British fantasy author David Gemmell is best known – like a surprising number of authors – for his debut novel, Legend. It’s the first of eleven ‘Drenai’ novels, and though the polish improved over time, there is an inescapable sense of repetition, and of diminishing returns. The characters of The King Beyond the Gate seem mirrored in those of Quest for Lost Heroes, of In the Realm of the Wolf, of Winter Warriors, and probably others I never read too.
Gemmell’s seventh published novel (apparently there were a couple of other non-fantasy works, either unpublished in his life or published under pseudonyms), Knights of Dark Renown, also feels familiar. But surprisingly, it doesn’t feel too much like The King Beyond the Gate, or like the assassin novels that followed (the Drenai high fantasy Waylander and the post-apocalyptic Western Wolf in Shadow). It does, it’s true, help to contribute to what will become the Archetypical David Gemmell Novel – in it’s band of disparate but iconic heroes, for example – but it also stands apart (for instance, unlike the Archetypal David Gemmell Novel, Knights of Dark Renown is not a quest story). Instead, Gemmell has returned all the way back to Legend itself. But it’s not an imitation; instead, it seems like an intentional self-homage, in which elements recur, but often in twisted form. Where Legend is the story of a heroic defence by a civilised kingdom against the nomadic hordes, for example, Knights of Dark Renown (not unlike The King Beyond the Gate, it must be admitted) is the story of rebellion against a civilised kingdom, and against a king whose greatest sin in his inhumanity toward those descended from ‘Nomads’.
If you’re not sure the homage is intentional? Knights of Dark Renown actually ends with (barring a change of one word from singular to plural) the same last sentence as Legend. He knew what he was doing.
Knights of Dark Renown is not a novel from the end of Gemmell’s career. Indeed, while it was the sixth book published after Legend, in a space of only 5 years, he would go on to publish a further 5 novels in the next 3 years alone, and though he died prematurely, at only 57, he had by then managed to write around two dozen novels after this one. And yet, in a way… it feels retrospective. It feels like a conscious decision to go back, and to make a definitive statement, to put into writing, this is what I was trying to do.
For a popular epic fantasy novel of the 1980s, Knights of Dark Renown is an amazingly ideological, determinedly thematic novel. Gemmell described his novels as “essentially Christian”, and it does feel as though it’s following in the footsteps (albeit with less sure tread) of the great Catholic fantasists – Chesterton, Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Walter M. Miller Jr and so on – and to a lesser extent Protestant and post-Protestant writers like Stephen Donaldson*. The great things about religion, for an author, is that religion is a wonderful incubator for doubt and confusion. Thoroughly non-religious people often fail to understand that – they think religion offers certainty – but in my experience it’s more often the non-religious who display an unthinking assuredness, because faith is a powerful weapon to challenge preconceptions – to set, as it were, one preconception against another. The religious live in a world of inherent contradictions, in which modern society and their faith often seem to offer incommensurable frameworks for understanding the world – and those who realise this, yet attempt to embrace both worlds, are forced to try to explore ways to reconcile the unreconcilable. They are also taught, of course, to believe that the impossible is possible, which is an excellent foundation for a career in fantasy…
*Donalson, iirc, considers himself non-religious. However, his background – raised by Christian fundamentalists on an evangelical mission to India – clearly pervades his writing, as he acknowledges himself.
