This stand-alone epic from heroic fantasy master David Gemmell positions itself as the antidote to Robin Hood. Morningstar is the saga of Jarek Mace, a callous, unprincipled, self-absorbed, amoral cad who finds himself filling the unlikely position of hero of the realm, leading a ragtag army of rebels against an invading monarch whose mage has resurrected the evil spirits of long-dead Vampyre kings.
Mace would be only too happy to continue his wayward life of cutting purses and breaking hearts. But he has the ill fortune to run across down-on-his-luck bard Owen Odell. As events throughout the countryside (modeled after the Scottish highlands) envelop them, Odell appeals to Mace's avarice and ego, casting the thief and wastrel as the gallant and fearless rebel Morningstar. The legend builds through word of mouth. At first Mace enjoys the role, but as things get more serious he becomes more resentful of its obligations; he is, after all, a man who acknowledges no obligations to anyone but himself. Eventually he is in too deep, and has no choice but to play the role through to its culmination if he wants to have any hope of surviving the oncoming war.
Gemmell frames the narrative as Odell's memoirs, and this conceit gives the story and its characters the kind of depth needed for true emotional investment. The theme overall is that heroes are not born but made, quite often deliberately made by storytellers and mythmakers who understand the powerful symbols they represent when downtrodden people need inspiration and hope. Gemmell also impresses by avoiding falling into traps that might have snared lesser writers, who would have turned the tale into a simplistic morality play all about Redemption™, with Mace experiencing an easy-to-grasp character arc culminating in his acceptance of the virtues of honor, friendship, and duty, and rising to become a True Hero at last. Gemmell instead hurls Mace into a vortex of inner conflict from which he never really escapes. Mace doesn't give a shit about friendship, and only faces an enemy if he knows there's easy and immediate profit. He rails against his unwanted reputation and its duties, but faithfully carries them out only because he sees it is in his best interests to do so.
Even at the moment of climax, Mace hasn't really changed — it's always himself first, others last. But the real change is that experienced by those whose lives he crosses. In spite of everything, Mace is a savior to many, and his legend does inspire people to rise up against insurmountable odds. Even the biggest heroes can be the world's most deeply flawed people.
Laced with irony, yet full of optimism in the way it believes that even the worst people can find a bit of good in themselves even when they don't mean to or realize they're doing it, Morningstar is really something fresh in heroic fantasy. True, as it nears its final chapters, it gets a bit drawn out and indulges in a few too-familiar genre tropes: prophecies, destiny fulfillment, climactic boss battles, what have you. But Gemmell's character development is truly heartfelt, his plotting tight, and his utilization of suspense, setting, and atmosphere all help to create a vivid world. There may be nothing at all heroic about Jarek Mace, and his bitter cynicism may not, as some armchair analysts might suggest, be a shield protecting a vulnerable heart at all. But if those who really know Mace, like Odell, can see his flaws as a way to gauge their own improvement, and if the masses who don't know him personally can still be lifted up out of doom and squalor by what amounts to a great performance...well, hasn't he, in the end, earned the role of Morningstar? A hero in spite of himself is still a hero.