Review: Morningstar by David Gemmell



by David Gemmell

Fantasy | 321 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2014

| Rating |

David Gemmell is one of those authors that every fan of fantasy fiction should have read; unbelievably this was my first. Needless to say, I need more Gemmell in my life! Morningstar was a fantastic introduction into his writing; exciting, fast paced, and overflowing with ne’er-do-wells and reluctant heroes. If, like me, you need a starting point for the Gemmell catalogue, Morningstar will not disappoint.

The Angostin forces are storming the Highlands; murdering, pillaging and laying waste to everything that lies in their path. The people are deserting their towns and villages, fleeing into the bandit infested forests beyond; they have but one hope – the Morningstar.

Owen Odell is a storyteller, a worker of magic who spins his power into the tales he tells. A chance encounter in a darkened alley changes his life forever when he meets Jarek Mace – liar, thief and outlaw. With war threatening the Highlands, Odell finds himself attached to Mace and his merry band of misfits who turn their acts of banditry against the invading Angostin force – a mutually beneficial arrangement which both rallies the people and makes Mace a hell of a lot richer.

Rumour is rife, could Mace be the legendary Morningstar come to save the oppressed masses? Through skirmishes and battles, and facing darker forces than just an invading army, the ultimate question remains – will Mace run (presumably with all your gold and quite possibly with your wife) or will he stand and fight?

Morningstar weaves history, myth and legend into a fantasy narrative to create a rich and almost believable tale. The overriding conflict of the Angostins and the Highlanders is reminiscent of Edward I’s campaigns against Scotland and Wales, creating a vivid backdrop for a story which underlines the struggle between freedom and oppression. The clear influences from history give the story a sense of realism which may have otherwise been lost in a tale of magic and supernatural evil.

The comparisons to Robin Hood are similarly well deserved; outlaws and banditry abound, refuge is sought in the depths of the forests, and rich Angostins are relieved of their gold which, ever reluctantly, is bestowed upon the poor masses. This is a reweaving of the Robin Hood legend – a Robin Hood who despite all intentions to murder and pillage ends up, however unintentionally, helping others and fighting for the common good.

Gemmell’s writing is fast paced and fluid, describing the world and its inhabitants in vivid detail. The whole band of characters are given dimensionality; cutthroats, prostitutes and thieves alike. The first person perspective, in which the narrator is describing the life of another character, works incredibly well. Owen Odell plays the part of naïve narrator superbly; he is the moral compass of the tale caught up in a world completely alien to him, and this secondary perspective works to emphasise the complexity and duality of Jarek Mace’s character.

Mace is a wonderfully reluctant hero. His motives are always questionable, his true feelings hidden from us. There may have been more fights and battles if the narrative had been told from Mace’s perspective but we would have lost the most important and vital part of the story. The true beauty of this tale is that we never know what Mace is really thinking or what his intentions are, and despite any good or bad outcome we can never know if it was done for completely selfless or selfish reasons. Jarek Mace will always remain an enigma.

Morningstar is a short but gripping tale full of intriguing characters. The momentum is carried with excitement and humour and ultimately reaches a satisfying, if somewhat hurried, conclusion. My first foray into the work of Gemmell was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and one which had me reaching for the next Gemmell book as soon as Morningstar closed.

Knights of Dark Renown, also by David Gemmell, will be reviewed shortly.

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Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab


A Darker Shade of Magic

by V.E. Schwab

Fantasy | 384 Pages | Published by Titan in 2015

| Rating |

Apparently there was a lot of hype surrounding A Darker Shade of Magic, a lot of hype that seemed to bypass me entirely. V.E. Schwab’s name was cropping up everywhere, everywhere but my bookcase that is. Fortunately for me, Dragons and Jetpacks had selected A Darker Shade of Magic as the August Fantasy Book of the Month and it soon found itself (along with Vicious – that sneaky basket stowaway) at the top of my to-read pile. Now I’m fully initiated into ‘the loop’ I can honestly say this book is magnificent. Schwab has created a richly immersive tale, woven with darkness and vibrant enchantment, which leaves me in great anticipation of a sequel.

Magic once flowed through the worlds, their doorways open to those who would cross them. Until the corruption set in. One by one the doors between worlds were closed. Each sealed off from the next, they evolved, changed and festered under the influence of monarchs, dynasties and usurpers.

Now only travelled by powerful magicians known as the Antari, one thing remains constant throughout. London. Grey London, a drab and magic free land ruled over by mad King George; Red London, a city of vibrant enchantment home to the Maresh Dynasty; the twisted and deadly White London, where magic is wielded like a knife; and Black London, a mysterious and ravaged city severed from the worlds like a rotting limb.

Kell is one of the Antari, a blood magician and traveller between worlds. An ambassador for the Red Court, he is charged with carrying messages between the respective powers of these lands. That is, until his habit of smuggling magical and benign artefacts between worlds lands him in a whole heap of trouble. As he escapes through Grey London, Delilah Bard, a notorious thief and prospective pirate, is swept along with Kell in the flight from cut-throats, brigands and a magic far darker and more powerful than anyone thought possible.

Schwab certainly has a way with words, her writing is incredibly evocative and weaves together four contrasting, imperfect and imaginative worlds. Each London is distinctive and instantly recognisable. Schwab captures the essence of each of these cities, her descriptive style assaulting the senses with colours, sounds and smells. Though they all share facets of the London, it is Grey London which resonates most with our own world. Danger forever hides in the shadows, in twisted alleyways and darkened streets. Even the most idealised London, full of colourful characters and vibrant magic, is not safe. This novel has carved new worlds out of our own history; at once exciting, dangerous and utterly absorbing.

A Darker Shade of Magic successfully bridges sub-genre gaps to present a narrative which appeals to a wide audience. For the most part, I like my tales dark and gritty; I like my weak, immoral, impulsive bastards. And if an antihero protagonist isn’t in the offing, then a dastardly villain will do just as well. Enter the Dane Twins. Every scene with them is a malicious dance, every encounter tortuous; Athos and Astrid are cats playing with mice. And then there’s Holland…

Schwab paints her characters in shades of grey, their personalities underlined by their London, the full spectrum of morality open to all. She creates a vivid picture of humanity’s imperfections and the two protagonists wear their imperfections (and many an item of clothing) incredibly well. Kell and Lila dominate the storyline; two conflicting, intertwining characters who remain infinitely relatable throughout, and who leave us with promise of magic, adventure and intrigue at the close of play.

Though, for me, Kell and Lila lose out to the secondary players in terms of unique personality traits, this novel succeeds in developing a diverse range of compelling characters, whose roles I can only hope will be extended in the ensuing novels.

Schwab is a gifted author whose words are as magical as the characters she creates. A Darker Shade of Magic is a short but brilliant read which will have you in another world at the turn of a page. And perhaps if you look out of the corner of your eye, or smell the scent of flowers on the air, you might just find a way from one London into the next.

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