At its best, Heroic Fantasy can inspire and enliven. By nature, the subgenre is less concerned with realism than it is with depicting nobility, honor, and genuine integrity. In so doing, it shows us a world that reflects the better portions of our own, the world as it should be rather than as it is. At its worst, however, Heroic Fantasy is notorious for shallow characterization, mindless violence, and sententious, often hypocritical, pontificating to justify all that mindless violence so our valiant warriors can get back to massacring villages with rumps firmly planted on high horses. White Wolf is a bit better than the latter, but it’s a good way from the former. It evens out more or less for David Gemmell, but it’s far from the proudest moment of his career.
The novel opens on a guilt-ridden warrior called Skilgannon the Damned, tragically burdened with a pair of magical katanas, irresistible good looks, and the love of what is very possibly the richest, most beautiful woman in the world. Recently, his lover — who is in fact a queen — has used Skilgannon as her Darth Vader-style general for a rather excessive shock-and-awe campaign that leaves an entire city massacred and Skilgannon reevaluating his career. If you have watched a fantasy movie sometime in the last twenty years or read a Lancelot story at any point, then you’re probably saying “he’s going to foreswear violence and turn into a peaceful monk,” but fortunately Gemmell would never stoop to such blatant cliché and Skilgannon instead becomes a philosophizing sushi chef with dreams of opening his own bed and breakf…ha haaa, no, of course he finds a monastery and makes with the praying. Unfortunately, Skilgannon has apparently forgotten he lives in a fantasy universe. The usual ruffians show up, forcing Skilgannon to nobly sacrifice his newfound pacifism for the sake of his holy brothers. At which point Gemmell, apparently figuring that he’s milked this about as long as he can, begins the main plot.
The trouble with White Wolf is that while it is still very much in the pulse-pounding Gemmell style and it’s certainly never difficult to read, thematically and storywise it’s a bit of a mess. We don’t even really figure out who the main villain is until three quarters of the book are done with, and while Gemmell plays events to seem as believable as possible, at some points it all starts straining credulity a little. Druss is in this for some reason — seriously, his whole purpose in being here seems to be so that he can give Skilgannon a seal of approval and receive awestruck adulation from all quarters — and the story nominally hinges on his desire to find the family of an old friend. That premise is very vaguely sketched and plays out with an odd lack of urgency, although the surrounding material — the usual moral debates, world-wise remarks and “Come on, lads! No one lives forever!” suicide charge — is enjoyable enough. Gemmell’s skill at corralling his barely-there plot threads actually gets us a surprising way through the book. It goes a long way toward making up for the plot’s weakness, although a number of unlikely and frankly corny contrivances in the finale do some further damage. Ultimately, while I think he carries it off well enough to satisfy (if not actively please) his fans, it’s hard to avoid the sensation that the whole thing is a bit self-indulgent. Gemmell was clearly taking it a little easy on the drawing board with this one, trusting himself to simply write his way around or out of any potential issues that arose from those yawning gulfs in the outline where he’d scribbled “another fight” or “reference to previous novel”.
As always, Gemmell does a decent job with the imagery, and his prose is suitably epic in tone. The sections in which Skilgannon flashbacks to his early meetings with his queen are quite good, a noticeable uptick in quality, and to be honest made me wish I was reading that story rather than merely receiving occasional infodumps about it. If there are a lot of battle sequences with little justification, Gemmell has always crafted his fight scenes with verve, and they’re exciting here, probably the best parts of the novel. Finally, the characterization is solid and while he plays from archetypes a bit too freely, he at least keeps them distinct. There is, however, one major issue with the text that stems directly from the characterization, and his name is Olek Skilgannon.
Given more than a cursory look, it’s very tough to make this character work. Nominally, he’s the haunted, brooding warrior, but a lot of his purported “honor and pathos” just doesn’t hold up terribly well. The real focus of his guilt seems to be the death of his wife (not the queen) whom he feels he treated badly while she was alive due to his oft-expressed inability to love anyone except the queen (and why can’t he? Well, for the same reason no one else can: because she’s beautiful, of course! The woman has not a single act of human decency to her name, but hey, if she’s pretty she can’t be all bad). The wife died knowing that he favored his sociopathic, war-mongering liege lady. So naturally he’s vowed by all that’s holy to find a mythical temple of resurrection to rescue her from the great beyond, thereby… er… allowing his genuinely loving, faithful wife to suffer over the fact that he loves another woman for another few decades, I guess. His passion to rescue her from the grave and torment her with his unfaithfulness (bizarrely, he seems simultaneously aware that his royal lover has ruined him for all other women and blindly determined to go through with dragging his wife out of heaven) consumes him at all times… except of course for the occasions when he forgets she exists and moons after his unattainable warrior queen. Or those months or years he apparently spent in a monastery planting potatoes and contemplating lifelong celibacy. Or the times he has repetitive, apparently guiltless sexual encounters with a mentally disturbed teenage girl who has to be incredibly drunk to go near him. No, I’m not making this up. It’s just as uncomfortable as it sounds (more so, by the finale). One could make the argument that Skilgannon’s “spooky demon swords” are behind this, corrupting his mind, but Gemmell makes it fairly clear that the major characteristic of “bad Skilgannon” is berserk bloodlust, and of course we’ve got good ol’ Druss hanging around to approve everything else and tell us what an honorable, if tormented, fellow we have for protagonist.
White Wolf is not a terrible book, but it really does feel like something a bit half-baked and ill-considered. Some elements of a good Heroic Fantasy are certainly there, but there are just as many that appear to be conspicuously missing, and some of the character beats Gemmell chooses (particularly for Skilgannon) are silly at best, troubling at worst. While I’m sure purists will find it reasonably diverting, there’s really nothing special here for the broader crowd. The book deserves a passing grade but not much beyond that point.