Favourite Fantasy Books Part 5: Waylander by David Gemmell
This is a series of posts about fantasy novels that I love, or loved, and that really got me into fantasy. Some of them have not really stood the test of time, some I grew out of, and others are still great. But all of them fed into how I came to love fantasy and how I perceive the genre.
I know, I know, last week I was banging on about Legend by Gemmell, and here I am singing the praises of another of his books. Honestly, there are a lot of books that will come up in this series of Favourite Fantasies, and it just so happens that a few are Gemmell books. Although I think I will leave a bit of a break between this one and the next Gemmell that I want to talk about.
So, moving on, why is it that Waylander captured my attention back then? The thing was, I picked it up after I had read Legend as it was billed as the second book of the Drenai sequence. I was then immediately confused as to why it didn’t chronologically follow on from the first book. Surprisingly enough, this was my first encounter with a prequel novel (I had read the Chronicles of Narnia in chronological and not publishing sequence so The Magician’s Nephew didn’t count) and one of the reasons it ended up on this list. This was a prequel done well. The world was recognisable, there were hints and tidbits that related to events that would be referred to in Legend which tied it in neatly, but it told its own story.
Waylander wasn’t concerned with adding to Legend and it wasn’t dependent on it either, it was using the world, and the vast history that it spanned, to focus on a thematically consistent but distinctly different story. Waylander could be read as a stand-alone, as a prequel, or as part of the history of the Drenai lands. It was one more tale in an ever growing history of a fictional world. So in part, this introduced me to the concept of the re-usable setting and secondary world as a place that existed with its own history and own sense of time and space. By this I mean that although series like the Forgotten Realms books, and Dragonlance had vast sprawling worlds, littered with ancient ruins, and ancient peoples, there was never a sense that those realms really existed. They were too patchwork. A technical term would be that they were constructed from discontiguous narrative spaces. Each was a different flavoured gaming zone designed for playability and not for geological consistency or political reality. In short, they lay-out of the worlds (like early versions of Howard’s Hyboria) made narrative sense for a series of adventures in different locales, but you never believed the worlds were solid and real. The world of the Drenai books just felt more real. More like an actual world.
While many books and series I have read since have done this better than Gemmell, some of which will crop up in my series here, this was my first real encounter with this, and I was fascinated. Gemmell’s world felt rich and diverse with all the messiness that comes with reality. Heroic good guys could be cold hearted gits that would turn every situation to their advantage, even at the cost of human lives, like Karnak. Allies didn’t necessarily like one another and in fact could loathe one another, but still be forced to co-operate due to circumstances. But perhaps most importantly for me, the central hero wasn’t a hero. I had finally run into an anti-hero.
So the second major reason was that this was my first encounter with a dark, morally ambiguous assassin, a real anti-hero. Thus far all the assassin types I had run into in the pages of fantasy novels were curiously heroic given the job description. Even Silk from Eddings’ Belgariad was a carefree, happy-go-lucky, quirky psychopath who seemed relatively normal despite the deep psychological trauma he was obviously carrying around untreated. But Waylander was something entirely different. He was cold, pragmatic, deeply violent, and had no interest in a fair fight or duelling for honour’s sake. He was an out and out killer, and yet there was a heroic side to him. He was deeply conflicted and much of the novel is a redemption story for him and for the reader.
Unlike Druss who was a warrior and hard man, Waylander was a killer. Druss might kill people in battles or duels, but he didn’t take a contract on someone for cold hard cash. Waylander did. This was a level of darkness and … evil… that I have never encountered in a protagonist and ostensible hero. It is revealed over the course of the novel that Waylander was indeed a fairly evil man by almost any standard, and yet we get drawn into his life. We see his backstory and come to understand how he became the man he did. We find out about his journey into darkness. We start to understand that even the best of us can fall. But even more importantly, over the course of the book we see him change and start to claw his way back into the light. So another important lesson in the book for me at that age, was that people are often more complicated than any one moment in their lives. They are the sum of their lived experience, and although some events may shape and change us drastically, there is always the opportunity to learn and change. Pretty heady stuff for wee me to wrap my head around in a book that I thought would just be about a cool assassin.
So once again, Gemmell presented me with a violent, quite grim and dark story, with morally ambiguous characters, but underneath it all was a core of hope and optimism. It wasn’t didactic, but it drew me in by making me see the flaws of the characters and identify with them, care about their fates, and ultimately side with them as they struggled to do the right thing at the cost of their own lives and even souls. So yet another of Gemmell’s big themes of personal sacrifice for the good of the many came shining through.
Of course it helped that Waylander was a kick-ass assassin who was awesome and powerful. That sort of adolescent power fantasy is hard to deny during those tender years, but Gemmell also made Waylander far more believable as the menacing killer by including some very interesting character traits. In a ‘Han Shot First’ type of scene, our first introduction to Waylander is as he reluctantly kills some robbers who have stolen his horse. He warns them to give him the horse back and he will be on his way, but they out number him so decide to kill him and rob him. Rather than waiting for them to make the first move, Waylander shoots two with a hidden crossbow, then throws knives to take out as many of the others as possible. All of this is done as quickly as he can to even the odds and, much to my amazement, to avoid a sword fight because Waylander wasn’t a particularly good swordsman. A fantasy hero who wasn’t an amazing swordsman after a two week training montage? Surely this couldn’t be. Be here was this stone cold killer assassin who was great at the sneaky martial arts of covert killing but a middling ‘warrior’ at best. I couldn’t believe it. It would be like an Elf missing an arrow shot.
But beyond that, everything about Waylander’s physical description matched his style and character. He was lithe and flexible, but not an acrobat, so to me that made him far more believable than the diminutive somersaulting Silk. Given that he spent a great deal of time travelling and generally out and about, it was also a relief to have someone that wasn’t miraculously clean shaven on the long treks across fantasy land, or that sported an enormous and suspiciously well maintained beard. Even his clothing fit the part. A dark leather cloak that was waterproof but also camouflaging. Dark leather armour that allowed for flexibility and stealth, as well as providing decent protection. Blackened blades on his various knives and daggers so that they wouldn’t reflect moon or sunlight and give away his position. The small crossbow that was only accurate and lethal close up, but was small enough to disguise and hide at a moment’s notice. And all of his equipment is worn but well cared for and scrupulously maintained. All of these aspects tied together to create the image of someone who is a practical assassin. He didn’t wear silks or doublets and hose, he wasn’t clanking around in chain or plate, he was a stealthy killer and kitted himself out as one. So this was the first time I had really seen a character that both embodied his role and didn’t seem like a caricature or stereotype. There was a practical thoughtfulness that went into his physical description and armament.
But if that had been all I doubt I would have been quite as taken with the character as I was. There were two other major aspects that sealed the deal for me. The first was his rescue of Dardalion. He does it on a whim, or for him, a moment of weakness because he was feeling guilty about assassinating a good man. That one good deed grows and begins to spiral outwards in his life and the long buried good in him begins to show through again. The other major aspect was that this process of him becoming heroic doesn’t happen overnight, and he still struggles with his demons and darkest thoughts. There was a psychological and spiritual war inside of him that he begins to win in order to reclaim himself.
Of course all of this was set in a story about good guys versus bad guys. A travelogue quest with a small cast of identifiable characters hewn out of archetypal myth that resonated strongly with my less cynical and jaded mind. And there was glorious violence … in the name of good of course. And noble self-sacrifice. There was even a romance thrown in and some cool mystical magic stuff. It hit all the buttons. So just like Legend it seriously appealed to the younger me. Only this time there was a dark anti-hero at the centre of it that made it even better.