The Reading Canary and the Fall of the Drenai

by Arthur B

Arthur reaches the end of his patience with David Gemmell's Drenai series.

The Reading Canary: A Reminder

Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and whi-

Wait, That's Not Actually How It Works Usually

OK, I confess, that's not how it usually goes at all. Normally, I either grin and giggle and jump about and declare that you must read the entire series, or I get all stroppy and declare that it's all rubbish and not worth your time in the slightest. The Drenai series by David Gemmell, which I began reviewing here, is a rare exception, in that I've reached a point where the series becomes, to me, pretty much unbearable. Bloodthirsty violence balanced with careful characterisation really shouldn't be this off-putting to me, and here, right here, smack in the middle of the second omnibus, is where I think "you know what? I've had enough".

To recap the previous volume: the Drenai stories revolve around the struggles of the Drenai people, tending to focus on eras where the Drenai are facing a particular crisis. Most of the books appear to be placed within three distinct eras, each of which was defined by one of the first three books in the series. In chronological order, these are:
  • The Waylander Era, first explored in Waylander, during which the Drenai nation evolves from a monarchy to an Empire administered by a ruling council, and the Nadir people way off to the north are a bunch of fragmented tribes who are easy pickings for their neighbours.

  • The Druss Era, during which the career of the hero Druss the Legend occurs, and the great Nadir leader Ulric unites his people into a single nation, ready to take their rightful place on the world stage. Although the Drenai nation is in serious decline, a surprising victory at the fortress of Dros Delnoch in Legend, the first book in the Drenai series, saves them and preserves the nation for a little while longer.

  • The Tanaka Era, at the beginning of which the mad emperor Ceska has led the Drenai nation to ruin, to the point where the Drenai can only be saved by an intervention from the Nadir under the leadership of Tanaka Khan - descendant both of Ulric and of the Drenai lords of Dros Delnoch. The Nadir finally become the predominant power on the world stage, and the story of the Drenai nation - in its present form - has run out, and some time after the events of The King Beyond the Gate Tanaka conquers the Drenai Empire in the name of the Nadir.

Quest for Lost Heroes

The nice thing about the Drenai Tales omnibus editions of the series is that they include brief (as in 1 or 2 pages) introductions from Gemmell where he explains the circumstances and inspirations behind the books. According to his introduction to Quest for Lost Heroes, Gemmell took a break from the Drenai series for a while after being made redundant from his day job, churning out a heap of other novels in order to secure his family's finances. Having done so, he returned to the Drenai series, and once again with a theraputic aim - to exorcise his frustration and feelings of uselessness on losing his job. He also had a more playful aim - to invert the stereotypical Epic Quest narrative common in fantasy fiction at the time, wherein a naive teenager is called upon by a wise old mentor to go do some random thing of ultimate cosmic importance because he's Special and it's his Destiny. Therefore, he set about writing a book about how some cynical old dudes are cajoled by an enthusiastic young man to accompany him on a quest which seems supremely irrelevant, but ends up having far-reaching consequences.

In doing so, he managed to achieve two important firsts in the Drenai series: he wrote the first book in the series which didn't adhere to the formula I identified in my previous review, and he wrote the first book in the series that acts as a kind-of sequel to a previous book. Quest for Lost Heroes takes place a few decades after the events of The King Beyond the Gate. Since the events of that book, Tanaka Khan has besieged and cast down Dros Delnoch and conquered the Drenai lands, convinced the Nadir to start building cities and engaging in trade (albeit in slaves), and having presided over the Nadir finally displacing the Drenai as the pre-eminent local nation, died. The conquest of the Nadir does not seem to have had the apocalyptic, civilisation-wrecking consequences it threatened to have in Legend, presumably due to Tanaka's influence - the small Gothir kingdom of New Gulgothir manages to maintain its independence (but perhaps at too high a price), and Drenai culture doesn't seem to have been destroyed - there's references to libraries still standing in the Drenai capital which visiting scholars can peruse freely, for example. Quest for Lost Heroes has more than chronology linking it with The King Beyond the Gate, though - it also shares that book's somewhat cynical tone. Again, the hard-fought victories seem like mixed blessings in the epilogue, which points towards a future conflict which the book has set the ground-work for.

I'm getting ahead of myself though; although the old formula is largely abandoned for Quest for Lost Heroes, a few faint connections remain, so let's go over it for old time's sake.
  • The Drenai are always on the verge of extinction. As I mention, the Drenai are dominated - but not exterminated - by the Nadir in this book, and their culture appears to be reasonably intact. In fact, for much of the book the plight of the Drenai people seems curiously irrelevant, the impact of the book's events on the Drenai only becoming apparent towards the end. One of the Lost Heroes could, in fact, have become the saviour of the Drenai people (yes, yet another one) if he'd made a few different choices earlier in life, but in a refreshing twist he actually has very little interest in doing so, but at the same time feels somewhat guilty for not being more concerned with the Drenai situation.

