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
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before