I really like Gemmell’s style of fantasy. It’s grounded in a sense of reality and it makes it feel refreshing when compared to other series filled with dragons, orcs and other magical beings. It’s not to say that Gemmell’s fantasy is devoid of typical elements of the fantasy genre. There’s plenty of magic for example, and Morningstar even has a few Vampyre Kings. The fantastic elements are toned down. The magic, or magick rather, isn’t the Dungeons and Dragons or Forgotten Realms battle magic and it’s not the magic you would find in Epic fantasy series. It’s simple, yet effective. Understated seems to be a good description of his use of magic and creatures. It fits rather well in Gemmell’s overall style of military fantasy and Morningstar fits nicely amongst the rest of Gemmell’s body of work.
Morningstar is based on the legend of Robin Hood. Jarek Mace is a thief who lives in a little village in the forest and steals from the rich for his benefit, sharing the wealth with some of the villagers. Through small encounters with the armies of a warlord, Mace and some of the villagers become accidental heroes and leaders of a rebellion. Morningstar is about heroes. More specifically, it’s about how heroes are just like everyday men and women. Jarek Mace became the legendary Morningstar and the novel is the story of how that legend came to be. The interesting aspect here is that Jarek Mace is an amoral thief whose only concern in life is for himself. The creation of the legend happened because of a misunderstand act of selfishness. Much like self-fulfilling prophecy, once the legend of the Morningstar was created, Jarek feels increasingly obligated to become that person. A significant portion of the novel deals with Mace’s struggle to remain the man he always was or rise up to the occasion and selflessly save the people from the resurrected Vampyre Kings and a conquering warlord.
Magic in Morningstar:
The magic is organized in two different categories, magick and sorcery. Magick is the creation of illusions using tricks of light. Owen Odell regularly uses illusions to entertain patrons in the taverns and inns he visits. The purpose of illusions is primarily to entertain and Odell uses them to make a living as a travelling entertainer. What other use could there be for the Hatchling Dragon, a tick in which a baby dragon is shown to hatch for the crowd?
Sorcery is the kind of magic we’re used to reading about in fantasy novels. It’s harnessing the power of base elements, like heat and light or warmth and contentment, and combining them in a way to create or destroy. Sorcery is essentially a more advanced form of magick. It’s interesting to see Odell’s progression from entertainer to accomplished sorcery. By harnessing heat, building it and shaping it and mixing it with some light, he’s able to make fire. It’s not an original basis for a magic system but I find the relation between illusions and sorcery to be an interesting. One is the building blocks on which the other is created. Sorcery doesn’t seem to have any limitations. A certain character uses it to travel in time. Odell’s mentor, Cataplas uses his magick for necromancy, creating hellhounds out of dead animals.
The creation of a legend:
The story is told in the first person narration. The bard, Odell, tells the story of how Jarek Mace became the morning star from his point of view. It’s fascinating to see a character like Mace change and grow over the course of the book from the point of view of one of his companions. There are numerous books in which a character becomes a hero but the point of view is internal, we have that very same character’s point of view. The narration by Odell is also important to the main theme of the book. It’s not just a first person narration. Gemmell writes a framing sequence of an older Odell telling the story of Morningstar. He specifically tells the story from his point of you as opposed to the legend of Morningstar.
I really like how Gemmell address the fact that a true hero’s work isn’t done when the last evil man is slain. He has to replace the head of state. It’s not enough to wield sword and shield and defend the innocent. You can’t leave a power vacuum to be filled by the next opportunist in line. Mace was singularly adept at thieving, single combat and leading men into battle but he was next to useless when it came to administrating a city-state. It’s not the focus of the book by any means, but it’s addressed because it provides yet another example of why Mace doesn’t think he is suited to be the legend everybody thinks he is.
The tragedy of Jarek Mace is that he’s the only one, aside from Odell, who is aware of the irony that he, thief and overall scoundrel, is acclaimed as a hero of the people. He’s the only one to struggle with the idea that a rogue such as he can be a hero to others. It takes him a very long time to realize that a hero isn’t remember for who he was, but what he did. It’s a person’s actions that are remembered through the ages, not the individual.
The quest of a hero is accidental as is the creation of a hero. The first half of the book is mostly Owen Odell and Jaerk Mace escaping the armies of the Angostin and helping those they come across. Usually, Mace has ulterior motives for helping others (acquiring gold and other riches) but over time, rather rapidly, the legend of his accomplishments as the Morningstar begins to grow. They’re pretty reactionary until the middle of the book where they uncover the evil plot of Cataplas. As always, Mace goes along reluctantly, urged on by his followers which continue to increase in number. It was never his intent or his goal to become the hero of the people. There is a force pushing, urging Mace to fully embrace the legend. It’s not his destiny, though. There is no cosmic entity forcing him to take on the role. Gemmell is arguing that it’s the choices of Mace and his company that were made along their journey that ultimately made a hero out of Mace. He could have run away on numerous occasions but he continuous decided to stay and help those in need. The fact that he often had ulterior motives doesn’t matter because the end result was so positive. Regardless of his reasons, his selfish acts often times didn’t earn him the riches he was working for. Without his wanting to, Mace’s selfish acts were made selfless.
The novel is also about identity and the conflict that every individual has to be true to themselves in spite of exterior influences. It's primarily characterized in Jarek Mace, of course. His internal conflict is a result of the polarized versions of himself, how he sees himself and how others choose to see him. There are similar conflicts of identity with other characters. Young Ilka who is forcefully living the life of a whore and her desire to leave that life behind. Piercollo who doesn't like violence and only takes part when he thinks it's necessary. His love of cooking and singing contrasts with the way others see him because of his giant and muscled body, the body of a warrior. Owen Odell who despite having made his choice long ago t
With Morningstar, Gemmell manages to tell a story that has many similarities to his other works but also defies the genre. The juxtaposition of real events and the story told of them tears down the romanticism often found in the fantasy genre. It’s such a strong element of the genre that it was jarring for me, a regular reader of fantasy, to read about such a complexly flawed character such as Jarek Mace. To know that the hero of the Highlands dismissed the suicide of a woman who loved him as a trivial matter was shocking. It resembles the anti-hero archetype of which we see everywhere today but Jarek Mace is of a different breed. He struggles with both sides of himself and Gemmell told his tale, through the mouth of another, in a beautiful way. He also wrote some kick ass action scenes because he’s David Gemmell and I expect no less. I would recommend this book to anybody who’s ever complained about the lack of single volume fantasy novels or fans of heroic fantasy.