The Truth Behind a Legend…

Please note: voting on the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy closes on Friday 2nd June. The awards will be presented on the 15th July 2017, at the Edge-Lit 6 event in Derby.  Cast your votes HERE.

David Gemmell Books

Have you ever met a legend?

I have.

I’ve stood on the walls of a doomed-to-fall fortress with men too old, too young, and women who fight like lionesses; I’ve been chased across enemy territory by wild beasts, but rescued by a deformed cripple who was turned on by everyone he has ever known yet he still cared; I’ve gone behind enemy lines to cut the head from the snake’s body; I’ve met killers who would turn on country and kin, who have committed the most violent of acts, yet they would sacrifice themselves for the sake of children; and I have fought and fallen besides heroes. I was a soldier, and I have ‘been there, done that’, but these are legends. And the first legend that I met was not a soldier. He was a writer and his name was David Gemmell.

David Gemmell was a fantasy writer. That’s the truth of it. He was and still is regarded as the British ‘King’ or ‘Father of modern heroic-fantasy’, a title worthy of his legendary status. To eleven year old me (at the time I discovered him) the big-daddy-of-heroic-fantasy was a fireside mythmonger. But behind every legend there is a human being, and you couldn’t get more human than David. For all his renown, David was simply known as ‘the big man’ to his fans and readers.

I picked up my first Gemmell novel when I was eleven. At the time I hated reading, so much so that I was classed under ‘special measures’ at school. So when my mother gave me pocket money in a book shop as a last attempt at kindling an interest in reading, she fully expected me to pick-up a pack of stickers or a Pokémon magazine at best. Needless to say she was shocked when I chose a novel, let alone something from the adult ‘Fantasy’ section. Thinking back on it, I’m surprised that my mother didn’t tell me ‘not to waste the money’ – me being me, at first sight I honestly only wanted the book for the cool picture of the axe on the front. I’m eternally grateful that mum didn’t talk me out of it.

That novel was ‘Legend’.

An eleven year old with an adult fantasy novel? Spotty pre-teen vs. violence, cursing, death, sorrow, tragedy…and courage, love, friendship, too. Above all else David Gemmell wrote passion. I laughed and I cried. I discovered a world where men stood against death – and in many ways life – not because they had to, but because it was the right thing to do. I wanted to be like one of these men. (Or women for that matter! Gemmell also catered to the strong female archetype. The character Virae from Legend will always have a place in my heart. As a boy, when I’d rather wipe a bogey on a girl’s back than play kiss chase, to have strong female role models was a real eye-opener. Though I still didn’t play kiss chase.)

Gemmell wrote ‘lightly’. Don’t take this the wrong way. He doesn’t skim on detail nor does he info-dump pages of history in a single go. His voice is light as it’s easy to read, so easy in fact that eleven year old me who didn’t EVER-want-to-read finished ‘Legend’ in a single night. My mum wasn’t impressed with the bags under my eyes, but she was speechless that I had actually read a book, let alone in a few hours.

I was young and impressionable, and Gemmell’s stories cast a spell over me. Where most teens my age had sports stars or pop sensations for idols, I had the heroes and heroines of Gemmell’s books. I was not alone in my fascination. One reader reportedly saved a woman from being attacked by two men, all because of Gemmell’s influence. If there’s one thing that has stayed with me over the years, it’s a code. A code of warriors, ‘The Iron Code’ or Shadak’s iron code, something that Druss the Legend lived by. Something that Gemmell wrote.

“Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men.”

“Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.”

“Never back away from an enemy. Either fight or surrender. It is not enough to say I will not be evil. Evil must be fought wherever it is found.”

When asked by one of my fellow soldiers how we should conduct ourselves during an operational deployment overseas, I showed him this quote. Need I say more?

In 2006 two men, whose words I valued the most, both passed away. My father and David Gemmell. Sounds odd to put both of them side-by-side like that, and please don’t mistake me for being cold-hearted towards my father for comparing him to a writer I never met, but when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy going from school to college to real life, you sometimes need a steer.

