The Drenai Saga – Part 4/4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Drenai part four, the Drenale. We have come to the end of our journey, and what a journey it has been. The final two Drenai books are a duology about a new character, Skilgannon the Damned. Skilgannon is Gemmell’s take on a hero tormented by his past, and a wrap up character to tie off the entirety of the series. So let’s talk about the final two books of the series: White Wolf and The Swords of Night and Day.

n48612Book 10 – White Wolf The story of Skilgannon begins with him abandoning his people and becoming a rogue warrior. Haunted by his choices as the preeminent general of a warrior queen, Skilgannon decides to leave everything behind and search for inner peace in the world. Skilgannon is less than successful in his search for tranquility, and is soon thrust back into the center of happenings. He eventually meets up with Druss, and they team up to go on a quest.

The story has many strengths, but one of my favorites is how Gemmell depicts Skilgannon’s childhood. On top of being compelling and heartwarming, Gemmell continues to hammer home the concepts of acceptance and love for all people regardless of who they are or where they come from. In addition, I found Skilgannon to be a refreshing take on the tormented hero front. He feels crippling regret for his past actions, and but he does not wallow in it. It is very easy to see how that regret profoundly changes and shapes Skilgannon, but Gemmell never falls into the trap of making him whine about what he did every two seconds. Skilgannon remains a deeper character than just his remorse, and it makes him one of the best tormented heroes I have read.

Rating: White Wolf – 9.0/10

07fc35a0637c9d0a2d7695b745034994Book 11 – The Swords of Night and Day The final book of Drenai is very different than the other 10. This is both the final book chronologically and in publishing order, taking place over a thousand years later than the other novels. Swords follows a magically resurrected Skilgannon, brought back from the dead to fight a rising menace in the future. The magics, and the magic users, from the earlier books have gotten more and more degenerate over the years until they threaten to engulf the world. As a last ditch effort, a small group of mages attempt to resurrect heroes from past ages to see if they can provide solutions to stopping the magic.

The Swords of Light and Day serves three major purposes in the Drenai saga, the first of which is to give a satisfying end to Skilgannon’s story. Tormented for his sins from White Wolf, Skilgannon has been burning in purgatory and seeking redemption. Swords gives Skilgannon a great ending and cements him in my mind as one of the best characters to come out of the saga. The second purpose is to bring together many different plot lines and characters throughout the entire saga. Much of Drenai consists of independent characters from different ages, and Swords brings many of them together for one last party. The final, and likely most important, purpose of Swords is to reaffirm the cyclical nature of history that Gemmell has been preaching since Legend. The final book of the series shows that nothing really ever changes and there will always be shitty tyrants who will try to selfishly rule the world. However, the book also drives home that for every dictator that tries to rule the world, there will always be a hero who stands in their way – no matter how feeble it may seem. Those heroes will keep standing up for what’s right and striving to make the world a better place regardless of the odds, and that through the act of standing up they make a difference. This message is the crux of the Drenai story, and it is one I can get behind with all my heart.

Rating: The Swords of Night and Day – 9.0/10

Reading the Drenai Saga is an incredible experience that I think every fantasy fan should go through. Gemmell is an exemplar of character building, heroic storytelling, and powerful sub-themes that I think every author could earn from. The man wrote the most compelling prologues I have ever read, sucking me into each book by page four every time. Despite each of the books following similar plot structure, having a chaotic timeline, and introducing a new cast every few books, I never got tired of them or felt fatigued by the story. It is easy to see how Gemmell has shaped the current fantasy landscape, as hundreds of authors try to emulate his exciting, touching, and deep characters. My favorite book ended up being the one I thought I would like least, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, but I enjoyed every single book in the saga more than most of the other things I have read this year. There are hundreds of quotes from the series now embedded in my memory, and I want to sell this series to every person I meet. If you have not had a chance to read Drenai, I highly recommend you do and find out why a generation of authors turn to it for inspiration.

