The King Beyond The Gate was Gemmell’s second novel and by his own words, he wasn’t all that pleased with it. Me, I don’t what he was on about.
I do know that this is a very good fit for the Wyrd & Wonder prompt “More than meets the eye” though. Not only are the somewhat lycanthropic Joinings a central fantasy conceit to this novel, but there are major themes of people being more than what they show themselves to be on the surface.
(Gods I love these prompts. I just need someone to keep throwing prompts at me for the rest of my life)
The central figure of The King Beyond The Gate is Tenaka Khan, a half-Drenai half-Nadir warrior. His response to a series of personal tragedies that removes the few good things in his life is to set out to assassinate Ceska, a tyrant who has taken over the Drenai government through fear, manipulation, and the support of his Joinings – hybrids of beast and man. His mission grows and mutates though as he meets a range of comrades old and new; heroes who were once handsome but are now disfigured beyond belief, sociopathic killers that joined pacifistic religious orders, cowardly thieves born to noble warrior families, kings become exiles, peasants become generals, and the Joining Renya, a were-panther.
As you can see, there’s a lot of people whose identity doesn’t fit what people might assume. Gemmell leans into that, providing a compelling undercurrent to the narrative of desperate battles and daring schemes. And they are good battles and schemes. The battles between their ragtag force of rebels and Ceska’s seemingly overwhelming force are smart and savage, the plan to retake Dros Delnoch intensely satisfying.
What’s wrong with this book then? The character dynamics? There’s so many good ones. The conflicts inside the Thirty, the mystical monks who put aside their pacifism to die in a good cause are the heartbeat of the novel. Or perhaps it’s the bonds between Tenaka and his fellow veterans from the disbanded Drenai elite unit known as The Dragon. Which, incidentally features in the best lycanthropic moment of sorts when *redacted for spoilers*.
Still, it fell short of Gemmell’s expectations somewhere. Perhaps he felt he didn’t do justice to Tenaka’s coming to peace with his heritage. Can’t really comment much on that, although it felt logical if abrasive (particularly in terms of his romance). Were there elements he wished he’d given more space to, like the black warrior Pagan (added in response to being praised by a fan for not having any black characters in Legend) or Tenaka’s family members on both sides? There could have been more.
But there can always have been more. Gemmell’s tendency to try and cram as much as possible into small-ish books was strength and weakness in one. I am very happy with what we got. This is a rollicking good novel of adventure, and human frailty and courage, and like most of his books – it is more than meets the eye.