Ravenheart, by David Gemmell

ravenheart-by-david-gemmell review coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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If Sword in the Storm was Morte d’Arthur and Midnight Falcon was Gladiator, then Ravenheart is part Rob Roy and part Braveheart. There’s also a fair dash of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels. This is a swashbuckling tale wrapped in a lesson of oppression and historical revision. It deals with an issue Guy Gavriel Kay explored in Tigana, mainly identity as it applies to a people or nation.

Ravenheart is a retelling of the lives of the Scots after the dismal failure of the 1745 Rebellion, which was led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Rigante of Ravenheart, 800 years after the story of Bane as told in Midnight Falcon, are a beaten people. The Varlish rule the lands of the Rigante, and have outlawed their culture, even their very name. In the south, the Rigante have no idea of their own history. In the north, the Black Rigante still hold to their culture, battling against the Varlish.

Into this maelstrom comes Kaelin Ring, a young man full of anger and promise, but ignorant of his people and his history. As with the heroes of Gemmell’s previous Rigante books, a young woman must die a violent death for Kaelin to find his destiny, and his destiny is to become a hero.

Gemmell writes with admirable clarity. His narrative is both concise and gripping, quite an achievement. His characters are well-drawn, though sometimes veering close to stereotype–much like the plot, which travels near the border of maudlin. Neither his characters nor his story ever cross those fearful lines, which means that the reader’s emotions and interests are ensnared in the novel but without resort to cheap gimmicks. I found Ravenheart an engrossing yet easy read. The setting is admirable in its scope and sense of reality, but Gemmell doesn’t go overboard with description or obvious forays into showcasing the world he has created.

Like the movies Rob Roy and Braveheart, this book offers the underdog as hero. It lionizes the oppressed and points the finger of shame at the oppressor. While this is not Scottish history, this is obviously influenced or inspired by it. The actions of the Varlish to the Rigante are the actions of the English to the Scottish. Does this mean that one must understand that history to enjoy this book? Absolutely not. Just as Braveheart rewrote history to please the audience, Gemmell has rewritten it to fit into his vision of the world of the Rigante. This is not a history lesson. Gemmell has taken the issues and passions of that period and applied them to his purpose.

Gemmell is also a good enough writer that he need not demonize the entire race of the Varlish. These are not all evil men, merely deluded and ignorant. Has not every race believed in a special destiny? When the oppression becomes public, and when events culminate in an injustice too great to hide, the true humanity of the villains is revealed. Though not all. As in reality, some people are irredeemably corrupt.

If you enjoyed either Sword in the Storm or Midnight Falcon, you will undoubtedly enjoy Ravenheart. Though the settings are vastly different, the characters and story fall into the Rigante mold. Though this book has a slower start than the previous two, it has as gripping and exciting a climax as either. It leaves itself open, as have all three of the Rigante novels, for a sequel. I was pleased to learn that there is a sequel, called Stormrider. Expect to see a review as soon as I can get my hands on it.

In the opening of the Sword in the Storm, I mentioned that I had previously read one of Gemmell’s books and hadn’t been terribly impressed. I’m impressed now. These Rigante books are fantastic reads. As fantasy fiction goes, this is top-notch. These books are not literary masterpieces, they are not instant classics that will garner David Gemmell the Nobel Prize in Literature. They will garner him fans. While everyone’s tastes are different, I cannot imagine someone hating these books. I can’t imagine someone not being entertained by them.

Who knows, I’ve been proved wrong before, but I would put money on it.

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