The Drenai Saga – Part 3/4

Part 1
Part 2

Drenai part three, the re-Dre-aning. Welcome back to my semi-journal of my slow and wonderful experience through the Drenai Chronicles. At this point I am pretty confident in saying that this is probably one of the best fantasy series of all time. I may only be about 3/4ths of the way through, but the books would basically have to literally blind me at this point to lower their overall score enough for me not to recommend it. However, these next three books on my journey were definitely the weakest so far (comparatively, they are still excellent) so we will have to see. Up first, The Legend of the Deathwalker!

legend_of_deathwalkerBook 7 – The Legend of the Deathwalker – The third of the four Druss books, this novel picks up the story of Gemmell’s iconic character shortly after the conclusion of book six. This book starts in the middle of Legend and opens with Druss telling a previously unknown story about himself to a fellow footsoldier to calm the younger warrior. The book follows Druss and Sieben as they journey into Nadir lands to defend a people they hate from a crime they know is wrong. It is a story about doing something for people you don’t like because you know it is the right thing to do, and Gemmell handles it masterfully. The book also follows the rise of the Nadir people, prepping for the inevitable uniter that will raise hell in Drenai book one, Legend. This book lost a very small amount of points because it felt like its goal was more to add depth to Legend than stand on its own, but it is still incredible in its own right.

Racism is a big issue that Gemmell tries to tackle and discuss in all his books, and does so very successfully. None of them (at least so far) do it better than The Legend of the Deathwalker, which has probably my all time favorite quote about overcoming bigotry by Sieben (not pasted here because spoilers). The book also has a massive arc of character development for Sieben, and brings him to the forefront of Legend of the Deathwalker as a protagonist instead of a support character. It is a fantastic choice, and Sieben adds more depth and richness to the story than Druss could by himself. The book is also much more magical than any of its predecessors. I am not sure how much I like this turn, as I have grown accustomed to enjoying magic take a back seat to warriors in Gemmell’s stories. However, this Druss novel is still quite enjoyable despite not quite living up to its predecessor.

Rating: The Legend of the Deathwalker – 8.5/10

winter_warriorsBook 8 – Winter Warriors – The eighth Drenai book, and probably my least favorite, is about demons. It is strange to me that this book that breaks out of the Drenai mold more than any other is likely the most unique, and is less enjoyable for it. Our story is set far in the future compared to all the previous Drenai novels, chronicling a team of heroes as they try to survive a coming demon apocalypse. The world is reaching it’s end, demons are passing over from the other side, and starting to ravage the land. This previously mentioned group of heroes must keep an infant king alive from otherworldly terrors in order to prevent the end of times.

If this seems somewhat confusing, then it mimics how I felt reading this book. Winter Warriors comes out of left field and departs from the classic Drenai formula that made all the other books work. Instead we are treated to some great characters struggling helplessly to deal with an otherworldly problem. The character depth and growth in the book are just as good as any other Drenai novel, but the plot felt strangely divorced from the previous seven books, and seems to be telling the end of a story that I missed 50 percent of. It turns out the beginning of the demon’s story is covered in book nine, Hero in the Shadows, and I honestly would recommend reading them in reverse order for the most enjoyment. I admire Gemmell for trying to mix up the story, but I was not in love with the result. Hopefully book nine will be back to the tried and true hero on an impossible quest with lots of political world building.

Rating: Winter Warriors – 7.5/10

n22651Book 9 – Hero in the Shadows – The final Waylander book. It still has a lot of magic, a great plot to go with it, as well as the glorious Waylander. Hero in the Shadows tells the story of Waylander at the very end of his life. An old man, he has seen and done everything, but becomes unsatisfied with life. In the search and preparation for new horizons, he stumbles upon an otherworldly problem, and sets about fixing it with his normal solution – crossbow bolts. Hero in the Shadows contains the same demon theme as Winter Warriors, but it takes a back seat to the final story of Waylander. The magic injected into the story does a much better job being subtle and adding to the world, as opposed to being jarring as it was in Winter Warriors.

