For many, J.R.R. Tolkien is the father of epic fantasy. With the past decade’s explosion of titles in the sub-genre, however, I get the impression he has been relegated to godfather (or grandfather, depending on the reader’s age) as newer writers—George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Brian Ruckley, and R. Scott Bakker among them—produce titles grittier and less mythic. But there was a segue between these two points in epic fantasy. Balancing nobility and heroism with realism and violence, David Gemmell was part of the transition—perhaps the main thrust, and his 1989 Knights of Dark Renown is an obvious mix of it all. In other words, its quality will probably depend on how much the reader believes fantasy = epic fantasy.
Working within the realms (ha!) of Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars (more in a moment), and classic elements of Arthurian legend, Gemmell produces a milieu of knights and duels, fantastical beasts and ultimate evil, comings of age and quests for honor in a standard Medieval land of hamlets and dukes, horses and forests, kings and castles, magic and other dimensions. The narrative divided along character lines, but most often groups of characters, the main storyline is: in the not so distant past the king’s seer instructed the his nine white knights to enter the gates of hell. All but one of the legendary Knights of the Gabala who guard the land against evil with their wisdom and lightsab—ahem, swords (that Star Wars thing)—enter the gates. The knight Mananam remains behind, while the rest are never heard from again. Mananam failing for reasons of cowardice, he lives to watch the kingdom devolve before his eyes. Where human suffering and fear of captivity were once marginal, they take hold of the populace. Eight red knights coming to occupy the vacancy beside the throne, the king has embarked on a program of genocide, naysayers dealt with by abrupt injustice from his new knights. Stragglers on the outskirts of the city, a boy with untested magical powers (you knew it was coming), a young lady wicked with a bow, a one-armed knight, a dissident escapee, an outlaw, and an exiled wizard (you also knew it was coming) must band together to find the lost knights and return justice and honor to the kingdom. (Classic line, no? :)
Keeping things moving freshly and briskly, Gemmell never lets Knights of Dark Renown slow. He reveals backstory in bits and pieces (not in epic INFO DUMP form), contrives a few monsters to make sure the distance between action scenes is not too long, and, perhaps most importantly, has one or two surprises up his sleeve in terms of who dies, why, and their place in the overall story.
By turns predictable, engaging, contrived, stereotypical, and fun, the sum total is an average work of epic fantasy. On one hand there are the nine white knights entering hell, one knight holding back. Some years later a mysterious troupe of eight knights appear with blood-red eyes, wrecking evil on the land. Golly gee Wally, are they same knights? On the other hand, the scenes involving the outlaw, dissident, bard, and bowmistress have a balanced discussion on heroism. The outlaw wanting his deeds strung with gold and filigreed to the nth degree to impress the lasses, his conversations about the topic of history and virtue is capable of provoking some thought. Many epic fantasies have a bard, but few delve into the reason for their existence in the way Gemmell does. The juxtaposition of just these two points, obviousness vs. some more in-depth material, is a strong example of the other juxtapositions Knights of Dark Renown presents. The sum is a wash.
In the end, Knights of Dark Renown is an average work of fantasy, but will perhaps be more intriguing for the reader steeped in epic fantasy. Gemmell trying to work with both familiar and unfamiliar elements of the sub-genre, he maintains a good pace, writes characters that most often achieve the second dimension, almost never strays from course, and is capable of writing purposeful prose. Wizards and knightly duels, a Medieval land in the grips of a mad king, a retinue of albino knights, bull-headed monsters appearing from other dimensions to terrorize the countryside—it’s got all the fixins’ epic fantasy is known for. Caught between the honor and nobility (that good will win out from Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings) and the grim, dark, and grimly dark view of the world (Martin, Abercrombie, et al’s visions of violent egoism amidst Medieval realpolitik), it also marks an interesting midpoint in the sub-genre—and is ironically “more realistic” for it?