Tuesday 12 August 2014

Reading David Gemmell - Legend

So I am planning a semi-regular feature where I read the novels of David Gemmell, and here is the first of those examinations, featuring the novel Legend.

1) Long before Joe Abercrombie came along, and the word ‘grimdark’ was coined, there was this talented male fantasy author who wrote excellent gritty fantasy, who used characters that were all shades of grey and not just black and white. And this was his first book. Legend has legacy, man!

2) I love the fact that this book takes the idea of a man who has been everywhere and seen it all, and is now waiting to die when he hears about Dros Delnoch and saddles up for one last adventure. The idea of age and of not being able to do everything you want to is a great one to explore in fantasy fiction, especially the fact that warriors might rather go out in a blaze of glory than slowly become forgotten and decrepit.

3) Gemmell’s prose is not pretty and certainly doesn’t linger on description. Rather the strength in his writing comes from dealing with his characters, and their reactions to events. Legend is a simple and driving narrative. Anyone hoping for the depth of Abraham or the epic sweeping tale of Martin or the vivid and beautiful prose of Erikson might do well to look elsewhere.

4) Druss is an absolute legend (yep, the title is perfectly fitting!) This is a character larger than life – one who swears, pisses, grunts, kills, but is immensely likeable and carries the story with him. The secondary characters lose out a little when weighed against him. He is the character in a film who chews up the scenery!

5) Because of the period of his life during which Gemmell wrote this book, there is a weighty underlying discussion about the way in which we choose to live our lives. Do we choose a short, heroic, legendary life? Do we allow life to pass us by? What makes us heroic – the choices we take in life? The way we face what happens to us? What does it mean to die well, and live well? All of these questions and more are explored in the course of the narrative.

6) The worldbuilding is skimpy at best. There is this big old fortress, right? A Drenai fortress? And the Nadir, newly united under one leader, are trying to capture it and invade Drenai. That’s about all the worldbuilding you get. Plus, some of the standard fantasy tropes are ever-present: marauding, unending numbers of horsemen (Mongols) go up against valiant faux-European types. Of course, since Gemmell was writing this book a long time before others came along, it is questionable as to whether he is using tropes or creating something new!

7) Female characters? Not handled *that* badly, but certainly not the nuanced and entertaining ladies we see in more modern fantasy. Again, this might be more a product of the boys-own nature of the novel and the time in which it was written, when strong female characters were not demanded from fantasy authors in the same way they are now.

8) Linked to that, the romance is lacking. So there are these two characters and they fall in love. This is all we really get to see of their courtship and developing relationship. First they are not in love. A few pages later they are in love. Whirlwind romance doesn’t cover it.

9) A novel I might recommend for reluctant teen boy readers, actually. The writing is simplistic enough, but the story is gripping and has a number of fist-pumping moments that will engage with most boy teens.

10) Sterling battle scenes. Quiet moments of heroism. Fantastic edge-of-the-seat page-turning. This is what you get from Legend. It is an absolute gem of the heroic fantasy strand, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand part of where the fantasy fiction field has developed from.


  1. Even after discovering heavy-hitters like Donaldson, Erikson, and Wolfe, LEGEND was a revelation. No, it's not particularly pretty, but it's still an enjoyable, competently-written romp that's action-packed and still has something to say about the human condition. It inspired me to pick up a bunch of Gemmell's other Drenai books that I (sadly) haven't gotten around to yet.

  2. Legend was just brilliant, and was really hard to get hold of for years, as I think it was only published as part of a collected works? I've not read it for 20 years or more, but the fort and siege still stays with me, and Druss is very much still alive in my mind