You can praise books for the deftness of their prose, for the cleverness of their plot, the acuity of their observations. Their wit. Their ability to steal you away. Sometimes though, you need to talk about the sheer power of spirit and mood. And without saying Knights of Dark Renown has nothing for those first categories, Gemmell’s story has that raw power.
In fact, this might be the most depressing and uplifting book of any I know.
Knights of Dark Renown is set in a country where life is going bad. The Gabala have seen their empire crumble. Their greatest heroes vanished six years ago. The nobility enforce their power arbitrarily over the peasants and slaves. Life is about to get worse though, for the king is enacting laws to heavily persecute the Nomad population, and his rule is enforced by nine knights of supernatural prowess, dressed in red armour. Terror stalks the land.
There is a mood of rebellion. But those heroes the people want, the Knights of the Gabala, the warriors oathbound to champion the common man are no more. All there is is a mix of the crippled and the cowardly, the weak and the tyrant, the brigand and the vampire. These are to be the new Knights of the Gabala – the Knights of Dark Renown. But will they stand when it matters?
After all, how can they win?
Gemmell gives us multiple perspectives here – most of the knights, multiple magicians, some of the red knights, and so on – and that is a big part of what makes the book work so well. Almost every character has dark shames that seem impossible to shake off and yet, somehow, they are offered a chance to be a hero. To be something more. Only being a hero here is no glorious thing. It is pain and fear. The journey through these characters’ psyches is what gives Knights of Dark Renown such power. I can believe the things they’ve done, the things they will do, how they change. I am depressed by what they do, and how much they struggle to escape how they are. I am uplifted by their heroism.
There are flaws. The huge amount of territory the book covers means each topic moves swiftly by, mostly well but sometimes I wish for more. There’s not really much of a Nomad PoV, which I think was a big missed opportunity. There’s a few moments of inconsistency with the character Nuada’s reactions. The worldbuilding is little more than functional. It could have done more with its romantic connections. It could have done more with its female characters in general, although they are mostly sketched as well with the men; nevertheless, this is a mostly homosocial book, concerned with war in a world where war is a man’s concern. The women can fight and fight well, but they’re not front line. I have to say it works very well for me as a homosocial book, but it could perhaps have wider appeal if it was less focused that way.
There are strengths other than its spirit though. The fight scenes are wonderful. The narrative twists with sudden treachery. And some of the verbal spats are outstanding. For example:
“You know nothing. Locked in a pantry, you would starve to death.”
“Do you never sleep? How do you manage to keep your strength?”
“I draw it from the company of men, Groundsel. Strangely, I am feeling rather weak at the moment.”
[on trying new boots]
“Are they magic, Ruad?”
“Of course they are magic,” snapped the Craftsman. “Do I look like a cobbler?”
All in all, this is one of my favoured types of book. It is brutal and thoughtful, celebrating the glory and condemning the pain; it lets us see the mindset of a different time without insisting we share it; it is connected to myth and our hopes and dreams. It’s done very well. That all far outweighs its flaws for me. A great book, one I wish more people had read.