My relationship with the work of David Gemmell is clear and straight forward. A consistent writer in terms of story, content, and style, I do not need to research a Gemmell novel before reading it. I know it will be heroic story set in a relatively generic fantasy setting with focus on action and decision in times of war and strife. I also know the work will not tax my intellect; more beach or late night reading requiring little active participation. Thus it was that his Greek duology—Lion of Macedon (1990) and Dark Prince (1991) threw me for a loop—a small loop, but a loop.
The small loop is setting; instead of a D&D-type fantasy land, we get an ancient Greece strongly analogous to real world history. Opening in Sparta around 380 B.C., Lion of Macedon takes the life of the half Spartan, half Macedonian general Parmenion and spins it into a fantastical biography, concluding in the second volume, Dark Prince, that intertwines the life of Alexander the Great’s with Parmenion’s. The story’s key points remain true to history (at least as far as I can tell), but into the insterstices are inserted elements of fantasy that utilize Greek myth. Lion of Macedon largely the real world setup and Dark Prince the fantastical offshoot that synthesizes the two upon its conclusion, the duology is an imaginative revisioning of Permenion’s life.
Divided into the phases of Parmenion’s life, his youth, his 20s, 40s, and ‘old age’, the novel focuses on the crucial stages that developed Parmenion into the revered general he became, and his ultimate, tragic fate. For those knowing nothing of Parmenion or having only a basic knowledge of Greek history but are interested in reading the duology, I strongly suggest first reading the duology then any real history or biography. Parmenion’s life the stuff of drama and legend, knowing the real-world history beforehand spoils the story.
I said the loop was small, and the reason is that though the two novels are set in an atypical setting for Gemmell, they remain not far from the writer’s roots in high/epic fantasy. Though a historo-fantasy revisioning, Parmenion’s story is loosely akin to the classic farmer-boy-becomes-king, his path to glory a natural analog to many a high fantasy narrative, not to mention the secondary fantasy world, though populated with centaurs and minotaurs instead of ogres and trolls, is not wildly unique. Doing as such allows Gemmell to be comfortable telling Parmerian’s story, all the while pulling reader’s familiar with such stories into a “new” setting.
In the end, there are other titles which do aspects of Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince better. Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand depicts Greek/Spartan style warfare in a semi-fantasy setting in grittier, more tangible style. Gene Wolfe’s Soldier series fantasizes Greek history in more sophisticated, literary fashion. And Andy Duncan’s style of fantasized biography utilizes prose and authorial voicing that render Gemmell’s just average. But Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince remain decent if not light reading. Gemmell’s focus on heroism, honor, loyalty, duty, and decision remains front and center, meaning there is plenty of drama to keep the pages turning—sword duels, foot race, clashing armies, sorcery, cabals, assassinations, etc. Which leads back to my intro: you know what you’re going to get with Gemmell, which is not by default a bad thing.