David Gemmell,
Sword in the Storm
(Corgi, 1999)

David Gemmell is a prolific writer of heroic fantasy, very popular in the UK and nearly as popular in the USA. In Sword in the Storm, Gemmell explores Celtic themes, but by creating a parallel world analogous to Britain just prior to the Roman invasions 2,000 some odd years ago, he can use familiar tropes of this Celtic fantasy subgenre in creative ways and add magical elements and avoid accusations of historical inaccuracy.

This is a Bildungsroman chronicling the coming-of-age of the hero, Connavar, the Demonblade, born in a storm that led to his father's doom. The setting is deep in the verdant mountain realms of the Rigante, where lies the settlement of Three Streams, whose people, Connavar's kinsmen, venerate the deities of Air and Water, and the spirits of the Earth.

The promise of plenty of future conflict is foreshadowed by prophecies that the Armies of Stone will one day cross the water, and that their coming will overwhelm all that lies before them. Before this happens, Gemmell spends a good portion of the book developing in detail the character of Connavar, his family, friends, fellow villagers and neighbors. The reader's interest is held by Gemmell's skillful rendering of Connavar's maturation: rescuing a fawn; helping a crippled boy; famously fighting a bear and getting scarred for life; befriending an ex-patriot foreign trader; and losing his virginity to an "earth maiden" -- all of this being tinged with tantalizing encounters with the magic and magical entities of the Seidh. Connavar grows into love relationships and friendships with strong and vivid women that can hold their own alongside the menfolk.

Tension builds as the nearly grown Connavar achieves adulthood by traveling with his merchant friend abroad to lands threatened by the Armies of Stone, there learning the ways of the future invaders and experiencing pain and suffering and loss that forge him into the hero that will unite the tribes of Rigante, to build forces that would try to withstand conquest.

The characterization is superb -- even supporting roles are fully dimensional and plausibly motivated -- this being true of humans and immortals or fey creatures alike. Fascinating and memorable personages besides Connavar people this book: from the Ghost General of the Armies of Stone, the eerie Morrigu, the wise witch Vorna, the enigmatic Thagda, all of Connavar's family, friends, rivals and lovers to Eriatha the Earth Maiden (the most refreshingly respectful and dignified portrayal of a "sex worker" to appear in fantastic fiction besides the work of Samuel Delany and Janet Morris).

This volume ends with Connavar's return to his homeland to experience more intense love and loss as he builds the army of the Rigante and defeats the Viking-like raiders, the Vars -- a prelude before the ultimate test yet to come in the sequels.

Sword in the Storm breathes new life into the familiar Celtic milieu thanks to Gemmell's talent as a writer. His prose sings with passionate emotions, spine-tingling Seidh-magic and lively, colorful detailed depictions of the tale's cultural/economic/spiritual/political backgrounds. This is a powerful start to an epic saga of courage, love, sacrifice and ancient, mysterious magics that will further sustain Gemmell's reputation as one of the better writers of heroic fantasy around and will entice readers into seeking more.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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