Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review Legend by David Gemmell

Review of Legend, by David Gemmell, fantasy novel, 345 pages

Legend was hailed as a classic for over twenty years when I first picked it up. It had a reputation of being a bestseller, and ground breaking. Twenty years ago I was still into large worlds fantasy which chronicled the movments and motivations of imaginary nations, empires, and races, told through multiple characters and viewpoints. So a story about a single warrior helping to stave off a barbarian invasion seemed a bit cliché'd to me and I blush to say now, underambitious.
The barbarians are described vaguely, the controlling empire as well, the weapons and battle gear and armor are all pretty much standard issue and not what you would encounter in Tolkien where most weapons have a magical otherness about them. If not an otherness then at least a history.
Legend though had a huge selling point, and that was the trope of the barbarian invasion. And in the hands of a writer like Gemmel, he knew how to really make it work. Gemmell and tolkien had not been given the same types of gifts. Whereas Tolkien's characters speak a high anglo saxon and are given to poetic turns of phrases and proper oxford school English, Gemmells characters are more likely to tell a dirty joke and kick you in the balls instead of recite poetry.
When Gemmell's characters speak you hear something different. Something real. You hear the sound of men, and women, who have been in a position to risk their lives, and who have lived through war with its attendant dangers to life and limb.
As in a movie, if one character is going to hold a main frame story line together there has to be an intriguing aspect to him. Something to distinguish his story from the rest and to make the reader desire to hear his story out. To simply to find out what happens to him.
Well, Legend has several. Gemmell fleshes out his portrait by showing us men and women whose lives by accident or fate have converged in this frontier fort. A place in the middle of nowhere. A strange, out of the way place to die.
From the backstory of the book, and all books have a backstory, in fact perhaps one of the reviewer's tasks is to explicate the back story and context of the book and in so doing draw the reader's attention to it, gemmell was diagnosed with cancer when he sat down to write this. He said he used the novel as a way of trying to work out his confrontation that was so strange and sudden at the age of thirty six, when he sat down to write it. At first glance it would seem to indicate this book is appropriate for a hallmark hall of fame presentation.
The book in fact is gritty and tough and Gemmell has the skill to evoke the way real fighting men talk when confronted with the possiblity of death. His book juxtaposes the Hemingwayesque apprentice with those who have acquired the skill of living.
The title takes its name from the central character of the novel, a fighter of prowess and skill and abnormal strength who has begun his decline and who himself has not long to live. Though the disease the man suffers from, whether cancer or other is not mentioned. What is certain is he will die anyway and, rather than die in his bed he goes out to defend a fort against a ramapging barbarian invasion.
All sound cliché'd and overdone but in Gemmell's hands it becomes quite different. Though normally heroic fantasy suffers from too much heroic posturing in gemmell's story Druss has a healthy air of irony and understatement about his person. He not only does not act like a hero, he acts like what he is: a fighter, whose knowledge, at once both terrible and liberating is that he was made to be a taker of lives. He does not glory in the death, just in the abilities he has and he puts his axe to the service of those that require it.
Enter the subplots, a protagonist, Rek, who havingbeen charged with cowardice turns out to be a baresark, or berserker. We find through the course of the book that a berserk, far from being a valued commodity is really just the flip side of a coward. A baresark fights not with discipline and purpose but of a rage and fearlessness born from fear itself. He is not the ideal of a warrior, simply an aberration who although tolerated for its ability to wreak havoc on a battlefield is in truth not an ideal.
The ideal of course becomes Druss the legend. But Gemmell continually questions his hero's motivations. Druss argues he would never have chosen to be more than a simple farmer if his woman were not captured and he had to set off in pursuit of her captors. Although as readers we doubt that. Part of the realism, if I can use that term when applied to a fantasy text, is the way most of the characters never really come to a true understanding of why they are defending the fort against the barbarian invasion. For some of them it’s the ability, newly acquired in the face of death, to rise to new levels of not just physical prowess but emotional and mental maturity.
Of course Druss dies in the story and its understood by the more experienced characters that was his intention all along. His death, and struggle with death, there as a role model and example for all to see, was meant to be a means to emulate the rest of the Drenai defenders that though they may die, they will have granted their lives some meaning by the manner of their death andtheir reasons for staying to defend afortress that everyone knows will be overcome.

1 comment:

  1. I read Legend last year and loved it. The characters Gemmell writes are just amazing.

    Thanks for the review.