Lion of Macedon by David Gemmell
The dearly-departed David Gemmell was, in his lifetime, acknowledged as a master of the heroic fantasy, and if you want any proof of that, read Lion of Macedon.
The tale begins in Sparta in the period after the end of the interminable Peloponnesian wars, when Sparta had begun to weaken, and several decades before the rise of Philip and Alexander the Greats. The eponymous hero, Parmenion, is a Spartan — a true Lakedaimonios — with a Macedonian mother. Because of his half-barbarian heritage, he is something of an outcast when we meet him as a fifteen year old boy in the harsh, near brutal training Spartan boys were put through. Despite this, he is most certainly not the angsty adolescent I had expected. Instead, he is a well-thought out, detailed and layered personality who grows and changes as we follow his life and career. It is difficult to give a basic plot line without dropping some truly titanic spoilers, but I think it is safe to say that our boy becomes a man and become a serious player in the major events of his era. In the background, the mystical elements play out and influence Parmenion and the affairs he plays a role in.
Throughout all of this are love interests, battles, friendships, politics, diplomacy and, this being the nation that invented the Olympics, the occasional athletic event. All of these Gemmell deals with adeptly. His battle descriptions are the best I have read. I could clearly picture the conflicts he was attempting to portray. His friendships are dynamic, realistic and changing. The politics and diplomacy are believable and detailed without being a distraction. His love interests are compelling and can be exceptionally tender without being sentimental. Even the athletics events (Parmenion is a runner), which I expected to be bored by (having no interest in the sport), I found maintaining my interest.
Gemmell does seem to believe in as much realism as is palatable, so it would be unfair not to warn the prospective reader that the sex and violence is quite graphic, although never gratuitous. This is not a book for younger readers, for certain. Having said that, these elements do seem to add to the overall feel and mood of the piece rather than simply provide a hook for those seeking such elements, and of course this is ancient Greece (which was not, on the whole, a culture that shied away from sex and violence) so perhaps they are appropriate.
The other characters who Parmenion encounters are similarly well realised and detailed. Some will be instantly recognisable to students of the era, others are more obscure and many made up entirely, but all are convincing and persuasive as people. I should probably also say that precisely no prior knowledge about the era is needed to enjoy this book fully, but anyone who has studied ancient Greece will perhaps find it even more enjoyable — certainly I was delighted with Gemmell’s accuracy (as far as I could tell, at any rate) and his attention to detail in the period I found commendable.
The pacing varies well — when the action begins, events can unfold quickly and dramatically. When Parmenion’s life has slowed down or when his current endeavour requires careful planning and preparation, the pace is much more sedate — yet there is always a motivation to keep moving or a plot strand our hero is unaware of creating tension. Occasionally the pace can be a little off — both too fast and too slow — and now and again a passage requires a second reading to fully understand what is going on or a few minutes effort just to get through a slow patch, but theses episodes are brief and few and far between.
Gemmell has some recurring themes throughout his work, and they are certainly present in this piece. He willingly admitted that his Christian faith strongly influenced his work, and it does show — the overriding belief that violence, even in defence of the weak and the good, is inherently wrong, is as present in this book as in the Drenai novels, as is the theme of redemption. The other Gemmell staples — Pyrrhic victory, honour, loyalty and the advance of old age — are also present in this. I do not think any of those themes lessen the book in any way, even after reading a large volume of his work prior to reading this, but if you found them a major distraction in the Drenai novels, then perhaps it might be worth taking this out of the library rather than buying it, but I would still strongly advocate your reading it — the descriptions of the battles alone are worth the effort, and this brings me on to the biggest hook, in my humble opinion.
Parmenion is the best character I have come across in fantasy. He has more depth, is more interesting and more realistically flawed despite still being a great hero than any other creation I have had the pleasure of encountering. Lion of Macedon deserves attention for its eponymous protagonist, even were the rest of it poor — and it isn’t; it is excellent.
The sequel, Dark Prince, is not quite in the league of Lion of Macedon. It is good, but this is on a different plain. But even were Dark Prince much worse than it is, I would still advise everyone who I can get to listen to me:
Read Lion of Macedon. It is an excellent, excellent book, generally well paced, with brilliant characters, a tremendous plot, love interests and friendships that should be a yard stick for the genre, wonderful battle scenes and a hero who stands, if not above, then at least level with any character one could meet in fantasy fiction. Not even my most critical appraisal could knock so much as half a star off its rating. David Gemmell, you are sorely missed — and this book proves why.
FanLit thanks Tom Dare, of London, for this guest review.
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