Gemmell isn't my favorite fantasy author, but he was a fine example of what a author in the school of Sword and Sorcery themed fantasy can be. Robert E. Howard was the founder of this particular sub-genre of fantasy which merges supernatural horror with some traditional fantasy elements. It is a sub-genre that has seen its literary qualities undervalued due to the frivolous hack work of some of its supporters/promoters. The key criminals in this regard are L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter. DeCamp was a skilled fantasist outside of his Conan and Howard related work and without Carter's editorial hand modern fantasy would be lackluster today. Both of these men were deeply influential figures in the fantasy genre, yet when either of these men got their hands on a Sword and Sorcery tale of the Conan school all they could produce was hackneyed drivel. Comparing Carter's Thongor, or his Conan "collaborations," to the Conan tales of Howard is like comparing a research paper I wrote in 5th grade to one I wrote in Graduate school. DeCamp and Carter did yeoman's work in promoting the Sword and Sorcery genre, but both did great damage to the literary respect the average person believes the genre merits.
David Gemmell was a writer in the Sword and Sorcery school, in the best sense of the term. He was the most "Howardian" writer of his era, something he accomplished without writing Conan pastiches. Gemmell's tales featured the deeply individualist protagonists and supernatural horrors that the genre demands, but he added other narrative layers as well. Like Howard, and unlike many other Sword and Sorcery authors, Gemmell incorporated historical events into his fiction. Gemmell's Drenai saga contains many tales pulled straight from Herodotus, including the Battle of Thermopylae which forms the structural basis for Legend. Gemmell also incorporated a sub-narrative discussion of Christian morality and "just war theory," something I cannot attribute to any other Sword and Sorcery author. Yes, other fantasy authors incorporate such discussions, but they don't tend to be in the Sword and Sorcery genre with its anti-hero protagonists and often nihilistic worldview.
This isn't to say that Gemmell's fiction was a kind of Christian apologetics or that they were works of evangelism. His discussion of religion, war, and heroism is what one would expect from a man who could be described in the following way:
Expelled from school at sixteen for gambling, Gemmell entered the world of work with little in the way of vocational skills and drifted through a number of casual jobs. These included labourer, lorry driver's mate and nightclub bouncer, a profession well suited to his robust six foot, four inch frame.
He isn't writing books to convert anyone or to preach. The religion in his books puts a context onto the violent actions of his villains and protagonists. The faith of the Gemmell books lacks simple Manichean dualism. It is a world where even though miracles happen, there is still suffering and heroes wonder why such suffering exists. Gemmell provides no answers. It is as if he is writing through is own musings on the topic, he is discovering rather than dictating. It makes for interesting reading.
That said, Gemmell's works aren't books that are meant to be read as religious tracts, they are adventure tales where heroes battle powerful foes to protect the things they value. Sometimes the heroes are redeemed villains, sometimes they are citizen soldiers, and sometimes they are murderous avengers who may never be redeemed for their actions. Most of them are compelling, and the vast majority of them partake in exciting adventures.
Gemmell's fiction is the perfect combination of Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock. His writing contains the rugged individualists of Howard, but it also has some of the irony of Moorcock. He is very much an author worthy of having his name attached to an award.
The David Gemmell Fantasy Awards, now three awards, have released the list of this year's nominees. It is a list full of very good fantasy by talented authors. You can see the full list below as well as in the embedded video.
Of all the nominees, I think that Graham McNeill's Empire (Time of Legends: Sigmar Trilogy) (an excellent media tie in novel set in the Warhammer universe) and Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold are the two that fall most within the Sword and Sorcery tradition, but I am a fan of Brandon Sanderson's fantasy and am glad to see that he received two nominations.
Please read this year's nominees, but if you haven't read any Gemmell do give Legend a try.