Legend, first published in 1984 under the title Against the Horde, is the first novel in the Drenai series by David Gemmell. The book takes its title from the moniker of one of its central characters, Druss, an aged warrior considered a living legend by the the Drenai Empire, who remember the exploits of his younger days in its defense. Having retreated to a mountain to live out his dotage, Druss receives word from an old companion of his, begging him to come to the citadel of Dros Delnoch, which is under siege by a horde of Nadir barbarians led by the brilliant warlord Ulric.
If Dros Delnoch should fall, the fate of the Empire is all but sealed. Druss is now an old man, weak in body and, perhaps, in mind as well, but his mere presence at the citadel might serve to rally its defenders to hold off the Nadir. But it has been foretold that, if Druss goes to Dros Delnoch, he will die there, leaving him to decide whether to live and face the further decline of his body or to end his life in a final act of service to the Empire. Of course, there's no real question what Druss will do, but the choice nevertheless colors the events of the novel, as Druss, along with another viewpoint character, the baresark Regnak, prepare to face their destinies at what is likely to be a disastrous military engagement.
Legend is a terrific example of "military fantasy." I don't usually find descriptions of battles and combat particularly interesting, but Gemmell clearly had a flair for it and the novel's battle scenes are among its best parts. In other places, the book is much more stilted. Dialog suffers from this the most, as do some of the characterizations. Yet, despite these flaws, there's a strange power to Legend, one that reminds me a bit of ancient epics like The Iliad or, better still, a Norse saga. That might be because the novel is dark and doom-laden; there's an apocalyptic feel to it almost from the start. There's really no question that bad things are going to happen to the viewpoint characters. The question is precisely what will happen and how and Gemmell succeeds in holding the reader's attention as he answers those questions.
The Drenai series eventually grew to encompass eleven novels, many of which take place many years or even centuries apart. Consequently, there are few recurring characters in the series, with the emphasis placed on the history of the Drenai Empire itself rather than on the individuals who live and serve during its reign. Though clearly pulp fantasies in the sword-and-sorcery mold, they feel, to my mind anyway, quite different than many others of this genre. Gemmell's characters are typically men of violence whose prior lives rarely have salutary effects on them. They remind me of the most interesting protagonists in Westerns, which only makes sense given that Gemmell admitted that both literary Westerns and the historical Battle of the Alamo had strong influences over him and his writing. In any event, Legend is a good, if flawed, novel and a good introduction to a fascinating recent example of a decidedly un-Tolkien-esque fantasy series.