My father was an engineer, but he was also a fighter. He fought mental illness for much of his life. Writing this is already making me a little…well, you know (*cue x-factor/Britain’s got talent sob story). My father battled the worst bout of his illness in 2006. I do not condone nor condemn what he did, but in November of that year he took his own life. In his eyes, rather than let the illness take what little he had left, he went down fighting. My father always did right by my sister and I. Whenever I read a Gemmell novel the Iron code would come to mind, and I would immediately think of my father. That was how he lived. I wanted to be a fighter. Like my father and like the characters that Gemmell created. So I joined the army. This is when fantasy became reality.

Gemmell’s stories are real as real can be. He knew what he was writing about. Gemmell’s characters aren’t knights in shining armour that ride in at the last minute to save the day. They’re normal everyday people like you and I. They had heart. Gemmell might never have stood on the front lines of a battlefield, but somehow he encompassed even the minute details of conflict. That’s because he wrote with heart. He didn’t just write about the implications of two countries, kingdoms, or even empires going to war with each other, he wrote about the human element of each individual in the press of humanity. Armies weren’t faceless ranks of soldiers, they were men and women with dreams, hopes, fears and problems of their own.

It’s a testament to Gemmell that people like me want to write about him. Though my scant few words will never do the justice that the big man deserves, when you think about it, if an ex-soldier/reader wants to spin up an article over someone he’s never met, it’s something special. Gemmell left a legacy behind him.

This legacy is something that if you are a fantasy reader you’ve almost definitely encountered, even if you didn’t realize it. Renowned writers such as James Barclay, Conn Iggulden and John Gwynne credit Gemmell as an influence. There’s a whole generation of writers who at one point have read a Gemmell book, and now write with a semblance of his influence. And David’s wife Stella, who also finished Gemmell’s last book ‘Fall of Kings’ after his passing, has released her debut novel ‘The City’.

Stella’s dedication in ‘The City’ simply says:

For Dave, of course.’

That sums it up really, doesn’t it?

And I can’t forget, The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy. Divided into three categories: Ravenheart (best cover art), MorningStar (best newcomer/debut), and Legend (best release of the year), the annual awards celebrate fantasy literature in the name of Gemmell. It’s highlighted the successes of writers like Helen Lowe, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Peter V Brett, the list goes on and on. And the best part about it? It’s voted for by people like you and me, the readers, because as many who knew Gemmell will testify, the readers are the ones that mattered most to him. After all we’re the little guys that made it into his stories.

David Gemmell wasn’t just a writer. Nor was he just the British Father of Heroic Fantasy, or a figurehead for the genre’s popularity. I could have rambled on all day (as you can see) about the big man, but if there’s any single way to put it all into words (without stealing Stella’s – which I thought were perfect!) it’s this:

David Gemmell. Legend.

Lastly here are a few thoughts/comments from some authors and industry professionals who label the big man as an important influence and my thanks to them for their time and contributions:

Stan Nicholls, ‘Orcs’, chair of the DGLA:

Dave Gemmell’s greatest influence on me was as a man, and as a friend. You have to understand that his fiction wasn’t some kind of artifice; it was a genuine expression of his personality and beliefs. He really did lay great emphasis on honour, loyalty and the desire of decent people to try to do decent things, while acknowledging that none of us our perfect beings. It was how he tried to live his life, and he imbued his characters with those qualities.”

James Barclay, ‘Dawnthief’ and Chronicles/Legends of the Raven, DGLA nominee

The greatest inspiration was the man himself, not his work. To sit with Dave Gemmell for an evening was to realize that every word he spoke was laced with the passion and belief that filled his novels. He didn’t imagine it, he lived it.”

John Jarrold, Published David Gemmell whilst at Orbit, Independent Literary Agent

 David Gemmell.  I first met him when I was running Orbit, around 1989.  We chatted and drank at conventions.  Later I became his editor at Random House.  We both lived in Hastings at the time and I spent an evening at his place once a month.  We’d take a couple of hours to discuss business – sales figures, forthcoming publication, cover designs, promotion and other matters – then play computer games and talk about everything under the sun over brandy and cigarettes. Sometimes until 3am.  We both loved Westerns – books and films,  Louis L’Amour was one of his favourite writers. He didn’t suffer fools at all, much less gladly, but we had many good, funny times. Neither of us went to university and we were both Londoners from working-class backgrounds.  Maybe that helped.  I remember the shock when I heard he’d died and the very large brandy I raised to him that night.”

