- Apr 9, 2016
What makes a story a story? Is it having a beginning, a middle and an end? Is it about a person changing? A struggle?
I ask because in many ways, you could describe Sword in the Storm as a fictional biography. Its clearly not but there's something about the grand arc and lack of clear antagonist or driving goal that gives it this feel. The story's prologue starts near the end of Connavar's life; the first chapter before he's even born. Barring the prologue, it covers a twenty-something year sweep, and the main foe is never even faced. We only find out what happens later in the sequel Midnight Falcon.
Now I'm not complaining. I like it when authors do something different and in any case, it's taken me three or so readings of the book to even ponder this.
And as I ponder, the shape of the story becomes so much clearer and more powerful. This isn't the tale of Conn vs his rivals and the enemies of his people. This is the tale of Conn vs himself. Conn vs the flaws that threaten to make a monster of a fundamentally noble and heroic human.
Sword in the Storm is very explicit about this imagery, to the point where I feel something of an idiot for taking so long to twig. There's even one scene where Conn is in a spirit realm, admiring this great bear that's bound up in chains and feeling sad that something so magnificent is bound. The bear, of course, is the worst of him. Like so many of us, Conn is very reluctant to put aside all the magnetic lures of humanity's excesses. Its not quite Augustine impeaching the Lord to make him pure at some undefined point in the future, but close.
But when you view the whole story in this light there are so many more examples that leap off the page in searingly unforgettable ways. The subplot in which the witch Vorna begins to understand why the Morrigu gives so many double-edged gifts to humanity is a masterpiece of subtle development. Watching two enemies become friends as they try to do their best for a disabled boy gave me joy. Maybe Sword in the Storm isn't a fictional biography so much as an extended parable in the shape of an action story.
And it is an action story. Of course it is, its David Gemmell, and if there's one thing Gemmell loved it was writing about violence. It's not his finest outing in terms of adrenaline soaked adventure to be honest, which is to say its as good as anyone's in the genre. Particular stand-outs include Conn's encounter with a bear and him watching the Rome-inspired legions of Stone at work.
But the best parts are about the characters and the struggles they face. Conn is one of Gemmell's most memorable heroes; charismatic, altruistic and yet capable of the darkest deeds due to tiny seeds of doubt and pride. His arc resembles Rand's from Wheel of Time but is far more condensed. Those around him are, by and large, likable yet interestingly flawed. I rooted for them to make good choices; I understood when they made bad ones.
In keeping with Connavar's theme, the more selfish the motivations, the worse their decisions were. This may make the book sound preachy but the message lies deep under the story. You have to obsess over it for it to become so pervasive. But it is there if you wish. And that's why the opening and last chapter end the same way - with a man ready to give his life for those he loves. Everything good about Conn comes from that. Everything bad comes from doubting that gift.
Sword in the Storm is a ripping yarn with a huge amount of heart and soul. I just wish there were more books like it.