Book One of the Drenai Saga
by David Gemmell
Fantasy | 337 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2012
There can be few who venture the wilds of fantasyland who have never crossed paths with David Gemmell, whether through his own masterful creations or the countless authors he’s influenced over the years. Despite this father of heroic fantasy having an extensive catalogue to his name, and the shameful fact that he has been woefully absent from my bookshelf of late, his legacy inevitably conjures up one series time and time again: The Drenai Saga.
And every series must start somewhere. Legend, the first book of The Drenai Saga, is a heart-thumping, axe-wielding, battle-crying spectacular of military might; a fantasy masterpiece which couldn’t fail to live up to its name. Legend is a seamless combination of wholesome traditional fantasy blended with the grit and wit of modern grimdark; a novel which, despite some minor teething issues, captivates and thrills to the very end and always leaves you wanting more.
His name is Druss.
The stories of his life are told everywhere. But the grizzled veteran has spurned a life of fame and fortune and retreated to the solitude of his mountain lair.
His home is Dros Delnoch.
And it is the only route through the mountains for the army laying waste the country around them. Once the stronghold of the Drenai, the fortress of Dros Delnoch will now be their last battleground. And Druss will be its last hope.
The Nadir tribes, now united under the formidable Ulric Wolfshead, are gathering in the north, their eye fixed on the lands of the Drenai. But the Drenai, once a great force who fought daring battles and brought low great empires, are now a shadow of their former selves. Unable to defend their lands against the northern horde which threatens to descend, the Drenai must make a stand. Holding Dros Delnoch might just buy them enough time to gather their forces; holding Dros Delnoch might just be the key to their survival.
But those who remain are weak. The Earl is dying, his leaders have little experience at war, and their numbers are but few. With such little chance of success, the Thirty can only see death in the mists. But rumour has it that Druss the Legend, a living hero of countless battles of old, can still wield a blade. With the odds in favour of the northmen, can the Legend hold the walls of Dros Delnoch against the greatest force ever gathered? Can one man turn the tide of battle?
Gemmell has carved a world out of action; his stage is the battlefield and his players the soldiers who wage bloody war to live just one more day. With the barest hints of the world at large, the only place that matters in Legend is the here and now. Where most fantasy plots benefit from a layering of the inhabited world throughout, this skilful lack of diversion creates an addictive concentration of knowledge, characters and plot on a relatively small playing – or battle – field, narrowing the focus and tightening the plot around the central theme.
With ample descriptions of the fortifications of the Dros, a place which lends hope and despair in equal measure to those who stand vigil or fight upon them, Gemmell has built a world which he fully intends to pull down stone by stone and man by man. For this master world builder, the true beauty in the descriptions are lent more to the world’s destruction than its creation, and it is in these sections of the novel, where people and places are remorselessly snuffed out, that the narrative truly comes to life.
With a bloodthirsty and barbarous enemy who delights in the wholesale destruction of those beyond their borders, the Drenai are given a foe which will stop at nothing to bring their lands under their sphere. Through their leader Ulric, and the snapshots of the lives of his loyal tribesmen, the Nadir are given a complexity which stops them short of becoming a faceless and two dimensional enemy, and succeeds in making them an integral part of the plot.
Legend isn’t just about the battalions and the hordes however, it is about the individuals who will face unprecedented odds and through bravery, hard work and battle are forged into new people. And this surfeit of characters certainly throws some interesting personalities into the mix; The Thirty, warrior priests who will fight to all ends; Bowman and Caessa, noble but dangerous outlaws; Orrin, whose growth over the course of the novel shows a deep strength rooted in this people; and Rek and Verai, two lovers whose converging storyline becomes the embodiment of hope and, that at the end of it all, there was something worth fighting for.
Legend is defined by this plethora of weary soldiers, battle-hardened warriors and powerful mystics which inhabit its pages. As farmers, leaders, noblemen and outlaws come together to fight for their ultimate survival, the comradery which grows between them adds an intriguing dimension to the plot. Whilst motivations are not always made clear, and character developments and relationships can sometimes appear rushed, Gemmell manages to tease out the hope, bravery and despair which rules the minds of the populace throughout the seige, a skill which more than makes up for this lack of realism and adds much appreciated depth to the novel.
But whilst this novel certainly describes a sweeping assortment of characters, Legend is and can only be about one man – Druss the Legend; a character who couldn’t fail to live up to all expectations. His power as an inspiration, his brilliance in battle, and his status as a true hero of the ages are all undeniable. But after all this he’s just a man – and an old, worn out one at that. His entanglement with death, which has become a long drawn out game of cat and mouse, lends itself to his fearless and furious prowess in battle and, if anything, it is those sections of the novel where Druss takes centre stage which truly made this an unputdownable read.
Legend is a novel which is held together by a solid, intense and exciting core. Whilst at its outset I would have preferred greater development of character motivations, and at its conclusion I would have preferred a more open ending, the middle of the novel was exceptional in its structure, storytelling and pace. The worldbuilding is suited to the narrative, the characterisation is varied and interesting, and the battle is sublime. Skilfully written and expertly plotted, this is a tale which is sure to stand the test of time to delight and thrill generations to come, and leaves you in no doubt of David Gemmell’s place in the fantasy hall of fame.
Legend is more than deserved of its title as a fantasy classic. A powerful and intense tale, this is a novel which boasts one of the most glorious heroic centres possible. A truly absorbing read from start to finish, there is little doubt as to why it serves as inspiration for so many authors today. For those who have yet to discover Gemmell, there is no time like the present – you will not regret it.