The 10 best novels by David Gemmell, master of heroic fantasy
In the 1980s, with his debut novel Legend (1984), the British author David Gemmell revolutionised heroic fantasy. Drawing on the stories of Robert E. Howard and the novels of Michael Moorcock and J. R. R. Tolkien, Gemmell also took inspiration from his favourite novelist, the prolific writer of Westerns, Louis L’Amour. L’Amour’s stripped-back style of writing, and his emphasis on the darker aspects of the Wild West, combined with the epic qualities of The Lord of the Rings, and Gemmell’s own strong belief in the power of redemption, to create a new model for heroic fantasy, with no-nonsense writing, fast-paced action, and superlative characterisation. There are no longueurs in Gemmell’s fiction, no padding which sees characters talking at length without doing anything. The result was a string of bestselling fantasy novels which were true page-turners. He has often been described as one of those writers who can keep readers up into the small hours because they simply have to read another chapter (or, indeed, several chapters). Below we’ve chosen ten of the greatest David Gemmell novels – going roughly from the 10th best to the number one book (a controversial view) – any of which could be read as a standalone tale of courage, action, love, power, and redemption.
Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow. Gemmell’s final project, which he was still at work on when he died in 2006, was a trilogy about the Trojan War, harking back to the original work of fantasy literature in the western world, Homer’s Iliad. This book, the first in the trilogy, follows Heliakon (better known as Aeneas) but also boasts a cast including Odysseus, Andromache, Agamemnon, and many others.
The Legend of Deathwalker. David Gemmell liked to talk about ‘Rick’s Bar’ characters – that is, characters who are so vivid that they seem to have just stepped out of Rick’s Bar, in the film Casablanca, fully formed. Druss the Legend was Gemmell’s ultimate Rick’s Bar character: a muscled axeman with a bluff way of talking, living according to a strict moral code. Gemmell liked to say that he never had to write a line of Druss’s dialogue. It wrote itself. This is the third of Gemmell’s novels to feature Druss – the first two are mentioned below.
Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf. Waylander the Slayer (see below for more on this character) is one of the great creations of late twentieth-century fantasy. A dark, troubled, and violent killer who seems to possess an uncanny sixth sense for spotting danger, Waylander has rebuilt his life (of sorts) in this 1992 sequel, but then he learns that a bounty has been placed on his head, and both and he his daughter are in danger. As with many of Gemmell’s greatest novels, this one reels the reader in right from page one.
White Wolf. In interviews, Gemmell sometimes told the stories behind the creation of the names of his characters. Skilgannon the Damned – the protagonist of White Wolf – got his name from an email address Gemmell spotted at his publishers, where one of the workers was named S. Kilgannon. The resulting character was one of the great creations of Gemmell’s later career, although this novel is also renowned for its reintroduction of Druss the Legend – who appears, through magical means, as a supporting character.
Sword in the Storm. The first of Gemmell’s tetralogy of novels about the highland people known as the Rigante, Sword in the Storm seems to have been partly written as a paean to Scotland (Gemmell had Scottish ancestry). The novel is a sort of bildungsroman which follows the childhood and early years of Connovar, who will rise to become the leader of the Rigante. This novel also features one of our favourite female characters in all of David Gemmell’s novels, Vorna the witch.
Ravenheart. The third novel in the Rigante sequence, Ravenheart earns its place on this list chiefly because of its most magnetic character, Jaim Grymauch, who of all Gemmell’s characters – perhaps apart from Druss – is the one most closely modelled on Gemmell’s stepfather, whose strength and courage appear to have been crucial to the development of Gemmell’s worldview (reflected in his work).
Wolf in Shadow. This is the first in a loose trilogy of novels featuring Jon Shannow, half-crazed Christian pilgrim and gun-toting hero who stalks the post-apocalyptic world of the future, in search of the lost city of Jerusalem. Gemmell’s love-letter to the work of Louis L’Amour (though also bearing the influence of the Clint Eastwood film, Pale Rider, which had been released a couple of years earlier), Wolf in Shadow was written when Gemmell was in danger of losing his job as a journalist (sure enough, he was made redundant a short while after), and when – as he recalls in his preface to a reissue of the novel – he was coming to terms with the fact that his mother had terminal cancer. Fuelled by Armagnac and filled with despair, Gemmell created the character of Jon Shannow, who leapt onto the page – and Gemmell never looked back.
Waylander. After Druss the Legend (see below), Waylander the Slayer – once a soldier named Dakeyras, then an assassin, now a man on the path to redemption – is David Gemmell’s most famous character. The crossbow-carrying hero is also one of his darkest and deadliest. Gemmell said in an interview that he didn’t tend to plan his novels: he came up with a promising character, put him on a horse and has him ride out of a forest, and then sees what the character does. Waylander begins when the title character inadvertently rescues a priest who is being tortured in a forest. Their partnership will change both their lives. Gemmell said in interviews that this was the book that lost him his journalism job: the war raging in the novel was based on the real-life newspaper battle Gemmell, and his team at the struggling Folkestone Herald, were fighting against their bigger rivals, the Kent Messenger group. The Kent Messenger (known as KM) became Kaem in the novel, while Gemmell’s fellow journalists found their way into the book, e.g. Shane Jarvis became Sarvaj, and Robert Breare, the newspaper’s chairman, became Karnak. Breare apparently didn’t take kindly to his portrayal, and Gemmell lost his job three months later.
Legend. Surely something’s amiss here. We’ve reached Legend, but there’s another novel ranked even higher than this? Gemmell himself acknowledged that although Legend was his favourite of all his novels, it was the work of an inexperienced writer still very much learning his craft. But Legend introduced the world to Gemmell’s most famous creation, the axe-wielding hero Druss, and is full of ‘heart’, to borrow David Gemmell’s own word. Many readers consider it Gemmell’s best book. He wrote the original version of the story, about the siege of a fortress by an invading army, after he learned he may have terminal cancer, in his late 20s. The fortress represented his body, and the invading Nadir army symbolised the cancer. Thankfully, Gemmell discovered he had been misdiagnosed, and he survived to revise the novel into Legend, published in 1984.
The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend. Written in the early 1990s when Gemmell was arguably at the peak of his powers – he’d sharpened the rough edges present in Legend but was still full of raw energy and hadn’t started repeating himself (as all prolific writers are inevitably going to do, as Gemmell himself acknowledged), The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend was the long-awaited sequel – or, in fact, prequel – to Gemmell’s most famous novel. The novel follows the young axeman’s quest to find and rescue his beloved wife Rowena, after raiders attack their village and capture her. The book has everything: plenty of action, adroit characterisation, humour (Druss’s unlikely companion, the poet Sieben, is one of fantasy literature’s great comic creations), pathos, and, despite the domestic story at the heart of the novel, epic proportions worthy of The Odyssey.