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David Gemmell Author Spotlight

David GemmellDavid Gemmell (1948-2006) liked to open his public appearances by reading choice, hilarious samples from his vast stash of rejection letters. In person, he embodied much of the self-deprecating humour, honesty, and willpower that made his characters so popular and kept his heroic fantasy novels on the shelves of bookshops, even five years after his early death.

Early Life

Raised in West London by a single mother in the early 1950s, Gemmell’s childhood was never going to be easy, but it was made bearable after the age of six by the arrival of his much-loved stepfather. Bill Woodford took his shy stepson under his wing, taught him to box, and to stand up for himself, and later became the inspiration behind one of Gemmell’s most enduring and exasperating characters – Druss the Legend, immortal hero of Dros Delnoch.

Legend

Legend (cover)Legend, the first book in the Drenai Sequence, came about after a diagnosis of cancer in 1976. Believing the diagnosis was a death sentence, Gemmell wrote Legend (415 pages) in a remarkable two-week sprint. When you know this, the metaphorical nature of the novel adds depth to what can be a frustrating read.

The armies defending the six concentric walls of Dros Delnoch fight and fall back, fight and fall back, in ever decreasing numbers, and are saved only by an unlikely number of deus ex machina events, including the arrival of the irascible Druss from his isolated mountain fastness, an army of ghost defenders, and the besieging army of the Nadir packing up and going home for tea (if you’ve read it, you’ll know that’s not far from what actually happens!). Legend is a highly enjoyable hack-and-slash fest, and the novel Gemmell is best known for, but it’s by no means his best work.

But at the time of writing, the many-walled fortress of Dros Delnoch was Gemmell’s body; the attacking horde outside the cancer he thought would kill him. It’s interesting to note that he originally left the ending open, the Fortress to stand if he lived, to fall if he died. In the end, the cancer was a misdiagnosis, but the book survived, and was published to acclaim and commercial success in 1984. It remained Gemmell’s personal favourite of the thirty-plus novels he would go on to write.

Themes

David Gemmell became one of, if not the, stand-out author of heroic fantasy in the late 80s and 90s. At a time, when trends in fantasy fiction tended towards either the humorous (Terry Pratchett was in his ascendance at the time), or the epic (the first volume Jordan’s Wheel of Time was published in 1990), Gemmell stuck resolutely to his bloodied axes, reliable as Ronseal. If you saw his name on the cover, you knew what you were getting.

Lion of Macedon by Geoff TaylorGemmell wrote several series of stand-alone novels, including the Drenai, the Riganti, and the Wild West-influenced Jon Shannow sequence. Throughout his books, recurring themes and plots crop up again and again. He was frequently drawn to hopeless causes and insurmountable odds, stretching back to an early fascination with both doomed Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, and the fall of the Alamo. Gemmell clobbers his troubled, flawed heroes with the most apparently insurmountable odds, chucks in a dash of magic, and lets them battle their way towards victory (always hard-won, at great cost) and, crucially, redemption. I believe it’s this redemption, the victory-against-all-odds, the obstinacy that characterised both Gemmell and his work that keeps readers coming back. The plots may be similar, but if Gemmell only tells one story, at least it’s an entertaining, compelling one.

And there are, of course, intriguing variations. Lion of Macedon, Dark Prince and the Troy Sequence are historical fantasies set in Ancient Greece, and the Jon Shannow novels also move away from a pseudo-medieval backdrop into a fantasy version of the Wild West, complete with wandering preachers, saloons, and gunslingers. In places, the Shannow novels border on science fiction, rather than fantasy. This crossover, and the unusual setting, makes the novels stronger and more compelling.

A Word About Women

We’re talked about heroes and anti-heroes, warriors, princes, gun-slingers, and now I can hear you muttering, “What about the women?” Despite appearances, there are women in David Gemmell’s books. Often they start off feisty, well able to handle a sword or gun, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted. Sadly, it often seems that as soon as they meet our messed-up, muscled hero, female brains implode due to the high concentration of testosterone in the air, and they spend the rest of the book either tending wounds, cooking dinner, or mysteriously absent until the plot demands they show up and die horribly, so that the hero can embark on a roaring rampage of revenge which will end in his overcoming impossible odds and finding redemption.

