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Legend by David Gemmell

Legend by David Gemmell
4.5
Book Name: Legend
Author: David Gemmell
Publisher(s): Century
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: April 1984

I first read Legend twenty-five years ago, shortly after its original release. I was sixteen at the time, and the heroic tale of an old man coming out of retirement to wreak havoc with an axe really appealed to me. Legend was suitably violent and had the right mix of heroes and villains for my adolescent self to enjoy. Those who’ve read my profile will know that I had a falling out with fantasy for a few years. Legend was one of the few novels I read during this hiatus; I rattled through it, loved it, put it aside again and smiled nostalgically. Job done.

Now, many years later, I’ve read it again, this time to cast a critical eye over it. I have to admit, I was nervous about this; now that I’m an older and wiser (ahem) reader, one with so many good and bad novels under my belt, how would one of my favourites hold up under such close scrutiny?

Legend tells the story of Dros Delnoch, a six-walled fortress than protects the southern Drenai lands from the Nadir barbarian hordes of the north. The Nadir tribes have been united under a new leader, Ulric, who must take Delnoch in order to pass through the mountains and conquer the civilised south. Our band of heroes must stop him, and rumour has it that Druss The Legend will be bringing his axe to aid the Drenai. That he arrives is never in doubt, but his fate – like that of the others – hangs in the balance.

Despite the presence of the mighty Druss, it is Rek who is arguably the real hero of the novel. It’s his journey we follow, as he goes from being a man who would rather run away to someone who becomes an inspiration to others, a man filled with nobility and honour. Critics have argued that Rek’s change from one extreme to the other is too quick, citing page counts. This is unfair, as the battle for Dros Delnoch lasts for months.

Compared to most fantasy offerings, Legend may be a short novel, but it does cover several weeks of the characters lives; extreme changes are caused by extreme situations. It’s to Gemmel’s credit that, despite the time frame involved, there isn’t a wasted word in these 430 pages. When he starts a chapter with words like ‘six weeks after the first attack’, it doesn’t feel abrupt. Rather, it adds to the flow of the story and keeps page after page, turning.

Legend isn’t all about the famous and noble. As in his other books, Gemmell’s recurring theme is dealing with what makes someone a hero. All very well if you’re Druss with a mystical axe, but he also lets us see the common man making his own decisions. Gilad and Bregan are two such men, farmers who have taken up the sword to defend Drenai lands. These men are as much heroes as Rek and Druss, and their ordinary status in the world brings empathy, makes them real. They are equally as rounded as the main characters, too; Gemmell isn’t adverse to introducing a character, letting us get to know them and like them, only for them to be quickly killed – this is a battle, after all, and there is no telling who will still be breathing at the end of the novel.

Heroes and villains exist – as they have to in such tales – but are neither pure white nor evil black. Even the holy priests, the Thirty, are tormented by their own doubts and desires; their magic may be strong, but it never comes across as easy to use. Even the villain Ulric has his sympathetic moments; he is hero of his own story, as all good characters should be. There’s nothing two dimensional about him and, in some ways, it’s possible to feel some empathy for him.

One criticism is that it could be described as somewhat shallow compared to current fantasy offerings. The plot, however good, is relatively simple. Characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, and dialogue is often bereft of any subtext. Description can be basic at times, and there are several clichés. And yet, Legend has held up very well over the years. Sure, it’s not perfect, it’s no sprawling 1000 page epic where civilisations have been created in immense detail while characters are trapped in webs of political subterfuge, but what it does have is a great heart and soul.

Gemmel wrote the book while he was being treated for cancer and it is said that the fortress of Dros Delnoch was a metaphor for his resistance against the disease. In the end, it’s a book about courage, defining it as the strength to stand and face your fear, rather than have no fear at all. It’s a book where the plot rattles along at an enjoyable pace, and the depth of characterisation may even cause the reader to shed a tear.

David Gemmell died five years ago, but he will live on in his novels and his legacy remains in the award that bears his name. Reading Legend again, it’s easy to see why so many writers have cited him as an influence. Quarter of a century on, hundreds of books later, it remains a firm favourite. Britain’s ‘King of Heroic Fantasy’ hasn’t let me down.

