Since one of the later books in the series has already been reviewed, it seems only fair to do the first one too. The late great David Gemmell was an unquestionable master of the S&S (sword-and-sandals a.k.a sword-and-sorcery, depending on which critic you believe) style of fantasy writing for an entire generation. Uppity critics would call it heroic fantasy; S&S to them is a garish and gaudily painted mock-up. The main difference from classical and/or epic fantasy is that S&S focuses more on individual personalities and localized battles, not a cosmicology of world-threatening events. Older writers of the genre include Michael Moorcock (who coined the term ‘Sword-and Sorcery’ in 1961 trying to classify Robert Howard’s Conan series), Fritz Leiber, Sprauge de Camp, and more recently Patrick Rothfuss, among others. Think of a cross between Alexander Dumas and Robert E. Howard and you get a fairly good idea of what it’s all about. If you’re genuinely curious, have a look here for an overview, and browse through the sources if you’re fascinated. Gemmell admittedly follows a pretty standard formula through all his books. But that’s what makes a good fantasy writer; everyone knows the formula, it’s what you do with it that counts. If you can entertain, you’ve done well. If you get people coming back for more, you’ve mastered it.
In Sword and the Storm Gemmell’s S&S formula is fairly straightforward. The first in the four-part Rigante Series, it’s based on legends and myths from our world (Celtic mythology, in this particular case) and follows standard historical patterns in world-building, politics and economics, social structure and stratification, usually set in a pre-industrial world. It’s not this world, or an alternative time-track, so it can be labelled classic fantasy, although it’s much more in the action/adventure mold, and hence more uncanny than marvellous, in structural terms. It’s a terrific read, though. Well worth the money in entertainment value. If you do decide to read the series, buy at least one of them. Gemmell’s dead now, but the books are still worth it.
To continue, then, there’s very little magic, with the exception of some supernatural beings, like the Morrigu (drawn from Celtic mythology) and the Sidhe race, and the witch women and druids capable of some degree of alteration of the natural world (magic, basically), and usually possess prophetic abilities. No uber-powerful mages or ultra-powerful magical object, no arduous quest, no other-worldly demons and gaps in reality, just druidic/shamanic beliefs and a few minor magics, like healing, petty spells, and hexes. This is quite different from other Gemmell series, especially the Drenai Sagas and the Stones of Power quintet.
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Celtic mythology, and in particular the Ulster Cycle and the Book of Invasions will clearly see how strongly derivative Sword in the Storm, and by extension the entire Rigante series is. The fact that there was a very real confederation of tribes known as the Brigante (remember the story of the Romans and Queen Cartimandua? Of course you do.), not to mention the closeness in the etymology of Connavar (the main protagonist) and Cuchulainn, the hero of Celtic mythology, makes it pretty obvious. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, mind you. Far from it. Critics say that Sword in the Storm has the typical Gemmell Weltanschauung; id est tribal societies (the Rigantes) that live a clean, peaceful life in the mountains only to be rudely dragged into the vicious cycle of expansion, conquest, and war launched by an invading empire modeled on the Roman, except it’s called the Stone Empire. This has more than a grain of truth to it, Gemmell’s style has very strong overtones of idealization. This is not to say that the tribes don’t engage in internecine warfare, or have their own fringe violent element like bandits and outcast mercenaries and so forth. They’re not tree-hugging hippies, just more in tune with the natural world and will fight fiercely to protect what is theirs and their own.
Heroes in particular have incredible iron-wills, strength of character, and a ruthless personality, but always tempered with compassion and great selflessness. This usually means they’re always tormented by self-doubt as circumstances force them into actions that are more than a little morally questionable. Slaughtering innocent women and children, for example.
