Favourite Fantasy Books Part 4: Legend by David Gemmell
This is a series of posts about fantasy novels that I love, or loved, and that really got me into fantasy. Some of them have not really stood the test of time, some I grew out of, and others are still great. But all of them fed into how I came to love fantasy and how I perceive the genre.
Published in 1984, Legend by David Gemmell is one of those books that just captured my imagination as a young fantasy reader. On paper it doesn’t seem like much; A youngish flawed hero seeking redemption, a grizzled veteran warrior™ drafted back in to save the day, a slightly improbable romance with a warrior maiden, a colony of mystical warrior monks, and an invading horde of barbarians™. It even has the pseudo-medieval European setting, strange magical powers that don’t seem to adhere to any kind of rationalised system and a strange sort of theocratic, religious warrior cult. Even the writing is more journalistic and pared down than one usually expects in fantasy. So all in all it doesn’t really sound that impressive. And yet… and yet… it blew my tiny little read-a-holic mind back then and made me become a devoted follower of Gemmell as he began to churn out novel after novel in the Drenai universe.
So what was the appeal? Firstly, I read it before I had come across Glen Cook’s Black Company series, so Legend set the tone and style for a new kind of fantasy for me. Legend is told in a matter of fact, blunt style. Sure there are purple flourishes of fantasy adventure language creeping in, and Gemmell wasn’t afraid to re-use a description or ten when he liked it, but it was a compelling, easy to understand read. Journalistic prose would be one way to describe it. It was also both heroic as well as being gritty. In short, it was my first foray into military fantasy. This was no quest to beat a Dark Lord™ by an itinerant meddler like Gandalf, or the rise of a prophesied farm boy who would grow into amazing magical power for… ummm… reasons. In fact the wizardly types in this were more like the psychic frauds you saw on TV bending spoons and conning grieving families out of cash by cold reading them and putting them in touch with the spirits of their dearly departed. The warriors in this were soldiers, not dashing heroes. But for me, the simplicity of the story, the clearly understood sides, and the lack of complexity in the language, all lent itself to making Legend a page-turning read. One last thing, and this was a biggie, the deaths. Gemmell does not shy away from character deaths. Any of you who think that characters getting killed in GoT is tough, you need to read Legend, because Gemmell makes you feel those deaths. You never get numb.
I have to admit that I also loved the characters. Regnak, or Rek, was a coward who had been in the army, saved the day at one battle (mainly through luck) but was subsequently crippled by nightmares, fear, and a host of other symptoms of PTSD. Of course in this context he is evenualy described as a baresark, or beserker, who loses control during battle and becomes a psychotic killing machine, and he is afraid of becoming that permanently. Sure he was a bit of a braggart and a ladies’ man during the day, but we very quickly get a look inside his insecurities and almost immediately feel for him and understand him. Because of the point of view, we understand his fears basically because we understand not wanting to throw ourselves heedlessly into danger and the desire not to become a monster, but Rek’s journey is one in which he confronts his fears and grows beyond them. He accepts himself and learns to be a better version of himself. Something that is both admirable and relatable. Plus, we know he is a decent man underneath the emotional and psychological scars he carries and it makes you root for him knowing that he can be a hero if only he would seize the chance and face his fears. Gemmell takes us step by step along this path with Rek as he gains the courage to do what he knows is right. He grows into a true hero in front of our eyes.
Druss. What can I say about Druss? He really is the main protagonist of the novel. While Rek might seem to be the central character, the story is all about Druss needing to find a good death, a fitting end to his life, and he isn’t willing to go down easy. If you want to see a brilliant example of the grizzled veteran archetype/stereotype, then look no further than Druss. A man in his sixties, Druss is a mountain man, a man’s man, a hardy, no-nonsense, killing machine. He has a bad temper, arthritis, and a big axe that he can still swing with murderous skill. From his white beard and glacial blue eyes, everything about Druss screams steely, hard, iron-willed, and coldly pragmatic. If someone is going to whip the soldiers of the castle into shape, then he is the mean-spirited taskmaster they need. But under all his bluster is his belief that you have to take a stand for what is right. You have to protect those that cannot protect themselves. That he might be one, retired soldier, but when he is needed he will heed the call. But what is truly great about Druss and makes him rise above other gruff veterans (for instance Flint from Dragonlance, Bruenor from Forgotten Realms… actually a lot of Dwarves… and any other grizzled veteran man-at-arms types that populate genre fantasy) is that he is surprisingly well constructed as a character. He is gruff and hard because the world, his experiences, and life in general have taught him that you need to be tough to survive. This is not a façade that he wears. He lives the life of a hard and hardened man, and he expects that of those around him. The lure of duty, honour and what is right might tug at him, but the other, darker, desire is the lure of battle, violence, and the excitement and adrenaline that goes with that. He craves battle because it makes him feel alive. Gemmell doesn’t shy away from this aspect of Druss’ character and doesn’t try to make Druss out to be a paragon of virtue. Druss is a badass and a violent maniac at times (one of the first things he does is kill a guy in a fit of pique because he basically insulted him), but that doesn’t make him all bad… especially if he is on your side. Plus his storyline here is actually pretty damn compelling and I will talk about that in a little bit.
