(Some fairly large spoilers)
In 1976, a journalist decided to take his mind off a cancer diagnosis he believed to be terminal by writing a book about a siege, the ebb and flow mirroring his own struggles. That book became Legend, and Legend became book one one of the Drenai Saga, and the Drenai Saga became one of the finest series of fantasy ever penned on British shores.
In 2004, the final book in that saga was released. The Swords of Night and Day.
I don’t know whether Gemmell intended this to be the final book. Quick internet searches suggest not but unintentionally or not, this is a perfect ending, for it is absolutely suffused with themes of mortality.
The Swords of Night and Day is set a thousand years after White Wolf but features the same main character in Olek Skilgannon. That’s because Skilgannon has been resurrected; his body cloned, his soul brought back from the void. He soon discovers that he’s been brought back to fulfil an ancient prophecy in which he will defeat the tyrant known simply as the Eternal, and also that he’s not the only attempt at resurrecting old heroes. There’s a physical clone of Druss – although they couldn’t find his soul. There’s a resurrection of Decado, the somewhat insane killer from King Beyond the Gate who was an unknown descendent of Skilgannon.
And there’s one more mystery surprise guest.
Skilgannon doesn’t want any part of the coming war but it involves him anyway. Soon he finds himself on a quest to nip the problem at the bud – to destroy the machines that keep the Eternal, well, eternal. It’s polished stuff, alternating smoothly between gripping action scenes and thick, heavy emotions, but truth be told I found the best stuff in the subplots.
There’s the last of the Drenai, a small and poor remnant of a people clinging to a part of what was once their country, defiant and desperate. Their leader, Alahir, struggles with that weight, particularly once he finds the legendary Armour of Bronze. How can a farmer’s son wear the most treasured relic in Drenai history? And how can Alahir and his men find common cause with the Jiamids, the man-animal hybrids that have been the shock troops that broke the Drenai? The Jiamids are only there due to the actions of Stavut, a merchant who accidentally talks himself into a leadership role in order to avoid a fight, and ends up forming a fierce loyalty to them. Watching him go from an easy going, glib trader to an utterly dedicated leader is a great journey.
The best secondary arc however is that of the Eternal herself. Why? Because it becomes creepingly obvious just how great a toll immortality is taking on her, and how it is affecting her actions and leading to unnecessary conflicts.
That’s the heart and soul of the book. In Gemmell’s view, humanity’s not really equipped to deal with coming back from the death and long life. That’s what The Swords of Night and Day are all about really. We live, we die, and while that might be tragic – is it the lesser tragedy? I know a lot of people don’t like characters coming back from the grave – truth told, I didn’t finish this first time round a long time ago because of that – but here, it’s used with purpose. The purpose could have been sharper, but it’s there.
It adds a beautiful poignancy to the ending, and that poignancy gave the story the weight it deserves. If there’s something Gemmell’s always been very good at, it’s powerful endings and giving meanings to death, but for a last book it feels like there needs to be something more. It’s there. If you were to ask me to rank all the Drenai novels, The Swords of Night and Day wouldn’t be near the top. It’s good, but it’s not great. But it is, in its way, a great ending.
And that makes me happy.