There was a time between the collapse of sword and sorcery publishing in 1985 and before George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones came out. In that time, David Gemmell (1948-2006) almost kept sword and sorcery alive single-handed.
We lost David Gemmell ten years ago on July 28, 2006 from complications after heart surgery. This was a blow to the sword and sorcery field. Fortunately for us, he produced a steady and large number of novels from 1984 until his death.
David Gemmell wrote his first novel Legend during a cancer scare where he thought he was staring at death. Legend is one of the ultimate siege novels of all time. The novel introduced Druss the Axeman. The name Druss is a variation on the Celtic name Drust/Drustan/Tristan. There were some Pictish kings with the name Drust in the early Middle Ages. You can’t go wrong with bad-ass warrior with a Celtic name.
Legend is set in Gemmell’s imaginary world of the Drenai. Dale Rippke’s old Dark Storm website had the world of the Drenai set thousands of year in the future. Obviously, our civilization has collapsed and a medieval level society and technology has emerged with no knowledge of the past. Supernatural elements are also present.
Legend is a life and death struggle with a horde of eastern Mongol types on the march and primed to invade the Drenai. This is a novel about heroism in the face of hopeless odds with some meditations on mortality. Read this book as an antidote to George R. R. Martin.
David Gemmell’s novels are anti-nihilist. There are great warriors but many characters are somewhat ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances.
Gemmell was not published in the U.S. until 1988 when Legend was renamed Against the Horde by New Infinities. King Beyond the Gate and Waylander were also released and almost forgotten. The covers were generic and looked more like some gaming tie-in than sword and sorcery.
Del Rey/Ballantine would start reprinting David Gemmell in late 1994. I saw the books but did not pick them up for over a year. Del Rey published Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and Piers Anthony, not sword and sorcery, so I passed on them. The Luis Royo covers did not help. It was the late Steve Tompkins who told me about David Gemmell and urged me to give him a try.
I picked up The King Beyond the Gate in early 1996 and was hooked. I picked up Waylander and Quest for Lost Heroes for a week long vacation in the Bahamas which I read beside the pool.
I read David Gemmell constantly in 1996 getting caught up with his back catalog. Steve Tompkins would fly to London on three day weekends. He would sleep on padded benches in alcoves at Heathrow Airport and sally forth to London bookstores. He would return with suitcases filled with books. I would get David Gemmell books years before the U.S. release.
I was also fortunate in having a Jute in Kent who got me some Gemmell hardbacks with inscriptions to me at book signing events. When asked about his opinion on Robert E. Howard, Gemmell replied “Brilliant stuff.” Gemmell was also a big Louis L’amour fan.
Steve and I would discuss how David Gemmell was keeping sword and sorcery fiction alive. Granted, it wasn’t in the classic pulp novelette form but it was filled with sorcery, battles, villains, and heroes. Some of Gemmell’s later novels were filled with some domestic family relationship dialog and scenes, which I could have done without. That was the nature of publishing of the time. Gemmell was still the model of efficiency in comparison to most other fantasy fiction published at the time.
I generally recommend Morningstar as a good novel to start with. It is relatively short and a very typical Gemmell novel. If you don’t like him, you can move on, you have not invested too much into him. Knights of Dark Renown is another good starter novel.
Some consider both Morningstar and Knights of Dark Renown to be in the same world as the Drenai but set much earlier before. In fact, one could probably arrange all of Gemmell’s novels into one long sequence extending eons into the future.
I am not a big fan of the three Jon Shannow novels. They are post-apocalyptic novels with Jon Shannow owing something to the Man with No Name and Louis L’amour. I am not a big fan of post-apocalyptic novels in general though I should give them another try.
Unfortunately, David Gemmell did not produce much in the way of fiction in shorter lengths. He wrote a Druss origin story for a Drenai omnibus. He then went on to write a collection of novellas/short novels, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend. Gemmell hinted at a second chronicles but time ran out. This is another good place to start with David Gemmell. Druss acquires the demon axe, Snaga the Sender in the first novella. Foreign raiders takes his wife who eventually ends up in the harem of a foreign potentate. Gemmell does not take the easy way out, the potentate is a decent guy and hard decisions are made.
“Druss the Legend” has him at a Battle of Thermopylae situation. It goes to show the paucity of sword and sorcery in magazine form at this time that Gemmell had no market for shorter fiction. Some excerpts appeared in Amazing Stories and a Del Rey sampler paperback (probably handed out at conventions).
Reading David Gemmell got me through a difficult period of my life. If you like sword and sorcery, have exhausted the older stuff, give him a try. He stands beside Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Michael Moorcock, and Karl Edward Wagner in my personal opinion. You will feel pretty good upon finishing one of his novels and not icky unlike some others popular these days. Gemmel died on July 28. His birthday was August 1st. I will be raising a glass in remembrance.