Sunday, July 27, 2003

Review: "White Wolf" by David Gemmell

One thing I've always loved about David Gemmell is that he doesn't rest his career on the strength of one character.

While some fantasy writers create a hero that fans love and ride him into the ground, Gemmell rarely spends much time with each character, instead preferring to look at the big picture of his worlds.

He was even able to tell the tale of one of his most fascinating characters - the Jerusalem Man, Jon Shannow - in three books.

That said, there's one character that Gemmell can't resist returning to, a fan favorite - the axman, Druss the Legend. He goes to the well once again in "White Wolf" ($24.95, Del Rey), and there's still plenty of water to be found.

True to form, though, the novel is less about Druss, and more about the people around him. The Legend doesn't even appear until the book is almost a quarter of the way over. Instead, we're introduced to Skilgannon the Damned, a famed and vicious Naashanite warrior who, regretting some of the horrific acts he was commanded to perform, has fled his homeland and sought refuge in a monastery.

Then, there's Rabalyn, a young boy from the village near the monastery, who is known as a bit of a ne'er-do-well, but has taken a liking for a teacher from the monastery.

Things go badly for both of them when hard times begin to impact the town and sentiment turns against the priests.

When one of the brothers is attacked, Rabalyn defends him from the town bully, who also happens to be the son of the town's mayor. Angered that he has been thwarted by Rabalyn, the bully sets fire to the boy's home, killing his grandmother. In his rage Rabalyn exacts his revenge in front of the entire town, including the boy's father.

Seizing the opportunity to resolve a debt the city owes the church, the mayor claims the boy is being sheltered there and leads a mob of townspeople to get him. When they attack, Skilgannon's true nature comes out, and while he saves the priests from destruction, he finds himself cast out.

As Skilgannon and Rabalyn set out to find their futures, a chance meeting with Druss changes the course of their lives - and possibly the future of the lands of Drenai as well.

Give Gemmell a tortured and haunted hero, and he's in his element. All of his most fascinating creations - Shannow, Druss and now Skilgannon - share that characteristic, and he handles the brooding, troubled type well.

At the same time, Gemmell's heroes are much more accessible than most. They're a down-to-earth sort.

I can easily imagine sitting around having a beer and trading stories with Druss (I imagine him as a larger, quite congenial version of Sean Connery.) In fact, the picture of Druss is so strong, you can almost hear his voice as you read the words on the page.

Gemmell is one of the best fantasy writers going these days, and I'm glad to see that his work is catching on with the American audience. Here's to many more great tales to come.

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