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

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