  • There are always Heroes, with a capital H, usually several. Again, Gemmell excels at his characterisation of world-weary heroes racked with doubts. Chareos, the swordsmaster, provides most of the philosophising this time around, although it feels a bit too much like preaching this time around - partially because he tends to deliver it to young and impulsive Kiall, partially because it seems to be a reheated version of points which were made more eloquently in the previous three books, and partially because they seem to be a bit out of character for the chap. However, the other Lost Heroes truly shine: the redemption of Beltzer, the berserker whose life was utterly wrecked by fame, is nice to see, and I was especially impressed by the subtle depiction of Finn and Maggrig - they're a gay couple, but the fact that they have sex with each other is never directly referred to because it isn't especially relevant, and they would still be interesting and evocative characters even if they weren't a couple. How refreshing is that?

  • The Source will be with you, always. Here's a really major departure from the rest of the series - there aren't any Source priests in this one, not even the knights of the Thirty. The party's supernatural backing comes instead from the Nadir shaman Asta Khan, who has his own agenda (which, when it is revealed, is actually surprising and shocking while making perfect sense), and like many of the shamen in the Drenai series seem to practice a magic which, while nowhere near as depraved as that of the Dark Brotherhood that follows the Chaos Spirit in some of the books, is not even slightly as lily-white and clean-cut as that offered by the followers of the Source. This is frankly more interesting, mainly because it doesn't resolve around a flavourless blend of Buddhism and Christianity.

  • There's also a blind seer guy. Not this time, there isn't.

  • Always with the sieges. Nope, not one. Oh, Chareos and Beltzer and Finn and Maggrig are world-famous at least partially because they're the heroes of some famous siege back in the day, but that's not the focus. There are two incidents that could have become sieges, but interestingly they don't. The second time this happens, it's the climax of the book, and I won't give any more details because it's genuinely worth coming to fresh. The first time this happens... well, I'll get to that part later.

  • Quests are important, but they're also for a higher cause. This is the part of the formula that Quest for Lost Heroes really relies on; in fact, it's the first time Gemmell has written a Drenai novel which focuses exclusively on a quest narrative. He does so with admirable skill, and the consequences of the quest turn out to be truly exciting.
It is obvious that Quest for Lost Heroes is a major departure from the previous Drenai formula. Part of this, of course, is due to Gemmell deliberately breaking the formula to write a quest novel. However, as the second book set in the Tanaka Era it also appears to be an attempt to redress some of the issues with The King Beyond the Gate, which begins weakly since Gemmell was being pressured by his publishers to write a conventional quest novel. The themes and atmosphere are certainly consistent with or related to those of The King Beyond the Gate, and the events of the novel shed light on the end of Tanaka Khan's ambiguous career and put the events of The King Beyond the Gate in context.

There is one incident, however, which causes me some concern, and that is the rape of Tanaki Khan, daughter of Tanaka.

Rape sequences in fantasy fiction is something we often talk about on Ferretbrain, mainly because we feel that frequently they're handled badly. Specifically, a preoccupation with rape sequences in fantasy frequently - but not always - seems to be coupled with deeply unfair authorial treatment of women. Men who are captured will be slapped about a bit by their captors but will probably earn their grudging respect. Women who get captured will often be rape-bait. Tanaki is no exception, but the fact that she gets raped is not necessarily the root of my concern - a male protagonist gets captured by the same Nadir band that are responsible for the gang-rape of Tanaki and is tortured to death, after all, so you could argue that the treatment of captives is equally vile in both cases. My problem is with the manner she is captured in the first place: a band of three hundred Nadir warriors are sent by her vile, corrupt brother in order to capture her, a force that the fifty under-trained men under her command in her little trading outpost can't possibly repel. Tanaki allows her men to flee, makes a valiant attempt to die fighting, but is nonetheless captured with, by the standards of the series, pretty much no effort on the part of the bad guys.

In every other situation in the Drenai series, up to and including this book, in which a commander finds himself stuck in a barely-defensible fortress with insufficient forces and surrounded by a foe which vastly outnumbers his army, he rallies his men, he convinces them not to flee, he stands, he fights, there's a big siege, much ass is kicked and much heroism ensues.

And of course, in every one of those cases, the commander in question is male.

To recap:
Male commander = hero material.
Female commander = rape bait.
I do not claim, incidentally, that Tanaki is any less heroic for her courageous lone defence of her position. I feel, however, that it is more than a little unfair that, uniquely out of all the other siege commanders in the entire Drenai sequence so far, she does not get anything resembling the same one-in-a-million shot at actually successfully defending the fortress that Druss the Legend had, that Karnak One-Eye had, that the Lost Heroes have at the end of the book...

