Thursday 23 July 2009

Legend: An appreciation

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. :)


Todd Newton said...

A well-written piece. I liked the book and I'm glad I heard about him (through you).

Tom Weaver said...

I totally agree with this post. Likewise, after Gemmell's death I re-read all the Drenai books. Reading them in such a short duration made me realise how much Gemmell's writing improved over the years, and his latter books were truly excellent.

But, when I first read Legend, all those years ago as a young teenager, I didn't notice the bad prose, just a stunning epic fantasy novel. Admittedly I always hated the prologue, but you can't have everything.

I went on to read everything Gemmell wrote, and I still think Legend and TKBTG are two of his best, although the Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince will forever hold the top two spots for me.

James said...

@T.D: Thanks. And it's really cool that you checked out Gemmell based on my recommendation. I seem to recall you saying you loved Waylander?

@Tom Weaver: Thanks for dropping by, Tom - always good to hear from another Gemmell fan. I'm curious - what don't you like about the prologue?

Interesting to see that you think Lion and Dark Prince are his best - I've not read them yet. What did you think of his Troy trilogy?

Anonymous said...

In my opinion the Troy Trilogy is excellent. The best thing I have read by Gemmell although to be fair I have only read 5 or so of the Drenai novels.

It is much more mature work than his early work (not that his early work is bad, I have the exact same feelings about Legend as you do) and very well handled.

The pace is not as quick but there is more than enough momentum for you to truly dragged in. Good prose, strong characters, interesting interaptation of the Illiad, well paced story, classic Gemmell... what more could you want.

Iain said...

Is it really three years since he died? I still haven't read the final two book of his Trojan trilogy because I don't want to not have an unread David Gemmell book in my collection.

Brilliant post by the way.

James said...

@Anon: Thanks for giving your thoughts, you've confirmed what a lot of other folk have said about the Troy trilogy.

@Iain: Glad you enjoyed the post! And I know what you mean, I'm reluctant to tackle the Troy trilogy simply because the thought of not having many unread Gemmell books left scares me! Just picked up a copy of Knights of Dark Renown off ebay for £2.50, so will be diving into that soon.

Iain said...

Knights of Dark Renown is a real doozy of a Gemmell novel. All the classic themes that he explored so well in his books are present and correct.

Although he is rightly lauded for his series novels I feel that some of his standalones are among the best books that he ever wrote. Echoes of the Great Song, Dark Moon and Morningstar are all up there with the likes of Legend etc.

As for Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince - you are in for a real treat when you get to them.

By the way I have just finished the Age of Misrule trilogy that you posted about a few weeks ago. After reading though some 1300 odd pages of Celic mythology, horror, heroism and the end of times I was left exhausted, enlightened (Mark Chadbourn should be awarded a PHD for his research into this series of books) and pretty damn satisified. I am awaiting the arrival of Devil in Green which starts the next trilogy.

James said...

@Iain: Hmm, I'm not sure I agree about the likes of Morningstar, Dark Moon, Echoes... I've read all three, and while they're good (Gemmell didn't write bad novels) I don't think they come close to the classic Drenai novels. Dark Moon had a brilliant concept that I don't think Gemmell really explored to its potential, while Morningstar and Echoes didn't quite work for me on the same level as his other stuff. Must re-read at some point though. That's the great thing about Gemmell novels - the re-readability factor. I also look forward to Dark Prince and Lion...

Cool that you checked out the Chadbourn books - must try them myself at some point.

Kendall said...

Funny timing; I just picked up Legend the other day, finally. ;-)

The Troy series is amazing and I figured I should finally start the Drenai series.... ;-)

Marcin said...


I am another person who heard about David Gemmell from You and I am truly thankful for that.

I’ve read 5 Drenai novels so far (in order: Legend, The King Beyond the Gate, Quest for Lost Heroes, Winter Warriors, Waylander) and I think the first two are the best and Quest is by far the worst (too much unbelievable).

I already bought the rest of the Drenai novels. I will read them all, but right now I am reading “Red Iron Nights” (sixth novel in the Garrett P.I. series) by Glen Cook – my favourite author.


ediFanoB said...

Kudos! What an extraordinary well-written piece. You should send it to The David Gemmell Legend Award. They should take it with the greatest pleasure.

I read my first David Gemmell book last year. Due to a recommendation by Mark from My Favourite Books it has been The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend. And I must admit I have been deeply impressed. But after reading your appreciation it is high time to read Legend.

