Lion of Macedon
Reviewed by: Dustin Kenall
Del /Rey Random House
Publication Date: 12-10-05
516 pp.; $7.99
Date Reviewed: 12-01-08
Starting with Legend, his first book published in 1984, David Gemmell wrote 30 novels in 22 years before his death in 2006. While (inevitably) their quality varied, the best were nothing less than stirring and the worst were more-than-satisfying, rainy-Sunday-afternoon yarns. He used a simple template in most of his stories — heroic fantasy with an action-driven plot, muscular dialogue, and vivid depictions of battle — but in his single-minded devotion to the structures of the genre, he plumbed unexplored existential depths.
Gemmell's minimalism focused on violence and the psychology of men who wield violence. Not unlike Eastwood in Unforgiven, he wrestled with the contradictions of solitary heroism: the paradox of a violence necessary to slay demons but just as apt to conjure inner ones. Never satisfied with chronicling the exploits of unreflective brutes, he showed us the lives of heroes as inspiration but also warning, recognizing that heroism consisted not merely of the courage to face death but a constant vigilance against the allure of chaos. He showed us men who never fought their enemies as hard as they fought themselves. And he did it in prose that could sing like steel over water.
Roughly speaking, Gemmell wrote in two idioms: traditional fantasy and historical fiction. The Lion of Macedon, the first part of a duology on Philip of Macedon, his general Parmenion, and his son Alexander the Great, represents an entry in the latter category. Gemmell tackled Arthurian legend in Ghost King, the Trojan War in Lord of the Silver Bow, Robin Hood in Morningstar, and the arc of Scots-Celtic history in the Rigante series. The last may contain his finest writing. In the early books that dramatize the British resistance to the Roman empire, for example, he captures the very pith of the character of an analogue of Julius Caesar — mathematical intellect married to reptilian morals — far more incisively than Colleen McCullough in her romanticized rapture of the man whose name would become the title of a thousand despots.
In Lion of Macedon, Gemmell dramatizes the developments that led to the rise of Caesar's military hero, Alexander the Great. Through the bystander viewpoint of a half-Spartan, half-Macedonian strategos named Parmenion, we watch the Peloponnesian balance of power totter and fall, as Sparta, Thebes, and Athens exhaust themselves in internecine wars financed by Persia. Of the city-states and their conflicts, he writes, "all changed sides time and again, and Victory flew between the warring factions, always the harlot, moving on, sweet with a promise she would not keep." With his mixed blood heritage, Parmenion is both a harbinger and participant in the struggle to transcend the limiting parochialism of city-state loyalties and achieve a pan-Greco nationalism.
Others too perceive the intimations of the birth of a new order. "We have been too insular," sighs Sparta's king Agisaleus. "We are strong because we are proud. We are weak because our pride never allowed us to grow . . . . [Athens] will survive and prosper long after we Spartans are dust. She has the sea; she is the center, the heart of Greece. We will beat her in a thousand battles yet lose the war." That racial pride does lose them the battle for Parmenion's loyalty, who, after martial success marred by social failure, traipses to Thebes to stoke an insurrection and turn the Spartans' war training against them.
The author renders the battles that follow in illuminating detail, allowing the reader to follow the generals' overall strategy using the tactics of the relevant historical units: Spartan phalanx, Macedonian pole infantry, Theban cavalry. Gemmell avoids zooming into the formless melee of individual fighting, preferring to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the combatant force arrangement to analyze how a battle is often won and lost before the first weapon is drawn. Working the battles into the rest of the plot, which spans a 34-year period, proves more daunting. Parmenion, the homeless warrior, takes a peripatetic path that leaves the reader disconnected. Characters enter, only to disappear just as suddenly. While Parmenion harbors an abiding hatred for the Spartans, there is little in the way of an emotional arc to the story. The side characters — Thetis, a prostitute turned companion; Mothac, a man with nothing left to lose who finds something to live for; and Tamis, the seer who sees Parmenion's future but not the path by which he will arrive there — all provide interesting contrast to the monotonic motivations of the protagonist but are underused and underdeveloped.
Nevertheless, it is still a pleasure to see Gemmell work in a new environment. We can observe the gears grinding, recognize the plot devices he deploys, and still appreciate the earnestness he brings to the venture, his prose's unmistakable vibrancy and sincerity. And, while one must read the sequel, Dark Prince, to discover how it all ends, Lion of Macedon acknowledges classic elements of Greek tragedy: hubris, predestination, and the wanton caprice of the gods. The setting also permits an examination of Greek concepts of honor, the perennial cynosure of Gemmell's works. To the Spartan, honor is encapsulated by the deeds of the 300 who stood breast-to-breast with their comrades against the Persians in their tens of thousands. This is an honor only fully realized in death, one that salutes Hercules's quest for redemption and ultimate release in his Twelve Labors. Superseded by Christian pacifism, medieval chivalry, the buccaneer spirit of the Renaissance, and finally the entrepreneurial, capitalist ethos of the 20th century, classical honor with its mythic Bronze Age burnish shines less brightly in the modern world. It may be a bit outdated and nostalgic, like the style of the books Gemmell wrote, filled with stories that eschewed post-modern self-awareness in favor of unabashed ideals of valor, truth, and justice. They worked a magic that was intellectually disrespectable but emotionally irreplaceable. And we were drawn because, in their self-conflict, we found a mirror of our own.