The more stuff by David Gemmell I go back and read, the angrier I become at the senseless and random twist of fate that deprived us of him. Damn, but this man was a consummate adventure storyteller. It never seems to matter in his work how arch his heroes and villians may be, or how familiar the landscapes and battlefields against which his stories play out. Somehow, under Gemmell's pen, heroic fantasy always managed to feel exhilarating and fresh.
Dark Moon is nothing less than a masterpiece of the genre. With a uniformly sensitive and heartfelt handling of character, and a theme that broadens the moral simplicity of high-fantasy's workaday good-vs-evil tropes into an understanding that the greatest good and greatest evil often cannot avoid walking hand in hand, Dark Moon (a stand-alone work) is a mighty epic through and through. I'm a critic who is loath to resort to gushy hyperbole, even when I can't help but rave about something. So the best way I can indicate just how powerful a storyteller Gemmell was is this: there is a single event, a moment of quiet profundity, that occurs on the last page of this book, that packs a stronger punch than most entire fantasy trilogies.
It's a moment that perfectly encapsulates Gemmell's particular genius. Redemption was always a big theme of his. But he also seemed keenly aware of just how easily a story could go wrong in exploring it. Thus it is that Gemmell always preferred a subtle approach to his stories' emotional moments, however much they may have relied on spectacular battle setpieces for most of their excitement. Sure, every now and then he'd do something that wasn't so subtle — the death of a loved one is a common life-changing moment for many of his characters. But it's in how Gemmell would go on to have such an event shape that character's choices and ultimate destiny that gave his stories their depth.
In Dark Moon, Gemmell positions hapless humanity between two races who embody good and evil to their conceptual extremes. The Daroth are a hivemind species who cluster in their termite-moundish cities and view literally every other living thing apart from themselves a threat to be annihilated with extreme prejudice. The Oltor are a gentle and beneficent race who naïvely allowed the Daroth to emigrate into their world, only to be slaughtered mercilessly for their trouble. Also wiped out were the Eldarin, magic-wielders who yet managed to entrap the Daroth within a white magical pearl before their violent ways could lay waste to the entire world. To be too good, too benign, too trusting, can be as much a liability as evil itself, as it leaves you all too vulnerable to its savagery.
Ages pass, and we meet three human heroes who will face the greatest crisis, not only of their lives, but of humanity's. Duvodas is a musician and healer trained by the Eldarin. Karis is an embittered warrior with a permanent chip on her shoulder who will find herself leading the armies of humanity's last stand. And, most interesting of all, Tarantio is a mercenary fighter who, as the result of childhood trauma, is either possessed by a demon, or suffering from a split personality. When in the heat of battle, as bloodlust takes over, Tarantio's alter-ego (with whom he frequently converses) Dace takes to the fore, making the warrior a nearly unstoppable murder machine. Gemmell remains ambiguous about just what Dace is — demonic squatter or alternate personality — and the conceit is that it allows Tarantio to represent powerful extremes of good and evil as embodied in one man. The question explored here is that of whether we are really ourselves when we give vent to our basest instincts and act upon our most selfish and destructive emotions.
These three unwitting heroes come together as the Daroth are unintentionally reawakened by an ambitious duke, who has sought the Eldarin Pearl in the hopes of gaining a magical edge over rival dukedoms. He's ignorant, however, of what the Pearl really is, and calamity quicky ensues. As cities fall one by one to the rampaging Daroth (who are so indifferent to the notion of mercy they haven't even got a concept for it), Karis, Tarantio, Duvodas, and their loved ones and allies make a final stand in the beseiged city of Corduin. There they will fight to the last, and learn a thing or two about themselves that perhaps they never wanted to know.
The execution of Dark Moon is about as sublimely executed as anything I've seen in the fantasy genre. There simply isn't a moment when the story isn't flowing gracefully, whether it's in the sweat-inducing battle scenes in the catacombs beneath Corduin (and these are preceded by brilliantly conceived scenes of the preparation for battle, the evacuation of refugees, and the gripping moments of calm before the inevitable storm of war), or in the funny, warm, and heartfelt personal moments between characters. Humor is deftly thrown into the mix as well. Halfway through the book we get a smashing subplot about a greedy merchant seeking to profit illicitly from the siege. The novel as a whole finds characters (especially Duvodas) confronted with the choice of what they will become as horror rains down all around them. Will they become even more evil than their opponents in order to defeat them, or will they find a way to defeat them simply because they are better, because they do have the capacity to understand love, compassion, and self-sacrifice?
An unsung masterwork in the annals of heroic fantasy, Dark Moon is a testament to the depthless talent that was David Gemmell. It's a story you should embrace as both rousing entertainment and a tribute to his memory.