Many Gemmell stories deal with an older warrior dealing with passing his prime and moving into old age. It is a particular flavor of story that I believe Gemmell does incredibly well in a fantasy setting, and I look forward to rereading these when I am much older myself. Hero in the Shadows in particular deals with running out of things to do. Waylander has lived a full and challenging life and is finding he is extremely bored in retirement. Immensely wealthy and wanting for nothing, he has begun to risk himself unnecessarily to feel alive again. It might sound cliche, but I found myself empathizing with Waylander immensely and found myself searching for meaning within my own life. The book continues in the Drenai tradition of teaching philosophies on life that are both profound and extremely simply. Hero in the Shadows brings a fitting end to the story of one of my favorite protagonists, and brings me ever closer to the end of my Drenai journey.

Rating: Hero in the Shadows – 8.5/10

The Drenai Saga – Part 2/4

Sorry for just the one post this week, I have been out playing Pokemon Go. However, I assume none of you noticed there was only one post as you were also too busy out playing Pokemon go. Anyway here is part 2 of the Drenai read along, if you missed part one you can find it here.

 

2131-1Book 4 – The Quest for Lost HeroesMan what a terrible cover. This book took a distinct tonal shift compared to the previous three. While each novel in this series is tragic and heartbreaking, this novel was a touch more despair inducing. The Quest for Lost Heroes once again takes a huge chronological jump, this time forward, and takes place a short while after the second book, The King Beyond the Gate. This is the first novel to feature some recurring characters, but still introduces us to a large cast. The book follows a group of heroes (unknown to us) who became famous in a minor battle at the end of book two. While in retirement, the heroes play witness to a kidnapping of innocent villagers and decide to set out on one final quest to save them from slavers.

Nothing good happens to anyone in this novel, but it embodies the ideology of “bent but not broken.” The cast of this tale shows what it means to experience trauma and disaster and then to get up and keep going; it is quite moving. On his 4th set of distinct and memorable characters, I was still incredibly impressed at Gemmell’s ability to craft a deep and interesting cast. I can identify and talk about each of the 20+ protagonists I have encountered so far as they were so memorable. It was also at this point where I changed my mind on Gemmell’s worldbuilding in The Drenai Saga. As I mentioned in Legend, the worldbuilding felt incomplete and haphazard in book one and I thought it could have been better done. However, in book four I began to realize that Gemmell was simply thinking on a larger scale and timeframe. Each book fits like a puzzle piece into your overall understanding of the Drenai world, giving you more context and understanding of the various countries and their cultures. In addition, while the books do not function as sequels, they have plenty of overlap and foreshadowing that enriches books in both directions (prequels and sequels). The Quest for Lost Heroes adds another piece to the puzzle while also treating you to a fantastic cast that prove you are more than the tragedies you have experienced.

Rating: The Quest for Lost Heroes – 8.5/10

870808Book 5 – In the Realm of the Wolf: Waylander 2 – Waylander is back! These Drenai books have a strange effect on me. When I am not currently reading one I don’t feel that much desire to start one, but when I am reading one all I can think is “why did I wait so long to start this”. I think the reason for this is the books are all so well self contained that you do not feel like I am missing anything when I reach the end of one. That being said I was super pumped to get back into Waylander. When we left our intrepid antihero after book one, he had retired to a quiet life of solitude with his adoptive daughters and wife. This is of course doomed not to last, with a price being placed on Waylander’s head that entices several younger assassins to try their hand at killing him. As you can guess, this goes poorly for the youngsters. The story eventually evolves as Waylander investigates why there’s suddenly a price on his head and the novel expands to a much bigger plot.

In the Realm of the Wolf stands out to me because it stands as a testament to how good Gemmell’s prose is. Gemmell wants you to think of Waylander as the ultimate assassin, all other fantasy books included, and he sold me on it. The writing makes you think you are hearing the story of someone real and manages to both have Waylander do the impossible and make it seem ordinary for him. He is probably a Gary Sue if I think about it, but Gemmell talks about him in a way that keeps that thought from ever even coming close to you head. Gemmell is convincing, he tells you Waylander is the best, and you should be astounded, and you believe him. The second addition to Waylander’s tale is as good as the first and I highly recommend it.

