Friday, March 11, 2011

Quest for Lost Heroes

David Gemmell fans are among the most rabid and loyal fans any author could enjoy.  Several of my friends bristle when an ill word is spoken of the late Mr. Gemmel's work.  And it was upon their repeated prodding that I finally decided to read one of his books.  I was told Quest for Lost Heroes was as good as any place to start.  The story follows Chareos, a cynical war hero and master swordsman who is drawn into a quest to help a young villager rescue the girl he loves from slavers.  Soon, the rest of Chareos' comrades in arms (renowned heroes of a battle years past) join him.  But this simple rescue mission thrusts them into the middle of a dynastic intrigue with the fate of their civilization at stake.

I wanted to like this book.  But it was a disappointment for several reasons.  The first half of the book is largely set up, with little action or drama to drive the story.  I actually put the book down a couple of times.  Fortunately however, once I reached the halfway point, the story took off and became far more readable and engaging.  But the climax proved to be underwhelming and the ending felt rushed and patched together.  Another frustration is world itself. Aside from brief mentions of succeeding empires (the Drenai, the Gothir and the Nadir), there is virtually no effort to describe the people, places or cultures that inhabit the world, not even a map. Consequently, one has no sense of bearing in the story or the world.

With a few exceptions, the characters are not much better. They're not ill-conceived, just underdeveloped and not particularly compelling or engaging.  Two of the main characters, Finn and Maggrig, were so faceless it was distracting. However, there were a few characters that were exceptionally well realized.  One in particular, an ambassador named Chien-tsu, was absolutely captivating.  And although I didn't find Gemmell's prose to be particularly exceptional or deficient, I do admire the notions heroism, honor, fellowship, perseverance, sacrifice and redemption that are thoughtfully explored in 'Quest.'  Such themes are becoming increasingly rare in modern fantasy it seems to me.  It is for these glimpses that I have hope for his other works.


Jason Campbell said...

Well said. Gemmell goes firmly in the pretty good category, right next to *gasp* David Eddings. Lots of good stuff, but a little middle-of-the-road when taken as a whole. Enjoyed Waylander and Legend (which both sound better than this one), but certainly not top shelf.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great perspective and helping me to see more clearly. I get caught up when I hear a debate for free speech, so I appreciate that you can debate this and state the facts so clearly for those of unable to do so. This so called "church" is evil and wrong, and may I ask..why are they living in the United Sates (of Sodom)then anyway?
Awesome article!!

Anonymous said...

Jake, you are dead to me.


Anonymous said...

Now I will address the anti-Gemmell ravings of the recently (to me) deceased.

Here's a few things I should have told you about Gemmell:

1.) There is no map in any Drenai book until the last two which were published about twenty years after Legend which was the first Drenai book written back in the early 1980s.

2.) These books are made from two parts awesome and one part Jake is wrong.

Another thing about Gemmell's books is they, for the most part, move like this:

Unlikely hero is introduced. He meets up somehow with legendary hero/heroes. Unlikely hero discovers that the legends regarding legendary hero/heroes are largely full of crap. Legendary hero/heroes already know this. Quick display of legendary hero/heroes supremely badass skills. Legendary hero/heroes don't want to help initially the unlikely hero due to the hopelessness of unlikely hero's quest. Unlikely hero convinces legendary hero/heroes to help finally. All heroes together go to finish up quest. Some number of heroes wind up defending a fortress against impossible odds. Characters start dying. Surviving heroes then question if it was all worth it. Surviving heroes decide it was since they fought the good fight. Jake is wrong. The end.

So that's pretty much it for his narrative structure and if he (Gemmell, not Jake) were still alive I'd still be buying them. So there.

Now I'll agree that Finn and Magrig were pretty thin characters, but you cannot tell me that fat Beltzer the axeman and Chaeros are all that undeveloped.

I will say that had you started reading these books in the order they were written, or in the order they occur, you would have gone through several others first which would have given you a little more background on the world itself, including cultures and countries. I think one reason that Gemmell doesn't spend a lot of time describing them is that they are all based on real-world cultures. The Nadir are Mongolians, the Drenai are most western civilizations all rolled up into one, the Chiatze are China, Mashrapur is India, Ventria is, well, some other country. And Jake is wrong.

The ending itself is one that has frustrated Gemmell fans since the book was written. Not because of wild-eyed ravings claiming that it is "underwhelming" or silly-assed accusation of it being "rushed." Indeed, it is that the story of the twins born at the end of the book are two characters who are begging to have a book written about them. Gemmell had stated that he intended one day to write that story, but now we're all out of luck. And, again, Jake is wrong.

Now, in all seriousness, or at least as much as I can muster on any day, I agree with you that Gemmell explores the themes of heroism, loyalty, honor, redemption, sacrifice, and perseverance. It is so in all his books. I also agree with you that these themes, or at least a serious treatment of them that lacks mockery, is truly missing from much of what is sold as the fantasy genre today. And Gemmell addresses these often, showing the characters struggling with those themes and ultimately achieving the virtues.

And Jake is wrong.


Jake Shore said...

What did I say about Gemmell fans?

As far as they world is concerned, the book suffers because their is almost no discussion of the people, places and cultures. I just felt lost. I'm sure had I read the other books, I would have a better idea of the world, but if the Drenai Tales were were supposed to take place in some amalgam of our world, then he didn't describe it well enough for me to understand how it all fits together.

Chareos and Beltzer were better realized than the other characters, but I thought Chareos' character arc kind of fizzled out about 2/3 of the way through the book, as did his thematic redemption by Kiall. No one dramatic theme jumped out. Lots of different ideas touched on, but not deeply explored (except perhaps how we deal with the responsibility of heroism).

Again, I will most likely pick up another Gemmell book, because their were some great glimpses. This one just left me flat.