Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Blog Fantastic 004 - Dark Moon review

I've read a few David Gemmell books before, his Troy trilogy and Legend, the first of the Drenai series. I quite like him. His stories weren't filled with magic; he seems to prefer writing in the military fantasy mode. It’s been a few years since I last read a book of his but I don’t remember any other fantasy creatures and races in his books. Legend was a clean cut military fantasy novel dealing primarily with a siege and the battles surrounding it. His Troy trilogy, despite dealing with the story from The Iliad, didn’t deal with many creatures although there was a lot of talk about gods. Again, all three books focuses on military campaigns and those involved with the conflict. Whatever role magic played in those books, it was small. That’s definitively not the case for Dark Moon.

Based on the books by Gemmell I have read, his writing excels at fighting scenes and descriptions of violence. He’s also very good at writing warriors and other characters who deal with war be they healers, politician or other. Gemmell also has a good grasp on strategy which is an important skill to have since all five books of his that I’ve read deal with a military conflict of some sort. He’s also good at writing believable and interesting characters without overwhelming the reader with unnecessary information. His characterizations are quick and unburdened. In short, I’ve read books by David Gemmell in the past and I’ve really enjoyed them. I have no clue why I haven’t read more until now.

With Dark Moon Gemmell offers us a standalone fantasy novel, something few people can and have written. It's understandable why, so much world building goes into it that I can see why an author would like to write a story set in a universe they create without it being a universe they created from the ground up specifically for one story. The other problem with world building seems to be that some others things more is better. More detail translates into more books necessary to develop the world in the entirety of the author's vision. Gemmell doesn't seem to care about the amount of detail in Dark Moon. Instead he focuses on character and story. If the details of the world he created aren't necessary to the story they're left out. However, the elements he kept feel familiar her fresh. 

The book starts during the seventh year of the War of the Pearl. The Pearl is now in the hands of one of the four Dukes but the senseless war continues to be waged. The Duke in possession of the Pearl, an artefact belonging to one of the three Ancient Races, unknowingly unleashes an evil upon the world which long ago had been imprisoned by the Eldarin. A war that was being fought for greed and selfishness turns into a war for survival against the ferocious Daroth. Gemmell leads us through the conflict from the point of view of several interesting characters and all are profoundly affected by the situation taking place in the land of the four Dukedoms. The novel is permiatted with a deep sense of unknown and a possibility of change. Most of the characters are deeply changed by the novels end. None of the character development is reached by means of lazy storytelling, it’s all deserved.

Gemmell begins his book by introducing fascinating character with Tarantio and Dace who are two souls sharing a body, or at least that’s how it seems. The story only begins to solidify dozens and dozens of pages later. The author makes it clear that well developed characters will be a defining element of the novel. Tarantio’s unique relationship with Dace completely enthralled me as did the relationship of other characters later on in the book. Karis, the independent field commander, was particularly enjoyable to read about it. She has difficulty interacting with other people but in no way was this harmful to her development in the book.

The Complexity of War in Dark Moon:
One of the best things about Dark Moon is Gemmell’s meditation on war. It’s absolutely fascinating and it’s a subject he writes about with clarity and ease. By focusing his writing on characters and story, Gemmell is able to display various points of view and philosophies of war through most of the characters in the books. Very few of them share an opinion of war; a clear indication that war is as sensitive an issue in this fictional world as in our very own.

War is a complex issue and simple solutions rarely exist. Gemmell is clearly aware of this and he doesn't attempt to simplify the issue. Tarantio, although he doesn't like war nor approves of it, is opposed to Duvodas's peaceful philosophy. Like the golden skinned Oltor of old, Duvidas refuses to fight. To do so is to go against one’s nature according to Tarantio. He disapproves of war but also disapproves the total absence of fighting. Does Tarantio only believe in fighting for certain causes? Perhaps it's acceptable to fight for the defence of something important such as your beliefs or your way of life? If that is true could there be such a thing as a justifiable war? Tarantio's disapproval of the War of the Pearl is not reflected in his acceptance of the necessity of the war with the Daroth which is quite literally a war for the survival of the human race. Gemmell's decision not to simplify war and to discuss it intelligently with his reader is appreciated and it’s one of the book's strengths.

