Legend is considered a classic in the modern fantasy genre. It is the novel that launched the career of bestselling author David Gemmell and the first volume of his famous Drenai Saga. The series is composed of a series of related, standalone novels which build upon or fill in the history of Legend. To affirm the book’s place in the fantasy canon, one need only look to the posthumously named David Gemmell Legend Award.
The blurb tells the story
The once-great Drenai Empire has fallen into decadence and has become ill-prepared to fight off the massed assault of the Nadir horde. Only the great fortress of Dros Delnoch stands against the invaders, and even it has become run down and undermanned. The only hope for the defenders is for Druss, the titular legend, to lead the desperate defense and face death one last time.
The plot is simple. As even this blurb promises, there is little hope for the fortress to hold out against the barbarian horde. Gemmell tells a story of men (and one woman) fighting a heroic last stand to give the Drenai hope. He question is never “Will they win?” but “How long can they hold off defeat?” There is no promise of a Hollywood happy ending.
Sorry, what material was her dress made of?
Many will find Gemmell’s action driven narrative refreshing, particularly those frustrated with epic fantasies in which the author seems contractually obliged to describe exactly what everyone in a given scene is wearing, what it’s made of and what the cultural significance of the outfit might be. Lovers of the rich depth of such epics will likely be disappointed. Yet you won’t have time to lament the roses you didn’t stop to smell, because Gemmell’s narrative has charged ahead, dragging you (willingly or not) along with it. Gemmell seems to realize that writing action scenes is his strength and he delivers intense, high quality action in spades.
Sadly it is in the pursuit of this relentless pace that the narrative actually loses momentum. Modern readers are likely to be jerked out of the story by the unbelievably rushed development of relationships. Early in the story two major characters become in love. This unwieldy phrase, “become in love,” is entirely appropriate. They do not fall in love in the pages of the novel; the reader is essentially informed that they are now in love, and their relationship suddenly bears the maturity of a twenty year marriage. Cupid struck hard in the form of the author.
Easing the tension
To be fair to Legend (and in an effort not to sound like a jerk), I should recognize that it predates many of the “rules” of modern fantasy. Gemmell adopts the third-person limited narrative familiar to any seasoned reader; but viewpoint switches are frequent and too often occur in the middle of scenes, deflating the tension substantially. There is no intrigue or mystery in the motivations of characters, not even with the antagonists, as the reader spends some time in everybody’s head at some point. This may be a legitimate narrative convention pioneered by Gemmell, which can be seen elsewhere, but it adds predictability to an already basic plot.
Let me be blunt. The twists in the conclusion betray the promise of the story. Some may read a satisfying conclusion to an otherwise exhausting story. I literally threw the book across the room in frustration. Of the twists, one is improbable and can only be explained by saying, “it’s magic.” The second just felt cheap.
Why should you read this book?
Legend undoubtedly earned its place in the canon, and thus deserves to be read by those interested in the development of the genre, but it is dated. It lacks the sophistication that experienced readers of modern fantasy tend to demand. It has potential as an entry point for new readers who would be scared off by typical epic “doorstop” tomes. The story is enjoyable if generic, but I have never seen an ending kill a book like this.