In the case of Gemmell, the conflict that drives much of his work, and that seems particularly in evidence here, is between a religion that demands peace and forgiveness, and his own unpleasant, violent childhood in London. Son of an unmarried mother (or “whore”, as he describes hearing her described from his earliest childhood), bullied and beaten up by children and adults, he later described being rescued by his stepfather, a man of such a fearsome reputation that nobody else in the estate dared pick on him again, and who forced him to take up boxing, so that he would never have to run or hide from a fight again. The rough edge he picked up seems not to have been without some cost – expelled from school (for running a gambling syndicate), repeatedly arrested, diagnosed as a psychopath. He became a big fan of Westerns. You can see all of this in his fiction: his adulation of big, violent brutes, his machismo, his obsession with never backing down from a conflict, his confidence that might can, at least in the short term, make right, his faith in the power of violent men to protect the innocent from other violent men. In a way, it gave him the perfect mentality for a fantasy writer, at least of the faux-mediaeval sort that dominated fantasy in the 1980s (and largely still does) – it’s the mentality of the middle-ages, after all. But, like a mediaeval knight, Gemmell had to try to find a way to balance that ideology of violence with a religion of peace and love – a religion of turning the other cheek and of loving one’s enemy, and of deep suspicion regarding the long-term usefulness of violence. It’s incoherent; and it’s powerful, and fascinating. It’s an incommensurable conflict of values that Gemmell continually attempts to reconcile throughout Knights of Dark Renown, with a surprising degree of success.
It’s this conflict that led Gemmell, I think, to explore areas that would later be associated with the ‘grimdark’ movement, and that distinguishes his work tonally from those later writers. Gemmell writes deeply flawed, even evil, protagonists, not merely for some salacious, edgy fun, but as a matter of ideological conviction. Gemmell wants to know what makes somebody a hero – not what makes them virtuous or noble, but what makes someone stand against a tide of enemies in order to defend someone who cannot defend themselves. That, Gemmell believes, requires immense strength – of mind, of spirit, and of body. It takes the willingness to die, and both the willingness and the ability to kill, and these, he thinks, are not traits found in innocent and peaceful men. His heroes must therefore be bloody men (or, theoretically, women, although there’s no denying that Gemmell is a writer of old-fashioned boy’s stories about what makes a boy into a man – in which women, while not unwelcome, are not really his target audience, and not just because some of his protagonists will as happily rape a woman as look at her). Why, then, do these bloody men, men of power, choose to make sacrifices to fight on the right side?
To answer this, Gemmell assembles perhaps his most morally questionable cast, without the slightest pretence at nobility. Serial rapist? Potential hero. Murderer? Potential hero. Guy who shoots slaves in the back? Potential hero. Guy who has men flayed alive and women burned to death? Clearly he’s on the right side! At the same time, in order to present a clear and meaningful moral choice, Gemmell’s bad guys have to be really, really bad – we’re into full-on mediaeval Holocaust territory here (though, as his motivations are ideological rather than salacious, there is little in the way of gratuitous details). Yet even so, great emphasis is laid on how close these villains are to our heroes – how small the margins can be.
Perhaps we might compare Gemmell to an author like George RR Martin, who also deals in fairly blood-soaked protagonists at times. The difference is, Martin is interested in how people can tell right from wrong, in complicated and conflicting moral situations in which one virtue wars against another. Gemmell doesn’t ignore this question, but his focus is instead on what a person can do with their knowledge of right and wrong – when they’ve seen what is right and what is wrong, what makes them decide to do what is right, when they know it will be at great risk to themselves?
[We might say Gemmell is naive – after all, most of our decisions are not so clear-cut in their morality. But we might also say that Martin is naive, in giving us such a benefit of the doubt in thinking our sins the result of well-meaning attempts to do the best thing in difficult circumstances. If Martin wrote about the Holocaust, it would be a story of noble Wehrmacht officers torn between their duty as human beings and the conflicting impulses of professional and national duty, the desire to protect their loved ones from retribution and so forth. If Gemmell wrote about the Holocaust, it would be a story of drug dealers and Stalinists and rapist footsoldiers who are cornered into situations where they cannot resist acting heroically. (Wait, that exists, doesn’t it? Gemmell would write something like Schindler’s List, only not about rich people…)]
Gemmell never really gives an answer here – indeed, my impression is that he doesn’t think there is an answer, as such. Heroism isn’t a state of mind – it’s a result, and a result that can spring from many different causes. Some men act heroically because they are noble and generous; others, from pride, or guilt, or bloody-mindedness, or vainglory, or greed, or despair. Decisions are made in quiet moments in the heart, and nobody can ever really know their reasons – if anyone ever does, that knowledge is soon lost as history becomes legend. As a result, his characters don’t really turn from evil men to good men; they don’t even necessarily reveal their hearts of gold. Rather, Gemmell is interested in showing the broken places in men of all kinds, that can snap some spine of common sense and self-preservation and lead them to do dangerous, stupid, heroic things. And he’s interested in showing how those heroic deeds can make the world a better place – no matter how vile the hero truly was as a person.
