The King Beyond the Gate by David Gemmell
This is a fantastic sequel, largely because it doesn’t dwell for too long on what happened to the characters from the previous novel. It begins a century after said previous novel and straight away introduces you to new characters, new situations and a brand new adventure.
The Drenai people – threatened by the Nadir hordes in Legend– are involved in internal conflict here, leaving themselves wide open to attack and insurrection. It’s left to Tenaka Khan, half-Nadir, half-Drenai, to solve problems. He’s aided by friends who are forced to rely on him because he has the only plan that could possibly save them.
What is excellent about this book is the way Gemmell takes up the story straight away, without wasting too much time. He has an economical style that keeps the story moving and doesn’t waste time on needless scenes. And he takes the time to explore sides and nuance in his situations: he isn’t just about creating epic battle scenes and set-pieces. In fact, the whole idea of The Thirty, the warrior monks used to such great effect in many of Gemmell’s novels, pretty much sum up his feelings about war and conflict: they are trained to love life and worship the tranquility that comes from inner peace but choose to become skilled warriors and seek out a just conflict in which to lend their services and fight until they die. They are constantly aware of the hypocrisy of their situation but do it anyway.
What is less great is the way in which there are pages of conversation about what is the right thing to do when you believe that all life is sacred and are choosing to take part in a bloody conflict in which hundreds of people are going to die senselessly. It’s a theme that Gemmell explored in all of his novels and never seemed to come to a definite conclusion about. Which is at least refreshing, when swathes of authors never seem to question it at all.
The other weakness is one that seems to follow Gemmell through all his books as well: he spends a lot of time training up a plucky force to deal with an ominous threat that wants to destroy them. Unlike Legend there are villains here and many fewer shades of grey in the storyline. However, it’s a structure that could become tiring before too much longer and a formula that Gemmell himself at least tried to vary as he went along in his career.
But, while he does deal with ideas that are different in each book, he won’t let go of the idea of a “honourable” conflict, or how it can pollute your soul or redeem it. He also spends a lot of time dealing with how being skilled at dealing with death on a constant basis can desensitise you to living with other human beings in a peaceful, everyday existence, something at odds with his love of portraying the benefits of bonding with your fellows in the cause. This is touched on briefly here and becomes something that he deals with in greater depth in later books.
For the moment we have a terrific adventure filled with capable, rugged heroes who aren’t afraid to question their own motives or honour. It adds depth to what could have been a repetitive, typical novel of the time.
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