Monday, January 3, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Legend

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.

13 comments:

  1. The book was also written while the author was living under sentence of death. Gemmell had been diagnosed with cancer and was receiving treatment, but hadn't been given a particularly good prognosis. He wrote the book with the intention that Dros Delnoch would fall if he did not recover.

    ReplyDelete
  2. there's a strange power to Legend, one that reminds me a bit of ancient epics like The Iliad
    Gemmell went on to write a trilogy set during the Trojan war, as I recall, so he clearly felt the same!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great book. I wrote about Gemmell and "Legend" for the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120105682970108777.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Conrad: That gives the whole 'walls of Dros Delnoch as Kubler-Ross model' an added resonance.

    The Fangorn-illustrated comic of "Legend" is a thing of beauty.

    ReplyDelete
  5. An amazing writer who is very much missed. Very inspirational.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Gemmell has long been one of my favorite authors, and his passing was a real blow to my life.

    Just to add to Conrad's comment above: Gemmell's cancer diagnosis was later found to be a misdiagnosis.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I like Gemmell's work, although the guy was so prolific that I'm way behind on a lot of it. While he can sometimes be a little preachy, he has a knack for writing stories of redemption without sugar-coating things - his books are dark and tough without plunging into outright bleakness.

    I also appreciate that he generally wrote modestly long stand-alone novels in a fantasy writing climate that increasingly emphasized long, serialized epics with really fat installments.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Legend really is an awesome modern classic. I find the grim and gritty atmosphere in the Druss novels to be a particularly good match for the Dragon Warriors RPG.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Legend is one of my favorite Thermopylae inspired fantasy novels. Gemmell had a wonderful sense for writing the doomed.

    I note that you didn't mention that Gygax was responsible for the initial American release of Gemmell's book.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Interestingly Gemmell's books read like the kind of D&D adventure you'd actually love to play in.....a group of heroes, many of totally different backgrounds, gather to fight against overwhelming odds, triumphing but often at great cost (Gemmell is not big on happy endings). I'd give my right arm to be run through an adventure that turned out like a Drenai tale.

    Christian is correct, Gygax's New Infinities was the first American publisher of Gemmell's works.

    ReplyDelete
  11. A very enjoyable novel. The defence of Dros Delnoch always remninded me of the Siege of Minas Tirith, with the multiple lines of defence, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I absolutely loved Gemmel's work.

    I also highly recommend the Waylander books (the end of the the final one 'Hero in the Shadows' puts a lump in my throat) and also the Jon Shannow trilogy, which veers weirdly between post-apocalyptic western and science fiction.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.