waylanderI started out this series on the third book, and thought it was probably the best Gemmell book I’d read to date – furious, action-packed, with a cool main character and a sucker punch of an ending.

Now I’ve read the first book. I’m disappointed. The tree fell far from the apple.

This is a short and overstuffed fantasy story, with an incoherent plot that tries to do too much in too few pages. The story never gets a chance to breathe. It’s just 300 pages of “here, have another plot complication”, with no pauses to think about what you’ve learned. Every chapter we meet a new character, receive a new story development, and get a new fight scene, and soon the book resembles an incoherent montage that streams past you with someone’s finger on the fast forward button. This book’s pages are so overworked that they are in danger of forming a union and demanding overtime and a dental plan.

It’s about Dakeyras (though I don’t recall if he’s named in this book), the “Waylander”, a famed assassin armed with a double-loaded crossbow. The land of Drenan is being invaded by neighbouring Vagria (a war he’s somewhat responsible for, having killed their king), and he wanders the land, profiting from the slaughter. He goes against character by rescuing a monk from Vagrian torturers (I don’t understand why the Vagrians are killing every priest they find, since the war is politically motivated. Waylander even says that the priest would be safe if only he put aside his blue robes), and he ends up being involved in a plot to rescue the besieged garrison of Dros Purdol, where much of the remaining Drenai forces are making a last stand.

There’s far too many characters for such a short book. Gemmell’s novels benefit from a bit of RE Howard’s sense of spatial loneliness, a warrior riding across an empty plain. Waylander feels more like riding a Calcutta bus with several dozen people who all need a bath. We meet Waylander, and then we meet Cadoras, another master assassin armed with a bow, and then we meet Durmast, a third assassin who (in a flourish of dazzling creativity) Gemmell gives an axe. This is a major problem. There’s three characters in the book who serve a similar function (amoral anti-hero), with similar traits, and they all seem almost interchangeable.

Plus it steals Waylander’s thunder – hard to get impressed by a master assassin when apparently you can find a master assassin hiding under every kitchen table in this country.

Various familiar Gemmellisms come and go – evil priests, revoltingly upright and wholesome career soldiers, shape-shifting monstrosities. The plot is hard to follow, and not very logical. The final battle comes and goes, and you wonder why Waylander was even necessary. He found a suit of armor, I guess.

In the plus column we get a few great scenes (mostly in Dros Purdol). At long last we meet the hero hinted at in Legend, Karnak the one-eyed general. Waylander is fast moving, and certainly action packed. But Gemmell’s fight scenes – here as elsewhere – have a mechanical, inhuman quality. A battle-axe rives a helm and you think of videogame sprites battling each other.

I think you should repeat my mistake and read the third book first. Gemmell never takes the idea of a series too seriously. All of his books are readable on their own.

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