by David Gemmell. Twenty years later that nineteen year-old, increasingly rich in body weight and increasingly poor in hair, is the proud owner of every Gemmell book published and deeply sorry there won’t be any more.
David Gemmell was a former journalist turned fantasy author who penned 33 books, acquiring a global legion of fans and the distinction of having reinvented the genre of heroic fantasy. Beginning with Legend in 1984 Gemmell’s books were fast-paced tales of conflicted and often deeply flawed heroes usually engaged in seemingly unwinnable battles against impossible odds. In Legend we find aging but still mighty axe-wielder Druss and a motley band of cohorts attempting to hold back the tide of the Mongol-esque Nadir at the multi-tiered fortress of Dros Delnoch. The world of Legend, explored in subsequent books under the umbrella of Drenai Tales, contains many staples of heroic fantasy such as magic, quests and a cod-medieval social structure, but can also be read as an alternative history of Europe during the Mongol invasions. This willingness to borrow from history would be a continuing theme throughout much of Gemmell’s work, most notably in his Rigante saga, essentially an alternative history of Celtic Britain from the time of the Romans to the rise of Oliver Cromwell.
Whilst history and fantasy literature are obvious influences on Gemmell he was also clearly a fan of the western, as displayed in Knights of Dark Renown, a tale of chivalric heroism versus vampiric evil which owes as much to the Magnificent Seven as it does to Mallory or Stoker. However, Gemmell’s most effective exploration of western themes is to be found in Wolf in Shadow, the story of post-apocalyptic gunslinger Jon Shannow. Dubbed the Jerusalem Man due to his obsessive quest for the now fabled biblical city where he imagines he will find peace after a lifetime of violence, Shannow ranges across a future earth where geological upheaval has reversed the position of the world’s oceans. Shannow is a gun for hire isolated by his fearsome abilities with the antique six-shooters he carries, cleansing settlements of marauding outlaws before being politely asked to move on. However, the advent of the Hellborn, an army of Satan-worshippers intent on conquest and human sacrifice, places Shannow at the forefront in the war of salvation, rediscovering his humanity in the process. Distinguished by a wonderfully sombre ending, Wolf in Shadow is, in my opinion, Gemmell’s finest book, diminished only by a couple of unnecessary sequels.
But it was in the world of Greek history and legend that Gemmell was to find his greatest critical and commercial success. In Lion of Macedon Gemmell explored the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens through the eyes of real-life historical figure Parmenion, destined to become chief general to Alexander the Great. Gemmell apparently intended to write a purely historical novel but was persuaded by his publisher to include some fantasy elements as a sop to loyal readers, such as the magical sipstrassi stones that first appear in Wolf in Shadow, as do the immortal survivors of fabled Atlantis. Whilst this could be seen as a flaw in an otherwise fine example of historical fiction it did form a basis for the follow-up Dark Prince, a rich blend of history and fantasy that offers a magical explanation for the often capricious nature of Alexander the Great.
It was in the world of Greek myth that Gemmell’s work found a new level of popularity. Lord of the Silver Bow, the first in a trilogy taking a realist approach to the legendary war between Greece and Troy, garnered positive critical acclaim as well as a much wider readership. The works of Stephen Pressfield and Bernard Cornwell, amongst others, had engendered a renaissance in martially inspired historical fiction and stoked a popular appetite for more. Placing Aenais, Trojan hero and legendary founder of Rome, at the centre of the narrative, Gemmell drew on serious scholarship to paint a convincing picture of an ancient eastern-Mediterranean world torn by a trade war between two regional superpowers. In this decidedly non-Homeric version of events, the gods are invisible, the supernatural makes only a brief appearance and Helen of Troy is a minor princess of little consequence. Instead we are presented with a brutal world of clan loyalties and blood feuds where atrocity is countered with atrocity. Aenais is more noble but no less ruthless than his enemies the Mykenes, and the imperially ambitious Trojans under the loathsome and lecherous Priam are scarcely more deserving of admiration. Despite the brutality inherent in the situation Gemmell manages to find humanity amongst the bloodshed, with bisexual priestess Andromacche the compassionate counter-point to an unfolding Balkan war which has more in common with 1990s Bosnia than the bloody spectacle of Frank Miller’s 300.
Lord of the Silver Bow was followed by the equally impressive Shield of Thunder which relates the gradual descent into all-out war between Troy and Mykene. Gemmell had begun work on the final volume The Fall of Kings in 2006 when he died aged 58. The book was completed by his widow Stella, with the aid of Gemmell’s notes, and stands as a fine conclusion to a series that would most probably have propelled him to the first rank of popular authors. His death was a great loss to those of us who love a good story well told but his books are as fine a testament as any author could wish.