Rating: In the Realm of the Wolf – 9.5/10

526071Book 6 – The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend – This title is way too long to repeatedly use so I am going to abbreviate it to TFC. I was, as usual, slightly hesitant to start the next Drenai book as it was about Druss from book one, Legend, where you read the final stories and fate of Druss. It felt like starting a book where I had already read the ending. In Legend, Druss spends some time reflecting on life and talks about some of the things he did and two other quests that he went on. TFC is the story of one of those quests, following an awkward and youthful Druss as he travels the world attempting to rescue his kidnapped wife. The story is about how Druss was forged into the warrior you see in Legend, and it is phenomenal.

This is probably the best Drenai book so far, which honestly surprised me a lot. I usually don’t like prequels but much like In the Realm of the Wolf, Gemmell is really good at using prose to convince you of a warrior’s skill and ability. Druss feels like a monster of a fighter who could stand strong in a fantasy throwdown with any other protagonist, despite being basically just a fairly squat guy with an axe. The book is also heart wrenching and both incredibly sad and bitter sweet. Druss does not have an easy life and the emotional punches are layered in well to help the story be fun, memorable, and deep. Additionally, we continue to expand the Drenai map, fleshing out another country. I am past the halfway point now in the series and that fills me with a certain dread as I only have five books left. I am curious to see if any of them can top this.

Rating: The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend – 9.5/10

The Reserve – 6 Authors You Can Always Depend On

Today I am going to talk about something a little different. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I read a lot of books each year. Last year I read about 90 books (40 new releases and 50 older ones). Due to this, it actually matters a lot to my reading stamina to be careful about the order in which I read books. Reading fatigue is a real thing, and I try to make sure that I stagger books of different genre, topic, and quality to keep me from getting jaded. As such, there are a set of authors I keep in reserve as palate cleansers. These authors are my pinch hitters that I bring in when I know I need a book that is going to be good to get me out of a slump. Each of these authors has more than ten works to read and, while not every one their books is a 10/10, each of them can be depended on to be at least good.

Brandon Sanderson – You all knew it was coming, let’s just get him out of the way; Sanderson. I think Sanderson’s weakest novel is Elantris, a book I have on my best standalone fiction list. With Sanderson you always know you are going to get an inventive new magic system, lovable characters with humorous dialogue, an exciting and interesting plot, and timely release dates. Sanderson is just the most dependable author out there, and I don’t even bother to read his book blurbs anymore.

Peter Hamilton – A prolific science fiction writer who writes 1000 page books thick enough to be used as weapons. I find that Hamilton tends to inspire love/hate reactions to his work, but if you fall into the love category you will like everything he writes. He never ceases to amaze with new ideas and concepts that blow the mind. His books are always meticulously written, exploring every possible theoretical effect of things like inventing new technology on humanity. He is an expert in writing books that make science fiction worlds feel real, and despite being a slow read I have never regretted setting aside a month for one of his books.

Guy Gavriel Kay – Do you want to cry? Because you will if you read any Guy Gavriel Kay book. Much like Hamilton, Kay is a writer who creates slow, moving masterpieces that take a while to complete. However, where Kay distinguishes himself is in the deep emotional impact that is in every single one of his books. I have never read a Kay novel that didn’t immerse me fully in the story, and every one of his stories have the ability to play your emotions like an instrument. If you ever need to get in touch with your sensitive side or want an emotional roller coaster, Kay can provide.

China Miéville – Or sometimes you just really want something different. China Miéville’s work is so different from everyone else, that I often just categorize him as his own genre. However, while many authors sit in the realm of weird, Miéville is the only one I have read to never sacrifice quality in the pursuit of being different. Every Miéville book will transport you to an unrecognizable world with strange rules and people, but you will never feel lost or overwhelmed as he guides you through his perverse landscapes. If you want to try one of his books, just read the backs of a few and grab whatever catches your fancy – you will not be disappointed.

