320 pages, Del Rey
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
We've all got one. If you're a regular visitor to this website, chances are you're as much of a book geek as the rest of us and you're bound to have one book that first turned you on to the joys of reading. For some, the revelation might come at a young age in the form of a book by Enid Blyton or Julia Donaldson. For others, it might be a novel by Terry Pratchett or Roald Dahl which blows their young minds. Some unlucky souls out there might even find J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels to be their gateway drug. However you get there, once you find that one magical book there's no looking back. The first step on the slippery slope to fully-fledged literacy has been taken and it's only a matter of time before you are spending every available moment with your face between the sweet smelling pages of a crisp new paperback.
The moment came for me at the tender age of thirteen. Although I was a capable reader when I was younger, no book had really grabbed me up to that point. I can't remember what I was grounded for but it must have been something pretty bad because my stereo, television and video games had been taken away. My pal Reuben had recommended a book to keep me going through my weekend-long incarceration. The cover had a moody looking guy dressed in black leather holding a crossbow and squaring off against a pair of big freaky monsters. Reuben's dog-eared copy had clearly been read more than a few times before. “What the hell,” I thought as I turned to the first page, “it'll beat staring at the walls.”
Holy shit. That weekend was one of the best 48 hours of my life.
David Gemmell's “Waylander” will always be one of my favourite fantasy novels. The storyline might not have the depth of Tolkien, and Gemmell's style might be somewhat basic and pedestrian when compared to the other greats of the genre but I've returned to the book time and time again. Why? That's simple. It is so damn fun. I know that when I pick up my time-worn copy of the novel that I'm in for a good time.
The plot is typical Gemmell, a world-weary anti-hero is given the chance for redemption but must face great dangers and overwhelming odds to save the day. The world-weary hero in this instance is the titular Waylander. A dour, leather-clad assassin armed with a nifty double crossbow and a truly ludicrous array of knives, Waylander is not a man you want to mess with. Gemmell takes a great deal of time highlighting this fact to his readers. By the third or fourth chapter, Waylander has already dispatched a large quantity of adversaries and managed to look consistently cool whilst doing so. Cynical readers might gripe that Gemmell spends far more time making his protagonist look cool than actually developing the character, and they might well be right. Unnecessary posturing or not, the fact remains that the image of Waylander silhouetted against the sunset, the breeze lifting his cloak to reveal his deadly crossbow, is indelibly etched in my memory.
Waylander's not a happy chap. Since avenging the murder of his family years ago, he's been a bit of a lost soul and has drifted from place to place, plying his deadly trade to the highest bidder. His last victim happened to be the King of the Drenai, and now the country is thrown into turmoil as the deeply unpleasant Vagrian army has invaded and are raping and pillaging their way across the countryside. Waylander is given an opportunity to redeem himself by finding the mythical Armour of Bronze and turning the tide of battle in favour of the Drenai. Easy, right? Wrong. The Vagrian General Kaem has put a price on Waylander's head that has attracted a rival assassin called Cadoras the Chaos Blade, and he's also being hunted by a group of sadistic psychic warrior priests known as the Dark Brotherhood. Oh, and the Armour of Bronze is situated smack bang in the middle of the barbaric Nadir lands and is guarded by werebeasts.
Accompanying Waylander on this near-impossible quest is a pacifistic vegetarian priest called Dardalion, a pair of psychic twin girls and an attractive young woman called Danyal. Waylander's hard demeanour is softened somewhat by his new companions and he becomes a more sympathetic character. In a nice bit of mirroring, Waylander's warlike ways rub off on the priest Dardalion as he becomes a steak-chewing arse-kicking holy man who uses astral projection to beat seven shades of shit out of the Dark Brotherhood. Danyal, rather predictably, becomes the novel's love interest, but she is also given quite a pivotal role towards the end of the story, enabling her to show a bit more backbone than the traditional fantasy damsel in distress.
One of David Gemmell's strengths as a novelist was his ability to write convincing action. Whether a sword fight, a tavern brawl or a full-scale epic battle, Gemmell was able to bring the action to life in a way that many writers struggle to achieve. I know there are folks out there who look down upon action and adventure books – to them I recommend that they try their hand at writing a believable and exciting fight or chase before they pass judgement on the genre. Gemmell's works might not be the most emotionally mature stories, but they are breathlessly exciting and never fail to get the adrenalin pumping. Best of all, the novel is perfectly paced. We aren't exhausted by Gemmell overloading the action and he allows enough downtime between each battle for the reader to get their bearings and reconnect with the characters. Cleverly, the novel is structured so that each action sequence is a little bigger, a little more bombastic than the last. The book starts with small skirmishes and builds to a suitably epic climax as the keep of Dros Purdol comes under siege from the Vagrian army.
“Waylander” is a special book to me. It not only turned me on to fantasy but it also fired up my passion for reading. It has been nearly twenty years since I first read it and in that time I've encountered many better books. There are more mature, cerebral works of fantasy out there and many more complex tales of adventure. However, I'm hard pushed to think of many books that I enjoy quite as much as this tale of heroic fantasy.
Hereward L.M. Proops