Gemmell seems to be indicating that war is a foolish undertaking by grown men who are really just children. The reasons for going to war are rarely, if ever, good reasons. He judges these decisions based on the negative outcomes that come with armed battle. Take a look at his main protagonist. Tarantio is a peaceful man. More often than not, he's engaging in combat in self-defence or in the protection of someone else. Yes, he is a warrior and he's paid for waging war but he takes no pleasure in it. When you consider Dace, he's very much the opposite. He relishes the feeling of killing someone, often time playing with his prey. Violence is the air he breaths and blood the water that sustains him. He's animalistic in his ways and it shows through his action and his desire for violence. Like and animal or a child he bases his actions on his instinct and his desires. By characterizing Dace in this way, Gemmell is also informing us of the type of people who engage in armed conflict. They too are children in adult bodies, waging war out of greed and pettiness. Tarantio mentions at one point that if he war ever ends his wants to become a scholar and by doing so he can benefit the world.

Albreck, the Duke of Corduin also feels like war is an exercise in futility. He is forced however to leave one war in order to engage in another. This second war, the war with the Daroth, is one for survival. This doesn't erase the fact that it is still a war, violence, loss and death abound but what else can be done? With the warring dukes, there remains a chance, however so slight, that peace can be brought on by negotiations. No such hope exists with the Daroth who are but a nightmare brought to life.

Gemmell makes us think of war and without necessarily a great deal of effort convinces us of that it’s a horrible thing. He then forces is to assist a new war in which none of the characters had much if any hope to survive. It’s a bit cruel but it helps to deepen our appreciation of the price the people must pay in order to obtain peace in a situation where military conflict is inevitable. Two options are given, fight or die. It seems clear what most people who choose to do but that’s not the case for every character in the book.

Gemmell doesn't limit his commentary on war to the senseless violence and death. He also deals with it from an economic and political point of view. The Duke of Corduin is as preoccupied keeping the city at peace than he is worrying about the Daroth. The city faced a hard winter with alarmingly low food rations to go around. As food stores emptied, the prices of food items rose accordingly and without much time passing by many city dwellers were on the verge of famine. Albreck did not stand idly by; he took it upon himself to buy all the available food so that it can be shared evenly with the populace thus avoiding much conflict amongst those who are starving. But suspending private trade did not solve all the city's problems. One of the other unsavoury aspects of war is that there will always be someone who tries to profit from the situation. The merchant Lunder in this case, sold food at already high prices but under delivered every order under the false pretences of not having enough food in his warehouses to properly fill the order. His defrauding of the city led to unnecessary additional suffering for the sole reason of personal prosperity and wealth. What's even more despicable is that Lunder was already a very successful merchant before the threat of war and famine were at Corduin's doors.

War, even senseless war, is almost continuously allowed to exist in this pseudo-medieval setting because there is a constant supply and demand for mercenaries and soldiers for hire. Tarantio has fought with and against several other characters in the book. Not because he will fight anybody but because nearly all available soldiers do it for the money regardless of how little they receive. Tarantio is far from the only character to fight for money. To them, it’s a way of life. What could these people do without a battle to fight? How do you make a living when the only thing you know how to do is fight and kill? Again, Gemmell asks difficult questions but he doesn’t provide easy answers.

The World of Dark Moon:
The most expansive element of world building in Dark Moon is the three Ancient races of the Eldarin, the Oltor and the Daroth. Little is known of the Oltor. They have golden skill, are adamant pacifists and healers. The Eldarin are furry skinned (like a rabbit’s fur) individuals who are the primary wielder of magic. They also despise violence and refuse to use force even in self-defence. The Daroth, unlike the Eldarin and the Oltor, live for violence. They are unable to socialize with others because any interactions with others lead to conflict. The Ancient races provide the mythological backbone to the story being told but the focus is squarely placed on the human characters and their problems. Gemmell also uses the Oltor and the Eldarin as a counterbalance to the pro war arguments and characters. He also uses them to included environmental messages in the book.

