Sword in the Storm, by David Gemmell

sword-in-the-storm-by-david-gemmell coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 1998
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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I have read David Gemmell before. Many years ago, I read Waylander II, or some such novel. As you can tell, it had little impact on me. Granted, it proved an enjoyable read, and that, in itself, made it worth its purchase, but I doubt I would have recommended it when there were many other books I had read at the time which affected me more. With this history, I was a tad unsure of wading into Sword in the Storm.

From the outset, I could tell this was a different book. Perhaps Mr. Gemmell has matured in his writing, or he has found a plot or character about which he is passionate. Whatever the reason, I’d gladly recommend this book. It isn’t a literary masterpiece, but it is certainly on par with those books considered masterpieces by many. I’ll mention no name, but while you are awaiting the multi-book adventure-with-no-end’s next installment, you could do far worse than read Sword in the Storm.

Sword in the Storm is part of a series, but each book in it is all but self-contained. While Sword in the Storm may seem to beg for a sequel, the next book in the series, Midnight Falcon, is not that sequel. And the last book in the series, Ravenheart, comes 800 years after the first two. This is not so much as series as a set of three connected novels in the same setting.

This is the story of Connavar, who is destined to be a king of the Rigante, a Keltoi tribe. As that last sentence may have told you, this story is set in a form of Counter-Earth (to steal a term from John Norman, though that is, thankfully, all I shall steal). This setting has the Celts (Keltoi), the Saxons, Angles and Jutes (Var) and the Romans (the men of the city of Stone). The Rigante seem to be the Scots, though they may not map directly to any particular culture or people. There are no historical personages, as such, in the series, though Connavar is an Arthur-like character.

This is not a retelling of the Arthurian legend, per se, but it retains many of the elements of the Arthurian legends while offering a new spin on the story. This novel relates to the coming-of-age of Connavar, and it has the elements of the perfect warrior called to lead his people against a culture-crushing foe, the magical sword, the king as man, and many more subtle parallels. In all honesty, though, I didn’t note the similarities to the Arthurian legend until well into the book, as they do not dominate Gemmell’s work, nor does he use the names we all associate with Arthur. With the birth of Connavar’s bastard, the parallels draw closer, but this story’s Mordred is much less like the Mordred most people know, the one from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.

This is a story that keeps you guessing. Mr. Gemmell has created some fine moments of tension. The reader might expect that Connavar will survive, but there are points at which I forgot that fact, and felt real anxiety as to the Connavar’s fate. That tells me the writing and plotting are good. I cannot deny that many of the moments that tugged at my heartstrings were quite melodramatic, but still, Mr. Gemmell’s words created an emotional reaction in me. Again, this proves to me that Mr. Gemmell is in fine form.

I am now in the midst of reading the final book in the series, Ravenheart I am disturbed, somewhat, at the treatment female characters receive from Mr. Gemmell. This is not to say that the female characters are not well-drawn. There are many women, in each of the books, that are strong, realistic characters with believable actions. No, the treatment that I wonder at relates to the death of the main, male characters young love in each novel. It seems that a hero can’t be a hero (at least not if they share DNA with Connavar) if their lover, prospective lover or spouse isn’t butchered. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice by Mr. Gemmell to connect the characters with this particular tragedy, but it seemed a strange echo from one book to the next. Perhaps that is why it takes 800 years for a hero to rise from the Rigante–everyone’s lover survived.

Sword in the Storm is a greatly entertaining, deeply satisfying work. The writing is always good, if not excellent. I am partial to writers like Guy Gavriel Kay as well as Glen Cook. On that scale, Mr. Gemmell rates more like a Cook, but without a distinguishing style. When I pick up a book by Glen Cook, his style seems to leap from each page, marking it as his own. I think Mr. Gemmell’s work lacks that particular personal flavor. That aside, one cannot fault his style on any technical level. Compared to much that I’ve read, Mr. Gemmell knows his craft, and it shows.

Overall, I would recommend this work. Not only is it excellent, it is part of a three book cycle that one could finish while one waits for the next volume from any one of a number of never-ending series. Do yourself a favour and at least pick up Sword in the Storm. I can’t imagine a fantasy literature fan being less than entertained by this work, and I would imagine that most would rush out to buy the second and third books after the merest taste of this one.

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