When David Gemmell died in 2006, UK fantasy lost one of its leading lights. In this article I will provide an introduction to the various series, but first I will introduce the man who wrote them.
Born illegitimately on 4 August 1948, Gemmell was a fearful child, tormented by adults and children alike, until he met the man who was to become his stepfather, Bill Woodford. Gemmell told the story at many signings:1
“There was this boy. … It was a bright, cold morning and he was sitting on a wall. One of the boys who made his life miserable ran up, shouting and gesticulating. The boy – more in panic than courage – finally struck out, punching his enemy in the face. The other child ran off screaming. His father came running from the house. “You little bastard!” he shouted.
The boy took off as fast as he could, but no six year old can outrun a grown man. Within moments he grabbed the boy by the collar, swinging him from his feet.
Just then a huge shadow fell over the pair. The man – who had looked so threatening moments before – now looked small and insignificant against the looming newcomer. This colossus reached out and took hold of the man by the shirt, pushing him up against a wall.
In a low voice, chilling for its lack of passion, he asked. “Do you know who I am?”
The man was trembling. Even the boy could feel the dreadful fear emanating from him.
“C-c-course I know who you are, Bill. Course I do.”
“Did you know I was walking out with this boy’s mother?”
“Jesus Christ… I swear I didn’t, Bill. On my mother’s life.”
“Now you do.”
The big man let the little man go. He slid part way down the wall, recovered and stumbled away. Then the giant leaned over the boy and held out a hand that seemed larger than a bunch of bananas. “Better be getting home, son,” he said.”
Bill Woodford played a huge role in Gemmell’s development: the fearful boy grew into a confident man. He made his way through a series of jobs (labourer, lorry-driver’s mate, nightclub bouncer), writing stories in his spare time. He accumulated many rejection slips during this period, one of which he often read out at signings: “You mention in your resumé that you are working as a lorry driver’s mate for Pepsi Cola. This is an occupation not without merit. Good luck with it.”
Eventually, though, he became a journalist for his local newspaper, a position in which he thrived.
During a cancer scare in 1976 he wrote The Siege of Dros Delnoch, which would eventually be published as Legend (1984), considered by many fans to be his best work. When asked why that might be, Gemmell said, “Hard to say. It is my favourite. It is certainly the most romantic of all my novels, both in central love story, and the high heroism of the contenders. I guess it was written by a young man, full of ideals and beliefs, who approached the craft of story telling with a wild, barbaric gusto. I look back on that young man with great fondness.”2
Gemmell believed sincerely in his writing. “I believe in heroes, and the need for people to stand against evil,” he once said. “I don’t evangelise. I don’t want people saying: ‘Oh yeah, he’s coming from a Christian angle, or a Judaic angle. To use a line, though, from the Bible, I write for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Everyone needs to find their own route to spiritual enlightenment.”3 For many readers this was one of his key themes: rather than wondrous races or magic-wielding powerhouses, he explored the “spirit of man”. “All of my novels come from a deep and personal place,” he said. “There is nothing cynical in my writing. I believe in heroes, and I believe in what the old tales teach us. Too often we just see the sword fights and the action, and don’t stop to look beyond, at the nature of heroism.”4
Were you to ask a hundred different readers what they liked about his work, you’d probably get a hundred different answers, but a common answer would be that Gemmell’s heroes live up to our finest moral ideals. At times readers would ask when a villain would get to win: Gemmell said it would never happen, as he’d “seen the bad guys win in real life, doing the moral equivalent of ripping the gold teeth from the mouths of the murdered. Why in heaven’s name would I want to bring that into my own working life?”5
As a result of such communication with his fans, Gemmell began to feel that a writer has a responsibility to his readership: not just to give them a cracking tale, but also to take a moral lead. For example, he wrote Pagan into The King Beyond the Gate after the following exchange:
“A young fan of Legend said to me: ‘I love your books, mate. You know where it’s at.’
I asked him what he meant. He looked at me and smiled and said: ‘No spades in Legend.’
That was a watershed for me. Not until then did I realise what a responsibility an author has. As well as entertaining readers we need to raise awareness and battle the idiocies and evils of prejudice in all its forms.6”
At signings he would take questions, read from rejection slips, and make the crowd laugh. It wasn’t just about the sale; he loved meeting his fans. Those who’d brought a second-hand book for signing got as much time as those who’d bought the latest hardback. And people loved to meet him: his charming smile and manner won him many fans.
New readers of Gemmell’s work can sometimes be confused by the profusion of titles and series, and unsure of the correct order in which to approach them. There are two main options: order of publication or internal chronological order. Personally I prefer the latter, but both are valid. Since it will make it easier to set out the various series, we’ll tackle the books here according to their internal chronology.
