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Dark Moon by David GemmellUK edition5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThe 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. At his best, this man was a consummate adventure storyteller. It never seems to matter in his work how arch his heroes and villains 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 one of those breathtakingly rare, unsung gems of the fantasy genre that get overlooked because they were marketed as mass market paperback midlist. You could probably count the number of such books on your fingers. With a uniformly sensitive and heartfelt handling of character, and a theme that foresaw the moral ambiguity of much 21st century epic fantasy by moving beyond simplistic 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 despises 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 scene of quiet profundity, that occurs on the last page of this book, that delivers more emotional catharsis than many entire trilogies.

It's a moment that perfectly encapsulates Gemmell’s particular gift. 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. Gemmell could deliver spectacular battle set-pieces as well as George R.R. Martin, but his stories’ most powerful scenes were often the most quiet and subtle. 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 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-mound 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 ultimate crisis. 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 Dace (with whom he frequently converses) takes over, making the warrior a nearly unstoppable murder machine. Gemmell remains ambiguous about just what Dace is, a demonic squatter or alternate personality. Tarantio embodies good and evil in their extremes. The question explored here is that of whether our true self is the one that keeps our most base and destructive emotions in check, or the one that gives vent to our most selfish instincts.

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 of what the Pearl really is, and calamity quickly 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 besieged 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 sublime as anything I’ve read in epic fantasy. 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 the tension of the preparation for battle, the evacuation of refugees, and the gripping 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 find a path to victory because they are better, because they do have the capacity to understand love, compassion, and empathy — or can they only win by abandoning principles they’re purportedly fighting for?

It may all sound basic. But in the telling, Dark Moon becomes a unheralded star in the heroic fantasy firmament. It’s a story you can embrace as both rousing entertainment and a tribute to David Gemmell’s memory.