Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Blog Fantastic 035: Ghost King Review (Unread 008)

One of the best things about this
book is the cover.
David Gemmell is one of my favourite fantasy authors. I first discovered his writing when my brother lent me his copy of Lord of the Silver Bow, the first volume in Gemmell’s Troy trilogy which he was nearing completion before he passed away. His wife, Stella Gemmell, finished the trilogy and has since published a novel of her own titled The City. Since I’m a fan of Greek mythology and The Iliad I was excited to read it and Gemmell really impressed me. He mostly ignored a lot of the specifics of classical writing on the subject. It’s difficult to believe but Homer and Virgil didn’t have as much of an influence on Gemmell’s story as you would have expected. He definitively walked down his own path but that’s alright with me. At that point in his career he knew his strengths and by focusing on soldiers and other characters with strong personalities and by severely limiting the use of magic along with the presence and influence of the gods, he managed to write a trilling and action packed historical fantasy trilogy. This led me to reading several of his books and I’ve enjoyed every one.

After finding copies of most of the Stones of Power series at my local used book store (Bay Used Books) I read up a bit on the series before reading it. The cover of the first two books looked radically different than the other three. As it turns out, they’re two separate series that are tied together by the titular Stones of Power. From what I can tell there aren’t that many more connections between both stories. Sadly, I do not own a copy of the final book in the Jon Shannow trilogy which also happens to be the concluding volume of The Stones of Power. Hopefully I can find a copy by the time I get to that point in the series. I decided to start with Ghost King and its sequel Last Sword of Power because they were published first and they’re also first in chronological order. It’s always fun when that happens. I was really looking forward to Ghost King because it’s yet another book where Gemmell retells a well-known fantasy story. This time it’s the legend of King Arthur. Unfortunately, it’s kind of crap.

The book doesn’t progress too far into Arthur’s life, here called Uther Pendragon as he often is. It focuses on his formative years and tells the story of how he came to power. Similarly to his Troy trilogy, Gemmell doesn’t bother staying true to the classic plot elements of Arthur’s story. While that was one of the strengths of Lord of the Silver Bow and its sequels, it’s one of the weaknesses of Ghost King. It ties in directly with another weakness. With this book, Gemmell seems to be employing famous mythological characters as a form of shorthand for telling a story filled with magic, Roman legions, warring tribes of Great Britain, immortal beings, gods, and warfare. When you stop and consider the plot you realize that a lot of things happen in this rather short novel (just under 300 pages). Few of those elements are actually developed. Fewer still even make sense.

The book feels like Gemmell is having fun playing connect the dots with mythological and historical characters and settings, and decided to try and make sense of it all. He couldn’t, so he threw in a lot of poorly defined magic. Characters aren’t only inconsistent with how they’ve been portrayed in classical tales, they’re also inconsistent within the book. Thuro/Uther is one of the better examples of this. Thuro is Uther in his teens. He is sickly and weak and his greatest asset is his mind. However, even that needs training as he tends to think more than is necessary while also managing not to notice the obvious. Attempts at character development are made by Gemmell but really, it’s mostly a couple chapters that amount to some sort of training montage. Later on in the book, shortly before he renames himself Uther Pendragon, he’s radically changed into a skilled warrior and military strategist. While I admit that such a transformation is possible, it would have to be done in a believable way. That’s not the case in this book. It’s like Gemmell flipped a switch because he needed weak and unskilled Thuro to be more like Arthur of legend. Even with that he fails. I’m not very knowledgeable in the entire cycle of stories surrounding King Arthur but I am familiar enough with him to know that Uther of Ghost King has little to do with the King Arthur I’ve seen in books and movies.

The main problem here is that Gemmell doesn’t convince me of Thuro’s development. I don’t get the sense that I saw him grow and mature. Instead, I’m left with the impression that Thuro had to become Uther otherwise it’s not really a retelling of the Arthurian legend which appears to be the point of the book. Even that seems unreasonable because there aren’t that many plot elements to support that idea. You can still recognize Gemmell’s intent to retell the legend of Arthur, but there’s not enough of it left in the actual book to show off the initial idea. It’s not noticeable in the execution of the story.

