Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of "Legend" by David Gemmell

In 1976, David Gemmell was undergoing testing for cancer, and in an effort to take his mind from the process, began putting on paper some of his ideas for a fantasy story crawling around in his head.  A friend later suggested he develop the idea in to a full novel, and Legend was born.  Depicting sacrifice and heroism in the face of overwhelming adversity like perhaps no epic fantasy author before, the novel introduced The Legend—Druss the Deathwalker—and his mighty battleaxe, Snaga. The plot devices may be Dungeons & Dragons derivative and the characterization immature, but the novel’s cult following indicates there may be something more to the story, 10 sequels, prequels, etc. published since.

Faceless hordes of enemies, albino sorcerer telepaths, a castle siege in a mountain pass, a fearless female warrior with fur boots, bow, and breastplate, a young man searching for his destiny, and enough knights, bloodshed, and battle scenes to compete with any fantasy novel, such are the clichés redolent throughout Legend.  What makes the story readable, however, is the descriptive setting and the sense of suspense Gemmell builds as each unpredictable event in the storyline unfolds. 
The story of Dros Delnoch’s fight to defend its six castle walls from the warlord Ulric and his host of fearless 500,000, no one knows whether the man, The Legend, can save the day as slowly one wall after another topples to the ground.

One of the first “gritty” sword and sorcery fantasies on the market, Gemmell undoubtedly played an important hand in paving the way for writers like Jordan, Abercrombie, Ruckley, Bakker, Kearney, Martin, etc.  Heads fly, heroes die, and good guys don’t always win.  But what Gemmel has in realism in his debut novel, he lacks in maturity.  The simplistic Dungeons & Dragons style he uses doesn’t have bite, and tends to push the story more toward Dragonlance territory than the concrete subtleties we see now in the genre.  The love story, for example, is dealt with in the most eye-rolling of fashions, as is the interaction of The Thirty, a group of telepathic warrior-priests.

In the end, Legend is epic sword and sorcery that lacks the story arc typical of the romantic side of the genre.  Bittersweet in feel, Gemmell showed guts to defy the Tolkien-esque mold of fantasy to that time and produced a storyline where the characters’ fates are anything but predictable—heroism, honor, sacrifice, the typical motifs of myth, still the major themes.  The setting well developed and pacing solid, Gemmell nevertheless fails to imbue his characters with anything resembling soul and body, the clichés at times overwhelming.  Dialogue is not terrible, but generally serves the plot, causing what little emotion he attempts to interject into the scenes to fall short.  Firmly in Dungeons & Dragons territory, readers who enjoy their sword and sorcery a little dark but squarely within the limits of the sub-genre will enjoy Legend.


  1. David Gemmell improved as he wrote. Have you read his very fine The Morningstar - a novel that is also an analysis of the nature of the hero - and Lord of the Silver Bow, his reimagining of the Trojan war?

    1. I've only read a few Gemmell novels, but not the ones you mention.