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review by Duncan Hunter
This is the third book in the now famous fantasy series which tracks the bloody but heroic history of the Rigante, a highland clan struggling against tyranny for its survival and honour. Ravenheart is set in a time when the clan has become little more than a subject people, all but subdued by the overweening might of their detested Varlish foe.
Kaelin Ring, the story's young hero, has been brought up by his aunt in the highland town of Eldacre, now under the iron rule of the merciless Varlish governor, the Moidart. The son of a Rigante hero who died fighting for the future of the clan, he sees that the culture and traditions of his people are held in contempt by the land's new masters. Jaim Grymauch, a warrior of giant stature and reputation, trains him to fight as a highlander of old, and teaches him to cherish the destiny of the Rigante despite their oppression.
A Varlish girl falls for Kaelin, openly befriending him despite the unspoken code that separates the two peoples of Eldacre. When she is cruelly raped and murdered by Varlish soldiers, Kaelin is stung to exact a fierce revenge on her murderers. Now an outlaw, he is forced to flee north to the mountain fastness of the Black Rigante, the last bastion of highland power, where the clan's fighting spirit and independence survives undimmed. But unrest is stirring in the highlands, with ruthless Varlish leaders anxious to stamp out any signs of a new rebellion. Kaelin finds himself at the centre of a last desperate struggle against Varlish tyranny.
The fantasy setting of Ravenheart draws upon the dramatic atmosphere of the Jacobean highlands, with bewigged and musket-brandishing soldiers doing battle with kilted highland clansmen. This is Braveheart or (more accurately) Rob Roy territory, with its recognisable flavour of tartan adventure. But whereas Gemmell draws heavily upon this landscape in his colourful depiction of Rigante lore, costume and weaponary he manages to depict characters which are fresh, and devoid of cliché. The reader's sympathy is directed towards both Varlish and Rigante individuals, all of whom are depicted as real people trapped in their opposing camps by history rather than temperament.
Fantasy novels often depict a two-dimensional struggle of good against evil, with characters playing clearly defined roles, either coldly heroic or unredeemably evil. In Ravenheart, the author realistically depicts a world where individuals have been corrupted by intercultural conflict. In a realm where even history and law has been rewritten to suit the politics of ethnic struggle, a few are driven to pursue the truth and a vision of justice which can be shared by all.
Ravenheart is a compelling, character-driven tale of heroic fantasy with a theme that is relevant and powerful.
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