This brings me back to the idea that Gemmell doesn’t appear to be interested in creating interesting characters in this book. He seems more interested in playing with existing characters and bending them to fit his narrative. The result is a mashing of various characters from Roman, Greek, and Arthurian mythology with a few more myths thrown in (Atlantis and others). The whole thing feels rushed and hastily assembled. Characters such as Ares, Cunobelin, and Lancelot are actually a single character in Ghost King. There are more examples but I do not want to list them all here and spoil what little fun there is to think about immortals living during ancient history all the way to fall of the Roman Empire. I’m bummed out because such an idea does have plenty of potential but Gemmell fails to breathe life into it.

To add insult to injury, one of Gemmell’s weaknesses as a writer, something he’s struggled with to a greater or lesser degree in all his books I’ve read, is present in this book. His poor treatment of female characters is pretty common. Aside from Legend, this is the earliest book of his that I’ve read and it’s interesting to note how much more prominent this shortcoming was during his earlier books. I do not recall such poor handling of female characters in Troy. In fact, I remember Andromache was really awesome in that trilogy. That’s not the case here. He introduces a couple interesting female characters but he quickly and irreparably reduces their importance and autonomy for the benefit of male characters in the book. I wouldn’t care if this happened to one woman or if there was an interesting story being told by having her story go in such a direction. With Ghost King, all the women seem to be destined for the same kind of life and its completely unnecessary and a little distracting because, like Thuro/Uther, there change in character is radical and unsupported by the story. I like Laitha but she quickly turned into a third-rate love interest and she loses all her badassery in the process.

The other reason I didn’t like this book is that Gemmell writes a very poorly defined magic. It’s actually an interesting element of the book until you realize that it’s only reason to exist is to act as a source of magical conflict between characters in the laziest way possible. It’s not used well, it’s mostly used as an excuse to let characters performs feats of magic and to offer the readers a quick explanation that amounts to telling them “this thing happened because magic”. I like the idea of stones of power. They’re golden stones that allow users to perform any kind of magic they can imagine. As you use it, veins of black appear in the stone. When the magic is completely used up, the stone is completely black. It’s a good idea that Gemmell establishes an element of control over the power of a stone because it literally lets the user do anything. However, it’s of little use since he’s so inconsistent in its application that it ruins the effect. Some characters have been using their stone for what appears to be months while for others they only last for a few days’ worth of magic and a few spells. One character uses his entire stone transforming his horse into a dragon. Compared to the feats of magic other characters perform this seems like an inaccurate use of the magic as established earlier on in the book. To add to the frustration, the dragon is never seen or heard of again in the book! Also, some of the characters (Maedlhyn, Pendarric, and Culain for the first half of the book) seem to find an unending supply of stones while other characters are stuck with only one. I couldn’t help but wonder if you could make more Stones of Power using one of the magic stones. Maybe that could explain why some characters have an inexhaustible supply? It’s the kind of bad idea I would expect to see pop up in this kind of novel.

One of the reasons I read this book, aside from it being written by Gemmell, is that I’ve heard about the second story of the Stones of Power series. I have no real interest in a retelling of the Arthurian legend because I’m not really familiar with it aside from the larger strokes of the tale. Really, all I wanted to do was read a story about a cool as hell gunslinger named Jon Shannow living in a post-apocalyptic world and getting in fights with monsters. It sounds like an unusual setting and an unusual protagonist for Gemmell and I wanted to experience that. After learning that it is connected to Ghost King and its sequel, I figured I would start there. It’s not really worth it. At this time I can’t confirm if you can jump straight into the Jon Shannow book but I suspect you can do so without any fear that you’ll be confused or feel lost in the story. Ghost King is a preliminary read that isn’t really worth it on its own. Viewed as part of Gemmell’s larger body of work, it’s an unenjoyable book that doesn’t even come close to the tightly written stories of heroism, violence, and redemption that he is known for. It kind of reads like a cheap knockoff of Gemmell; it has quite a few characteristics of his, but they’re almost all second or third rate to what he regularly puts out. I’d recommend you stay away from this book unless you’re a Gemmell completist. If you’re new to Gemmell, try reading one of his standalone novels, the Troy trilogy, or the always entertaining Legend.

It’s undeniable that there is a lot of potential to the story Gemmell tries to tell. Ultimately, I think it doesn’t work because he tries to do too much and fails to develop what he’s already in the first half of the novel. The story needs to be focused and the magic needs to be refined and given proper limits. As it stands, just about the only enjoyable thing in Ghost King is the crippled archer Prasamaccus who feels like a character from a better Gemmell novel but was unfortunately reduced to be a secondary character in this sad little book. I’ve already started to read the sequel (I’m on my way to Jon Shannow!) and it’s not much better so far. Smarter readers would have stopped already.

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