Fifteen years ago, the world of fantasy lost one of its greats tragically early.
David Gemmell’s career as a published author lasted over thirty years with more than a million copies sold; for nine years, awards were given out in his honour. The reason for this lay in the stories and inspiration he gave others and to best understand where those came from, it helps a little to understand the man.
Gemmell was born in London in 1948, raised by a single mother and bullied as a consequence. His eventual step-father, Bill Woodford, encouraged him to learn boxing to stand up to those who picked on him. Expelled from school at sixteen for running a gambling syndicate that used violence to get debtors to pay up, Gemmell worked a number of jobs including being a nightclub bouncer before ending up in journalism. Gemmell was first published in 1984 and became an author in 1986, a decision influenced by getting fired after basing a character on his boss in an unflattering way; a “poisonous attack on his integrity” were the executive’s described words.
Gemmell had started writing before 1984 though. His first novel failed to find a publisher in the mid-70s. His next, Legend, started as a book written while Gemmell had what he believed to be a terminal cancer diagnosis. The victories and defeats in the fortress of Dros Delnoch corresponded his own in his fight for his life. Gemmell survived, and the rest is history.
Pain. Abandonment. Courage. Violence. Reputation. The Fear of Death. All of these things loomed large in Gemmell’s stories, heroic fantasies where champions clashed. To paraphrase the man himself, his stories were about ordinary people in extraordinary and violent times, and how they rose to met them.
Yet there was more to Gemmell; a moral element that bordered at times on didactic. To Gemmell, good and evil mattered, and if they were sometimes difficult to distinguish and subjective that was all the more reason for them to matter. Priests, mystics, and haters of violence populated his works as well as the warriors. Gemmell showed us the cowards and the heroes, the traitors and the true, the kind and the monsters, and showed us how sometimes they were very similar and how sometimes they were very different.
And in the balance of this focus on violence and this focus on morality were often were many of his books’ most interesting books were found. What is stronger, love or hate? If hate only ever sows the seeds of its own downfall and love is the only way to true peace, then what do you when a violent person comes through your door, and only violence and hate will save you there and then?
Other themes and motifs that were frequently used in his work:
History: Gemmell was a lover of history, particularly the tales of doomed heroes, and turned to fantasy in no small part so he could write tales where the heroes were truly heroes and won. Many of his series included retellings of history and myth, or loosely based on historical periods.
Natural and Manmade Disasters: Many of his stories had disasters of some type as part of their background with several including them in the story itself.
Technology as Magic: While strongest in the Jon Shannow series, there are several moments in the Drenai series where what characters believed to be magic was recognisable to the reader as modern technology.
Time Travel and Alternate Realities: Gemmell included a number of arcs and worlds that relied heavily either on time travel, or worlds mirroring the characters’ but different due to one decision.
The Source, The Chaos Spirit, and Mysticism: Almost all of Gemmell’s works reference either the Source (a benevolent creator force) or its opponent the Chaos Spirit (not so benevolent). Both have mystically inclined followers, and spirit journeys on an astral plane or to the afterlife are common.
Gemmell’s writing style was quick paced and powered by functional, laconic prose. He had a strong focus on his characters’ emotions, even during the many action scenes, and growth. And he many characters. Many many characters. He wrote a great many PoV character, most of them fairly minor, swapped PoV frequently in order to show us great events through many different eyes. All had histories and reasons for being there. He was not above drawing on people he knew either; beyond his boss (and other employees) in Waylander; he based numerous characters in numerous books on Bill Woodford, and one in Jerusalem Man on a critic who particularly detested the protagonist to pick just a few. Occasionally, his choices were in direct reaction to fan feedback. The Jerusalem Man series continued after he told a fan that the protagonist had died and the fan wrote back “No way!”; a black character was added to King Beyond The Gate after a fan praised his omission of black characters from Legend.
If you’re interested in reading Gemmell’s books after this, then there are many potential starting points due to his many series and standalones and also, depending on how you feel about continuity, a few potential pitfalls. Not every bibliography of his work agrees on which were standalones and which were parts of series; and his longer series often broke down into mini-series in ways that aren’t particularly apparent. Hopefully the following summaries and thoughts on his work will bring a little clarity to the matter. The short and dirty version however is Legend (start of the Drenai Saga) and Wolf in Shadow (start of the Jerusalem Man) are his two most iconic series starters; Sword in the Storm and Lord of the Silver Bow were the starts of his two later, more polished series, both of them fairly short; and that of his many fine standalones (or semi-standalones), Echoes of the Great Song is a personal favourite for the scale and power of its vision, while the author himself loved Knights of Dark Renown (with good reason) and many fans love Morningstar. Out of all of them, I would recommend his debut Legend; partly so the reader can see the whole arc of Gemmell’s development as an author if so minded, partly because its spirit, its theme of the fear of death, is nigh-perfect. That said, pick the book that works for you; whatever you enjoy is the correct way.
