Friday, March 2, 2012
Legend by David Gemmell
I did read Legend by David Gemmell some years ago. I hardly remembered it, what I did remember that I wasn't particularly impressed. I can't have read it properly, because this time I came away very impressed and having some understanding of why David Gemmell is regarded so highly in the field.
Legend isn't anything especially new, in fact it's a very well used trope in adventure fiction, war fiction and fantasy. The legendary old warrior comes out of retirement one last time to fight a final battle to the death.
The Drenai kingdom is under threat from the all conquering Nadir tribe under their feared leader Ulric. The Drenai plan to make their final defence at Dros Delnoch, a fortress city that has never fallen. This time it may be different. Ulric has a huge army that has never lost. Dros Delnoch is undermanned and poorly led. It's time for Druss the Legend to come out of retirement and defend his people once more, inspire them with his very presence.
Although Druss is the Legend of the title, the book is not just about him or even the defence of the Drenai. It's about all the people connected with it. The handsome carefree Rek, who becomes a baresark fighter when his blood is up. Virae, the feisty warrior woman who falls in love with Rek. Gan Orrin, the formerly unfit commander of Dros Delnoch. There are even little vignettes like that of Carin the miller, who lost his life defending his home and believed in Druss, not knowing that his wife had left in fear of her life with their infant son.
It's so well written and characterised that it is hard to believe Legend was in fact David Gemmell's first novel. Admittedly he had been working as a journalist for many years and worked a lot on the work that became Legend before it was published in 1984, but it is handled so very well.
Throughout most of the book I had the nagging thought that the Nadir were based on Genghis Khan's Mongols. The clinching proof for me was the mention of a character called Tsubodai, one of Ulric's better regarded men. Conn Iggulden's historical fiction series Conqueror, about the rise of Genghis Khan and his sons and grandsons, also featured a Tsubodai, he was one of Genghis' most successful and better known generals.
The closest historical analogue I can find to the seemingly doomed defence of Dros Delnoch is the Alamo legend of the American West, which was something that interested Gemmell, although the author himself likened it to a personal situation at the time when he began work on it. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and while Druss was determined that the Nadir wouldn't defeat him, David Gemmell was equally determined to battle the disease to his very last breath. Fortunately the diagnosis was later proven to be incorrect.
One criticism I do have of Legend is that it maybe went 2 or 3 chapters longer than it really needed to. Personally I would have liked it to end with the death of Druss, but it went on a little longer to tell readers what happened to Rek, Virae, Bowman and the Drenai and Nadir empires following this historic battle.
David Gemmell continued on in the epic tradition of writers like Robert E. Howard and was a contemporary of Glen Cook, who wrote similar fantasy work of a military bent with his Black Company series. In recent times Joe Abercrombie has written in this vein, his 2011 work; Heroes, in particular recalls Legend and I can imagine Abercrombie's berserker hero Logen The Bloody Nine Ninefingers enjoying Druss' company, in fact most of Joe Abercrombie's Northmen would fit in very well with Druss and wouldn't have been out of place in the defence of Dros Delnoch.