Have you ever built up an author (or director, musician, etc.) in your head as being one of the greats? Maybe even a genius in their respective field? Now I don’t think David Gemmell is a genius, but I’ve always considered him a skilled writer who excels at certain types of stories. Those stories often focus on tough men put in situations where their survival is in question but the situation often leads to their redemption as heroes for having done the honourable thing in said difficult situation. I’ve pointed out his weaknesses as a writer before (female characters!) and his stories can be similar when looking at them side by side (yet they’re usually varied enough in the details to remain separate individual works). Sometimes he plays with big ideas and when he does, he rivals many of the other great fantasy authors. To be clear, I think David Gemmell is pretty great and up until a few weeks ago, at least, he was one of my favourite fantasy authors, comfortably sitting amongst the other greats in the literary pantheon of my mind.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Ghost King, the first volume in a two part series. The book is also the first novel in a series of five book, which includes the two part story starting with Ghost King and its followed by the Jon Shannow trilogy. All five books are loosely connected by the appearance of the Stones of Power. Ghost King was a disappointing read. Truly, the first bad book by David Gemmell that I’ve ever encountered. Sure, I haven’t read all of his books (almost half at this point) but I’ve enjoyed every single one of his book so far. Some I really, really liked. Ghost King was a bad book for many reasons and the few things it did well weren’t the focus of the story and kind of seemed incidental of Gemmell’s style as a writer. I had rather low expectations for the follow up volume, Last Sword of Power. As if to chastise me for thinking that a good book could follow a bad one, Last Sword of Power turned out to be ever worst.
A lot of the problems that plague Last Sword of Power are the same problems that occurred in the first book, only this time its worst because there is a compound effect. The errors of the second book build on the errors of the first. These aren’t big books. They’re approximately 300 pages in length. This in itself isn’t a problem. What’s problematic is Gemmell’s use of too many characters for the size of the book. I say there are too many because we don’t spend enough time with any one character to really get to know them well. Likewise, some characters are the focus of the story for a couple chapters only to disappear for most of the story and, if they’re lucky, Gemmell remembers to bring them back for the last few chapters. Probably to give the reader a sense of closure because these character call backs don’t serve any narrative or storytelling purpose.
To make things worse, the abundance of character doesn’t serve any purpose that I can tell. It doesn’t serve to add realism to the story. The story of both books spans decades and it makes sense to add characters to make the world seem populated (who spends decades of their lifetime knowing only a dozen or so people?). That can’t be the reason because this book is unrealistic, even by the standards of the fantasy genre. The book isn’t filled with people in order to give the reader a wide range of believable characters. That’s a laughable idea because most of the so-called characters in this book are nothing more than quick sketches of actual people. The same problem occurs with the main characters. They’re developed in some capacity but it’s such an inconsistent development because they’re behaviour is constantly shifting throughout the novel without any reason tied to the story. All of the characters in the book seem like they’re stuck in a first draft. There is promise there, certainly, but it’s not any good as is. Few of the characters really seem to belong in the story and I can’t tell if that’s a result of them of poorly written or if the plot is so bad no characters can truly fit within it. It could be both problems.
Speaking of individual characters, where the hell is Prasamaccus in this book? He was the closest thing to a genuine character in Ghost King but in the second volume, he’s barely present. As it is, Gemmell isn’t doing well as far as characters go, but reducing the best character down to having just a few appearances with occasional dialogue was a poor decision.
One of the other reasons why this book simply doesn’t compare to the rest of Gemmell’s body of work is that it features magic. Gemmell doesn’t write magic well at all. He’s quite poor at it. My problem with the magic in Ghost King basically amounted to it being too loosely defined. It had no limitations or boundaries whatsoever. The result is that the magic essentially obeys one rule: the whim of the author. Things further deteriorated in Last Sword of Power. Gemmell doesn’t take the opportunity to improve on the magic of the Stones of Power (also known as the Sipstrassi). Rather, he takes the opposite approach and throws in a Sipstrassi crown and the titular Sword of Power, also full of magic. He does take the time to elaborate on the stones’ origin, much to my dismay. There is a comet on an orbit that brings it past Earth at regular intervals. Long, long ago parts of the comet were detached and fell to the ground giving the Atlanteans their first stones, ultimately introducing magic to the world. It’s a lazy setup for magic, but what’s worse is how Gemmell uses the comet during the book’s ending. All I’ll say here is that it’s an atrocious ending. I wanted to through the book across the room, but I didn’t have the strength to. This book left me feeling defeated and utterly disappoint in Gemmell who was and continues to be (we’ll see for how long – the next book better be great) one of my favourite fantasy writers.
I started reading Last Sword of Power with significantly lower expectations than I had starting Ghost King. It didn’t help in my enjoyment of the book. It still sucked. Not only is this the worst book I’ve read by Gemmell, but it’s also the worst book I’ve yet to read as part of The Blog Fantastic project. Go look at the archives to see what that really means. Last Sword of Power was a worse book than the first two volumes in R. A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy which, while being entertaining, certainly aren’t anything above average. Normally I would say Salvatore doesn’t compare to Gemmell but it’s certainly not true if you consider Ghost King and Last Sword of Power. It’s hard to come to terms with just how disappointed I am with Gemmell. I have two Jon Shannow books on my bookshelf and I wanted to read them so badly just a few weeks ago. Wanting to read them is why I read Ghost King and Last Sword of Power. Now that I’ve read those book, I honestly don’t feel like giving Jon Shannow a try. At least not right away. I need to read a few more fantasy books before I give Gemmell another go. Maybe I’ll read something with lots of magic in it to really distance myself with the Stone of Power of this series.