“What can we do?”
Okas shrugged. “We can defend the child.”
“Can we succeed?”
“No, Chareos. But when has that ever been important?”
If you’ve read Tolkien’s The Silmarillion you might have felt the same sense of shock as I did that the epic story of Frodo, the ring and the return of the king was summarised in just a few paragraphs that gave the barest details of that mighty quest but placed it firmly in its place as an important but minor episode in the history of Middle-Earth.
Something similar happens here: this story is sandwiched between The King Beyond The Gate and Winter Warriors which would be published about seven years after this. In that latter book, reference is made to the War Of The Twins, a bitter war of succession that ravaged the continent that these stories take place on. Mr Gemmell never wrote about this war but the results of it were all over the “future” Drenai novels. And here we see its genesis.
And it’s a bloody shambles.
It starts with a raid by Nadir tribesmen on a village where they steal away women for the slave markets. A young man believing himself to be in love with one of the girls embarks on a quest to win her back. He enlists the aid of four veterans of the last war with the Nadir – against Tenaka Khan, one of the heroes of The King Beyond The Gate (and we find out the results of the brilliant epilogue from that book as well) – as well as other allies and then the story takes a rather grim turn…
I didn’t enjoy this book the first time I read it. It was well-written and moved fast but it felt dark and nihilistic and joyless. It still does but I can see a real sense of purpose to it now. What makes it clearer is the sense you get of the larger history surrounding this novel, of where it fits into the author’s schematic of what he wanted to achieve with this series and the novels own themes.
It doesn’t seem fair that a novel has to be read in the context of eight or nine other books in order for it to be accessible, but really, you don’t need to know any of the history to get a kick out of this book, although it doesn’t hurt – those other books just throw into grim relief the message we get here.
Because one of the themes of Gemmell’s work – all of his work – is that we are fools for trying to see a purpose in our lives and what happens to us. Some years from now, we will discover that a defining event of the history of the Drenai people was caused by a boy who wouldn’t give up searching for a girl he knew he didn’t love because people had started dying and to do so would render their sacrifices meaningless. Which is what turned me off this book in the first place… until I realised that so many things in life that were important to me only happened because I was in a certain place at a particular time – a jump to the left or a step to the right would have made these events not happen at all and my life would be very different indeed.
And this novel is a collection of circumstances all happening in a particular way in order for a particular history to happen.
I also think that it might be the novel in which Gemmell realised that he shouldn’t keep writing potboilers and started going for something a bit greater, because there’s a shift in his writing taking place here: his characters are becoming a little deeper and his plots have a little more meat on them and his stories carry a little more weight from the world in which they were being written rather than the one in which they were happening. Even the elements familiar from his other books – an underworld, rites of passage, confronting (literal) demons, admitting that you do actually care about something bigger than yourself and making sacrifices to prove it – shine a little brighter here, possibly because they are the only lights we see.
It’s not an enjoyable book, but it’s brilliant and dark and complicated. It’s not a “must-read” Gemmell, more of a “should-read”.