So. Despite the interwebs trying to seduce me with its unique brand of Very Shiny (and by the NEW (capital letters vital, it seems) Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook telling me that I’m a) Spectacular and b) Awesome), I still managed to pull Winter Warriors off the shelf. I intend to do a proper ‘understanding’ critique, from a writer viewpoint, but not all at once. Don’t worry. It’ll merely crop up here and there. In this little ‘essay’, I want to talk about what makes me want to keep reading the book once I’ve started.
David Gemmell, may he rest in peace, was a good fantasy writer. No, I’d go a stage further. He was a great fantasy writer. I can’t actually remember anything of his that I have read which I didn’t enjoy. Winter Warriors was one that I didn’t read for quite some time and which when I HAD read made me wonder what it was that had taken me quite so long.
Now, I could wax lyrical and at great length about the entire story, but that wouldn’t be conducive to those of you who may not have read it. And besides, this is my effort to really break down what it is about the book that I like so much.
As a consequence, this is pretty long, probably very boring stuff, but it forces me into a mindset where I really start to analyse what I like, or what I don’t like. So I will, very shortly, force the rest of this post into a cut so as not to drive you insane with my turgid burblings.
Winter Warriors is a book that I love. It is heavily dependent on the characters within the story driving it forward and without their development throughout, it would be Just Another Fantasy book. It’s the beauty of the three central protagonists – Nogusta, the swordsman, Kebra the Bowman and the almost instantly delightful Bison, a huge fighter that truly make this book, to my mind at least, legendary. These three men are the fading remnants of a once great army and the book focuses heavily on their struggles to go do the voodoo they used to do so well.
This discussion takes in the opening scenes of the story.
The book pulls you in right from the start, painting an achingly beautiful picture of an icy landscape. There was no colour here, no sense of life. The land lay silent, save for the occasional crack of an overladen branch, or the soft, whispering sound of fallen snow being drifted by the harsh north wind. I like THAT paragraph, because it encourages you to employ more than just your mental eyes. It encourages you to use your mental ears as well. You can hear the soft footfalls in the snow. You can sense the sheer stillness of it all. You feel almost guilty for turning the pages of the book, because it somehow disrupts the scene.
You are pretty much immediately introduced to a character, who is immediately described in contrast. In a world without colour his bright blue eyes shone silver-grey in a face dark as ebony. The eyes, so they say, are the window to the soul, and for my money, that description invokes a certain curiosity about the character. You want to know who he is. Why is he here, in this world without colour? What is his business? Who, in fact, is he?
That question is answered swiftly in the next paragraph, when the character turns from being ‘the rider’ to being introduced as Nogusta. No preamble, just the simple mechanic of starting the next paragraph with his name. This is extraordinarily effective and a useful device to prevent the writer from having to come up with variations on a theme, or overstretching the point. You could only refer to him as ‘the rider’ for so long before the reader would be thinking ‘yeah, he’s mysterious, get on with it already’.
Through his actions, we learn that Nogusta is clearly a man whose brain is wired in correctly, because we come to understand he is chasing or hunting someone down, but is sensible enough to know that under the weather circumstances, he needs to break and pause. He is further revealed as a man of some thoughtfulness when he arrives at a shelter and spends time ensuring his mount is cared for before he takes care of his own needs. So simply done, and yet in the space of a page, we can already build up a good picture of what Nogusta is all about.
He sits by the fire and again, we get another brief glimpse into his personality. Be patient, he tells himself as he waits for the heat to permeate his bones. He is a man who possesses the ability to maintain self control, to be calm in situations. And to be patient and wait for the room to heat up.
The next little scene – for me, certainly – says more about Nogusta than perhaps anything else in the entire book. He espies a woodlouse running along a log that he has put on his fire and holds his sword against the log offering the little creature a method of escape. The woodlouse, however, turns from the blade and topples off the log into the fire.
‘Fool,’ said Nogusta. ‘The blade was life’.
Here is a man who understands compassion and empathy, but who will not suffer fools gladly. He will offer a single shot at redemption, but wil not grieve if that offer is not taken.
