Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Morningstar (by David Gemmell)

(Originally posted on Thursday, 12 March 2015)

Morningstar is a must-read book, but not perfect. My rating: 9/10

The best and the longest part of the book is about how legends are born, developed and remembered. The story vaguely resembles the legend of Robin Hood, but adds many fantasy themes, especially lots of magic.

In this book Gemmell polished every fantasy theme used by him to perfection. At some moment, while reading the book, I thought that most of these themes were used by Gemmell in his other novels, but never all of them in one book. In this regard Morningstar is David Gemmell's masterpiece.

BUT … Unfortunately there are two “buts” and both of them concern crucial combat encounters. Without spoilers I can say only that the first one is about combat against three extremely powerful enemies and the second one is about the final battle against much more numerous army. The story tries to explain the way these encounters happened, but it's not really convincing. These crucial combat encounters feel more like the background than the main plot, which is a rather controversial idea.

Morningstar is a unique Gemmell book because it's written in first-person perspective. It's the only such book by Gemmell I have heard of. And I must say, being a huge fan of first-person perspective books, that it is written VERY well. Maybe the very beginning (a kind of introduction) may seem a little awkward, but the main story is written in a great way.

Morningstar is the only book where I have enjoyed a bard character. This bard felt believable and I enjoyed the way he had to adapt his ways after he decided to spend much of his time in a forest community. Cool stuff.

Lastly I have to say that in this book there are many wise things to be found. Every Gemmell novel features wise quotes, but Morningstar in this regard is, again, a masterpiece.

Here are my favourite spoiler-free quotes. Enjoy!

    “There is always more to know,” she chided. “Even as you lie on your deathbed there will be more to know. Are you another Cataplas in an endless search for knowledge? It is not the mark of a wise man, Owen.”
    I shrugged. “How can the search for knowledge be foolish?” I countered.
    “When it is conducted for its own sake. A man who seeks to learn how to irrigate a field in order to grow more crops has not only increased his knowledge but found the means to make life better for his fellows. Learning must be put to use.”

    Jarek called the men together, ordering six to take cover on the right of the road, seven on the left. “Do not let fly until I do,” he commanded them.
    “What about me?” I asked. “What should I do?”
    “Stay with me,” he answered, then sat down at the side of the road with his longbow beside him.
    “How can we fight thirty?” I asked him as the fear started to gnaw at my belly.
    “You just keep killing them until there's none left,” he answered grimly.

    “Why did you talk to the knights?” I asked him. “Why not just attack?”
    “They were moving. A walking horse, when frightened breaks into a run. A standing horse will usually rear. It is this simple. I wanted the convoy halted.”

    Lualis was a glamorous place, so the stories would have us believe. And they were correct. But it was not the bright glamour that shines with golden light from all great sagas. It was the kind that attaches itself to acts of violence and men of violence. The city was dirty, vile-smelling, lawless, and fraught with the risk of sudden death.
    Jarek Mace loved it . . .

    I felt low then, a deep depression hanging over me. We tend to think of heroes as men apart – their angers are always colossal, but they rage only against the foe. We rarely see them in a damp forest, complaining about the cold, and never think of them urinating against a tree. They never suffer toothache; their noses are never red from sneezing in the winter. Thus we strip away the reality.

    We even follow this practise in life itself. The enemy is always reviled, pictured as the despoiler of women, the eater of babies, a living plague upon the earth, a servant of Satan. Wars are never fought for plunder or gain. Oh, no, they are always depicted as ultimate battles between good and evil. But then, looking at the nature of man, this is understandable. Can you imagine the scene, the great king gathering his troops before an epic battle. “Right, my lads,” he says as he sits upon his great black stallion, “today we fight for my right to steal gold from whomever I choose. The enemy are men much the same as yourselves. A good bunch, probably, with wives and children back home. And at the end of the battle, when I have more riches than I'll ever spend in a lifetime, many of them – and indeed, many of you – will be worm food or crippled. Better to be dead, really, because I'll have no use for you once you can no longer wield a sword. All right, lads. Let's be at them!”

    “Nothing is worth dying for!” he stormed. “And I'll tell you why: because nothing ever changes. There will always be kings, and there will always be serfs. Edmund has conquered the north, but he will die one day, and there will be other civil wars. And yes, the north will be free, because a Highland Edmund will arise. But nothing will change, Owen. Not for the likes of you and me. Not for Wulf or Ilka. The stronger conquer; the weak suffer. It is the world's way.”
    “It is the coward's way!” I stormed. “What man has made, man can change. Yes, there have always been despots and tyrants, but equally there have been benevolent rulers, strong man who cared for their people. But if men followed your philosophy of despair, they would build nothing. What would be the point of fashioning a home from timber and stone? One day the timber will rot and the roof fall in. Why learn which herbs will conquer which diseases? We are going to die, anyway. Why teach our children to read? They'll never be able to change anything!”
    For a moment he seemed taken aback, but it was more as a response to the passion of my argument than a result of the argument itself. “By God,” he said, “if you could fight like you can talk, you'd be a formidable opponent.”

    I have discovered in my long life that there are many words and phrases that have more power than any spell of magick. The most well-known is, of course, I love you. But by far the most deadly is if only.
    For these two words can strip a man's strength, his courage, and his confidence. They become the father of regret and anguish and pain. A man kneels by his dead children in a plague village and thinks, If only we had journeyed south in the summer. A farmer gazes at his rain-ruined crop and believes he would have been a rich man if only he had bred horses instead. Lives are ruled by if only.
    I have my father to thank for being free of the spell cast by these two words.

    “(…) I feel like a pawn in someone else's game. Whatever I do enhances the legend. If I was to piss in public someone would swear that a golden tree had grown from the spot.”

    “You are a romantic, Owen Odell. How will you feel when I am old, wrinkled, and white-haired?”
    “To arrive at that point will mean that we have walked life together, and I will be content. I will have watched each white hair arrive. That will be enough for me.”

    “That's all any of us has, Owen. Just days. A few moments in the sun. Yours were shorter than most, but you had them. My mother gave me very little, but she offered one piece of advice I have long treasured. She used to say, 'What you have can be taken from you, but no one can take what you have already enjoyed.' You understand?”

    There's only one way to find out, my friend. And no one lives forever. Face it, Jarek, would you want to grow old and toothless, with women looking on you with disdain?”
    “I am twenty-four years old. That's a little early to consider losing my teeth! And I expect to mature like a fine wine.”

    “I think he is just afraid of dying,” I said.
    He shook his head. “I do not think you are right. I think he was more afraid of winning.”
    I stopped and turned to him. “Winning? But then he would achieve all his dreams: riches, power, women.”
    “No, my friend. That would be the end of his dreams. What is there after a war but rebuilding, reorganizing? Endless days of petitions and laws and all the petty day-to-day running of a state. It is no different from having a shop or a store. Bills to pay, stock to order, workers to instruct. It would be dull, Owen. What need would the people have for a Morningstar?”

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