Book Review: David Gemmell, Dark Prince

The British fantasy author David Gemmell (1948-2006) is often labelled the master of heroic fantasy, the king of heroic fantasy, and other such sobriquets, and Dark Prince, his 1991 sequel to Lion of Macedon, offers a good example of why he deserves that accolade. Gemmell deals in heroes who hark back to the epic poems of Homer and the sagas of ancient European fireside mythmongers.

Dark Prince picks up where the 1990 novel Lion of Macedon left off, except, as the title suggests, the focus has shifted: whereas the previous novel followed Parmenion as its protagonist, the titular ‘lion’ of Macedonia, Dark Prince makes the young prince, Alexander, the centre of the story, although Parmenion is still an important figure in the book.

Parmenion is the general or strategos whose wily tactics have ensured Philip of Macedon victory after victory in his various battles and campaigns. Parmenion is also – spoiler alert – the biological father of the ‘golden child’ whom Philip believes is his son. This boy is Alexander, who will go on to become one of the most famous warrior-kings in all of history: Alexander the Great.

Unfortunately, Alexander is touched by some kind of demonic power, which means that anyone he touches usually comes to a very rapid, and grisly, end. Cursed with this strange affliction, Alexander is viewed with suspicion by Philip but is treated kindly by Parmenion, whom the boy little suspects is his actual father.

The novel includes a long section in which several of the characters, including Alexander and Parmenion, are plunged through a portal into an alternative version of our world: a world in which Chiron, the wise centaur, is not the stuff of ancient Greek legend but a real man-horse hybrid. Brontes, the Minotaur from the Cretan Labyrinth, is also a real creature in this other world, and Cyclopes are real, too. While in this alternative universe, Parmenion must try to save Alexander from the Demon King whose evil lies behind the boy’s destructive power.

In many ways, this section is a kind of variation of the ‘descent into the underworld’ motif found in many classical epics, as well as, famously, in Gemmell’s The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, where the demon must be banished from Druss’s axe.

This section contains much of the bona fide ‘fantasy’ elements to be found in Dark Prince: elements which were downplayed in Lion of Macedon, which read more like straight historical fiction for much of the ride. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, nor do the fantastical elements here sit oddly with the appearance of such real-world figures as Aristotle (who was indeed the tutor to Alexander the Great). David Gemmell always said in interviews that he was fond of historical fiction, and one gets the impression he would have preferred to write it in some respects, except, of course, historical fiction requires Harold to lose at the Battle of Hastings and William Wallace to be defeated by the English.

In Gemmell’s heroic fantasy fiction, by contrast, the heroes can triumph and good can win out over evil. Of course, when writing about real-life figures from the historical records, however, there’s only so much leeway a writer can allow themselves. And it’s a fact that Alexander the Great was dead by the age of 32, and Parmenion couldn’t live forever, although Gemmell allows him here the ability to regain his youth. But Gemmell was also one of the best enders of a fantasy novel, and Dark Prince brings a poignancy in its closing chapters which is unmatched by most other fantasy writers.

Gemmell tended to be at his best in the medium-length novel of around 300-400 pages. Although the Rigante novels could survived extension to almost twice that length, the Skilgannon novels could not, and at 550 pages, Dark Prince feels 100 or so pages too long. It’s a minor novel in Gemmell’s canon, but still an absolute page-turner which shows his ability to make us care for his characters, with all their flaws, and to go on caring.

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