That's pretty fucking cheap, Gemmell. Let her fail, let the consequences of failure be brought home as brutally with her as it is with the male protagonist who gets captured, but for fuck's sake don't do the authorial equivalent of stripping her naked and throwing her to the dogs.

Aside from this nasty blotch on its record, Quest for Lost Heroes is a decent addition to the Drenai series which further illuminates how the interactions of the Nadir and the Drenai people transform both cultures. (Heck, one's almost an anagram of the other.) At this point, after the events of Waylander and Legend and The King Beyond the Gate and Quest for Lost Heroes the Nadir and the Drenai are pretty much brothers, two peoples with a common history, each shaped by the other. It's also the logical end of Gemmell's focus throughout the entire series: ever since Legend he's always been more interested in his old, jaded, world-weary characters than the bright young idealistic goons they inspire.

If he'd had ended the Drenai series here, it'd be pretty damn decent. Alas, he continued...

Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf

Quest for Lost Heroes was something of a first for the Drenai series - a book which, rather than establishing its own era of Drenai history, simply explores a previously-defined era. Waylander II is the next logical step - a direct sequel to a previous Drenai book. Can you guess which?

Gemmell talks in his introduction that Waylander and Druss the Legend are his favourite characters in the series, and practically write themselves. This is obviously the case, since the majority of remaining books in the series after Quest for Lost Heroes are sequels to the first Waylander book and prequels to Legend (in which Druss's career comes to an end). On the other hand, part of the reason the early books in the series are so wonderful is that they can stand alone perfectly happily. Not so with Waylander II, which by virtue of being a direct sequel cannot possibly avoid depending heavily on the reader having read Waylander. Gemmell loads down the prose with packages of exposition here and there in a token effort to help people who didn't read Waylander catch up, but this only compounds the error, since it weighs down the prose to what, for people who read the first book, is needless baggage, and it only underlines to the johnny-come-latelys that they really should have read Waylander first.

So, after the events of Waylander the eponymous assassin headed off to peaceful retirement with his new wife and her two daughters. Cue some occasionally heavy-handed wife-killin' from Gemmell to ensure that Waylander ends up becoming a broody loner again. Waylander's daughter, Miriel, is being trained by her father in swordplay, crossbow-shootin' and various other ninja arts, mainly because she's vaguely interested in them, but her characterisation suffers from being a young character, and it's become apparent by this point that Gemmell can only make old characters interesting. Anyhow, soon enough Waylander is warned by, amongst other people, his ex-gladiator pal Angel that the Assassin's Guild have put a bounty on his head, and there's plenty of mean motherfuckers comin' this way to collect.

It turns out that Karnak One-Eyed, the new leader of the Drenai and a hero of the war chronicled in Waylander, has hired the assassins because Karnak's son accidentally killed Waylander's other daughter and her husband, and Karnak wants Waylander taken out before he finds out and comes after the lad. The lad in question, however, has also accidentally joined the Dark Brotherhood because he thought it was a bog-standard aristocratic BDSM club instead of, get this, an international conspiracy to take over the world which is orchestrated by, I shit you not, a sinister oriental mastermind. Said mastermind has manipulated the king of the Gothir to massacre a Nadir tribe (remember, at this point in time the Nadir are a bunch of bickering factions) because he has foreseen that from that tribe will come the Uniter who will bring all the Nadir clans under one flag and lead the Nadir nation to its rightful place on the world stage, and has sent Karnak's son to the Nadir stronghold to make sure the job is done properly. Nadir shaman Kasa Khan, meanwhile, asks for Waylander's help, and Waylander decides to divert the quest that he and Miriel and Angel and a couple of assassins who decided that the bounty is not worth it are on to go help the Nadir because It's the Right Thing to Do. Oh, and the Thirty are riding out to help too.

Okay. Deep breath. Let's go through the hallmarks of the Drenai series and see how closely this one cleaves to them, shall we?
  • The Drenai are always on the verge of extinction. This is true, but not in a way which actually makes any sense. The Gothir and their allies are going to simultaneously attack the Drenai, pausing only to take out the Wolf Tribe of the Nadir beforehand. The Dark Brotherhood's agents are conspiring to take over the Drenai in the meantime too. And yet the focus is on the plight of the Nadir tribe, not the Drenai, who seem to be entirely capable of handling these issues, probably because they are currently in their prime. We know damn well that the Brotherhood is going to fail, and fail horribly, and the Drenai-Gothir war is a sufficiently small part of the plot that it doesn't really seem especially relevant.

