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Troy: Shield of Thunder by David GemmellUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsFor David Gemmell’s fans, reading Troy: Shield of Thunder, the second volume of his final trilogy, will be both an exhilarating and bittersweet experience. It’s a saga in which characters all too aware of their own mortality nevertheless fight on, for honor, for gold, but most importantly, for love and for each other. If Troy has to be the valedictory work of Gemmell’s remarkable career, then we should celebrate the fact that it’s as fine as it is. This richly-rendered, character-driven epic is as strong, in its way, as Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Few writers can bring antiquity to life as full-bloodedly as Gemmell. And while it’s tragic we’ve lost him at the peak of his talents, we can at least appreciate what we’ve been left with — masterful adventure that absorbs you as fully as the Homeric legends on which it’s based.

As the story opens, the momentum is already underway for what will become the legendary Trojan War. But Gemmell has some fun tweaking preconceptions. Tensions have arisen mainly due to Agamemnon’s lust for conquest. Paris and Helen are essentially a non-issue, and far from possessing a face to launch a thousand ships, Gemmell’s Helen is described as plain. Following the skirmish that resulted from Agamemnon’s attempts to assassinate the archer and sea captain Helakion, Trojan king Priam has opened the city to all, with games to celebrate the upcoming wedding of his son Hektor to Andromache. It seems a foolish decision, and proves to be one, as Priam eventually alienates such valuable allies as Odysseus, who in turn unwillingly finds himself an enemy of his dear friend Helakion.

You can’t have a great story about heroes and battles if it isn’t first a great story about people, and Gemmell’s career shows a solid understanding of this principle that’s fully in evidence here. There’s no good side or bad side here, but regular folks (even if some of them are lesser kings, like Odysseus, who is presented here as much a raconteur, storyteller and sailor as he is any kind of monarch) caught up in events prompted by the arrogance and ambition of men on thrones. 

Both Agamemnon and Priam are equally blustery and loathsome, convinced, as all absolute rulers are, of their infallibility. The reader’s feelings are fully with the real people on both sides. Andromache makes one of the story’s most courageous decisions, finding an ingenious way to avoid Priam’s wrath should he learn that she is pregnant with Helakion’s child. We find ourselves liking Hektor and Helakion as much as Odysseus, understanding that none of these men would choose to be enemies. But Gemmell doesn’t focus his narrative solely on great men and royalty. In a move similar to that employed by the great HBO series Rome, we see a large chunk of this story through the eyes of two regular soldiers. Kalliades and Banokles are Mykene warriors outlawed by Agamemnon following their army’s defeat in Priam’s palace at the end of Lord of the Silver Bow. The pair rescue Kalliope — Andromache’s former companion and lover, who has fled her service on the island of Thera in a rash decision to go to Troy and “save” Andromache — from pirates, and subsequently end up in Odysseus’ crew. Kalliades develops feelings for Kalliope, but knowing she cannot reciprocate, he still vows to keep her safe and help her reach her unlikely goal of reuniting with Andromache. 

What I love about Gemmell’s work is that while he often took a cynical view towards his characters and their political and social realities, he remained an optimist about human nature, and his cynicism didn’t translate to the art of storytelling itself. Gemmell could take the most arch kinds of drama you can think of, scenes which, from most any other author, would be pure corn — such as someone’s dying in their friend’s or lover’s arms — and make them really mean something. He knew just when to stop short of overselling his story’s emotionalism, relying instead on his skills at character development and dialogue, which never sounds stilted, to create those connections in his readers. 

There are one or two nitpicky notes. While Andromache’s independent and defiant streak seems a little more realistic here, there are a couple of scenes early on when a little too much is made of Kalliope’s relationship to her. The ancients didn’t attach the stigma to homosexuality that modern societies, influenced by the Abrahamic religions, do. So a scene in which Odysseus assures the bitter woman (who has good reasons to be bitter, mind you) that there’s nothing offensive or objectionable about her feelings for Andromache probably would not have taken place. But I suppose the scene would communicate something meaningful to a modern reader, and it does engender more reader sympathy for both characters.

The Troy trilogy is just wonderful storytelling, full of more than its share of spectacle — action, romance, and wit are in abundant supply. Gemmell is completely unpretentious in his desire to spin you the best yarn he can. Odysseus, himself a great storyteller, mentions in one scene that the world would be a sadder place without stories. Much sadder indeed, now that we’ll have no more from the pen of David Gemmell. 

Followed by Fall of Kings, completed posthumously by Gemmell’s widow Stella — to whom Shield of Thunder is dedicated — a former journalist who assisted Gemmell with the research for this trilogy as well as many of his past works.