In Memoriam: David Gemmell 1948-2006
On July 28th, 2006 the man who had single-handedly ignited my passion for fantasy fiction, sadly died, at his computer, in the middle of writing his final piece of work Troy: Fall of Kings.
David Gemmell’s first novel was Legend and introduced us all to Druss the Legend, a seasoned warrior who carries a double-headed axe named Snaga. Legend tells the story of the battle for Dros Delnoch and the Drenai army who are defending the walls. My favourite thing about this novel is the way that Gemmell deals with the minutiae of the characters, their hopes, their dreams, and their grim reality. Each character is fleshed out and real, the action is delivered at breakneck speed and the war is almost tangible. This is something that Gemmell managed to do within each of his 32 fantasy books. He dealt as much with the characters as he did with the worlds he created. Each of his characters are products of their world and are examples of the ‘greyness’ of humanity, they aren’t cut and dry, there is no black and white here. Koen Peters sums this up brilliantly;
‘Gemmell’s characters are always struggling with their inner demons. Past mistakes, hubris, greed, you name it. Yet in spite of these ‘flaws’, the protagonists fight for what they think is right.’
Gemmell’s own view of humanity is easy to see and this is reflected in all of his works. However, the world building is also a feature of Gemmell’s works. I love the world in which the Jon Shannow novels take place and the physical features of this. The gunslinger was foreign territory to Gemmell in terms of the physical nature of the warfare, where before he had dealt in mass war, and hand-to-hand combat, now he was dealing in new-age machinery and warfare. The change as something I enjoyed greatly, particularly the ideas behind the Sipstrassi novels.
Gemmell then moved into the historical fiction side of fantasy and wrote the Troy Series. These, for me, are when Gemmell was at his greatest. Gemmell focused on the characters and themes from Homer’s The Iliad and focuses on the events and characters taken from the poem. Gemmell played around with the characters and out his own spin on them, for example, Paris is studious and shy, and Helen of Troy is plain in appearance. I loved this unique take on the ever-famous characters and with Gemmell holding the pen, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Achilles and Hector are given new life and felt really ‘fresh’ to me. I loved them both and really was swept along for the ride as their destinies were soon to entwine. My favourite pairing though, is Helikaon and Odysseus. Their relationship journeys from the loving, to the warring, to the regretting, something that every intense relationship will encounter. Gemmell does this with such authenticity and humanity that you really feel their hurt and their loss, it’s just brilliant.
Gemmell loved the idea of humans and heroes battling internally with what they want to do versus what they think they should do. Feeling this as the characters do will make you realise just how good Gemmell was when it came to exposing our true nature. He gave his heroes tough choices and ensured that they weren’t given an easy ride as they made them. I mean, in reality, who does? We are all faced with tough choices at some point or another and we all have to make a decision that does not rest easy on us and that we aren’t sure was the correct one. This is humanity, and this is what Gemmell cut his teeth on.
He also gave us lessons throughout his work, there are many different quotes and sections that I could pull in order to highlight this point, but, for now, I’ll choose my favourite;
‘Danyal was awake, her lip swollen and a bruise on her cheek. Caymal sat beside her. The wagon was cramped and the baker’s two young children were sleeping beside Danyal.
‘Thank you’, she said, forcing a smile.
‘They will not trouble you again.’
Caymal eased himself past Waylander and climbed out over the tailboard. Waylander moved up to sit beside Danyal. ‘Are you hurt?’ he asked.
‘No. Not much anyway. Did you kill them?’
‘How is it you can do these things?’
‘Practice,’ he said.
‘No, that’s not what I meant. Caymal tried to stop the man…and Caymal is strong, but he was brushed aside like a child.’
‘It is all about fear, Danyal. Do you want to rest now?’
‘No, I want some air. Let’s walk somewhere.’
He helped her from the wagon and they walked to the cliff face and sat on the rocks.