Then there is Serbitar, and the rest of the Thirty. A hero albino character, and a bunch of mystic monks who can use telepathy, astral project, and are brilliant tacticians and warriors to boot. I have to give some praise for Gemmell using an albino character as something other than a villain. It has become all too common for albinos to be easy villain stereotypes, and it was nice to see a heroic character for once. Plus the Thirty themselves were a rag-tag group of rebel priests who defied the main religion in order to train as warrior monks instead of being true pacificists. So they are pretty damn bad-ass in and of themselves, even minus their magical abilities. They are like the Jedi if Star Wars had been directed by Zack Snyder, so think 300 but in silver armour and a bit more intelligent, intelligible, and with some magical powers thrown into the mix. Plus, they are essentially a death cult, so that is pretty damn dark right there. Come to think of it, this would be a great movie script for Zack Snyder.
The bad guys, the Nadir, are the multitudinous horde of Mongol-esque barbarians straight out of the pulp era of sword and sorcery. Did I mention that subtlety wasn’t exactly this book’s forte? They are led by the warlord Ulric the Uniter (<cough> Genghis <cough>) and he is accompanied by a scheming, noxious shaman, as well as, of course, the aforementioned endless horde of invading barbarians. There are also the slightly Arabic warrior priesthood/cult that Rek runs into that also raise some red flags in terms of Orientalised, racist stereotypes. But temporarily ignoring the racist, stereotypical portrayal of a yellow peril descending into the corrupt and decadent pseudo-European nation of the Drenai, and side-stepping the lack of nuance in the portrayal of a vaguely Arabic nation of warrior zealots, Gemmell actually does have some redeeming merits to these groups. Both the Nadir and the Sathuli are at core warrior cultures that possess honour and a strong sense of justice at their core. Their rules and interpretations of what is just might not necessarily match our particular take on the world, but they have an integrity and nobility to them. OK, ok, so the noble savage thing is also one of the stereotypes that Gemmell deploys fairly freely, I am not blind to that. But back then I was really taken by this whole story. A story fixated on men being men, doing manly things, and manly manliness…
I should also mention that Gemmell doesn’t really write good female characters here, and those he includes are more for the benefit of the male characters. So we have Virae, the warrior maiden who gets rescued by Rek, lets him sleep with her, they get married and lo and behold it turns out that because she was the daughter of an Earl, Rek is now a noble. As with most damsels, she doesn’t meet a good end once the hero has gotten what the story needs him to have, think of the endless line of women that James Bond gets through and how many of them end up with satisfying careers and a fulfilling home-life after they have bumped into him. On the other hand we have the temptress Caessa, a woman bandit whose parents were murdered and who has been raped and abused so many times that she actively seduces men so that she can kill them after sex. She becomes Druss’ masseuse and develops a sort of strange Elektra complex for him and their relationship was just a bit strange, to put it mildly. Far easier to say that Gemmell is much more at home when describing the manly men, doing manly things, and understanding the need to meet a good end.
Even with those elements, Legend is a fairly feel-good heroic fantasy. Good versus evil in clearly delineated lines. You know who the good guys are, you know who the bad guys are, and it is fairly straightforward. Don’t misunderstand me, you soon get a sense that not every good guy (including Druss and Rek) are your classically good heroes. Almost all the characters in the story have some sort of flaw and more than a little darkness to their soul. Plus they are the under-dogs here. One fortress, undermanned, under the command of a rag-tag group of mercenaries, former heroes and untired commanders, things look bleak. Yet we know that somehow the perennially understaffed forces of good will win out. Through some series of improbable events they will save the day. Ultimately, of course, the good guys win. This kind of uplifting and optimistic story might not be the current trend in fantasy, but it is still surprisingly effective and powerful, especially because Gemmell married it with some fairly brutal violence. Not only that, he makes sure that the victory comes at a pretty damn horrific cost. As I mentioned above, death in this book hits you right in the guts and Gemmell doesn’t blink or glance away. You are really confronted with the brutality of war, the causalities it leaves behind and the human cost of battle. These deaths matter, these lives matter, and their deaths cause real loss and pain.
This leads me on to the thing about Legend that makes it rise above many of the other military fantasies that also depict heroic battle, manly men, and good warriors meeting fitting ends. Gemmell wrote this just after being diagnosed with cancer (there is a lot more to this story but this is the short version). Given that angle, the whole story gains a new metaphorical meaning and becomes a giant allegory for the author’s story about learning about and dealing with a diagnosis like that. The Nadir are the foreign cells invading the body in droves. Seeking to destroy it from the inside. Rek’s fear of becoming monstrous perhaps being linked to the images of late stage cancer treatment and those side-effects. Druss’ fear of infirmity, dying and the need to meet a good end. The driving force of so many of the characters to do something meaningful with their lives before they die. Even the walls of the keep being named; Exultation, Despair, Renewed Hope, Desperation, Serenity and Death, start to take on new meanings when we think of them as stages of dealing with grief and loss. Everything about this book is about Gemmell dealing with his cancer diagnosis and working through it. It is this aspect that truly makes Legend stand out now in my memory.
Listen, Legend will never be the greatest fiction ever read, and sure it has its flaws, but there is a lot here in a book that essentially deals with one single battle. So read it or don’t, but when I hear people go on about how George RR Martin kills characters, I remember that Gemmell made me feel their loss, not just kill them. When people talk about grimdark and violence in fantasy, I can point to Gemmell as an example of grim, dark, violent fantasy, where it all serves a purpose and is ultimately an up-lifting story of heroism, valour and sacrifice. When people talk about clichés and stereotypes, I can point to a book in the 1980s that embraced that formula and turned it on its head to create something that stood out from the crowd.