David Gemmell, Legend (1984)

GemmellHere we have another fantasy legend, one of the supposed milestones of heroic fantasy, years and years before Martin, Abercrombie or even Erickson. There’s even a set of popular British fantasy literary awards called after late David Gemmell: Legend Award for year’s best fantasy novel (looks like Druss’ ax, Snaga, what a surprise ;)), Morningstar Award (hmm, let me think, it does look like a crystal star, not the weapon) for year’s best fantasy debut, and Ravenheart Award for year’s best fantasy cover art (depicting Druss on the battlements of Dros Delnoch). All of them can be viewed here. Each year a set of books is put to a democratic vote of readers (yes, you can vote too! Do it here).

But what about the book? It’s the first and most-known novel of Gemmell’s. It’s also the first installment in the Drenai Saga, and the first book depicting Druss the Legend. As usual with firsts, it is rather uneven. After a slow beginning come some really good moments, and the ending… But let’s save the ending for, you know, the end.

The story is simple, simplistic even. Everything revolves around a war. An old-fashioned, Middle Ages type of conflict, fought with swords and axes and javelins, with lances and bows, with fire and stone. And, to a smaller extent – with magic. This particular war was started by the Nadir – powerful, aggressive and ferociously savage coalition of tribes led by a ruthless and ingenious leader, Ulric. Ulric united the steppe tribes in order to finish the bloody infighting, plaguing the tribes for decades or centuries. But while doing this, he created a monstrous, unstoppable force looking forward to conquering other nations – because war was everything the Nadir tribes ever knew. At the time of the story they already have conquered many nations and are coming to Drenai sure of their skill and looking for another fight. The only thing standing between bountiful, rich fields and cities full of treasures is an old, forgotten castle called Dros Delnoch. Once upon a time Dros Delnoch was a fortress, but that was a really long time ago, before people settled in and a whole city sprang between its multiple walls. Now it’s indefensible, with a laughable contingent of demoralized soldiers that is too small to hold for even a few days.

And here enters Druss. Druss the Legend, as he’s called by the Drenai, Druss the Deathwalker, as he is known among the Nadir. Druss was the mightiest hero of his age, but now he is only one lonely, old guy. He’s sixty, has white hair, arthritis and a bad knee, and war is the only thing he’s good at. Druss comes to Dros Delnoch to die as heroes should – in a battle. He’s a great character, built by Gemmell in a very powerful, humane way and given awareness of his own mortality and his various faults. The triumphs of the past are now a burden, because everybody expects him to be now the same Legend he was many decades earlier. Druss is imperfect, but he struggles – and that makes him human. That’s also why the reader instantly likes him or even admires him, and that’s why there are many tributes to him in other writers’ work. For example, I see many echoes of this character in Abercrombie’s Bloody Nine.

Druss is soon joined by the Thirty – members of a mysterious order of religious ascetics, wielding swords and magic with equal – and deadly – skill. Their contract requires twenty nine of them to die in defense of Dros Delnoch, and in exchange they receive a sum of money allowing the remaining one to start a new monastery for the next Thirty.

There is also a pair of moonstruck lovers – Virae, the only daughter of the dying earl of Dros Delnoch, and Rek, a coward and a berserk, a cynic with a romantic heart, who saved Virae’s life even though he didn’t have to.

There are many other characters – soldiers, generals, outlaws, Sathuli warriors, Nadir invaders, shamans, surgeons, etc. But one in particular comes to the reader’s attention. Ulric. The main bad guy, who’s not really a bad guy, not at all. He’s smart, tough, resourceful and honorable. He’s also a tactical genius, praised even by his foes. It’s a twist of fate that he has to stand against Druss and company, and that he will be seen as the evil one. Ulric is well aware of the fact:

In all legends, Ulric knew, there were bright heroes and dark, dark evil. It was the very fabric of each tale. »I am not evil,« he said. »I am a warrior born, with a people to protect and a nation to build.«

As I said, there are really good moments in this book. Most of them belong to Druss and Ulric. There are scenes which are genuinely touching, intriguing, well written. It’s a quotable book – let’s put here another Ulric’s quote:

[…] a leader must know all the weapons of war. And there are many which owe nothing to the lance and sword, the bow and the sling. The word steals men’s souls, while the sword kills only their bodies. Men see me and know fear.

There are a few female characters, and most notable among them are warriors well versed with fighting and killing, usually standing securely on their own two feet. All in all, not too many women, but playing an important role in the story.

At the same time, however, the story is terribly thin. War, I get it. One castle, I get this too. But really, nothing else is going all during this lengthy siege? There is, and we learn about it all at once, which does not improve the story at all. Add to this many side characters which are cartoonish and whose choices and actions are psychologically unbelievable. Add to this lazy attitude toward magic – it serves as a Deus ex machina, an author’s prop when no good explanation is at hand.

Lastly, there is the ending. I am not going to spoil it here, but my… It’s one of the worst endings I have read in a very long time. Reminds me sadly of Sapkowski’s Pani Jeziora. To say it’s unconvincing is to say nothing. I read it, and I had only one, albeit very persistent thougt: WTF? After everything we read we finally get THIS?

Gemmell’s Legend has some very memorable scenes, some interesting quotes, and a few even more interesting and memorable characters. But as a whole, this book is deeply flawed, especially by the ending.

P.S. There’s an internet gossip that Gemmell was writing Legend as a metaphor for his own fight with cancer, but I couldn’t pin down the source of the gossip and check whether it contains even a grain of truth.

P.S. 2 I’m not sure, but believe that chronologically speaking Ulric is the first fantasy character having violet eyes 😉

Score: 7/10

7 thoughts on “David Gemmell, Legend (1984)

  1. piotrek

    What a coincidence, I was going to read it soon… it’s already on my bookshelf and I’ve even voted on this year’s Gemmell Awards (for McClellan 🙂 ).
    Review suggest a good read, entertaining and, if not a masterpiece, something definitely worth my time. So – it moves a little bit closer to the top of my “to read” pile.
    Referencing “Pani Jeziora” in the review though… is either a misdirection or a spoiler 😛


    1. O, stamtąd się dowiedziałam, że Sapkowskiego “Krew elfów” dostała Gemmella 🙂 Swoją drogą stwierdzenie, że za Sapkowskim i sukcesem Wiedźmina stoi jakaś machina propagandowa wydawcy, bo generalnie Gemmelle dostają słabe książki, przyprawiło mnie o porządny atak śmiechu.


  2. I’ve added the first book of this series on my TBR back in 2017 and have yet to get my hands on a copy (accidentally rather than with the purpose of getting it). It sounded so good until you got to the part where the ending killed a lot of its momentum. I do love the sound of Druss and his archnemesis Ulric though. I’m mostly intrigued by that than anything else now. Great review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a lot that needs to be forgiven in this book – the secondary characters are very weak, the pace plodding at times, and nobody writes like this anymore. But at the same time, there’s this palpable feeling of harrowing experiences, of the old age of Druss catching up with him – and in this, Gemmell was absolutely among the first and the best.
      I’d be very curious to see what you think of it, Lashaan! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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