1/01/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Orbit. 337 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-858-4.
check out website: www.orbitbooks.net
David Gemmell died prematurely in 2006 just a few days short of his 58th birthday. 'Legend' was his first published novel. This twenty-fifth anniversary edition provides an opportunity to revisit the story that formed the basis for much of his subsequent prodigious output of heroic fantasy to see if it still stands up to scrutiny.
Gemmell was a man of many trades who eventually gravitated to journalism. He dabbled with writing fiction, producing several unpublished apprentice works. However, when he was diagnosed with cancer at the early age of twenty-eight, he decided to dramatise his fight against the disease in story. 'Legend' was the result.
'Legend' is so well-known that there is now even a British Fantasy Award named after it. The story may therefore need little introduction to many of you. However, for those who have not previously come across it, here's a brief summary.
The story is based around the man is Druss, the legend of the title, and a fortress. Now in his sixties, he is the most successful warrior of the age. The fortress is Dros Delnoch, which controls the only pass through the mountains between the Northern lands of Druss' people, the Drenai, and the Southern lands of King Ulrich and the Nadir. Ulrich has conquered all his rivals in the South and is now intent on adding the Northern Kingdoms to his empire. Dros Delnoch is the only thing stopping him. The Dros is undermanned and morale is poor but that is where the Drenai must make their last defence. Everything looks hopeless, then Druss turns up.
Druss acts like the worst regimental Sergeant Major you've ever heard of, working the troops until they're fit to drop, then giving them one more task before bed. They soon hate him, yet slowly the troops get fitter and more disciplined and morale returns to the fortress. By the time that Ulrich and his warring army arrive, the Drenai may still be horribly outnumbered but they're not going to give the Dros up without a fight.
One of the strongest aspects of this novel is Gemmell's ability to create realistic, three-dimensional characters. You might expect a novel described as an archetype of 'heroic fantasy' to feature chisel-jawed, fearless warriors and beautiful, chaste women. Instead, 'Legend' is filled with heroes who are deeply scared of their own mortality and battle-trained heroines who refuse to live up to the usual stereotypes. These are real people that we can identify with. It makes their eventual heroism, in the face of overwhelming opposition, all the more impressive.
Gemmell is also good at writing fight scenes. They are detailed, visceral and really pull you in but he also shows the emotions of the characters as they fight. He does not let us forget neither that there are two sides to any battle. From time to time we see the fight from the Nadir side and we come to recognise that many of their soldiers are just ordinary people like the Drenai, forced to fight for the glory of their political master, Ulrich.
Something else I enjoyed about 'Legend' was its length. It's nice to read a fantasy novel that you can hold in one hand without getting backache.
Although this is marketed as a 25th anniversary edition, the only added extra is a three page foreword written by Stella Gemmell, the author's editor and second wife. I was disappointed that Orbit didn't include more extras. You would have thought they could have found one or two more items to make the edition seem special, such as an old interview with the author or an extract from another of Gemmell's novels.
I have two criticisms of Gemmell's writing style in 'Legend'. First, the dialogue can sometimes sound a little formal and archaic. Second, the development of the characters can be rather abrupt. However, both faults are slight and can easily be excused when you remember that this was Gemmell's first published novel.
In conclusion, I think that 'Legend' deserves its description as a classic of heroic fantasy. It is also an easy, engrossing and enjoyable read. If you're turned off by today's thousand page fantasy epics that don't know when to stop, 'Legend' may be just the antidote you've been looking for.
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