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Rating: 8.2/10 (5 votes cast)
Legend by David Gemmell, 8.2 out of 10 based on 5 ratings
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5 Comments

  1. I’m a Gemmell fan and I loved this book when I read it my first and only time many years ago. I’m heartened by your review as I too was worried it may have dated, especially given some less than glowing reviews of it I’ve seen recently. I hope to read it again this year and with any luck it will hit me with the same force it did the first time.

    I read more about Gemmell following his death and now I know the story behind the writing of Legend (also told in your review) I’m even more keen to read it again & generally I’m not a re-reader!

  2. Warren says:

    I didn’t even read Gemmell until last year. When I was younger the books didn’t interest me (I was all about how long and wordy a fantasy novel was…) However, after reading Brent Weeks first book I needed something else to read. Luckily a local book shop owner recommended Legend to me. The book surprised me, I really enjoyed it. I think maybe you could say the characters were a tad cardboard and the plot simple, but I don’t know. There is something deeper in the book – I didn’t know about his fight with Cancer or any of that at the time, but I know that the battle in the story reflected something greater. It was also nice to see Good being Good and Bad being Bad again – I believe that humans can be much less complex than they like to believe. As much as I love stuff by martin, Sanderson, Jordan and the like, we need authors that can tell simple tales like this that convey a deeper message about life. Gemmell may have passed on but his works still live as his testament.

  3. Jared says:

    I read Legend for the first time this year and, to be completely honest, I loathed it.

    That said, I really like your review – and I think you did a great job flagging up the parts of Legend that were (and still are) so influential. Whether or not I liked the book, I completely acknowledge how important it is, and your review really brings that out.

    So, er, I disagree in the most agreeable way possible 😉

  4. Dan the Funky Scarecrow says:

    I have problems with Legend. While I wouldn’t go so far as Jared in stating I loathe the book, it was far too influential on the younger me to ever feel that way, reading it in my thirties was a very different experience to reading it as a sixteen year old. I first read it as a confused and terrified teenager; one who’d grown up on a dog-rough council estate in north east England (think of the estate on Shameless and you’ve got a good idea of it) and thought that crime, drugs and violence were the only way to prove yourself as a both a man and a human being. Legend gave me the courage to admit who I was and live my life accordingly, a sci-fi and fantasy geek who loves literature, art and music and loathed the council estate culture I was immersed in; a young man who almost fell apart with guilt over every theft or beating I took part in, who almost fainted with panic at the memories of thefts and beatings I had been on the receiving end of and despised myself on a deep and fundamental level for the things I was doing. In many respects, Legend saved me from a life I wasn’t equipped for and is partly responsible, in no minor way, for the man I grew into.

    However…

    Reading it again late last year, I found the book to be riddled with problems when it came to female characters, the universal solution to their problems appeared to be ‘You’ll be all fixed once you find the right man’, oddly paced and suffering from some almost audible crunches as the gears changed from one POV character to another.

    For anyone who wishes to read a David Gemell novel for the first time, I would recommend the Rigante series (Sword in the Storm, Midnight Falcon, Ravenheart & Stormrider), the standalone Morningstar, the Troy series (Lord of the Silver Bow, Shield of Thunder & Fall of Kings) or the enjoyably un-enjoyable (trust me, if you read them you’ll see what I mean) Hawk Queen novels (Ironhand’s Daughter & The Hawk Eternal) and save Legend, the Waylander novels and the Jon Shannow novels until you’re more attuned to Gemmell’s strengths, weaknesses and hobby-horses. Gemmell became a fine writer of pulp fantasy, but Legend is not the best example of his work.

    In short, I love the memory of Legend without reservation, but love the execution of it in the same way I love my alcoholic and racist cousin, which is to say I love to know it’s alive and well and I remember the good times fondly, but no longer wish to spend much time in its company.

  5. Overlord says:

    Just reading this now myself and really enjoying it 🙂

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