The Sword in the Storm is a profound novel that showcases precisely why the fantasy genre is an important one. How, through Fantasy's filter, we can gain a deeper understanding of the many shortcomings in our own 'real' world.
This novel has complex and flawed characters who struggle with ostensibly concrete notions of good and evil. They grapple (and often fail) to understand that evil is nothing but a matter of perspective and context. The painstaking message of the book tells us that hatred is the enemy, rather than any so-called 'evil'.
"Hatred is like a plague. It is all-consuming, and it springs from man to man. Our enemies become demons, their wives the mother of demons, their children infant demons. You understand? ... Hatred never dies ... We plant the seeds of it in every action inspired by it. Kill a man, and his son will grow to hate you and seek revenge. When he obtains that revenge your son will learn to hate him. Can you see what I am saying?"
– Wise words from a favourite character in the book, Banouin.
The relevance of this wise passage, to at least a dozen current conflicts in our own world, will strike a chord with many readers. While some may be put off by the sense of hopelessness this dark truism evokes, the book does an outstanding job, through the strength of its characters, to give a sense of hope, in spite of humanity's many failings.
The setting is a little different from the standard mediaeval-inspired fantasy worlds. Influenced by Ancient Rome, the great colonising city of Stone is spreading its empire. Rigante and the other tribes to the north, reminiscent of Gaul and the like in our world, and led by the heroic (yet deeply flawed) Connavar, begin to realise what they will one day face. War like no other.
The magic is mysterious and, while powerful, it is limiting. The folkloric magic of the Rigante is familiar and fascinating, and woven effortlessly into the fabric of the story. The magic works with the plot, and often against the characters. At no point does it hover like a giant hand of deus ex machina above the plot events, ready to swoop.
Put all of that together with Gemmell's natural talent for storytelling, and we have a fantasy classic that is well worth the read. I look forward to reading more in the Rigante series.
To end, here's another wise quote from Banouin:
"There are only three ways to deal with an enemy... Destroy him, run away from him, or befriend him."