Nutshell: military dilemma comes to improbable resolution through the intervention of a surly codger who kicks half million kids off lawn.
We know we might be in trouble on the first page with the “slanted eyes” of the foe (1). Trouble is confirmed by “the face was flat and cruel, the eyes dark and slanted” (2). Leader of the enemy is identified as “the Khan” (222).
This enemy is reportedly “half a million tribesmen” (20), and has “more than twice that in camp followers, cooks, engineers, and whores” (80). Rather than exaggerated, this number may be “underplayed if anything […] outlying tribes were still coming in” (153). The economic system that produced this army is laid out: “the northern steppes make poor farmland. Mainly they breed goats and ponies” (160). The army is nevertheless “the greatest ever assembled, a horde that within twenty years had built an empire stretching across a dozen lands and five score cities […] the largest empire in known history” (194). In the penultimate round of bellicose braggadocio, emperor claims “I have four armies like this” (317).
We know from Hans Delbruck, in the [b:History of the Art of War Volume I Warfare in Antiquity|1180521|Warfare in Antiquity History of the Art of War, Volume I|Hans Delbrück|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328817923s/1180521.jpg|1168406], that such army strengths transform the exceedingly improbable into manifest impossibility. Herodotus for instance gives the Persian invasion a strength of 4,200,000, including logistical components; Delbruck notes that a Prussian “corps of 30,000 men covers, in the German march order, some 14 miles, without its supply trains. The march column of the Persians would therefore have been 2,000 miles long, and when the head of the column was arriving before Thermopylae, the end of the column might have just been marching out of Susa” (loc. cit. at 35).
In the second volume, The Barbarian Invasions
, the professor had cause to consider, more appropriate hereto, the strengths of the Germanic invaders who broke Rome: “Even in the period of the migrations, the Germans were not very numerous, and this is only natural, since their economic conditions had remained the same. From start to finish, the Germans were principally warriors and not farmers. If they had significantly developed economically in the period, they would necessarily also have created cities. But they were still without cities […] they were primarily raisers of livestock and hunters […] Since the production of food can have increased but little, the population, too, cannot have expanded significantly […] the density of population cannot have risen importantly; it still cannot have gone far above 12 souls per square mile” (loc. cit. at 292).
His inference is that “we may never exceed 15,000 warriors for any of the migrating tribal armies. A figure of 15,000 warriors, together with women and children, presupposes a total of at least 60,000, and with their slaves around 70,000 souls. Such a mass is already too large to move as a unit” (id. at 293).
He concludes: “We have estimated the population of the Roman Empire toward the middle of the third century as 90 million people. […] Is it imaginable that such a large population would be overcome by attacks of barbarian hordes that were no stronger than 5,000 to 15,000 men? I believe that there can be no conclusion of greater importance in world history than that this was really the case. The legendary exaggeration in the army strengths have hidden the realization from us until now” (id.).
Locus of confrontation in Gemmell is “the greatest fortress ever built” (195). Impossibility of army strengths notwithstanding, the stage is set therefore for the dialectical confrontation of immovable object and unstoppable force.
The substance of the confrontation, even though it is stylistically meritorious western freedom vs. evil eastern horde, a common cold war conceit (Elric fights several undifferentiated eastern hordes, but the classical formulation is Tolkien), is southern civilization vs. northern barbarism. We might simplistically designate the former geopolitical orientation as the Germanic ideology of epic fantasy, whereas the latter is the Romanic ideology. Now that the cold war is over, fantasy is liberated from the Germanic geopolitics of Tolkien and can return to the presentation of a falling or fallen empire, as was important to the Arthurian tradition, the Nibelungenlied
, Galfridus Monumentensis--the despair of St. Augustine ultimately. We survey the current field: Abercrombie, Morgan, Bakker, Jordan: the enemy is not the eastern horde, but rather the northern barbarian. Martin has both, maybe neutralizes both, perhaps is sui generis. Gemmell, in this text, is aesthetically Germanic but ideologically Romanic. He combines nostalgia for a dying empire with casual racism. The dying empire must defend against a northern barbarism, which without agriculture has two million soldiers under arms. It is more than impossibility. This text then might be considered a key transitional point in late cold war fantasy.
The confrontation cooks slowly for the first two-thirds of the volume, boiling over in the final third for lots of jaw-kicking and spine-ripping. Text is marketed as a classic of military fantasy, but given the impossibilities, above, I can’t give that thesis any credibility whatsoever. Another defect in the “military fantasy” argument: eponymous surly codger’s fame is founded primarily on a Thermopylae event: “There were a few hundred Drenai warriors holding Skeln Pass while the main Drenai army massed elsewhere. […] They were outnumbered fifty to one, and they held on until reinforcements arrived. […] Gorben had an inner army of ten thousand men called the Immortals. They had never been beaten, but Druss beat them” (48).
Turning once more to Herr Delbruck, we see that these type of pass defenses are extremely improbable (Morgan has one in the background of [b:The Steel Remains|3314369|The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes, #1)|Richard K. Morgan|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348251475s/3314369.jpg|3352006], as I recall it): “carefully conceived strategy does not use mountains in the same way as Leonidas did for the defense of a country. Over a mountain range […] there is always more than one route […] It is hard to occupy all of them, and one can never succeed in defending them all. The enemy will always find a place […] Once the line is penetrated at one place, then the garrisons of all the other passes are endangered” (Warfare in Antiquity
So, yeah, not persuasive. If the text is important (and I think it is), then it is important for its transformational position, the knife’s edge on the Romanic/Germanic orientation: the immovable object of Tolkien’s cold war orientation broken by the unstoppable force of Romanic nostalgia.
Marred overall by improbable narrative development, generic setting development, lack of perspective discipline, and a generalized cheesiness.
Recommended for those who believe that you son of a slut
is a useful pejorative, persons who stand at a frozen moment of history, and readers who feel the strange sense of departure that heralds the baresark rage.