Winter Warriors by David Gemmell

(moderate spoilers)

Strength. We think of it mostly as the power to do. To lift, to force through. But in a sense, it’s the power to endure; the power of being able to do over and over, longer than others, if you will. The sort of strength we talk about when we talk of the people who fall 49 times and stand 50 times. That sort of strength is a compelling thing to me, and judging from Winter Warriors, to David Gemmell too.

The three major characters here are old men, old soldiers. The sort of men where that sense of strength matters. Nogusta is a swordsman and tracker of near mythical proportions, who enlisted in the Drenai army after his family were killed by a racist mob. Kebra is an expert archer, haunted by the evils of his childhood and wistful about the life he’s lived as a result. Bison is immensely strong and courageous, but his simplistic and unrefined approach to life costs him. They are part of an old guard sent home by the Drenai King, Skanda, warriors in their winter all. They are no longer needed now Skanda is a conquerer and has new allies, both in the form of Ventria. But life is rarely simple, and a demon lord is seeking to come back to the planet, and soon these men – and a host of others – will be tested again.

Gemmell’s style and appeal were consistent from book to book, and Winter Warriors is no exception. It’s a book of action and adventure, a grand ambitious fantasy with a quick pace, light touch yet evocative prose married with a fiercely idealistic view of the opposition of evil. It’s not the book for people looking for slice of life, or nihilistic sentiments, or deep character studies, although it maybe has more elements of these things that it might initially sound.

Take Nogusta. We know he’s suffered from racism, that he’s seen as different by those around him because he is black and they are (mostly) white. We know he sees himself as somewhat different. Gemmell doesn’t dwell on these facts, but he makes it clear these things have happened. It’s left to us to imagine how those events might have shaped his perceptions of those around him, the way he is often more of an observer of those around him despite being a clear leader. He contrasts well with his fellow swordsmen, Antikas Karios and Dagorian. Both have been hurt too, but their reactions have been different. Antikas has chosen to cast himself as blameless, and fulfilled his considerable potential as a warrior and general. Dagorian sought sanctuary in a life of priesthood and while a very good man, finds himself full of doubts when forced to be an officer.

Yet while Gemmell is clear about the source of the wounds that test their strength, he shows their trials through the story. It’s about two enemies holing a bridge against demonic battle lords. It’s about one arrow to keep your reputation. It’s about finding the right words to reach a mind-scarred child, and warning a friend at risk of you life, and learning to see the best of people. And that’s what makes Winter Warriors so great. There’s so many memorable scenes in their own right, and they come with such meaning.

There are some flaws in the book. I think the priestess Ulmenetha’s battle with life could have been done better, less focused on her physical fitness. Some of the magic here smacks of convenience. And, of course, there are various times I wished he’d gone into more detail. The difference between Drenai and the Ventrians such as Antikas, between the oversexed and crude Bison and the sex-repulsed and fastidious Kebra, about how various bit players feel about their parts in this. But that’s just me wishing for more story, and in truth there is sufficient there, and Gemmell would have never done these things.

I love David Gemmell books. I love them so much. This is one of his best. The story is gripping, the sense of created mythology huge. Each character crackles with life, even if their archetypal basis is clear. The dynamics are wonderful – I haven’t even mentioned one of my favourites, that of the demon lord Anharat and his dead brother Emsharas. There are so many individual moments that stick to the memory too and again, I must mention one I haven’t mentioned before, that being about the birth of a baby.

But most of all, they lead you through a riot of emotions to a sense of joy. Gemmell gives us a world where if you endure then, even though tragedy may beset you repeatedly, evil will eventually fail. Fight on through winter and the sun will shine, at least for a little. Gemmell was a great user of theme; an equally great teller of adventurer. Put the two together and you get a top rate author, and that’s why I visit his books again and again.

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