Friday, September 30, 2016

What Makes a Legend ~ A review of David Gemmell's "Legend"

I have to be upfront here. I'm not a proper reader of science fiction or fantasy. By that I mean I don't tend to read what is considered standard in either genre these days. Of course I read books in the genre, just not what everyone else does.

Let me explain.

Tolkien is one of the most influential and fascinating authors that I have ever read, and I consider his books close to as perfect as you can get. But I don't read epic fantasy. I don't have any interest in those that take the same setting and characters he did, change a few of the names, then proceed to tell the same story only not as good. If you regularly read the genre then you know what I'm talking about.

This doesn't mean stories based on European myths and legends can't be excellent in their own right. There is a lot to mine there. But that's not what fantasy became. For longer than I've been alive, Tolkien was shamelessly aped and plundered over and over again. That was, until George R. R. Martin came along and subverted everything. Did he change the genre? No, writers just began aping him instead.

If you wish to know why most of my fantasy reading comes from pulps, manga, comics, and stuff older than Tolkien then now you know.

Science Fiction isn't much different. I like Heinlein's juveniles, but I find a lot of what is considered "classic" science fiction (read: pretty much all who wrote under John W. Campbell) far too dry for my taste. I read stories that strike me when I look over their plot description, and authors like Arthur C. Clarke are ones that I have to struggle to pick their book up. The topics they choose to write about stir nothing inside me. Does this make me an uncultured rube? No, being a fan of Invasion USA does. This is just a taste thing.

The fact of the matter is that inventive concepts and ideas are nice, but they don't make a story. I have a problem reading a book if there is not a clear protagonist and antagonist, even if the latter is not an explicitly stated character but an environment or hurdle. Good against evil might be considered a shallow battle in the literature world, but it is always fascinating to me. This doesn't imply characters have to be pure black and white, just that there is objectivity beyond what the character believes is black or white. Even the most adamant relativist admits there are good and bad people in the world. Stories should be the same.

Anyway, that's a long way to say why I don't read a lot of the fantasy written over the last few decades. But then I was told of a writer who came along in the 1980s named David Gemmell. Now, I'd heard the name before, but I've heard the name of many authors over the years. Knowing the name and reading the works are two different things. I never took the time to learn what made this author different from the rest of the Tolkien-lite brigade out there. Well, now I have.

David Gemmell does not plunder Tolkien, I'm happy to say. What he does, is write a sword and sorcery tale that invokes the spirit of the pulps and classic fantasy, while being modern enough in storytelling to hook both types of fans. He writes of good and evil, heroes and villains, and what makes the line between them. He's like a bridge. In short, he is one of the best fantasy writers I've ever read.

The first Gemmell book I read was one called Morningstar. It was about an anti-hero rogue, and the bard that follows him, and how the former slowly changes into the rumored hero called "Morningstar", as they face tragedy and adversity together. It's one of Gemmell's few standalone novels, and it is an excellent place to start.

But I did have a few quibbles. The first person narration, especially at the beginning and end, was sticky. It was awkward to read compared to the rest, and felt forced in to make in uniform with the proper book. Owen, the main character, is more of a pacifist than anything, which works for the story, but it makes his scenes around women awkward and leads to some quite pathetic scenes for his character. The ending was also abrupt and awkward due to a sudden shift in POV at the end.

Despite that, it was an excellent read. As a whole, it was a great fantasy book that managed to hit all the right notes for me.

Legend, however, is another story. Released in 1985, it was Gemmell's first book, and though it shows that it is in some places, the story really is a marvel.

The story is centered on Dros Delnoch, a fortress on the edge of Drenai, which is about to erupt in the first skirmishes of a war. The dying Earl of Dros Delnoch sends out a call for warriors to defend their land from the invaders, and that is where the story begins. Our main characters slowly come together to form the first (and in many ways, last) line of defense against the invaders. Where it goes from there is stunning.

Death is all over Legend. David Gemmell had cancer when he first started writing this story, and it rolls off every scene and character. Death is even a minor character in the story. You can't escape it. Characters despair, hope, change, stay the same, and become heroes in the process. The villain (who even muses over the fact that he is one) is a prodigy who has reunited the scattered tribes of his land, and is now looking to rule everything. His army dwarfs the size of Drenai's trained men, and it has left many in the land dreading what is to come. There are many points when it is mentioned that Dros Delnoch is but a footnote in his rise to power over the world, and that is no idle threat. This war will not be much of a challenge to him.

The battle for Dros Delnoch is a hopeless one. The Drenai are outnumbered, with only their cleverly designed fortress, warriors, and leaders, to protect them from the hand of death squeezing their neck. Things quickly go from bad to worse, but still the heroes fight on. This leads to an ending that is as stunning as it is perfect. The nature of reality can be strange. If you are a fan of fantasy, and sick of the nihilism currently infecting it, this book is the cure.

Make no mistake: this is a fantasy book. There are warriors, there is sorcery, there is mysticism, there is encroaching evil, and there are exotic sights and sounds. David Gemmell makes the world of Drenai his own, and ends up telling a tale of heroes that should still be read today. The superversive sense of wonder and awe is here in full force.

In many ways, it's hard to imagine this from a fantasy book from the 1980s. That is the era where Tolkien pastiches were everywhere and hard to get around. But this is a whole other level from them.

Will I be reading more David Gemmell? Well, let me say this. I've been mostly centering my reading on pulps and old fantasy and science fiction recently, but David Gemmell remains near the top on my list. In my opinion, Legend is on par with anything on Appendix N, and those that came after, and I would vehemently disagree with anyone who says different.

I would highly recommend this book to any reader of fantasy or science fiction, especially of the older style. If you prefer the nihilism of modern fantasy, well, I can't see you finding much enjoyment out of this. There are far too many heroes and a downright insulting amount of hope.

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