James said...

@Kendall: Some people have found it difficult reading the Drenai novels for the first time, after reading the Troy trilogy. My advice would be to give the Drenai novels a chance - they're probably not as well written, but the emotional power and spirit is there.

@Marcin: I'm really pleased to have got you hooked on Gemmell, it makes what I do here worthwhile! You're not alone in thinking Legend and TKBTG are the best two, or that Quest is the weakest. Personally I think that Waylander II is the weakest, but Quest certainly isn't quite up to the standard of the others. Still a decent read though.

@ediFanoB: Cheers, glad you enjoyed it! Maybe I will forward it to them, since it should appeal to everyone involved and those that voted... First Chronicles of Druss is a solid Drenai novel, but yes do read Legend! And the others too. :)

Ben Noddy said...

wow, you really made this reader wanting to check out his books. I suddenly very sad I never heard of him before now. :/

Cinema Cafe Podcast said...

Fantastic piece James. Legend brings back great memories for me. It's like watching a great sporting match, or an action packed film, with your fists pumping in the air, cheering things on. I've read many fantasy novels since, but Legend always stands on its own just for the poor unadulterated adrenaline I get from reading it. Gemmel had that talent as a writer, to instill joy in his readers and the world is a little less happy without him.

- Joshua

Anonymous said...

I love Gemmell, but always wanted more drenai novels, there were a couple of references to 'the war of the twins'that always piqued my interest which sadly we will never read about. I have to agree with the other posters with regards to his Alexander duology, my own personal favourite being the 'Lion of Macedon', as a Gemmell fan you will love them, looking forward to hear your views on them, great article.

p.s. Always wondered why his novels, in particular 'Legend' were never made into films, especially around the time of gladiator, the story always seemed such a great fit for the big screen


James said...

@Ben: Yes, check out his books!

@Cinema: Glad you enjoyed the article, and I agree wholeheartedly.

@Anon: Gemmell said the 'War of the Twins' haunted him at every book signing, because it was the one question he was always asked by fans - "when are you going to write a novel about the Twins?" He said that he might do it one day, but sadly of course he never got around to it.

As for why there were no films made of his books - Legend especially - it wasn't for lack of offers. Gemmell said he turned down every single film contract, because the production companies always demanded the rights to his characters, which he refused to surrender (and rightly so). In any case, no film would ever match the power of the books.

Tom Weaver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Weaver said...

@James - re the prologue of Legend... I'm not sure what I didn't like about it, I just know that the first few times I picked up the book I didn't get past the prologue, and it was only when I skipped past it I discovered what a great book it was. I think it was a bit cliche from memory - Ulric biting off the head of a chicken to read the entrails... and a poor piece of dialogue with some messenger. It's been a while since I read the book, and I still skip it, so I'm working from a very old memory here!!

[edit] Sorry, wanted to add something but couldn't find how to edit my post, so deleted the comment.

Regarding Lion/Dark Prince - you're in for a treat. Along with Ender's Game (sci-fi), these are the two novels I lend out the most, regardless of whether the people I'm lending too read fantasy or not. They are a superb historical fantasy, bringing in real history to hook you, Greek mythology to bring a mystical element, and combined with some of Gemmell's usual spiritual continuity (the Source, mystic priests, stones of power). This, in addition to an enthralling protagonist and an epic plot makes it not only two of the best Gemmell novels for me, but some of the best two fantasy books I'd read.

I was therefore pretty excited and fearful about Troy. I wanted more of the same. I actually found it much slower and although at times I couldn't put it down, at other stages I found I wasn't looking forward to picking it up again. So I guess I could say I was disappointed, but perhaps this was because of my expectations.

I also found it was more of an alternative history than historical fantasy. Whilst I have no problem with that, and generally love authors like Conn Iggulden (Emperor series in particular) and Bernard Cornwell (his Arthur series, starting with Winter King, is up there with the best), I expected something a little different from a Gemmell novel.

That said, I'd read anything the guy wrote and he is missed. Sad that so many of the fantasy giants have gone recently - Gemmell, Eddings, Jordan...

James said...

Thanks for that, Tom. I can see what you mean about the prologue, though personally I think it's a decent enough start to the novel.

Well, that's a good rec for Dark Prince and Lion of Macedon! Definitely looking forward to checking those ones out!