David Gemmel’s death in 2006 was a massive loss to the field of heroic fantasy, which he made his own during a long and successful career. Gemmell’s work was distinguished by a muscular, stirring approach to heroic fantasy, which eschewed cartoon stereotypes in favour of exploring deep themes like loyalty, honour and redemption. He never shied away from depicting violence in his novels but I’ve always felt that this was balanced by the emotional connection he usually managed to make with his readers – you genuinely care what happens to the characters in a Gemmell novel, which is not always the case with many idendikit heroic fantasy novels. It is Gemmell’s memorable characters – including Druss the Legend, Waylander the Slayer and ‘The Jerusalem Man’ Jon Shannow, to name just a few – which he is best known for. Years after his death, the qualities which distinguished Gemmell as a writer have ensured that he continues to be one of the world’s bestselling fantasy authors.
Probably Gemmell’s most famous work is Legend, the first in a series of novels that was later to become known as the Drenai Saga. Gemmell’s original name for the novel was The Siege of Dros Delnoch, because it tells the story of a fortress of that name, which is under threat by a horde of Nadir, the enemies of the fading Drenai empire. Since the Drenai defenders of Dros Delnoch are hopelessly outnumbered, the battle seems a lost cause – that is until Gemmell’s most popular creation, Druss, turns up. Known as the hero of the axe, Druss is the greatest hero of the Drenai people but by the time of Legend he is long past his prime, being greatly aged. He is still, however, a formidable warrior and an inspirational leader to his people, especially in light of the fact that he has chosen to come to the aid of Dros Delnoch knowing that it has been foretold that the fortress is where he is destined to die. Full of stirring feats, epic action scenes and memorable characters, Legend is by turns moving, absorbing, shocking and almost unbearably sad. Gemmell was to go on to write a number of brilliant heroic fantasies in the same mould – notably Waylander, Lion of Macedon and Wolf in Shadow – but for me Druss and Legend still stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Gemmell had an abiding interest in military history and originally intended to become a historical novelist. What fascinated him in particular were real life battles which ended badly for historical heroes, like the grisly fate of the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace. Gemmell once said that had he written about such individuals, he would have found a way in which they were ultimately victorious despite the odds. What led him eventually to write heroic fantasy novels was his realisation that this kind of storytelling would be more palatable in a fantasy setting. The theme of fighting against seemingly lost causes in the face of insurmountable odds recurs throughout Gemmell’s work. Such themes transcended Gemmell’s novels, which are notable for being set in quasi-historical worlds inspired by Ancient Greece, Arthurian Britain and the Wild West as well as more traditional fantasy settings. Gemmell had his critics but his greatest legacy is the fact that even after his death he continues to inspire a new generation of writers like Stan Nicholls, Joe Abercrombie and Andrzej Sapkowski. Since 2008 the David Gemmell Legend Award has been awarded in his honour to writers of distinction in the field of heroic fantasy which he helped build.