With the third anniversary of David Gemmell's death fast approaching (28 July), I thought it would be a good time to re-read his classic debut fantasy novel, Legend.
After Gemmell's passing in 2006 (can't believe it was nearly three years ago...I can still recall the exact moment when I heard the news) I re-read all 11 of his Drenai novels in a couple of months - and a hugely enjoyable experience it was too. There are some extremely good novels in this sequence - Waylander, Hero in the Shadows, Winter Warriors...but none of them are quite like Legend, Gemmell's debut novel.
In 1976, Gemmell was waiting for test results on what he feared was cancer. Determined to realise his dream of having a novel published bef0re he died, he wrote The Siege of Dros Delnoch in the space of two weeks. The story itself - 10,000 Drenai warriors defending a massive, ancient fortress against 500, 000 Nadir tribesmen - was a direct metaphor of Gemmell's own struggle with his perceived cancer. His idea was that if the tests confirmed he had cancer, the fortress would fall, if the tests proved he didn't then the fortress would stand firm.
The tests came back negative.
Having survived his cancer scare, Gemmell decided the finished story wasn't very good, locked it away and forgot about it. A few years later, a friend read it and told him that it had potential. Gemmell dusted the manuscript down, re-wrote it and retitled it Legend.
It was published in 1984 and a star was born.
Given that I'd already read Legend twice before, I was interested to see whether third time around it would still hold my attention. The answer was an emphatic yes. Within 50 pages I was utterly hooked, despite being able to mostly remember who lived, who died and so on - the sign of a very good book.
What makes Legend such a powerful, engaging book - in fact, what makes any of Gemmell's books powerful and engaging - are the characters and their personal journeys. Legend is driven by its well-developed characters: Druss the Axeman, a legendary warrior in his sixties who comes out of retirement to fight a battle he knows will kill him; Rek, a vain and foppish wanderer who finds himself bound to a cause that is not his own; Bowman, an outlaw who hopes to somehow banish the demons that snap at his heels; Orrin, an overweight, inexperienced and unpopular general who struggles beneath the weight of the Drenai cause that he carries on his shoulders...and many others besides.
Gemmell makes you care about these people, makes you feel their despair and their joy. And through them, he explores some major themes. Druss, for example, is the epitome of determination - a man who refuses to give in no matter the odds, who will stand when others flee, who stands up for what is right and spits in the eye of death. In many ways Druss is the embodiment of Gemmell's psychology at the time - he represents not just everything Gemmell believed in, but also his refusal to be beaten down by his potential cancer, his determination to face his possible end with courage. Similarly, the character of Rek is used to illustrate the importance of facing up to your fears, and of not shirking your duties. Rek's journey is probably the greatest undertaken by any of Legend's characters, and Gemmell made his progression both believable and gratifying.
It's not just the major characters that help to demonstrate the supposed glory and horror of war, but also the minor characters. Carin the miller, for example, appears in only two short scenes, but his cameo is a well-judged comment on the subtle ironies of war.
Themes and characterisation aside, Legend also heavily features plenty of what Gemmell did best - battle scenes. There's loads of action, and the tight plot rips along without a dull moment. Gemmell's concise, economical style only helps the flow of the story. He also does a decent job of exploring the backgrounds of several major characters, without sacrificing the fast pace. His depiction of the Nadir is also commendable in the sense that he was at pains to illustrate that they weren't evil, but merely men obeying orders. A poignant scene near the end of the novel, as both Drenai and Nadir come together, perfectly demonstrates the stupidity of war.
Despite the novel's iconic status, there are issues with it; Gemmell himself later acknowledged this by saying that as a piece of writing Legend "appalled" him, but that he believed very strongly in its potency as a story. In fact, he went as far as suggesting that although the prose could be improved, it wouldn't make the book any better because the spirit of the story came through so strongly.
Who am I to disagree with the great man himself? As it happens, I don't - the writing is rather stiff in places, particularly the dialogue. I must admit that I laughed when Virae waved her sword at a bunch of outlaws and called them 'dungbeetles.' Yet I don't think - even if Gemmell had re-written Legend - that it would be that much better, since the story is so powerful anyway. That said, there are some rather jolting and unnecessary POV changes - mid scene - that add little and could have been done away with. A good example is when the perspective switches in chapter one from Rek to Horeb (a minor character who only appears in one scene) - not only is it a little confusing, but we simply don't need to see Horeb's perspective.
I also have some minor quibbles unrelated to prose. The resurrection of one character towards the end of the story seems unnecessary and to my mind weakens the emotional impact on another person - not to mention being too saccharine for my tastes. Furthermore, the moment when Druss roars "Obey your husband, woman!" at a prominent female character is a little embarrassing. Arguably in character, but even so it should have been edited out.
Still, most debut novels have issues. Those in Legend certainly don't detract from what is now a classic of heroic fantasy - and deservedly so. Even after three reads, its ability to enthrall and inspire an emotional reaction in me remains intact.
Heroic fantasy doesn't get much better than this.
Edit: For more info on Gemmell and some recommended reading, check out the post I wrote way back in the early days of the blog. :)
Book Review | Release by Patrick Ness
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