So today I learned through the grapevine that David Gemmell has passed on. Two weeks he had a quadruple bypass, and although he was mending well and looking forward to getting out of the hospital, alas, it was not to be. DG passed away last night in the hospital. As I understand things, he died with his laptop on his lap. That's dedication.
I'd like to say that I knew David Gemmell. And in a way I did. Because when you sit down to read a book and fall completely into it--heart, soul, and mind--come the end of the story, you feel as if you do know the author, at least a little. This was my experience when seven years ago, I bought a copy of LEGEND, the first book Gemmell ever wrote. No one had recommended him, and I had never even heard of him as a writer. While he was huge in the UK (every book he wrote was a London Times bestseller), at the time he was relatively new to the U.S. audience. His work has been released here in 1984 by New Infinity Press with the title of AGAINST THE HORDE, but it had yet to reach the American speculative audience on a mainstream level.
Enter Del Rey.
On that day seven years ago I happened to be browsing in the bookstore, looking for something to read. What should I come across but a book called LEGEND. Not a particularly original title, but the spine caught my eye. Del Rey was marketing the book at part of their Fantasy Classics line, at a very sexy $3.99. That was enough to make me pull this book down from the shelves, selecting it out of what must have been over a thousand books filling the sf section. And guess what? Covers do sell stories. The back cover copy was okay, but the picture on the cover absolutely sang to me. Imagine a man obviously past his prime, but still a mighty warrior, wielding a sword and bedecked in armor, guarding a mighty fortress against an attacking army. And depsite the fact that he's old, you just know that he is one of the greatest warriors ever.
I know, I know. Doesn't sound like a particularly original cover. But the artist did a damn fine job, and looking at the cover, I just knew that whoever that warrior was, he was the reason the book was called LEGEND. So I shelled out my $3.99 + tax, took the book home, and started to read that same day. I read about 20 pages before my friends came over, and I must admit that I was rather annoyed that I had to put the book down.
I rectified that situation the next day. I inhaled it the way only a true fantasy lover can, and from there I ran out and bought every available sequel in the DRENAI SAGA. The next book was called KING BEYOND THE GATE, and while it wasn't quite the novel that LEGEND was, it also blew me away. From there I became a full-fledged fan of David Gemmell.
As to LEGEND, it was indeed a legendary book. As you all may imagine, I've read a sizable amount of fantasy novels (and short stories, of course), but without a doubt LEGEND ranks as one of the best stand-alone fantasy novels I have ever read. David Gemmell was a champion of the heroic tale, the larger-than-life hero, the sword swinging action that cuts its way to the very heart of your imagination. His work followed in the footsteps of some of the great S&S pulp writers of the first half of the 20th century, particularly Robert E. Howard. But unlike his predecessors, Gemmell managed to translate these high octane tales into novels, and his stories avoided so many of the prejudices evidenced by writers such as Howard, thus making them more accessible to today's readers.
But his books were more than just this. Gemmell had a knack for characters. Not the kind of characters that you remember, but instead the ones you know you'll never forget. And that is a remarkable skill. There can only be one Rek. One Ananaias the Golden One. One Decado the Ice Killer. One Tenaka Khan. One Pagan. One Waylander the Slayer. And of course, there can be only one Druss the Legend. When these characters went on adventures, the reader went too, right until the last page, and let me tell you all there was no one in the business who wrote a last page with such consistency like David Gemmell.
Over the years I've read about a number of authors from the speculative community that have passed away. Each time it happens I feel bad. I love this genre, and when we lose anyone it's a terrible thing. We're a small community. But for me, the death of David Gemmell is different. When we come to the genre, our imaginations are very eager and very visceral. For those of us that start reading this stuff as children or adolescents, I would guess there is a period of anywhere from 5-10 years where our reading experiences in speculative literature surpass any special effect that Industrial Light & Magic can muster. That's a big reason why we read the stuff like crack addicts. Eventually we become a bit more discerning, and while we still enjoy the genre, our reading experience rarely achieves the sense of wonder we experienced during these golden formative years, and certainly not with such consistency.
I discovered the genre at around 12. For me, these golden years of reading lasted until about 21. David Gemmell was the last great author to find my eyes before my reading habits started changing, and much of that resulted from the realization that I wanted to be a writer. But more than this, David Gemmell was alive when I first read his work. This is the first author in the genre to die whose work I read and loved while he was still alive. For this reason, it hurts a little extra to have lost him.
I'll admit that in recent years I've drifted away from Gemmell's work, and I never took to any of his other worlds the way I did the DRENAI SAGA. But that doesn't change the fact that his early books in the DRENAI SAGA were something special. If I pick up LEGEND tomorrow, I am 100% certain I would fall in love with it all over again. That is why the book is called LEGEND. And this is why it will have a place in fantasy for years to come.
You will be missed Mr. Gemmell. RIP.