Parmenion: Book I
I’ve read fantasy for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve managed to finish a book by David Gemmell, one of the dominant British authors of speculative fiction in the 1980s and the 1990s. I tried his Lord of the Silver Bow a few years back, being unable to resist anything to do with the Trojan War, but I confess it just didn’t do it for me. I hoped that this – essentially a historical novel with added demons – might be slightly more to my taste, but I’ve finished it in a state of slight bafflement. There’s a good idea behind it and some clever twists, but once again it just hasn’t engaged me. Join me, as I try to figure out exactly why that is.
Gemmell takes as his hero the young Parmenion, half-Spartan and half-Macedonian, who has grown up with the taunts of his fully Spartan peers. Having failed to impress them with his abilities as an athlete, Parmenion hopes instead to make an impression with his strategic intelligence. Facing up against the popular Leonidas (not that Leonidas), as rival generals in a mock battle, he demonstrates a brilliant tactical broadside that goes against all the rules of Spartan combat, leaving his enemy decimated. The judges are shocked; Leonidas’ cronies are disgusted. But one man in the audience is impressed. That is the Athenian exile Xenophon (yes, that Xenophon), who takes Parmenion under his wing and begins to nurture this nascent strategos‘s gift for warfare. Time passes, and Parmenion realises that the Spartans will never allow a half-blood to rise to the officer class in their army. His life looks set to be spent in the rank-and-file, fighting another man’s battles. But he hasn’t realised that he has a role to play in another war.
The sorceress Tamis is growing old, after a lifetime of fighting to hold back the forces of Chaos. Her final act will be to thwart the coming of the Dark Lord, who seeks to be born into a human body in order to rise to power and bring destruction to the world. (It’s funny, isn’t it, how Dark Lords never devote their considerable powers to things like improving the postal service and making sure the trains run on time?). Tamis has already prevented one manifestaton, but she has also foreseen the future and knows that there are four possible fathers for the next incarnation of the Dark Lord. To get rid of them, she needs a weapon. In all her visions of the future, one name has resounded loud and clear as that potential weapon. Parmenion. And so Tamis watches him from a distance, shaping his young life to hone him into the fierce strength that she needs. It will require sacrifices. But Tamis is a wily old crone and she won’t let anything stand in Parmenion’s way: not friendship, not acceptance and not even love.
As the book gets going, and Parmenion grows up, his story spills beyond the walls of Sparta and stretches out across the Greek world. Rather like Forrest Gump, he has a habit of popping up in the major events of the later 4th century BC and, moreover, turns out to be the genius behind virtually all of them. The expulsion of the Spartan garrison from Thebes in 378 BC? Yep, that was him. The formation of the Sacred Band of Thebes? That was him too. Oh, and the defeat of the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 BC? Do you even have to ask? That was Parmenion too, urging on the Theban leaders Epaminondas and Pelopidas with his strategic genius. And then he turns mercenary, hiring out his sword to tyrants great and small across the Classical world, from Northern Greece to Susa, until one day a message comes that he can’t refuse. A young Macedonian hostage he met while in Thebes has returned home and become King. And young Philip, surrounded on every side by hostile armies, needs Parmenion’s aid.
I’d have felt a little more comfortable with Parmenion dominating the military strategy of 4th century BC Greece if there was actually any proof that he was involved, but Gemmell has taken advantage of the fact that we don’t really know very much at all about the real Parmenion prior to his service in Macedon. Instead, Gemmell gives us a life worthy of a mythical hero, full of portents and watchful magicians and wise old mentors. My main problem, I think, was that everything was melodramatic rather than dramatic. We weren’t just facing danger of the perfectly reasonable Spartans-on-your-doorstep kind: no, this was danger of the Epic Dark Lord Is Coming kind, and I’ve got to the age where I actually find that rather cliched in a high fantasy context, let alone shoehorned into Ancient Greece. There’s a particularly overblown moment when Parmenion descends into Hades and finds himself standing alone against the Forces of Darkness… but no! Here come the shades of the 300 Spartans from Thermopylae to stand with him against evil! (You could almost hear the sweeping music rising in the background, but unfortunately I just felt that it was all trying a bit too hard to be epic.)
The characterisation wasn’t great either. People are lifelong friends one moment and scornful enemies the next, or vice versa, and the dialogue occasionally tends towards the theatrical. Unfortunately, I didn’t really end up with a clear idea of anyone’s personality, including Parmenion’s (although I happily imagined what it’d be like to have him at a cocktail party: ‘I am Parmenion, Lion of Macedon, Death of Nations. And you are?’). Nor, alas, did I find his attachment to Derae convincing: indeed, the only thing less persuasive was her attachment to him. Romance is all well and good, but in order to function properly it has to feel organic, irresistible, compulsive – and this just felt as though the strings were being pulled by someone else. Judging from this book, Gemmell isn’t particularly good at writing female characters, who fall broadly into three camps: mystical hags, sensuous seductresses and lovelorn damsels. While little space is given to emotional development, there are extended descriptions of battles which feel slightly like textbook diagrams rendered into words. I love a good battle, but I like to feel swept up in it, and that never really happened here.
I already have the next book, Dark Prince, which I bought at the same time as this one. Given the way in which Lion of Macedon has ended, I’m going to have to read the sequel, if only to find out how Gemmell deals with a much better documented character. I did smile, I admit, when I realised what he was doing, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and see how he plays out the tale. Objectively, this is an interesting experiment in blending historical fiction and fantasy. Perhaps it’s very much of its time: the book was first published in 1991 and I think modern fantasy novels take a very different approach, with a greater focus on character and nuance. In any case, readers with a less pedantic interest in history may find the mixture less troubling. You could even argue that much historical fiction set in this period is fantasy anyway, as the facts are few and far between. But I do feel that the Greek world at this time was sufficiently exciting, with figures of such grandeur, that one really doesn’t need to overegg the pudding with demons and Dark Lords and the ever-present threat of Chaos. Perhaps things will settle down in the next book, now that all the pieces are in their places. I just hope Parmenion doesn’t get to take all the credit next time round.
So, fellow readers, has anyone else tackled Gemmell? Am I right in finding him a bit flat and overblown? Are his pure fantasies more successful? Or did you perhaps really love the Parmenion books and feel that I’m being overly harsh? There must be a lot of people out there who really do adore this series, judging from the enthusiastic reviews on Amazon and LibraryThing. Share your thoughts…