The Rigante: Like History, Only Better!

Posted: September 13, 2012 by Brian in Books, Escape Velocity
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Escape Velocity

Every other Thursday, Brian goes out of this world, waxing recommendatious on great reading that will transport you to fantastic, far-away worlds and times.  Looking to escape? Escape Velocity is your bi-weekly ticket!

Sword in the StormWithin the world of science fiction and fantasy, possibly my favorite little sub-sub-genre is one I recently decided to call the crypto-historical. Most usually employed in service of an epic fantasy tale, a crypto-historical story takes a setting from our real Earth history and basically just changes the names and a few of the details to suit the needs of the author and the story. The author can thus explore the political or social themes that drew him to that historical setting in the first place but, freed from any obligation to adhere to the events of actual history, can also go as far afield and wreak as much physical and sociological havoc as they like.

Currently, the most famous example of the form is George R.R. Martin’s world-beating mega-epic A Song of Ice and Fire (along with the TV series derived from it, Game of Thrones). It’s well documented that while the continent of Westeros, on which much of that series’ action is set, is roughly the size of South America, in terms of its geography and political situation, Martin based it not-very-loosely on England at the time of the Wars of the Roses. The Stark and Lannister families neatly stand in for the real-world Yorks and Lancasters, Valyria is similar to the Roman Empire (complete with decline and fall Doom), and the Targaryen conquest of Westeros parallels the Norman conquest of Britain on several levels.

Meanwhile, Guy Gavriel Kay has made a very respectable career out of such novels. (His gorgeously poetic 2010 novel Under Heaven, based on 8th-century China during the Tang Dynasty, has the distinction of being one of the very best novels I’ve ever read.)

While the late, lamented David Gemmell (1948-2006) made his mark on the fantasy genre with traditional medieval adventure novels like MorningstarDark Moon and his many tales of the Drenai (the classic Legend—no relation to the 1985 Ridley Scott/Tom Cruise film—was the first), he ventured into the crypto-historical field with his four novels of the Rigante, and in doing so created a truly magnificent story of faith, redemption and liberation (with plenty of fighting to keep things exciting) that deserves to be read far and wide.

The four-book Rigante series is actually two separate stories, each taking two books to tell, united by a common setting and history. Although the last two books (Ravenheart and Stormrider) take place several hundred years after the first two (Sword in the Storm and Midnight Falcon), many elements are derived from points set up in the first two, so I think of the Rigante books as one four book series that should be read in order.

Midnight FalconThe first book, Sword in the Storm, introduces us to the the Keltoi—a loose confederation of tribal peoples patterned after the Celts (the Rigante are one such tribe), complete with god-like nature spirits called the Seidh (Sidhe)—and the city and ever-expanding empire of Stone, patterned after the Roman Republic/Empire. For good measure, Gemmell throws in the “tree cult,” a persecuted religion that meets in secret and preaches peace, love, and harmony, very much like first- and second-century Christians.

As the regimented armies of Stone march towards an apparently inevitable collision with the less disciplined, wilder Keltoi, cultures and subcultures within each of those societies clash with each other. Through well-drawn characters from both sides, Gemmell is able to portray in a fascinating light the eternal struggle between man’s innate nature of venality and violence and selfishness, and our ever-present impulse towards something better, more generous and peaceful. The conflict between our nature and our better nature is played out in an oh-so-satisfying manner in the political maneuvering, bloody death bouts, and emotional batterings (intentional and otherwise) in which Gemmell’s oh-so-human characters engage.

RavenheartAnd there are so many wonderful and important characters. The first two books’ “main characters”—the young Rigante named Connavar and, in Midnight Falcon, his hot-tempered son Bane—are but one part of this story. We also meet young Banouin, torn between two cultural identities and living too much inside his own head; Rage, a famed gladiator whose nature belies his deadly skills; the surprisingly sweet and funny Persis Albitane and his snarky servant Norwin; the darkly inscrutable Seidh goddess called the Morrigu; and scores of other significant supporting characters.

Then, in Ravenheart, we are moved eight hundred years later, with the still-Celt-like Rigante now (barely) subjugated by their neighbors the Varlish (highly reminiscent of the English), in a colonial-era society that includes rifles. In this world we meet a young Rigante named Kaelin, a descendant of the first two books’ protagonists, and his not-entirely-civilized kind-of-guardian Jaim. Together, they will spark the Rigante rebellion that has so long simmered under Varlish domination, but it won’t go as anyone planned.

StormriderMeanwhile, magicks both light and dark, the old gods of the Seidh and the continuing influence of the tree cult will all affect the tides of history and change that will engulf all these characters. Against the sweeping backdrop of magic, war, and intimately-portrayed cultures pleasingly drawn from recognizable history, we see events both world-shaking and intensely personal.

Like the rest of Gemmell’s excellent works, the Rigante books are combat-rich heroic fantasy, but are definitely not just random blood-and-thunder Conan knockoffs. They are a layered and infinitely effective portrayal of cultures at war, peopled with memorable and believable characters who live through the crucible in which their characters, and the ideas we all must contemplate but ultimately never can fully resolve, are tested to the fullest. These four books fulfill the potential of the crypto-historical genre, and I cannot recommend them more highly.

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