David Gemmell – The worst part about these last two, is that the both tragically passed away and cannot grace the world with any more of their stunning work. While some of the authors above are my go to’s for long sweeping tales, Gemmell is the king of short and sweet. And while his books may be shorter, they sacrifice nothing in terms of quality. Gemmell is the king of classical fantasy, each book transporting me back to my childhood and the joy that came when you first heard someone describe a medieval battle. Gemmell’s writing is like a sword slash: simple, effective, and devastatingly powerful to those on the receiving end. His reimagining of the Odyssey and the Iliad turned books I could never penetrate into some of my favorite reads. His characters are some of the most memorable I have ever read, and I never regret taking a detour from my planned reading to spend a day or two in the Drenai Saga.

Terry Pratchett – The one and only. Terry Pratchett’s work never ceases to amazing me. In many fantasy novels, there is a weird mysterious character that is strange but always seems to know everything. I think all of them are based on Pratchett. Every one of his books manage to be both so funny I can’t read them in a quiet library, and so wise that I feel like he and Confucius would have been peers. Pratchett has been teaching me lessons since I was a teenager, and I still think he is teaching me lessons as I read him in my late 20’s. His books can often have a eye opening or life changing effect on the reader who is wise enough to pick one up. I am sad every single time I look at my bookshelf that he is not around to continue sharing his wisdom.

The Drenai Saga – Part 1/4

Gigantic fantasy series are amazing experiences, but tend to also be gigantic time sinks. As such, each year I pick one large and famous fantasy series to work though for the sake of reading diversity. This year I decided to read David Gemmell’s pivotal Drenai Saga. While reading through this 11 book series, I am going to break down my experience reading it into four parts so that I can hopefully track how my feelings and thoughts evolve as I progress through the series.

For those of you who don’t know, The Drenai Saga is a collection of books set in a classical fantasy landscape that detail different stories about heroes standing against impossible odds, written by David Gemmell. Gemmell is often regarded as one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time, and after reading one of his other trilogies, Troy, I can see why. The books are strange in that they are published not even slightly in chronological order (seen here), something I expect to bother me a lot. However, before I start judging the series I am going to dive in and read some.

618177Book 1 – Legend Legend is Gemmell’s first, and likely most famous, novel about a Drenai fortress of a few thousand soldiers holding out against an invading Nadir horde of over a million troops. Gemmell apparently wrote the book after he had been diagnosed with cancer, using the hordes as a metaphor for the disease. The hordes must pass through the fortress of Dros Delnock, a choke point, in order to invade the Drenai land and the story follows several heroes as they make their stand at the fortress knowing they will eventually die. The heroes exemplify a mix of classic fantasy tropes, but the story sticks to one in particular; Druss, the legend, a retired hero and all around badass who returns to battle and for whom the book is named.

The book is very simple in premise: a small group of good guys hold out against bad guys and impossible odds. I was, however, honestly astounded how much Gemmell was able to accomplish with such a simple and short story. The prose is simple but elegant, accomplishing in a few pages what takes other authors half a book. The prologue of Legend is four pages long (and can be previewed here on Amazon.com) but it’s tight and exciting writing pulled me into the story immediately. The characters were deep and interesting, despite many falling within classic tropes. I found the dialogue gripping while also having deep emotional impact. However, one negative aspect of the book for me was that the world building felt fairly unclear. I did not have a good sense of the nations or lands in the Drenai Saga, yet I also got the feeling they are extremely important to the story at large. Despite this, I ended up really enjoying Legend as it reads like a very polished tale of some of the most classic hero fantasy out there. I was super excited to continue the series, especially because the second book is chronologically subsequent to Legend.

Rating: Legend – 8.5/10

5235089623_1caa427a7b_zBook 2 – The King Beyond the Gate The King Beyond the Gate was an interesting experience. When I started the book I grew concerned that the Drenai Saga was going to be a bit too repetitive to read all the way through. Once again we found ourselves with an unlikely cast of heroes standing against impossible odds and I started to have deja vu. However, I quickly learned that while the books follow a similar skeleton structure, they are most definitely not the same. The King Beyond the Gate picks up decades after Legend, and almost no characters carry over. Instead, we are introduced to a completely fresh cast of heroes who have a new problem: the Drenai nation that was the defender in book one is now the aggressor and run by a corrupt tyrant. In order to stop the tyrant’s reign of terror, the remnants of an elite fighting force established in the wake of the events in Legend make a stand.

