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Troy: Fall of Kings by David GemmellUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsDavid Gemmell died with the Troy trilogy just shy of completion. The task of bringing this electrifying reimagining of the Homeric saga to a close fell to his widow, Stella, who had for years been Gemmell’s principal researcher. In a way, there’s something all too fitting about that, as this trilogy has been one heroic adventure epic in which the wives and paramours of the great heroes of the day — Andromache, Kalliope, Laodike, Halysia, even Helen, whose destiny we learn here — routinely display as much bravery and self-sacrifice as their men who charge headlong into near-certain death on blood-drenched battlefields. There’s a kind of courage in the face of the devastating loss of a loved one when you choose to take the reins and finish their final work that I don’t know I’d have the strength for.

Anyway, Stella Gemmell’s work here is so seamlessly woven into the whole that there’s no telling where David’s writing ends and hers begins. The events of Lord of the Silver Bow and Shield of Thunder have left the stage set for the unfolding of the legendary Trojan War itself. And how like a modern war it is. The Mykene despot Agamemnon fancies himself a liberator, ridding the Aegean, the Great Green, of the “threat” of Troy. And yet Troy’s king Priam, no less a despot himself, has maintained peace and prosperity in the region for forty years. But while Agamemnon’s bluster masks his real reasons for waging endless war — that Mykene is broke, its defenses reliant upon neighboring kings and mercenary armies that will bolt in a second if not paid in a timely way — the legendary wealth of Troy is a fading memory as well. As Priam descends into senile dementia, his treasury is all but tapped out. Delusions of grandeur and heroism mask simple greed and narcissism.

The real heroes here are the people, both noble and humble, drawn together into this conflict. Honor is in plentiful supply on both sides, and friends find themselves opponents on the battlefield while continuing to hold their friendships to heart. The Dardanian king Helikaon (also known to legend as Aeneas) has thrown in his lot with the Trojans, led by the valiant Hektor, while maintaining a bond with his old pal, Odysseus, who has come to regret his alliance with the Mykene and their arrogant king. Hektor’s wife, Andromache, finds herself torn by her love for Helikaon and duty to Hektor, but ultimately chooses to stay in Troy and protect her sons. Among the rank and file, the Mykene soldiers Banokles and Kalliades, having switched sides to fight for Troy, bring an earthy humor to the proceedings. 

Andromache bitterly complains to Hektor about the way men latch onto the concept of honor. But in a world torn asunder by senseless warfare, there’s really no nobler an ideal. The heroes of this saga maintain their own ideals of honor because it’s all that allows them their humanity amidst the growing turmoil. When Odysseus learns, at one point, that his home of Ithaka has been raided by pirates in his absense and his wife captured, both the arch-warrior Achilles and their shared opponent Helikaon join him in retaliation. Friendship is what it is, after all. Though few of the characters have any respect for the megalomaniacs who have led the world down this path to annihilation, they still manage a boundless respect for one another, even when their sense of duty forces them to cross swords at the end.

The Gemmells aren’t interested in simply rehashing the Iliad, so we get a number of inspired twists to the original tale — most clever of which is their rethinking of the deception of the Trojan Horse, which might rankle purists but still works — and an approach to all of the characters that bypasses the smug fad of “demythologizing” legendary heroes simply by focusing on their flawed humanity in such a way that they can’t help but seem more heroic. It’s true I found some of Andromache’s strengths to be a little too contemporary in Lord of the Silver Bow, but in Fall of Kings she feels much more realistic (Stella’s influence, I wonder?). Nor do any of the scenes — and there are a lot of them — of personal interaction between husbands and wives or lifelong friends come across the least bit mawkish. Yes, there may be one scene too many where someone comes home to the anguish of finding a slain loved one. But as David Gemmell has always managed throughout his whole career, every character in the end feels like a real person, and you’ll be cheering for them as the story barrels toward its climax.

About that climax.... It must be said that if this book ever oversells its story, it does so here. The literally explosive finish to Fall of Kings is about the most go-for-broke thing you're likely to read all year. (Spoilers in white text: There is a kind-of-too-good-to-be-true nick of time rescue, followed by what must be the most conveniently timed natural disaster in world history.) But in the framework of reimagining a story that has for millennia been shrouded in myth and legendry, I was willing to shrug and go with it, even if I had to dock the book half a star for good measure. If you see what occurs as divine intervention (certainly not a thing Homer shied from), it’s not exactly out of context. True, Gemmell had previously minimized the inclusion of fantasy elements in this trilogy. But here they are more overt, embodied most directly in the character of the seeress Kassandra, Andromache’s sister. Always thought to be a little mad, her visions and prophecies are taken just a bit more seriously now.

The Troy trilogy is a glorious valedictory work from one of the finest purveyors of heroic fantasy. He may no longer be with us. But like the heroes of this imperishable saga, all of whom obsess to one degree or another over whether their names and deeds will live on, in the case of David Gemmell, I’m certain of it.