I have a few more movie reviews for my irregular series on lesser-known works of fantasy, but I’ve been on vacation all week. However, reading and recommending a lesser-known or hidden work of fantasy is another thing I’ve wanted to do thanks to similar columns that used to appear in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Like in my movie reviews, I’m here to recommend books. I may critique certain aspects of the work, but if I’m writing about it here, it’s because I think other people should check it out.
Today, I’m writing about David Gemmell’s novel, Sword in the Storm. It’s the first in what’s often called the Rigante series, but the first novel, at least, is self-contained and has a satisfying (quite satisfying) conclusion. David Gemmell himself was one of those writers who had a cult following. He may not have had the sales and name recognition of George R. R. Martin or Terry Brooks, but his fans are among some of the most devoted. I still remember the breathless fan who handed me a nearly-shredded copy of Legend, and whenever his name comes up in group discussions of fantasy, I usually see a bunch of blank stares and a handful of wide-eyed nodding heads. He may not have been the most inventive writer, but he wrote solid prose (something not always to be found in epic fantasy fiction) and created multi-layered characters that one could really care about. He also has a way of simultaneously turning fantasy tropes on their heads and still respecting them in a way; rather than an iconoclast, I’d say he just nudges the icons a little.
Sword in the Storm is more or less a fantasy coming-of-age story set in a world modelled after various of the Celtic Nations and the Roman Empire, but unlike many of these types of stories, there are many other threads woven around that of Connavar, the hero whose birth is heralded by a storm at the beginning of this novel besides the usual thread of ‘Hero born to save his people from the oppressors.’ (And this trope itself is one that is played with and turned around from time to time by the author.) One of the most interesting is that of Ruathain (‘roy-tain,’ roughly… I do recommend a Gaelic pronunciation chart when you read this), a man who is, by turns, the friend and rival of Connavar’s father, a stepfather, a leader of the village, a warrior, a flawed husband, a father, and a loving kind man. Just now, I realized that there is no easy ‘soundbite-friendly’ way to summarize his character, and that alone should serve as another recommendation.
But Ruathain isn’t the only complex character in this book. Enemies are sometimes shown in a sympathetic light, or at least in a way that the reader can see their points of view. Sympathetic and ‘good’ characters sometimes do stupid things for selfish reason. And the magic presence in this book does things for their own reason, and sometimes causes as much trouble by doing good things as they do by doing bad. Even the Empire, shown as an unstoppable implacable force, gets the treatment, and we see a few of the beneficial effects on their conquered territories.
Overall, this is a good read. If nothing else, the fact that there’s a conclusion at the end and not just a cliffhanger leading to the next book in the series marks it as a refreshing change from the usual endless procession of books with sequels and more sequels and sequels upon sequels. (I’ll be reviewing more self-contained novels in later posts.) And while it might be a little gentler in voice than the current doorstopper fantasy series, the characters and plot twists will stick in your head for months, if not longer.