His best-known and best-loved fantasy series is probably the Drenai saga, which details the Drenai’s battles for survival over thousands of years. Though many don’t count Knights of Dark Renown (1989) or Morningstar (1992) as part of the Drenai series, there are significant connections, but let’s put them aside for now to look at the main titles in the series.
The three novels set earliest in Drenai history – Waylander (1986), Waylander 2: In the Realm of the Wolf (1992) and Heroes in Shadows (2000) – cover the relatively short period between the attempted eradication of the Drenai by the Vagrians (led by Kaem the Cruel) and the Slayer’s last stand against an invading force from an ancient Gateway.
Three generations later we come to the tales of Druss the Legend, following the Axe-man from his youthful days when he originally becomes the Silver Slayer (The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, 1993), through the ill-fated Games held in Gulgothir (The Legend of Deathwalker, 1996), and a quest to rescue a friend’s daughter (White Wolf, 2003). The tales of Druss end with his final battle at the Drenai Fortress of Dros Delnoch (Legend, 1984).
White Wolf could equally be considered part of The Damned series, which follows the exploits of the warrior known as Skilgannon the Damned, who leaves his Queen to atone for his evil deeds (White Wolf, 1993; The Swords of Night and Day, 2004).
The Drenai series then continues into the future, when the Nadir rule the world (The King Beyond the Gate, 1985; Quest for Lost Heroes, 1990) and when the empires of the Drenai and Ventria merge under one name (Winter Warriors, 1997). The Damned returns to the flesh in The Swords of Night and Day (2004).
After the Drenai books, most people tend to move on to the Rigante series, which also has a huge fan following. In the first two novels (The Sword in the Storm, 1998; Midnight Falcon, 1999) we follow the Rigante as they fight for their culture, throwing down in a Celt v Roman battle royale. Ravenheart (2001) and Stormrider (2002) take place during the 1745 revolution.
The Hawk Queen saga (Ironhand’s Daughter and The Hawk Eternal, both 1995) tends to receive little love from fans, so let’s quickly move on.
Another series, comprising Ghost King (1988) and The Last Sword of Power (1988), tells of the Stones of Power, which track backwards and forwards through time to create alternative histories. Present throughout are the Feragh, immortals who interact with human history. Chief amongst these meddlers are Maedlyn, Culain La Feragh and Pendarric.
Maedlyn also appears in what is known as the Greek Duology, which follows the exploits of Parmenion, a Spartan mercenary who fights for Macedon during their time of greatness in the guise of Aristotle (Lion of Macedon, 1990; Dark Prince, 1991).
The Stones of Power also play a part in the apocalyptic future of Jon Shannow, the Jerusalem Man, who seeks the fabled city but finds himself drawn into various struggles for power (Wolf in Shadow, 1987; The Last Guardian, 1989; Bloodstone, 1994). A warning: this series really must be read in sequence, else you’ll ruin some spectacular surprises!
Troy: the Fall of Kings (2007), finished by Stella Gemmell, completed the trilogy begun by Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow (2005) and Troy: Shield of Thunder (2006), telling the story of Troy through the eyes of one of its allies, Heliakon, a prince.
Now we come to the individual titles. Dark Moon (1996) follows a savage battle waged by mankind for its very survival. In Echoes of the Great Song (1997) (which David once told me is subtly connected to the Drenai saga), while recovering from a cataclysm, a new race seeks to take power over the world inhabited by the Avatars. They in turn seek, with the aid of the common man, to destroy the invaders and save themselves, leading to a battle of epic proportions.
White Knight Black Swan (1993) is the least typical of Gemmell’s novels. Written under the name Ross Harding, it had only one printing; hence it is very difficult to acquire. It’s a modern day thriller following a man known as Bimbo Jardine in the East End of London. Well written, with the typical Gemmell magic, it really does leave the reader wondering why it’s never been reprinted.
Gemmell’s writing has something for everyone: redemption, love, pace, and epic fight sequences. With his first published novel in its twenty-fifth anniversary year, now is the perfect time to give one of these marvellous novels a try.
1. Taped during a signing; used here with kind permission of Transworld and the David Gemmell Estate.
2. In interview with the writer of this article, 28/08/04, Q2.
3. In interview, 13/03/03, Q15.
4. In interview, 23/08/05, Q7.
5. In interview, 23/08/05, Q10.
6. In interview, 13/03/03, Q8.
*This article originally appeared in Dark Horizons #54, published by the British Fantasy Society. Written by Gareth Wilson.