Drenai Tales, Book 7
This is heroic fantasy. Nothing more, nothing less. There are so many in this genre, but most have some annoying weaknesses – random or lazy plotting (Goodkind, at times Martin), repetitive techniques in dialogue (Eddings), supposedly smart or witty characters being dumb or bland (Herbert), voyeurism (Lieber, Goodkind, Kay), paper thin cliché settings (Cook), appallingly ostentatious language (Kay, McCaffrey) – the list goes on.
Gemmel doesn’t put a foot wrong; he keeps a marvelous balance. The characters are consistent, the plot doesn’t become too unwieldy, the sex and violence don’t become utterly gratuitous, the underlying world and mythos are robust enough to support the cast, there are no implausible clangers in the action, things are neither too easy nor too hard for our heroes – it’s very satisfying and easy to roll along with.
That being said, he never soars – there’s nowhere that the dialogue is stingingly good or the ideas really brilliant. The characters are not going to touch our souls so deeply, but, hey, they’re mythic heroes, we’re not reading this sort of escapist fiction to grapple with our relationship with our parents or something: the final part of the book has some of the hero Hruss’ enemies beginning to get philosophical about him, but they step back from the temptation towards such introspection, shake their heads and instead just say, ‘… but he could fight, hey.’
So the major strength I suppose is the consistency – many other writers could do a chapter or two of this but not make it all hang together for an entire novel (they probably could, though, if they had some ruthless editing – I don’t think anyone but Tolkien has written a series that warrants three books unless they make each book a potentially stand alone episode (eg. Saberhagen’s Swords series – or even Harry Potter!). While they should be cutting things down into a tight, strong story, they submerge a potentially fine idea in the hundreds of pages, or even multiple books, seemingly demanded by the genre.
The book does stand out in two other ways. One is that even though the characters aren’t trying to be too relevant (nobody reading or writing this book has ever picked up a sword in anything but a self-conscious recreation), Gemmell bothers to have respectable and disreputable characters on either ‘side’. This complements the other place he shines – morally. The good characters are actually pretty good, and make charitable choices now and then beyond their immediate circle, or closer than some faceless salvation of a city or nation.