I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, May 29, 2023

Knights of Dark Renown (book review)

I've read Knights of Dark Renown by David Gemmell because of a recommendation from my friend Jens, after reading The Blade Itself - which we both disliked. 

This is the Amazon summary:
Once the legendary knights of the Gabala defended the nine duchies. [...] But they were gone, disappeared through a demon-haunted gateway between worlds. Only one held back [..]. Now he was the coward knight, and in torment. 
Murder and black magic beset the land. Rumors circulated that the king was enchanted, changed, that his soul was dead . . . and that a reign of terror was about to begin. Now Manannan realized he would have to face his darkest fears: he had no choice but to ride through that dreaded gate and seek out his vanished companions.
There is a lot more to the book than this, however - I won't get into it to avoid spoilers. I'll just say that this book is well worth the read. 

It succeeds in basically every criteria we usually mention here: it is good fantasy (has plenty of monsters, spells and ideas for your games), it is good dark fantasy (with tragedy, mature themes, dark humor, bloody twists, hard choices, loss, downfall, flawed heroes, cool villain monologues and shades of gray) and also good epic fantasy (with well-constructed heroism and hope).

To mention a few ideas I particularly liked:

- How the idea of "colors of magic" are treated. This is an evocative, coherent magic system. I could see it influencing Magic: The Gathering (and certainly my games). Also, it has a very interesting take on magic items, which require not only special efforts but also special materials. 
- One of the best portrayals of a bard that I've read in fantasy, mostly because he has an important role to play instead of being a comic relief.
- How the "gateways to hell" are treated, somewhat reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The whole "hell dimension" part is really interesting.
- Monsters that appear out of their natural habitat, creating a contrast between fantasy and realism.
- In addition to bards, the book has cool rangers/outlaws, awesome knights, paladins... and anti-paladins.

Other than that, the book is enjoyable for all the usual reasons: the characters are interesting, the plot is engaging, the setting is good. The action scenes are short and sweet, not particularly gritty or awesome. The characters are probably my favorite thing here: while there is no one as mighty and cool as Conan or Elric, everyone feels like real people, with flaws, different qualities and interests, and so on.

The pacing starts great but it gets a bit rushed by the end, similarly to The Broken Sword. In any case, the book never fails to keep you engaged. It has a cinematic quality that would do well in a TV series.

In fact, this book reminds me of The Broken Sword in several ways, although it is a bit less tragic and more heroic. And its quality is just a bit below the savage awesomeness of Poul Anderson's... which, as I've said, is one of the best appendix N I have read.

This book was published in 1989, so it couldn't make it to the Appendix N. Curiously, "Gemmell’s first U.S. editions were handled by New Infinities", owned by Gary Gygax" (source). Gygax once said "I've read one book by David Gemmell and enjoyed it." (source). 

In any case, this is certainly above-average for Appendix N books and fantasy books in general. It is also the start of a big saga, which I might be curious to read next... Let's see! 

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