13 July 2009
She Likes... David Gemmell When He Lays Off the Fantasy
I adored David Gemmell's Troy trilogy, which used fantasy elements sparingly and focused instead on character development, strong plotting, and historical detail, so when my father lent me Lion of Macedon, I was looking forward to another glimpse into Greek legend-turned-history. But Lion of Macedon tries to walk the line between historical fiction and fantasy, and in doing so, fails to fully embody either genre, leaving me a little confused and disappointed.
The story takes place a hundred years after the Battle of Thermopylae, at a time when the Greek city-states fought for power amongst themselves and Persia utilizes this rivarly to prevent the city-states from banding together as a unified Greece and potential rival. The protagonist, Parmenion, a half-Spartan, half-Macedonian, is raised in Sparta, but because he is only a "half-blood," he is shunned by his peers and underestimated by those who should be training him to be a Spartan soldier. The discrimination Parmenion faces kindles his desire for revenge against the people and ideals of Sparta, as he eventually travels to Thebes, among other places, to use his gift for strategy against the Spartans.
Like Gemmell's Troy trilogy, Lion of Macedon follows multiple characters, and I became attached to a number of them, like Mothac, Parmenion's manservant and friend, and Thetis, the priestess of Aphrodite who saves Parmenion's life at one point. Too, Gemmell has no compunction about killing characters off, but I don't really mind this; I think it adds an urgency and realism to the story that fits well with the bloodthirsty time period in which the book is set.
I also enjoyed the fact that, though Parmenion is clearly the protagonist, the narrative point of view shifts frequently, and other interesting characters become more prominent than they might have otherwise. One example of this is Phillip of Macedon, around whom the last third of the book truly revolves -- we learn a great deal about how Phillip, at age fourteen, saves not only himself but his older brother from possible assassination, but also how he eventually rises to power and, with Parmenion's help, establishes Macedonia as a city-state to be reckoned with.
(I think Gemmell uses this technique more successfully in the Troy trilogy, either because he has three books in which to extend various characters' arcs or because he had simply matured as a writer -- I think Lion of Macedon was written ten or so years before Lord of the Silver Bow, the first Troy book.)
Ultimately, however, Lion of Macedon loses its power because it is more fantasy than historical fiction (or maybe it's both -- historical fantafiction?), and for me, this robs the historical plot -- which is engrossing in and of itself -- of its intensity.
Despite the truly interesting story of Parmenion and his travels, the true premise of the story is this: a seeress named Tamis has foreseen the "dark birth," the birth of a child who will grow to be a merciless man and, with his maurading armies, bring darkness to Greece. Tamis believes that Parmenion plays a key role in preventing the dark birth (or protecting Greece, should the child be born), and she shapes his life toward exactly that by using her powers to make people hate him, deprive him of his one true love, and so on.
Lion of Macedon is well-written with strong plot and characters as well as a concrete connextion to history, but the conclusion, which relies on a prophecy, the Lord of Chaos (I think?), Aristotle the philosopher-turned-magus, and fantastical journey through Hades to rescue the spirit of an unborn child, falls flat.
The final chapter does set up the sequel nicely (ten points if you know who the dark child of the prophecy -- Philip of Macedon's son -- is!), and I'll definitely read it, though perhaps with a little less enthusiasm than I began Lion of Macedon.