It is a shame that often promising female characters are relegated to the side-lines. It feels like a wasted opportunity to get a few more kick-ass girls in heroic fantasy, because the genre could use them. But the lack of powerful women may reflect on an aspect of Gemmell’s childhood in West London. He said himself that he grew up surrounded by violent men, and he wrote about violent men because he understood them, and I suspect the women in his life tended to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, much as his heroines do.

David Gemmell Legend Award

Legacy

According to recent Twitter discussion, David Gemmell is one of those authors who can happily be filed under “Guilty Pleasures” on your bookshelf, probably right next to David Eddings. Yes, his books are repetitive, occasionally sexist, and violent. But you know what? So are the Die Hard films, and there’s nothing quite like kicking back after a hard day with Die Hard on the telly and a bucket of popcorn. Gemmell’s novels are the literary equivalent of a popcorn flick. Sometimes, only explosions and gratuitous bloodletting will do. It dawned on my while writing this that, in another life, John McClane (flawed, troubled, a lone man fighting a skyscraper full of terrorists, with no shoes) could easily be a Gemmell hero.

Legends (detail)For a long time heroic fantasy languished in the literary doldrums, a cheap quickie compared to the commitment required to enjoy fantasy at the more epic end of the spectrum. But now, with authors like Joe Abercrombie and M D Lachlan coming to prominence, and George RR Martin adding gritty heroic fantasy elements to his none-more-epic A Song of Ice and Fire, heroic fantasy seems to be enjoying a long-awaited resurgence.

David Gemmell died in the saddle, at his keyboard. He was 70,000 words into the final volume of his Trojan War series, and was recovering from a quadruple heart bypass. For once, the odds were too great for the hero. But, as well as the award that bears his name, he left behind a legacy of heroic fiction that continues to entertain, inspire, and occasionally infuriate, to be returned to again and again. When the relentless Stark/Lannister fighting begins to grind you down, when the thought of embarking on yet another ten-book epic feels too daunting, the fortress at Dros Delnoch is still standing, and it’s always worth a visit. Just don’t forget to bring your axe.

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9 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Absolutely wonderful article Joanne. Gemmell inspired a huge amount of Fantasy writers and really, really changed how a lot of people approached the genre – what a man 🙂

  2. Emma Newman says:

    I haven’t read any Gemmell, but I have many friends who have a huge nostalgic love for his books. I was just struck by how he died, in the saddle, as you say. Powerful stuff.

  3. Legend was the First Gemmell book I bought and I had it signed by the man himself. A lovely bloke who had time for everyone. I was greatly saddened by his death, but at least I found him while he was still alive.

    This is a great article, thank you for writing it.

  4. Gemmell was my hero growing up, and one of the two people responsible for my love of fantasy. My signed copies are my pride and joy. Have yet to find anyone else quite like Gemmell.

  5. Alister says:

    Fantastic article. No comments to add, as you’ve covered everything so well, but I think the Die Hard comparison is spot on. Nice one.

  6. Diane Duane says:

    Dave was a friend and a houseguest (he and Peter [Morwood, my husband], published their first novels in the same year and shared a launch party), and we miss him often. It’s a crying shame that he just could not give up the cigarettes: if he’d only managed it, he might still be around. At least we still have the books — and the memories of the dry humor and the big grin that would flash out now and then…

  7. Fran says:

    Very interesting article Joanne. You’ve laid out what to expect from gemmell from those of us yet to discover his books. Definitely something I’ll bE looking into soon

  8. Jason says:

    A friend gave me ‘waylander’ to read when we were serving in iraq in 2003, and i’ve been hooked ever since. had an interlude of reading nearly everything Robin Hobb has written as i find her an amazing writer aswell, but have nearly purchased all of David Gemmells books and am about 18 books into reading all of them. Truly an awesome writer. The kind of books i find extremely hard to put down once i begin, then hate it when i know i’m coming to the end of the book.
    So probably nothing to do with the other comments, i just wanted to express my appreciation for Mr Gemmells work.

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