David Gemmell

Author of tough-minded, energetically bleak heroic fantasies


David Andrew Gemmell, writer: born London 1 August 1948; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Udimore, East Sussex 28 July 2006.

David Gemmell took only a few years of his life to construct a large career as an author of noir heroic fantasies, publishing his first novel, Legend, as recently as 1984. At least 30 followed, most of them burly, none of them careless. In a form of popular literature terribly prone to trash and repetition, his work was consistently tough-minded, energetically bleak, and solitudinous. His favourite protagonists are loners. They used to do something else, but this is what they do now: they fight to the last inch to save worlds not worth saving.

So successful was Gemmell at giving this kind of tale a personal fingerprint that, when his first publisher, Random House, relaunched its SF and fantasy list in 1988 under a new name, the new name was Legend. (When Orbit took the list over, he left Legend amicably.) Sales figures are hard to determine for writers in the midst of their careers, but Gemmell was certainly one of those - along with David Eddings (the likeness in the two names caused occasional mix-ups), Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin - whose titles sold in the millions.

Gemmell was born in London in 1948, growing up in a wide-boy culture dominated by violence, as he often attested, though he himself (as he might have put it) had a silver tongue, and survived. All the same, he was expelled from school at the age of 16 for gambling; and he had a wide range of job experiences of the sort that might fill the pages of a postwar British romanticist of the London demi-monde like Colin MacInnes or Gerald Kersh. He worked as a labourer, a driver's assistant, a bouncer, and much else.

In the 1960s he began to do freelance work for London tabloids, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of a small South Coast chain of papers. He wrote at least one novel which was deemed unpublishable, and may have been. He made it clear - though he was reticent on details - that he lived heavy. One habit he acquired almost certainly killed him: for almost all his life (including his final hours) he was a 40-cigarette-a-day man.

From 1984 until his death, the main thing Gemmell did was work. Many prolific authors ease their way through two or three books a year by creating reader-friendly series - in the world of fantasy they often involve detailed descriptions of similar lives led in similar kingdoms ruled by dynasties whose interactions are soap-operatic - and by spending a lot of time changing the guard at Buckingham Palace: focusing on ceremonies and sideshows. Gemmell would have none of this. Exhaustingly, he put his bleak, weathered, veteran soldiers into extreme situations where inattention might cost a life, or a war; and he did so with a style which, though sometimes crude, conveyed with unfaltering intensity the cost of action.

He strongly admired the English author of literary fantasy Robert Holdstock, whose own mythopoetic story-arches often open to reveal, at their heart, a stress-blackened warrior who might have stepped out of the fantasyland Gemmell called Drenai. Both authors, who were born the same year, share a stubbornness common among writers who began to work in the 1960s: a sense that it was still worth the candle to tell large stories, even during a time when the huge cultural and financial costs of winning the Second World War were still being paid.

The 11-volume Drenai Saga, of which Legend is the first instalment, typically gathers a group of adventurers around the ageing, war-weary Druss the Axeman, who must defend a pithless declining empire from foes whose resources are unquenchable; the long recounting of Druss's bloodied holding of pass after pass reads a bit like news from the Russian Front in 1944.

Through all of this, Druss (who is already 60) knows he will not live to see the war won. The series is filled with fantasy characters, mages and undead and supernaturally gifted antagonists, but in the end the Gemmell work ethic undercuts any escapes implied by magic. The Gemmell hero must accept his lot. He knows he will lose, that the gods are not friendly, that he is mortal. For those reasons, he fights all the harder. It is not surprising that Gemmell's last, uncompleted series was to be a full, dramatic reconstruction in fictional terms of the Trojan War.

The first draft of the book which eventually became Legend was written while Gemmell believed he was dying of cancer. Perhaps because further omens of serious illness continued to haunt him, he spent the rest of his life working as though there were no tomorrow.

He married well; his second wife, Stella, and two children survive him. He was known for his generosity to other writers. But he was clearly driven to do one thing. At one point he gave up smoking for a few months, but doing so killed his ability to write, so he began again.

Last Wednesday, he left hospital after quadruple bypass surgery. On Friday, he died in front of his word processor. He had already gone back to work.

John Clute

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Boxer Amir Khan will travel to Pakistan in bid to 'make a difference' in the wake of army school massacre
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture