Wolf in Shadow (Jon Shannow #1), by David Gemmell — a book review

gunslinger and the Titanic

In the late 1990s, I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club.

You’ve heard of the SFBC, right? It is one of those mail-order places, like the Columbia House Record Club, where you get to select several items (books in this case) for a negligible price, but are contractually obligated to purchase a certain number of other items within an agreed-upon time frame.

Don’t judge me. I also—for a time—was a member of Columbia House Video, from whom I collected a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes I had missed during the first three seasons of the show, when I was conducting a personal boycott. Over the decades, I joined a couple of record clubs as well. And, no regrets.

Entertainment is much more readily available these days. I’m sure such clubs still exist. Just as I’m sure they’re probably much more of an online presence these days. Back in the ’90s, I couldn’t just get on the computer and download something (television episode, movie, music—Egads! even a book!) or use one of our myriad streaming services. Things have changed.

It was within the pages of the SFBC brochure sent periodically to my home address (as opposed to email) that I first saw A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, advertised. I was ahead of the curve when I bought that first novel in the series, and I knew that Ned Stark was going to lose his head long before it happened on HBO. Can you believe that GRRM hasn’t finished writing this series twenty-five years later?

In these same brochures, I saw Legends of the Drenai, which collected three Gemmell novels: Legend; The King Beyond the Gate; and, Quest for Lost Heroes. Before reading these, I knew nothing about British author David Gemmell. After reading them, I was a fan. I’ve read somewhere around sixteen of his novels, to date. He was fairly prolific, so there are still a lot that I haven’t read. I own paperback copies of most of those, waiting for me in my library closet, including the Troy books, finished by his wife after Gemmell’s death in 2006. As I said, I am a fan.

Wolf in Shadow is either the third entry in the Stones of Power/Sipstrassi book series, or the first in the Jon Shannow series, depending upon how you look at it. It’s original title was The Jerusalem Man. Jon Shannow is a post-apocalyptic gunslinger searching for the city of Jerusalem the way the knights of the Crusade searched for the Holy Grail.

Smarter people than I have pointed out how similar to The Gunslinger, by Stephen King, this premise sounds. The King novel—the first in his Dark Tower series—had been published about five years before the Gemmell book. Are there similarities? Sure. But, only on the surface.

Whether or not Gemmell was inspired by King’s work is beside the point. The fact is, both seemed to have been modeled after spaghetti westerns like those early Clint Eastwood films that made him a bankable movie star. All of us could write about lone-wolf gunslinger-types on sacred quests without plagiarizing Stephen King.

Within the pages of this novel, I was witness to Shannow falling in love with a young widow and beginning to settle into a domesticated existence while facing off, Shane-like, against the area bad guys. Truly a standard western story. Then, he’s riding with a wagon train through something ominously called the Plague Lands, and we learn that a large group of Satanists led by someone calling himself Abaddon is plotting to do dastardly things in the way that fantasy villains do. Then, it becomes a buddy action-adventure with Shannow teamed up with a former member of Abaddon’s infernal army. Meanwhile, the love story we started with is swept under the foyer rug, after she thought Shannow dead and fell for another man. The story also factored in a magical group of beings known as Guardians, who seem to have godlike powers. Somehow, the Titanic (yes, the same ship you’re thinking about) becomes involved. Shannow and his partner take on an army virtually by themselves. And the story ends.

I think Shannow is in at least one—maybe two—novels after this one. And, he never found Jerusalem in this book, so I would say his story didn’t actually end. Just stopped for a moment.

There are things I could point out—things that I like about this book—in every chapter. I enjoy the way Gemmell expresses himself. His sentences are strong and rich with visual imagery. While I prefer gunfire to magicking, the magic in this heroic fantasy cowboy story is handled well and comes at a price. I don’t fully understand what’s going on with the Sipstrassi stones, although I get the point that they are neither good nor evil. They are tools, which could be used for either extreme.

For me, the more realistic elements of the story, the post-apocalyptic tale of survival and savagery, are often more exciting than the parts about astral projection and healing stones. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this novel leaned much harder on the sorcery side of the sword & sorcery equation than I usually prefer. By the time the Titanic seemed doomed to sink once again, while on dry land, part of my mind checked out of the story entirely and flagged down a waiter for the check.

I felt, at times, like I was reading parts of three or four different stories mashed together. I’m not talking about subplots here. I’m saying that the different “acts” that make up this novel seemed to belong in different volumes of the series, not all in the same book. The entire “looking for Jerusalem” plot also lacks some depth and seems to be an ill-defined characteristic of our lead. The Stones of Power themselves seem oddly shoehorned into this story. Certainly a thematic carryover from the first two novels in the larger series, but still seeming a bit contrived. A different type of magic could easily be used in place of the Sipstrassi stones in this novel.

This has not been one of my favorite David Gemmell novels. It is, however, consistent with the previous Sipstrassi novels, Ghost King and Last Sword of Power. All three novels have been like those guilty-pleasure shoot-’em-up action movies I sometimes like to watch. Lots of exciting sequences that don’t rely too heavily upon logic and common sense. Visceral is a word that applies here. Moments in this novel are highly effective and impressive. Other moments challenge my own willingness to suspend my disbelief. It is often an uneven roller-coaster of a ride, with a series of highs and lows that cancel each other out.

If you’re not already a David Gemmell fan, I encourage you to read books from his other series before tackling this one. I am a huge fan of the books in his Drenai and Rigante series. I’d recommend starting with Legend, the one that kickstarted the author’s career.

If you are a Gemmell fan already, you’ll find plenty of stuff that you like about his writing here as well. In fact, if your tolerance for magic use is higher than my own, you will probably enjoy this novel more than I did.

Firewater’s Weird-Weird-West Report Card Grade: C-

Let me say it again. I love this author. David Gemmell is one of my all-time favorites.

This book? Eh, it was good enough to keep me reading, but ultimately only made me hungry for better Gemmell books.

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