When it comes to heroic fantasy, few authors come close to David Gemmell. As a former journalist, he had an eye for pithy dialogue and was influenced by no-win scenarios from history like the Alamo. He wrote page-turners – dark and dangerous worlds where lone and tortured heroes faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and enjoyed Pyrrhic victories. His protagonists are flawed, yet honourable and there is always hope for redemption. Gemmell wrote over 30 novels in his career, and here are the five best places to start.
1. LEGEND (1984)
Gemmell’s first novel was reportedly his favourite. ‘It was all the heart and contains just about everything I believe in’, he later said of his debut and it’s a classic of the fantasy adventure genre. The gruff old warrior coming out of retirement plot could be plodding in less capable hands, but Gemmell brings energy and vigour to this world. In Druss the Axeman he paints the picture of a strong, courageous and honourable man defying the odds. This title comes later on within the Drenai Saga’s timeline, for those with an eye on series chronology, but otherwise a great place to start.
2. WAYLANDER (1986)
The power of redemption permeates much of Gemmell’s work, the earliest example of which is Waylander – chronologically the first story of the Drenai Saga. At first glance anti-hero Waylander is an amoral assassin and a traitor responsible for the death of the King of Drenai. But when invaders overrun the land he becomes an unlikely hero, entrusted with the quest to find the Armour of Bronze – a symbol of hope to rally the people in troubled times. Waylander’s a more morally complex character than Druss, although they share similar burdens. A tragic backstory emerges over the course of the novel, making his search for deliverance all the more powerful.
You can buy Waylander in paperback from Orbit for £6.29 at Amazon.co.uk.
3. THE SWORDS OF NIGHT AND DAY (2004)
The final Drenai book follows on from White Wolf, and sees protagonist Skilgannon the Damned reborn a thousand years into the future. Skilgannon and a resurrected Druss fight against the Jiamads – a splicing of man and beast under the control of Skilgannon’s former lover Jianna. You have to feel for these heroes; even after death they can’t get a moment’s peace. Gemmell shows a skilled hand at balancing intense depictions of violence with opulent, character-enriching dialogue. Skilgannon returns with more to say for himself and by mixing things up with the setting, Gemmell gives himself scope to explore the character further.
4. MORNINGSTAR (1992)
This dark take on the Robin Hood myth shows that heroes can be forged out of the most unlikely candidates, and legends often bear resemblance to the real thing. Self-interested mercenary Jarek Mace becomes a kind of folk hero as his exploits are spun into something far more gallant by a down-on-his-luck bard. Mace begins to resent his new persona but eventually lives up to the legends that have sprung up around him. Gemmell himself was very conscious that there was power in creating heroes that inspire, and Morningstar is perhaps the novel that reflects that best. It’s also a riveting, action-packed read that touches on love, honour and self-sacrifice.
You can buy Morningstar in paperback from Orbit for £7.99 at Amazon.co.uk.
5. TROY: FALL OF KINGS (2007)
The Troy trilogy comes to close in what would turn out to be Gemmell’s last novel. Completed by his wife Stella after his death in 2006 based on notes and conversations, Troy: Fall of Kings shows the author at the height of his powers. No one side is wholly good or evil, and Gemmell doesn’t rely on Homer for plot development. He carves out his own story for the likes of Hektor, Achilles and Odysseus and the end result is a heady exploration of valour, courage and the horrors of war.