While the usual uber-powerful mystical villain is conspicuously absent, the Mother Goddess arch-type is very much present in the shape of the Morrigu. She’s a combination of a not-exactly-benevolent mother goddess with the trickster god, one who delights in granting wishes that always have a sting in the tail. Originally it seems that there is little else to her, but as the book and series unfolds her importance becomes more and more apparent, as does her deep and abiding love for life and the Earth that nurtures it. Morrigu, incidentally is drawn from a prominent figure in Celtic mythology, the Morrigan.
The main protagonist of Sword in the Storm is a young Rigante tribesman named Connavar (whose secret/soul name is Sword in the Storm, as he was born during one)and is fiarly typical for Gemmell. Fearless, handsome, and charismatic, easily attracted by a pretty face, born to be a great leader of men. In tracing his adolescence, Conn falls for one and then another pretty, who usually have hidden depths of strong-will and as you read you do tend to get annoyed by his selfless and often foolhardy bravery (attacking a massive black bear with nothing but a hunting knife in order to save his crippled friend is a good example). Still, that’s what heroes do. But you can understand why his brother Braefar comes to resent him so much. Braefar’s the clever one, but not in the same league for bravery. If Connavar’s Manchester United, then Braefar’s probably Stoke City. There’s another brother, Benedigt Bran, who’d probably be Man City or Liverpool, also masterfully courageous and outrageously handsome. But that’s getting ahead of the story, for when Connavar is a young boy he’s very close to his brothers. But implacable when it comes to enemies, and quite the hot-head as well.
Connavar, despite his genuinely heroic characteristics, is more flawed than other Gemmell heroes, like Druss the Legend in the Drenai series and Heliakon in the Troy series. He commits adultery, gives into revengeful hate, and eventually slaughters a village down to every last man, woman, and child. They did kill his wife, though, so he had some justification. Yet he is possessed of great compassion and courage, and it is these attributes that bring him to the attention of the Sidhe, and more importantly the Morrigu, after saving a faun trapped in brambles. This is significant, but I won’t say why here. Read the book to find out.
So, after a reasonably heroic adolescence, Connavar chooses to explore the world by accompanying Banouin, a close friend and the only Stone merchant (Stone’s the evil empire, remember) allowed to trade with the Rigante, Connavar gets a first-hand look at the treachery and violence inherent in every land. I don’t want to give anything away here. I’ll just say that after a great deal of intrigue and bloody murder, Connavar eventually hires himself out as a mercenary in the army of Stone, realizing that a Stone invasion of Rigante lands is inevitable, and he needs to study their military tactics in order to defend the Rigante. And he, thanks to the twisted gifts of the Sidhe and the Morrigu, is the only one who can stop it. How? Take a guess. How would a charismatic hero unite a confederation of tribes and weld them into one great fighting force? Well, how did William-the-bastard-of-Normandy do it? Or Henry V? Or Julius Caesar? Or for that matter, his clone in Sword and the Storm, Jasaray? Exactly.
As in all Gemmell books, a large part of what makes them worth reading is the quality of the action sequences. Gemmell handles these masterfully; his books are justifiably renowned for their exciting fist-fights and sword-fighting duels, and military ambushes and large-scale battles. Sword in the Storm features an empire modeled on Rome and hence has a great deal of military strategy, which is quite a bit more complex than the Drenai stories. This lends a lot to the gritty realism that finds its way into Gemmell’s books that tempers the often idealistic and occasionally stilted storytelling.
So, in conclusion, I highly recommend the Rigante series. All of Gemmell’s series are uniformly excellent exponents of heroic S&S fantasy. What makes the Rigante series relatively unique is excellent creative exploitation of Celtic mythology, characters who have genuine flaws but are true champions of righteousness, and terrific action sequences. It can also be said that Gemmell himself acknowledged that Christian mythology, and to a lesser extent Judaic mythology, were major influences, and it comes out very strongly in the Rigante series. Lost causes and heroic redemption, and Pyrrhic success are key components in all of Gemmell’s books. Read the other books – Midnight Falcon, Ravenheart and Stormrider – and you’ll see what I mean. They’re well worth it.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org