One of the most interesting things about The King Beyond the Gate is that it drives home a philosophical idea that started to surface at the end of Legend: heroes of today can be the villains of tomorrow. For the first time in any book series I have read, The Drenai Saga manages to mix the idea of unambiguous evil that must be fought with the idea that all people are shades of grey. It does this by showing that individuals can be unambiguously terrible, but that nations are slaves to who is in charge. A nation might be ruled by a benevolent saint in one period and a satanic bastard in the next. It was here that I started to understand that Gemmell didn’t simply mean to tell a story about a group of people accomplishing something. Instead, Gemmell’s story takes clips of conflicts across the history of the world to show you how it changed and evolved, while also venerating the people across all cultures that took a stand for what was right. It is an extremely powerful storytelling technique and one that only grows stronger as the series continues.

At a more individual level, The King Beyond the Gate is a fantastic tale itself. The protagonist is the classic half-breed; part of two people, welcome to neither. While the cast is completely new, I think I liked them more than their counterparts in Legend. Some of the characters are descendants of the heroes and villains of book one, but they are all completely distinct with their own personalities and backgrounds. It is clear that a lot of work went into sculpting every aspect of this book and that Gemmell did not rely on Legend at all, despite their similarities. This effort keeps the book fresh, new, and unique; a fact which will be impressive if Gemmell can keep up through all 11 books. The King Beyond the Gate was a great read, placing just slightly higher than Legend in terms of my enjoyment.

Rating: The King Beyond the Gate – 9.0/10

waylandeBook 3 – WaylanderI was really worried about Waylander as it takes a huge chronological jump backwards and takes place as the first book in the series. The story also has a completely unestablished set of characters, which was alarming. With The King Beyond the Gate, we had a new cast, but at least many were descendants in some way from the heroes and villains of book one. Losing all the investment from the previous novels seemed off-putting before I started Waylander, but I should not have worried.

Waylander follows the story of an antihero, the assassin Waylander, as he tries to find redemption for a job he took and later regretted. After assassinating the Drenai King during a war that the Drenai are losing, Waylander sets out on a quest to retrieve a magical artifact that will turn the tide of said war. Again, the plot is something I have seen time and time again, but the devil is in the details. The prose, characters, and action continue to be fantastic, all while Gemmell demonstrated a new strength of his short 300 page books; novelty. Waylander uses almost exclusively projectile weapons in a world of swordsman, and it’s honestly one of the most badass things I have read. Whether it’s throwing knives, daggers, using a bow and arrow, or shooting his signature double-crossbow, Waylander weaves through combat doling out death at a distance. Due to the short and chaotic nature of these novels, you really never have enough time with any one personality, fighting style, story, or badass weapon, making each chapter exciting and novel. There is much less of the massive fatigue that happens with a series such as The Wheel of Time, where readers are always inching towards a far off goal on the horizon. Additionally, there isn’t the problem of characters growing stale or running out of room to grow. Waylander packs all the previously great things from the other books into a story with a kickass assassin turning his talents to good. The book continues to expand the character morality spectrum into even more shades of grey, but still anchors it with some truly reprehensible people. However, Waylander’s story shows that not everyone is so far gone down a dark path that they can’t come back and was the book I enjoyed most of the first three.

Rating: Waylander – 9.5/10

So it was right about here that I realized I had a problem. When you review things, books or otherwise, you should try to make sure that you don’t just give everything highmarks because it starts to make your ratings lose value. To this end, I try to make sure I think deeply about my ratings and temper them so they don’t suffer from inflation. That being said, I looked at my ratings of these books creeping higher and thought, “This is a problem, I can’t just give everything a high score.” However, after sitting and thinking about it I can’t find a single good reason to lower the scores of any of these books. They are fantastic reads that will delight any reader of fantasy and I look forward to seeing if the rest of the books are also this good.