Pretty solid work. I’m not as impressed this time because it’s the second ‘Drenai Tale’ I’ve read – but that being said, I’m not disappointed. The action and mood are as enjoyable as ever, as are the surprisingly frequent almost self-referential asides discussing, “Just what is a hero? Just what makes Druss able to do what he does?” Gemmell likes to have the supporting characters kick this one around. Of course part of it is just the given – he’s basically unkillable: you can drop him in the thick of any battle and he’ll cut a swathe through whatever factor he’s outnumbered by. But there’s also the confidence, and the integrity. Druss has his code – basically a knightly ‘protect the weak’ sort of a thing (although he hates riding horses – he’s a brawler with an axe who likes a good street fight – not a debonair ponce with a rapier) – and in this book of beginnings we meet his mentor and find out some family history.
The book is celebrating a genre – it doesn’t hope to ‘escape’ its confines – which is a strength and weakness. There’s no great comedy, or really sharp dialogue, or penetrating social commentary. The characters are deliberately larger than life: this is heroic fantasy, pure and simple, and Gemmell has the sense not to try to add some other possible dimensions outside his scope. But the book integrates everything within its own world strongly, even in most cases the magic. This is often a let down for fantasy writers: in wanting to give their wizards amazing powers it often becomes absurd to think that anything can actually threaten them. And that’s what I like about Gemmell – without necessarily soaring, he doesn’t generally get anything wrong. So the magical characters generally have limited ability, and the occasional sojourn Druss has into the netherworld don’t contradict the rest of the suspense.
However here he makes an unusually ugly clanger, casually granting his Source (was that ‘the Force’, no, sorry, ‘the Source’) priest the power to astrally travel anywhere on the globe – and then remotely, for example, cure the microscopic cancer cells he can examine in anyone while outside his body. Uh, OK, that’s nice … but then we’re supposed to swallow that this same priest needs Druss to go and kill the guy driven mad by the demon he’s encountered by taking possession of Druss’ old axe. Even if the reader grants Gemmell the benefit of the doubt, perhaps reasoning for him that the priest couldn’t metaphysically get past the demon, it makes no sense that this same priest left his emissary starved and languishing in a dungeon. Moreover he’s supposed to be pretty compassionate, yet we get no suggestion that he methodically (even passionately) uses his godlike powers to aid the poor and suffering and overcome evil. And it’s not that he’s taken a vow of non-violence: he has no qualms about commissioning – even forcing - an assassination, and is chastised by his priest for not keeping up his sword skills. For such a character who hates the work of murderers, pirates, rapists and the like it’s absurd that he then stands by and seems to do nothing in the world to defeat perpetrators he could enfeeble or kill with ease.
Still he’s a relatively minor character (and flaw) in an otherwise satisfying collection of four episodes in Druss’ heroic life.
 As opposed to the appalling ‘Gor’ novels where we get outrageous apologetics for misogyny alongside the otherwise similar heroic fiction. But Gemmell’s characters are infinitely better company.