  • There are always Heroes, with a capital H, usually several. In this case we have Waylander, whose character development has been shifted backwards by a couple of hundred pages to convince him to adventure again. We have Miriel, based on one of Gemmell's friend's daughters and who has a thing for older men. We have Angel who, despite showing promising signs of being interesting early on in the book, becomes relegated to being a Nadir-hating racist with no other discernible character traits once the Nadir plotline really gets going. There are a couple of forgettable assassins, one of them a slightly lame poncey swashbuckling sophisticate, one of them a slightly lame barbarian Nadir.

  • The Source will be with you, always. Indeed, the Thirty ride out, despite being wracked with angst over being forced to use violence to stop evil when they regard violence as the tool of evil. Wait, didn't I read that in Legend? And in The King Beyond the Gate? And in Waylander? The presence of the Thirty at the siege really seems remarkably pointless, except Gemmell seemed to feel obliged to include them because they happened to be around at this point in the timeline. This ties into an issue I'll rant about a little more later.

  • There's also a blind seer guy. Not this time. Perhaps Gemmell thought that the Blind Seer Guy was a little too cliched, but since he's got a sinister oriental mastermind running around that would seem unlikely.

  • Always with the sieges. Over half the book is an elaborate shell game set up to disguise the fact that Gemmell has decided to have a bunch of random factions show up at a siege of a Nadir fortress. While I applaud the decision to invert the usual trend of the Drenai books, in which it's usually a Nadir horde besieging a civilised nation's fortress as opposed to the other way around, that doesn't make up for the fact that half of the plot doesn't even slightly make sense. Since Waylander decides to arbitrarily go help the Nadir anyway on request, there was absolutely no need for the whole "assassins come after Waylander" subplot at all, except a) to highlight that Karnak is dodgy (but we knew that from Waylander), b) to inflict a bunch of random extra party members on Waylander and Miriel, and c) to provide someone for Waylander to kill in a cool way at the siege (Karnak's son).

  • Quests are important. Not this time, buddy. The only quest Waylander is called on to undertake (in the part of the novel I read) was "go here and take part in this siege".
I have two big problems with this book. The first one is that Gemmell is clearly being lazy, cranking out a Waylander story for shits and giggles. This leads to a lazy plot - the whole assassination thing doesn't make sense, the Dark Brotherhood being an international conspiracy doesn't make sense, and the goofy, over-the-top nature of the plotline is completely jarring in the context of what has been for the main part a reasonably realistic series. For the love of god, the setting now includes a legalised Assassin's Guild, something which has absolutely no place outside of a Pratchett movel. Furthermore, this laziness extends to the moralising and the character motivations - one of the bad assassins is illustrated as being a bad man by having him declare that he is going to rape Miriel to bits. (He doesn't, but the fact that Gemmell seems to can't think of anything bad happening to a woman that doesn't involve her being raped - can't a girl just be murdered in cold blood for once? - is depressing.)

The second problem is that it is both too reliant on the other books in the series, and yet contradicts them too much. The plot is essentially a whole bunch of stuff that needs to happen so that Legend could happen, which strikes me as being singularly pointless. Yet, at the same time, it also continues the process of thoroughly mixing up and intertwining the histories of the Drenai and Nadir people, which sounds like a cool idea until you realise that it makes no sense in the chronological progression from Waylander (in which most Drenai never even think about the Nadir) to Quest for Lost Heroes (at which point the history of the two peoples is inseparable).

Sad to say, I think at this point Gemmell is writing Drenai novels not because there needs to be more Drenai novels, but because there happens to be a gap in the timeline that he can slip a Drenai novel into. And right here is where I get off the train. The next novel in the sequence is The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, a concept so wrong-headed I don't know where to begin: the whole reason Druss was interesting in Legend is because he's an ex-hero who is old and past it and can't quite pretend he's indestructible any more. A novel in which Druss is young and cool and is having all sorts of adventures seems to be as necessary as a third testicle.

The Canary Says

Quest for Lost Heroes is OK as a coda to the opening trilogy, but you really shouldn't read further than that. Those four books said it all; from this point on, Gemmell is just repeating himself.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 22:42 on 2008-06-05
In every other situation in the Drenai series, up to and including this book, in which a commander finds himself stuck in a barely-defensible fortress with insufficient forces and surrounded by a foe which vastly outnumbers his army, he rallies his men, he convinces them not to flee, he stands, he fights, there's a big siege, much ass is kicked and much heroism ensues.

And of course, in every one of those cases, the commander in question is male.

I'm commenting here to correct this part, because I do Gemmell a disservice here: there is another situation, earlier on in the Drenai series, in which a female commander is at the helm during a siege, and she doesn't dismiss her forces and get raped to bits. She, of course, is Rayvan, commander at the Siege of Skoda in The King Beyond the Gate.

I should point out, however, that there is a mild difference between the two situations: Rayvan is middle-aged, grumpy, and a bit plain. Tanaki is young, flirtatious, and hot.

So I'm not convinced my argument is necessarily weaker for this.
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