 Andy Remic (British fantasy author of ‘The Iron Wolves’, ‘The Clockwork Vampire Chronicles’ and more):

“A friend passed me Legend by David Gemmell when I was fourteen years old –and I was immediately hooked. Just over a year later my father passed away, and I immersed myself in reading to help get over the loss – and I read all of Dave’s books, buying them the day they came out. David Gemmell was a great writer, a great story-teller, and was extremely influential on me as a writer, but more, as a human being. May he rest well in the Hall of Heroes.”

 Mark Lawrence, 2016 Best Novel ‘The Liar’s Key’, 2014 Best Novel ‘Emperor of Thorns

Gemmell captured what I loved about fantasy in the 80s and felt I’d outgrown, but somehow repackaged it in a way that still appealed. That’s something I owe him considerable thanks for. There’s a fire in Gemmell’s work that keeps me reading, keeps me involved. He is in fact the only author I’ve ever taken the trouble to find out more about.”

John Gwynne, 2013 Best newcomer ‘Malice:

David Gemmell set a new bar in fantasy. When most fantasy was full of shining hero’s and black and white causes, David smashed an axe into the genre and chopped down that wall. His flawed characters, gritty worlds and fast-paced plotting were fresh and exciting, and a re-read of them today proves that they still are. My personal favourite is ‘Sword in the Storm,’ but he was so prolific with never a slip in quality that it is almost impossible to choose a ‘best of.’ He is, beyond all doubt, a legend, and ‘Malice’ would have turned out a very different book without him.”

Christian Cameron (aka. Miles Cameron, author of ‘The Red Knight’ nominated for best newcomer 2013):

“I started writing fantasy because of David Gemmell.”

Note: Christian’s is one of my favourite quotes, because I think it’s true for so many writers (both published and those that write for the fun of it) – Mike.

Helen Lowe, 2012 best novel ‘Heir of Night’:

Growing up, so many aspects of David Gemmell‘s novels “spoke” to me: the grand sweep of the stories and their sense of contending light and dark, the way the characters’ choices are so often around sacrifice and duty, yet friendship and love are always the heart of the story. And yes, I then wanted to write stories ‘just like that’ myself.”

Ed McDonald (author of the upcoming ‘Blackwing’):

“The first time I read Legend, I was made to understand people who would fight for a cause, and to stand against what was wrong even if it cost them their lives. The seventh time I read it, the message was rang just as clear. We may not stand on the walls of Dros Delnoch, but Druss’s message is timeless; an imperative not to take the easy road, or to let others bare misfortune in our place, but to do what’s right.”

Anna Smith Spark (author of the upcoming ‘The Court of Broken Knives’):

“My first year at university: I spent all day studying classical history, all night playing d&d. Superb! I hadn’t read Gemmell then, but the DM and one of the other players had, and shaped the whole game world around the character of Druss. Between that and the courses on the Trojan War and Alexander the Great, I wasn’t so much reading Gemmell as living it. The character I played then was the original of Thalia, the heroine of Broken Knives. She was more real to me than most people. Possibly still is. So Gemmell shaped my writing and my whole view of fantasy hugely. In a slightly off-beat way.”

RJ Barker (author of the upcoming ‘Age of Assassins’):

“I kind of think of David Gemmell as the AC/DC of Fantasy; it’s relatively straightforward, you generally know what you’re going to get and, though a lot of people think they can do it, no one else does it quite as well.”

Don’t forget: voting on the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy closes on Friday 2nd June. The awards will be presented on the 15th July 2017, at the Edge-Lit 6 event in Derby.  Cast your votes HERE.

*This article was originally featured on Fantasy Book Critic – a big thank you to Mihir for allowing me to update and re-post here.

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