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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 16, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Gemmell, the Rigante, and Discarded Books

When I discover a new author who consistently creates moving, inventive stories with memorable characters, one of the great pleasures is looking forward to future books.

That's how I felt about David Gemmell. Having just finished his four novels set among an imaginary tribe called "the Rigante" (Sword in the Storm, Midnight Falcon, Ravenheart, and Stormrider), I was looking forward to catching up with his previous work and then reading whatever he produced in the future.

Only there won't be any more books. On the 6th of July 2006, at the age of 57, he died.

Before I ever heard of him or read a single one of his books, he was gone.

I suppose there's nothing unusual in that. In fact, many of my favorite authors were dead before I was born.

And in Gemmell's case, there is this consolation for his readers: He wrote about thirty books before he died. I've read five of them. I still have the pleasure of at least twenty-five novels before I've caught up with all he wrote.

If you have never read anything of Gemmell's, you have much to look forward to.

The four Rigante novels begin among a tribe that is clearly based on the Celts of Britain at about the time the Romans were conquering Gaul. Gemmell draws freely on that history to create the rich setting of these books, but he also takes whatever liberties he needs.

So Rome is a city called "Stone," which brutally conquers whatever people it wants, selling the marketable adults into slavery and slaughtering babies and children too young to sell. The first two books tell the story of the Rigante heroes who unite their fragmented people and not only resist the Stone invaders but conquer the great city.

The Rigante, however, have no ambition to rule over other people. They merely wish to be left alone. So they do not rule Stone for long, and over the centuries they return to their peaceful life.

The result is that in the last two Rigante novels, set hundreds of years after the first two, the Rigante are ruled by Norse-like conquerors who oppress them, deny their history, and impose their religion on them.

It's a Christian-like religion we saw aborning in the first two books, but now it has become corrupted, and a fanatical group of crusaders is involved in a civil war. So once again, Rigante heroes are required to sacrifice whatever is required to save their people -- and even their conquerors -- from massacres and atrocities.

Did I mention that these novels are fantasies? The magic element is powerful, based on the Sidhe of Celtic legend, but Gemmell lays out the rules very carefully, so that the magic doesn't take over the story. Unlike the deeply silly spells of the Harry Potter series, which depend on deftness and good aim, like a really good throwing knife, the magic of the Rigante is invocative and personal. It arises out of character and relationships, and it enriches the human story instead of distracting from it.

I have actually said nothing about the characters themselves. For good reason: I don't want to mar them by trying to summarize who they are.

For Gemmell has done something that is rarely attempted outside the fantasy genre and rarely done well within it. He has created characters of nobility and honor, and has done it so well that instead of seeming larger than life, they never lose their humanity.

I read the first of these novels on an airplane, the second on the return trip; both novels had me in tears more than once. Not because of the sad things that happen -- that's not often what makes me cry at a work of fiction -- but because of good people doing Good. Unlike fiction that tries to be "edgy," Gemmell succeeds at being truthful; a civilization based on the ideals of his stories would not only endure, it would deserve to endure.

Yet the stories are dark and violent and bleak enough to qualify as edgy, for nobility only makes sense in a cruel world.

Best of all, in this fantasy world the characters have a chance to talk to the gods who manipulate their lives and complain about how the gods are running things.

The stories left me wishing I could sit down with one of those gods in particular and complain about the arbitrariness of letting a writer like David Gemmell reach such a fine level of skill and wisdom, and then taking him away from us with what should have been another thirty years of books left unwritten.

*

I guess everyone reads differently. As I sat in the airplane reading the first Rigante novel, the passenger next to me was reading David Farland's Sons of the Oak, the fifth book in his Runelords series. Since Farland is a good friend of mine, as well as one of the writers I admire most, I was looking forward to telling him about how raptly the man was reading.

Then, as we were landing in Atlanta, the man closed the book and tucked it into the seat pocket. I had just finished my book, and so I asked him if he enjoyed what he'd read.

"Yes," he said. "It was very good. I've read all the Runelords novels. Would you like to have this one?" He held out the book to me.

"No, no," I said. "Already have them all, thanks."

"No problem," he said. "I'm done with it, so you might as well have it."

And sure enough, when he got up and left the plane, he abandoned the book on his seat.

This was not an ideological act, not part of the movement to pass books along deliberately for people to find them.

He was simply ... done. He had read the book, and felt no need to keep it.

To me it was as unthinkable as discarding a pet -- though not quite at the level of, say, drowning kittens. But all my life I've regarded books as precious things. I acquired and hoarded them like a literary miser from the time I was in fourth grade and used to skip lunch so I could order more books from TAB (the "Teen Age Book Club" by Scholastic).

It was wrenching some twenty-five years ago when I had to start giving away review books. Sent to me free by publishers because I had a review column in a major science fiction magazine at the time, I kept the books I reviewed, but had no interest in keeping the books that I had declined to read.

At that time I donated them to prisons, figuring that the good books might help the repentant prisoners to pass the time remaining on their sentences, while the awful books would serve as part of the punishment for the would-be recidivists.

More recently, though, we finally had to start performing triage on our own library. There is a point where you have to choose between art or bookshelves to cover the walls, and we chose art. So I began to go through our library and determine which books were resources, which had sentimental value, and which I might want to read again.

By the dozens or hundreds, I weeded out books that didn't fit any of those categories, and my family began taking them to Edward McKay Used Books. My oldest daughter used to use them for their trade-in value, but now that she lives in Los Angeles, we are pretty much donating them. I think we have enough unused credits piled up that we could open our own used bookstore.

Though so many of the books we donate are not the ones that the store actually wants that I suspect most of what we give them turns up on the cheap tables at the front of the store.

So I suppose I'm dumping books pretty much the way the traveler beside me dumped the one he had just finished.

Except ... at least I hold onto the books for a while, and when I do get rid of some I make sure they go to a place where some other reader might find them. I have to think about getting rid of a book.

Yet my fellow traveler's attitude makes perfect sense. He did not expect to reread the book. He enjoyed it, but he was done. If he ever wanted to reread them, he'd probably just buy them again -- books are still amazingly cheap, for the amount of entertainment time they deliver. And in the meantime, the books aren't cluttering up his house.

After all, the best place to keep the best books is inside your head. He had Farland's Runelords in his memory. He couldn't replay it word for word or scene for scene, but whatever effect it had, it wasn't going to be much enhanced by having the book on a shelf.

So my fellow traveler did nothing wrong. My cringe or shudder whenever I think about discarding a book is irrational. The stacks of not-yet-read books cluttering every room in the house are untidy and unattractive.

But like any rodent, I get to build the nest that makes me happy.

Oh, yes -- I picked up Sons of the Oak. Because I already own it in hardcover, eventually this copy will make its way to Edward McKay's. I am what I am.


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