‘Tell me about fear,’ she said.
He walked away from her and stooped to lift a pebble.
‘Catch this,’ he said, flicking the stone towards her. Her hand snaked out and she caught the pebble deftly. ‘That was easy, was it not?’
‘Yes,’ she admitted.
‘Now if I had Krylla and Miriel here, and two men had knives at their throats and you were told that if you missed the pebble they would die, would it still be easy to catch? Think of those times in your life when you were nervous, and your movements became disjointed.
‘Fear makes fools of us all. So too does anger, rage and excitement. And then we move too fast and there is no control. You follow me?’
‘I think so. When I had to give my first performance before the King of Drenan, I froze. All I had to do was walk across the stage, but my legs felt as if they were carved from wood.’
‘That is it. Exactly! The onset of fear makes the simplest of actions complex and difficult. No more so than when we fight…and I can fight better than most because I bring all my concentration to bear on the small things. The pebble remains a pebble, no matter what hangs upon success or failure.
‘Can you teach me?’
‘I don’t have time.’
‘You are not obeying your own mantra. This is a small thing. Forget the quest and concentrate on me, Waylander – I need to learn.’
‘How to fight?’
‘No – how to conquer fear. Then you can teach me to fight.’
‘Very well. Start by telling me what is fear?’
‘Make it worse.’
‘Maggots and grey rotting flesh?’
‘Good. And where are you?’
‘Do you feel anything?’
‘No…perhaps. If there is a paradise.’
‘Then I feel nothing. I am no longer alive.’
‘This death, can you avoid it?’
‘Of course not.’
‘But you can delay it?’
‘And what will that give you?’
‘The prospect of more happiness.’
‘But at worst?’
‘The prospect of more pain,’ she said. ‘Old age, wrinkles, decay.’
‘Which is worse? Death or decay?’
‘I am young. At the moment I fear both.’
‘To conquer fear, you must realise that there is no escape from what you dread. You must absorb it/. Live with it. Taste it. Understand it. Overcome it.’
‘I understand that,’ she said.
‘Good. What do you fear most at this moment?’
‘I fear losing you.’
He moved away from her and lifted a pebble. Clouds partly obscured the moonlight and she strained to see his hand.
‘I am going to throw this to you,’ he said. ‘If you catch it, you stay – if you miss it, you return to Skarta.’
‘No, that’s not fair! The light is poor.’
‘Life is not fair, Danyal. If you do not agree, I shall ride away from the wagons alone.’
‘Then I agree.’
Without another word he flicked the stone towards her – a bad throw, moving fast and to her left. Her hand flashed out and the pebble bounced against her palm, but she caught it at the second attempt. Relief swept through her and her eyes were triumphant.
‘Why so pleased?’ he asked.
‘No. Tell me what you did.’
‘I conquered my fear?’
‘Well, what then? I don’t understand you.’
‘But you must, if you wish to learn.’
Suddenly she smiles. ‘I understand they mystery, Waylander.’
‘Then tell me what you did.’
‘I caught a pebble in the moonlight.’
– David Gemmell, taken from Waylander (1986)
His fictional heroes include Olek Skilgannon, Druss the Legend, Waylander and Connavar. They are all an ode to David Gemmell and his brilliance.
I consider myself very lucky to have been introduced to his various works and I have read each of them multiple times. What Gemmell has done for fantasy is immeasurable. He has introduced a style of writing that incorporates all of the necessary fantastical elements whilst ensuring that those reading them can do so with enjoyment, enthusiasm and ease.
David Gemmell lives on through his works, and I hope people continue to buy, and read, his stories. Also, there is the annual ‘Legend Awards’ which highlights the best upcoming and established fantasy writers, as well as those that have the best cover designs.
Thank you for reading ‘In Memoriam: David Gemmell 1948-2006’, I hope you enjoyed it. Please comment and let me know what your favourite David Gemmell book is, and why 🙂