The map of the land is very simple if somewhat loose in its definition. The book has no map for the reader and we’re forced to use our imagination guided by Gemmell’s descriptions. Here’s the gist of it: there is a sea to the West and a vast desert to the North. Below the desert there are two Dukedoms in relatively close proximity separated by a small mountain range and forests. Below that there is yet another mountain range, this one more expansive than the first. There are two more Dukedoms somewhere in the south. That’s about all the information given to us and to be quite honest it’s plentiful. Although it can be very interesting and pleasant to read, overly detailed worlds are not a necessity in fantasy fiction and Gemmell proves it well with Dark Moon.

Magic in Dark Moon:
When starting to read Dark Moon I was looking forward to stepping away from dragons and magic for a while. It turns out; if that’s your intention you probably shouldn’t read Dark Moon. Sure, it there are no dragons, but magic and other fantasy creatures are well at home in this standalone novel.

Magic is related to and is part of nature. It emanates from it and is a quality of it. Sorcerers will use objects and creatures found in nature to power their magic. Healers and other magikers (Gemmell’s term) also use natural objects with magical properties to allow them to wield magic. When Brune gets his eye fix, Aldrin uses a coral stone to power the healing. Having no inner magic, Aldrin’s ability relies in using the magic already present in an object. Without it he is but a common man.

Duvodas grew up among the Eldarin and for that reason he is in tune with the magic of the land. Duvodas is more sensitive to magic and the changes of the land than most other men and for this reason he notices the change in magic when entering a city where the walls and foundations disrupt the flow of magic just like they disrupt the natural elements. We can read from this that the Eldarin society is close to nature much like elves are in most fantasy books. This is one of the ways that Gemmell while creating something new, the Eldarin race, makes it feel familiar. You could criticize Gemmell for creating something that isn't very different from a staple race of the fantasy genre but I won't. He could have easily use elves in his story and modified them even less without garnering any criticism for that choice. The fact that he chose to work harder and to create new elements for his book in order to make the world of Dark Moon unique is admirable.

Sorcery exists in opposition to magic in Dark Moon. It's something more attuned to what we consider magic in the real world. Potions made of rare and exotic ingredients, strange incantations, human sacrifices and other such things. It's not a natural force of the world harnessed through the mind and body, its most about using the strange and dark things that exist in the world in ways that produce effects not intended for those items. It's a malevolent activity that generally destroys instead of create, that sickens instead of heals. Magic can also be an advanced for of meditation where the user puts himself in a trance and can travel the land in spirit form. It requires concentration and the user must fight the urge to return to the body. 

I wanted to take a moment to comment on the cover. I like the cover. Initially I wasn't blown away but my appreciation for it has continued to increase. The artist is John Bolton. I've mostly seen his work in comics but he also does painting and other stuff. Neil Gaiman wrote and directed a short film about him. Look at Tarantio. He looks awesome. The colour of Karis’s face is odd but it looks deliberate. Covers specifically and art in general are one of the reasons I like fantasy. We've all seen a cover that sucked us right in and made us want to buy or read the book. I can think of a few times this has happened and I'm sure it will happen again in the future. I'll have to keep that in mind and make a post of my favourite fantasy novel covers of books I've read and books I haven't read.

One biggest disappointment with the book is the ending. My complaint is in two parts. The first part is that the ending felt sudden. Gemmell spends roughly a third of the book preparing for the conflict with the Daroth and the conflict itself last roughly 50 pages. Sure, those fifty pages where great, but it felt slight considering what preceded it. The second part is that Gemmell spends the entire book demonstrating the complexity of war only to end his book in all too clear cut a fashion. The resolution was too sudden but it was also to clean. It’s unfortunate that Gemmell wasn’t able to stick the landing as well as I would have hope. Had he done so, I would recommend Dark Moon to anyone, readers of fantasy or otherwise. As it stands, Dark Moon is an excellent book but if you’re looking for detailed world building à la Robert Jordan, this might not be the book for you. It’s harsh, it’s violent and it’s uncompromising in its portrayal of war and those who take part in it. If you’ve enjoyed previous Gemmell books, I don’t know how you could go wrong by giving Dark Moon a try. 

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