The Drenai Saga: Set on a secondary world in a medieval-esque period, the Drenai Saga mostly focuses on events inside the lands of the Drenai but ranges widely into other lands and cultures, most of which have recognisable our world parallels. While most of the early books are closely focused on particular events in the moment, later books would explore a long history and lore. Common fantastic conceits in these books beyond The Source, The Chaos Spirit, and mystic travelling, include animal-human monstrous hybrids named Joinings, demonically possessed weapons, and a certain degree of prophecy.
The Drenai Saga is one of the most difficult to untangle in terms of reading order. The publishing order and chronological order don’t match up; there’s three mini-series contained within; and there’s two standalones that are sometimes considered part of the series and sometimes aren’t.
Knights of Dark Renown and Morningstar are standalones set thousands of years before the other Drenai novels with no continuity, sometimes included and sometimes not. Knights of Dark Renown might be loosely summarised as “if we needed King Arthur’s knights to protect us from an evil, vampiric, racist regime, what would happen if those knights were gone and all we had were a group of losers and bastards to take their place” and as mentioned, was one of Gemmell’s real favourites. The inspiration for Morningstar came from Gemmell watching a documentary on how Errol Flynn was a deeply unpleasant man, and then watching Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, and decided to write a book featuring the real Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.
The Druss books are the first mini-series, consisting of Legend, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, and The Legend of Deathwalker. He also appears in the Damned duology (see below). Druss was a blunt, highly principled man with a huge natural ability for violence and tendency to get bored of normal life. His books tend to focus on military action, often in seemingly hopeless defensive actions.
The Waylander books are the second mini-series, consisting of Waylander, Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf, and Hero in the Shadows. Gemmell described Waylander as his first attempt to write a redemption narrative, as Waylander was an assassin haunted by his prior tragedies and killings; Source Priests play an important role in his books. His books tend to focus on quest narratives and supernatural threats.
The Damned books are the third mini-series, consisting of White Wolf and Swords of Night and Day. They revolve around Skilgannon, a soldier seeking inner peace after a tumultuous youth. The themes and narratives are often similar to those of Waylander – redemption and quests – but with an added focus on the possibilities of resurrection and rebirth.
The three Drenai standalones are King Beyond the Gate, Quest for Lost Heroes, and Winter Warriors. King Beyond the Gate is the tale of a half-Drenai, half-Nadir outcast who seeks to overthrow a tyrant and ends up swept into a hopeless rebellion. Quest for Lost Heroes is the tale of a young villager who seeks to save his beloved from slavers, and ends up walking into a tale of forgotten heroes and the deadly politics of the Nadir Empire (and references characters from King Beyond The Gate). Winter Warriors is the tale of three old warriors who must undertake a dangerous quest to save a pregnant queen and avert a prophecy that would see the return of demons to the world.
|Publication Order||Chronological Order|
|Legend||(Knights of Dark Renown)|
|King Beyond The Gate||(Morningstar)|
|(Knights of Dark Renown)||Waylander II|
|Quest for Lost Heroes||Hero in the Shadows|
|(Morningstar)||First Chronicles of Druss the Legend|
|Waylander II||Legend of Deathwalker|
|First Chronicles of Druss the Legend||White Wolf|
|Legend of Deathwalker||Legend|
|Winter Warriors||King Beyond The Gate|
|Hero in the Shadows||Quest for Lost Heroes|
|White Wolf||Winter Warriors|
|Swords of Night and Day||Swords of Night and Day|
Stones of Power Series: A series of novels set in our world where magic can be performed through access to the Sipstrassi, stones of power that are slowly exhausted. In this version of our history, Atlantis was real and had access to the stones, and in its attempts to gain greater power through their use ending up having influences on future societies. It is another series split into sub-series and where publication order does not match chronological order, and there is a series that is sometimes considered part and sometimes not (Lion of Macedon). Very little is lost by choosing to read sub-series independently.
The Jerusalem Man trilogy consists of Wolf in Shadow, The Last Guardian, and Bloodstone. They set in a post-apocalyptic landscape that has turned into something like the Wild West, where small communities fear the outlaw and the gunslinger is feared and revered. The series follows Jon Shannow, a pious and violent man with a black and white mindset who Gemmell saw as the character he identified with most. The series was started after hearing of his mother’s terminal diagnosis with cancer.