Nogusta undergoes a little memory flashback and we are told about the talisman he wears around his neck. Gemmell doesn’t give away anything much about this trinket at this stage – again, making the reader curious. The warrior warms a little and prepares to sleep for the night. He comments that he must be getting old for the cold to be affecting him like this. He sits and contemplates the reason for this trek out into the cold and we learn about his quest, find out what it is that he is here to do. As a reader, we feel sympathy for Nogusta. He is tracking down a man he considered to be his friend, knowing well that he will need to execute him for the dual crimes of rape and murder when he is found. We learn also that he said he would be happier if Bison and Kebra did not travel with him in this instance as the murderer was their friend. Again, that demonstration of easy compassion.
We also get the first hint at Nogusta’s age, as he recalls that he has served the general, Banelion, for almost thirty five years, almost all his adult life. If we assume that ‘adult’ in this context is eighteen, then Nogusta is in his early fifties. He is an old warrior, and he, like the other old men, is being sent home. The king, it seems, has no need for old men in his employ.
Nogusta expresses a sort of sad resignation that his friend could have committed the crimes he did, but yet does not seem entirely surprised. The times, as a wise man once said, they are a-changing.
Time passes. It has a habit of doing that, I’ve noticed. Nogusta rises and heads off into the cold to find Orendo, the man he is seeking…
…which is a perfect scene shift. We join Orendo and his two younger companions. The two young men are crowing over the bag of jewels they stole from a merchant, with grandiose plans of what they will do with their new-found wealth. The older, more experienced Orendo, on the other hand, is more wary, bitter and distrustful. He knows that their capture is only a matter of time. He knows also that the general will likely send Nogusta after him. The young men are scornful.
Orendo moves into the role of narrator as he moves away to empty his bladder. He tells his two companions that Nogusta ‘can read sign over rock, and he can smell a trail a hound would miss’. It isn’t Nogusta’s tracking skill that makes him dangerous, however, he continues. What makes him dangerous, according to Orendo, is that there ‘is no bravado in him. He moves, he kills. It is that quick’.
A lovely device follows Orendo’s musings on Nogusta’s perceived greatness when Nogusta himself answers on behalf of the two younger men. The fact that in the short period of time it took Orendo to regale the tale of Nogusta the man himself has entered the scene and slaughtered the two companions is neatly tied up by this arrival. Orendo’s obvious resignation to his fate is strangely touching and the final scene between the two former friends is gently paced and rather tragic. Orendo, clearly ashamed of his own actions, is relieved that the girl he attacked lived.
Perhaps out of a sense of desperation, Orendo tries a brief plea, suggesting that he and Nogusta could retire somewhere on the wealth of the gems, but it is rather half-hearted and Nogusta’s refusal to accept the offer is not unexpected.
He proceeds to ask a series of favours from Nogusta at this point, and the swordsman grants them all. He draws his own blade across his wrists and then, whilst he is bleeding out, requests firstly his brandy and then that Nogusta ask Bison not to judge him too harshly.
Orendo returns to the narrative voice as he is dying in order to relay what has been happening, to introduce the status quo in the kingdom. ‘It all went wrong,‘ says Orendo. ‘Never put your trust in kings.’ He alludes to the ‘boy-king’ who has led his troops on invasion after invasion and who now goes by the name ‘Emperor Skanda, would-be conqueror of the world‘.
In his last moments, Orendo wonders aloud whether a boy he once saved will vouch for him in a paradise – if such a thing exists. Nogusta’s response, I feel, neatly encapsulates everything that we have learned about him so far.
‘I hope so,’ is all he says.
As Orendo dies, his eyes flare open and he exclaims that ‘there are demons. I can see them. There are demons!‘ His life leaves his body, Nogusta collects the bag of jewels and walks away from the body. He pauses, glancing up at the sky and in a neatly-written echo of the opening scene where his eyes are described, notes that it is blue, clear and bright.
All of this takes place in a mere 11 and a half pages and yet Gemmell has painted the opening scene so well that you can feel the winds of change blowing around you as you turn the pages. In that short time span, he has whet the reader’s appetite with names of characters to come (Kebra, Bison), of the brief mention of the amulet and of the would-be conqueror of the world. The entire premise of the book is there in those few pages and it’s those few pages that make someone want to read on.
Gemmell never uses over-complicated language, or flowery descriptions in this scene. The descriptive text is short, snappy like a cold wind and the conversation, brief though it is, is in the clipped sentences of two men who understand one another so well that honesty is the only thing they know.
This opening scene, particularly the moment with the woodlouse absolutely drew me into Winter Warriors. It just gets better and better from this point onwards. At some point, I will revisit it and go into waffly detail more.