It must be said, unfortunately, that Gemmell’s writing ability, though somewhat more advanced here than at the time of Legend, is not the match of his philosophical ambition. Though he can write strong, clear characters, moving scenes, and even some good lines, there’s something cartoonish about it all – bold, larger-than-life, lacking in wrinkles, unfashionably earnest – and his prose is the solid, weighty, slightly weird prose of old-school fantasy. It’s less than a page before we encounter the first “slavering jaws of the beast”, for example.
More problematic than the prose, however, is the sheer implausibility of the novel’s length. Different editions have it in the range of 300-400 pages, and that’s… ridiculous. Modern fantasy authors would tell this story in the form of a trilogy, with each volume as long or longer than this whole novel. A writer like Martin could happily take this plot, add in some details and distractions, and spin five or eight long novels out of the material. Gemmell burns through it in one short volume. That doesn’t preclude a certain plodding quality in a little of the early going – no matter your wordcount aims, setting up plot and character and worldbuilding takes time and is hard to make fun in itself – but it does undermine the power of the novel, particularly in emotional terms. We simply don’t get enough time with these characters, enough insight into their thinking, enough understanding of the world they inhabit, for their key character moments to either be fully understandable (they are not out of the blue, but they are more sketched-in-outline than actually painted for us) or to be as emotionally resonant as they might otherwise be.
The flipside of that is that there’s a period in the novel that, by modern standards, is just ludicrously intense. It feels as though each chapter, for a while, has some big beat that would be the climax of many other novels, and that intensity has a certain irreproducible impact.
In the end, Gemmell doesn’t quite succeed in pulling it all off. Perhaps he could have done it in this wordcount, with far greater abilities as a writer; or perhaps he could have done it with the skills he had, and a considerably longer narrative in which his characters had room to breathe (seriously, at times it feels like some characters bounce from one big moment to the next without a single moment to rest). But with limited talent and even more limited wordcount, he is only ever able to deliver, as it were, the boldy-sketched idea for a novel, rather than the novel itself. Perhaps that’s why many of his books work better in the memory than on the page – the memory is able to fill in the gaps he leaves.
And yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t hold the man to unreasonable standards of excellence. There is nothing shameful in being a teller of exciting, interesting, moving yarns. And if such a yarnweaver tries to take on a bigger philosophical programme than he can really do justice to through the medium of a bestselling genre novel, that might be frustrating, but it shouldn’t be considered a demerit. Knights of Dark Renown may be pulp, and not even the best pulp, but it’s every bit as good a piece of pulp as most genre authors will ever write – and it’s far more thought-provoking to boot. It may well be Gemmell’s best novel, at least of those that I’ve read, and given its combination of readability and thematic interest, it could legitimately be considered a classic (in the true, historical sense) of the genre canon.
Adrenaline: 4/5. It never quite becomes a true thriller, probably because it’s too rushed and shallow to earn full engagement, and because it eschews things like ‘buildup’ – and because there’s an undeniable flatness to the writing that gradually becomes frustrating. But the action, once things get going, comes thick and fast, and I found myself turning the pages with impressive eagerness (particularly given that I already knew how it ended).