The Arthurian duology consists of Ghost King and Last Sword of Power. They take a mostly historical approach to Arthur, a post-Roman world where the threat are the Anglo-Saxons and rival tribes, except for the Atlantean figures and shadow world where the Ninth Legion is lost and chieftain Wotan.
The Lion of Macedon duology consists of Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince. These are set around the rise of the Macedonian Empire from the perspective of the historical general Parmenion, here depicted as a half-Macedonian, half-Spartan warrior who ends up the foremost general to both Philip and Alexander, suffering the suspicion of both. There is an overriding arc where the Chaos Spirit seeks to rule the world by possessing Alexander.
|Publication Order||Chronological Order|
|Wolf in Shadows||(Lion of Macedon)|
|Ghost King||(Dark Prince)|
|Last Sword of Power||Ghost King|
|The Last Guardian||Last Sword of Power|
|(Lion of Macedon)||Wolf in Shadows|
|(Dark Prince)||The Last Guardian|
Hawk Queen Series: A duology set on a secondary world in a country loosely inspired by the medieval Scottish Highlands (with a few anachronisms). The books are fairly straightforward tales of a fragmented and feuding people coming together to fight a mighty invader (medieval English-esque in Ironhand’s Daughter, Viking-esque in The Hawk Eternal) with the aid of a few great and troubled heroes, and some meddling magical druids. They’re responsible for some of the time travelling, ghosts, and alternate worlds we see in the series. These are rarely held up as examples of Gemmell’s stronger work but they do include some of his more unusual and initially selfish characters in Sigarni and Caswallon.
1. Ironhand’s Daughter
2. The Hawk Eternal
Dark Moon: Set in a standalone fantasy world where an arrogant Duke, seeking magical power, instead frees a deadly race that immediately seeks to conquer humanity. The main protagonist is a warrior with multiple personality issues; the the virtuous and gentle Tarantio and the lethal and sadistic Dace. Gemmell wrote the book after a nurse specialising in such issues bemoaned the lack of positive role models in books. An intriguing book with enough story to fill a trilogy
Echoes of the Great Song: The Empire of the Avatars is coming to an end following a cataclysm that killed most of their race and destroyed access to their source of magic. Their oppressed subjects, the Vagars, engage in continuously more ruthless campaigns to unseat them. All that changes when the Almecs – an Avatar Empire from a parallel world who use blood sacrifice for power – appear in the world. Avatar and Vagar are forced to unite for mutual protection but more importantly, when they see a force they see as so undeniably evil, many of them are forced to look in the mirror and ask questions of themselves.
Rigante Series: Two linked duologies set in the lands of the Rigante, first a not-Celtic tribe resisting the not-Romans, then centuries later the not-Highland Clans resisting the not-English. The books are as much about the social cohesion and values that saw these social structures persist in the face of oppression as much as the physical fights, with all four being coming of age narratives. The first duology, The Sword in The Storm and Midnight Falcon, is about the Keltoi fighting the forces of Stone, and the influence Stone and opposing it has on Keltoi society. The second, Ravenheart and Stormrider, is about the conquered and restless Rigante, determined to maintain their identity, and the Varlish and their own struggles.
1. The Sword in the Storm
2. Midnight Falcon
Troy Series: Gemmell’s final published series was a loose retelling of the Trojan war, more concerned with the events he imagined as leading up to it than the actual assault itself. The main protagonists are Aeneas (known here as Heliakon), Andromache, and Odysseus. It is an epic, shifting narrative, full of intrigue and treachery, with friends becoming enemies becoming friends due to the shifting world. While many key elements remain, there is a great deal of reimagining and creativity, with a number of added characters and a number of characters missing (notably Diomedes). Gemmell died during the writing of this series, leading to his widow Stella (who has now gone on to write her own books) completing the series.
1. Lord of the Silver Bow
2. Shield of Thunder
3. Fall of Kings
To those who have read all the way, thank you. If you are new to Gemmell, I hope this tribute inspires you to pick up his books and find joy in them. If you are an established fan, I hope this tribute brought back good memories and struck you as fitting.
To add one final coda –
Gemmell was an author who wrote with purpose and heart. He sought to portray all manner of people as worthy, interesting humans, based on what was in their hearts rather than what was on the surface. He wasn’t without flaw, but he was rarely other than trying to be good. And in the process, he wrote books that entertained and inspired countless thousands. I do not think there could be a better tribute than continuing to be so.