The Grim Irishman’s Review of Legend by David Gemmell
Publication Date: April 1984
Series: The Drenai Saga #1
Genre: Epic fantasy, Heroic fantasy
Rating: 4/5 stars
He is DRUSS the Legend. His skill in battle has earned him a fearsome reputation throughout the world and the stories of his life are told everywhere. But the grizzled veteran has spurned a life of fame and fortune and has retreated to the solitude of his mountain lair to await his old enemy, Death.
Meanwhile, barbarian hordes of the Nadir are on the march, conquering all before them. All that stands before them and victory is the legendary six-walled fortress of the Drenai empire, Dros Delnoch. If the fortress falls, so do the Drenai. Druss reluctantly agrees to come out of retirement. But can even Druss live up to his own legends?
Review of Legend
Recently, I felt in the mood for some old school classic heroic fantasy and decided to dive back into the Drenai Saga after what feels like a lifetime. I first read Legend when I was in my early teens and thought it was the best thing ever. I was immediately drawn in by the premise, and found myself fully immersed in the stories of Regnak the Wanderer, Serbitar the Speaker, and of course, Druss the Legend himself. The battle scenes were like nothing I had ever read before, and the sheer number of epic moments made it one hell of a page turner. I have since read hundreds of fantasy books, including many heroic fantasy ones, and found myself wondering, is Legend still as good as I thought?
“You are standing at a frozen moment in history. The world will be changed when this battle is over- either the Drenai will rise again, or a new empire will dawn.”
The premise of Legend is one of its biggest draws. An endless horde of enemies gather at the gates to deal the killing blow to an empire in its winter years. The only thing standing in their way is the once mighty fortress of Dross Delnoch and the warriors who defend its walls. The plot is simple and straight forward, which feels refreshing in a time where complex fantasy stories with multiple layers seems to be the norm. It is just nice for a bit of simplicity every now and then. Although I already knew what happens, I was still heavily invested in the characters and their desperate last stand against the hordes of the Nadir. Second time around, it is just as epic, fun, and full of emotion, especially towards the end. Unfortunately, not all plot threads worked for me, including its convenient final battle and abrupt ending, both of which left me feeling a little disappointed.
“Never mind about the saga-poets…We will compose our own song.”
One aspect that I really enjoyed was the sense of camaraderie that develops between characters, both big and small, throughout the novel. Gemmell knows how to make a reader care for these characters and their relationships. Whereas during my first read, it was the big relationships between Druss and Rek, Rek and Virae, and Serbitar and Vintar, that grabbed my attention, I found myself more drawn to those of the lesser characters this time round. The friendship that resonated with me the most was between Gilad and Bregan, two farmers-turned-soldiers who sign up to defend the Dross for different reasons. Neither are legends like Druss or warrior-priests like Serbitar and the Thirty, but both are heroes. Over the years I have come to appreciate when an author explores the lives of the little people in their stories. It adds another layer of immersion and Gemmell does a wonderful job of this in Legend.
“The tale of a giant whose eyes were death, and whose axe was terror.”
The true heart and soul of Legend is none other than the Deathwalker himself, Druss the Legend. He is the Drenai’s greatest hero, his past deeds known across the world and his name ushered with such respect and awe by both friend and foe alike that he seems almost invincible. By the time the story takes place, Druss is well past his prime, living a hermit’s life in the mountains. But rather than wait for death to take him in dotage, he decides to greet it with axe in hand on the battlements of Dross Delnoch. There is no more epic way to go out than for an impossible cause. Druss is known for his code but what I found most admirable about him is his no-nonsense approach to everything, and sheer resilience and determination even when the odds are hugely stacked against him. He is the David Goggins of the fantasy genre.
Legend also boasts a great villain in Ulric, the leader of the Nadir. Ulric is very much the fantasy Genghis Khan in how he has united the warring horse tribes of the Nadir, and carved an empire across the continent. Like Druss he also has a code, and commands each scene with such gravitas that it felt a little disappointing whenever the story switched to another point of view. Some of the best moments in the story are shared between Ulric and Druss. If Gemmell had opted to write an entire book about these two characters sitting around sharing war stories, I would have definitely read it.
“There are many futures but only one past.”
Originally published in 1984, it is no big shock to discover that some of the characterisation is a bit dated. This is most evident in the treatment of female characters, which there are only two, both of which are reduced to supporting roles to their male counterparts by the end of the story. The first is Caessa, an outlaw archer who is literally described as “the ultimate female” the first time we meet her. There is also this strange sexual tension between her and Druss which just feels completely out of place, and her story arc takes this unexpected tangent that had me scratching my head in confusion. The other and more central female character is Virae, a Drenai warrior in her own right and the heiress to Dross Delnoch. Initially, Virae’s story is great as she is set up to play a significant role in the plot. However, by book’s end that role has dwindled to Regnak’s love interest. There are many fantasy novels out there with great female characterisation. Sadly, Legend is not one of them.
Nonetheless, Legend is still a brilliant book and an excellent standalone novel that will sate the appetite of readers looking for something less demanding than what modern fantasy has to offer. My second read has only fortified my belief that David Gemmell is one of the best authors in the fantasy genre, and deserves, like Druss, all the veneration that is associated with his name.