Emotion: 4/5. OK, feels a bit weird to say that, because this is exactly the sort of book – weak on characterisation, and trying to rush through to the good bits – that normally loses points for its emotional engagement. But I must admit, its playing-to-its-strengths, back-to-basics parade of Manly Heroic-Tragic Manly Moments did get me moist-eyed at points – it’s a great example of how sometimes the characters and the setting can exist to give an excuse to tell the old, powerful stories.
Thought: 4/5. This isn’t a deep, philosophical treatise; and it’s a book that invites thinking rather than demanding it. But is it, as it were, above par? Yes. It may not prosecute its discussions with as much rigour and detail as we might hope – a longer book, in particular, might have had room to explore consequences in greater depth – but I find its complex discussion of competing values and virtues, including its willingness to challenge conventional morality to a surprising degree, to be fascinating.
Beauty: 3/5. It’s not an elegantly-written novel, and a lot of ugly things happen. But Gemmell does construct a series of iconic scenes that have their own beauty.
Craft: 3/5. I suppose the writing is… acceptible. The “worst” moments, odd ways of speaking and clunky, strange expressions, are less a problem with the author’s prose and more a fashion statement for a certain flavour of old-school, archaicism-scented fantasy. The construction, and intense distillation, of its plot is actually very professionally done – it seems natural, but in hindsight packing so much content in with so little ‘spare’ wordcount takes some considerable craft in planning. Wringing so much impact out of what is on paper fairly paper-thin charactisation and worldbuilding is actually pretty impressive. Speaking of which, however: even a few more sentences could have fleshed out the setting considerably, and in particular I wish I had a better grasp of distances…
Endearingness: 3/5. I kind of liked it. I’m certainly left with a more favourable impression than with Legend. I found it a generally enjoyable read, and not just out of nostalgia. At the same time, I can’t deny that there’s a… rasping quality. It’s like listening to some super-high-energy music, some aggressive punk or death metal or whatever… part of you is impressed and energised, but as time goes on another part of you just gets worn out, and bored, and wishing for something with a little more nuance and variety. Put it this way: I enjoyed reading this book, and will re-read more Gemmells in the future. But would I want to read five Gemmells in a row these days? Good gods, no. Partly that’s the intensity (and cliché nature) of the content; partly it’s that the writing can’t by itself generate the continual interest and novelty that makes the really loveable books so enjoyable, on all levels, to read and re-read.
Originality: 2/5. Gemmell is spinning an interesting story, but it’s one made, very clearly, from the rendered and processed corpses of other stories (indeed, this is lampshaded by the fact that many characters have names from Irish (and in one case Welsh) mythology, for no apparent reason). The types of characters, the types of situations, the types of choices… everything is extremely familiar, albeit delivered in a distinctive Gemmellian fashion. That makes it a good book for genre fans who want a new angle on their genre, but not a great book for those who are looking for something genuinely new.
OVERALL: 5/8. GOOD. OK, I feel a little sheepish about that. Maybe a more dispassionate observer would give it merely a ‘Not Bad’, as I gave to Legend. But Knights of Dark Renown is a better book than Legend; it is, in its own way, a better book than a lot of fantasy. It is, as it were, better at what it is. I’ve rated it better, for example, than A Game of Thrones, which some may consider heresy; but I think it’s merited. George RR Martin is a considerably better author than David Gemmell (though it doesn’t always seem like that in A Game of Thrones); he can master a much more varied and interesting, and ultimately powerful story than Gemmell can, as Martin went on to show in later books. But his first attempt at epic fantasy was undeniably a little ropey, not to mention limited by its placement in its own wider story (as an opening novel of a long-running series, there are things it just isn’t interested in doing). Whereas Gemmell goes all-out with Knights of Dark Renown, and though its limitations are too great to let it reach the genuine, genre-transcendant classics of ‘Very Good’ status, I’m happy with putting it in the tier of ‘Good’. What it does, it does well.
So maybe more people should remember it.