Fantasy has always been my first choice when it comes to reading. After all, once you’ve faced down Gollum’s riddles and joined the Fellowship on their quest to destroy the One Ring, there’s really no turning back. Yet it was David Gemmell’s ageing, grey-bearded axeman, climbing down from his mountain hovel to face one final battle, that made me fall in love with the genre and inspired me to take up the pen and carve out my own stories.
I was working in a call centre taking messages for pagers – those little gizmos they used for sending text messages before mobiles got good (I know, I’m deceptively old) – when I first read Legend. Fresh out of college, young and impressionable, struggling to find my place in the world, Gemmell’s heroic breed of fantasy was exactly what I needed. Check the blurb below:
Druss, Captain of the Axe: the stories of his life were told everywhere. Instead of the wealth and fame he could have claimed, he had chosen a mountain lair, high in the lonely country bordering on the clouds. There the grizzled old warrior kept company with snow leopards and awaited his old enemy death.
Mighty Dros Delnoch, protected by six outer walls, the only route by which an army could pass through the mountains. It was the stronghold of the Drenai empire. And now it was the last battleground, for all else had fallen before the Nadir hordes.
And hope rested on the skills of that one old man…
Legend tells the story of the siege of Dros Delnoch, the last fortress standing between the hordes of the Nadir and the lands of the Drenai.
When the story kicks off, the Drenai are a power in decline, their once proud history left behind, replaced by decadence and complacency, their military stripped of any real power. Sensing this weakness, Ulric, a charismatic young man who has achieved the impossible by uniting the Nadir tribes, believes the time has come for his own people to rise up and take their place in the sun.
As the Nadir advance, Dros Delnoch prepares for the coming attack. Though once considered the greatest fortress ever built, the Dros is short of both men and supplies, and the security of its six walls has been left compromised by the growth of the civilian population. With the largest force the world has ever seen bearing down on them, it seems all hope is lost for the Drenai.
Step forward the Legend. Realising the futility of his situation, the sickly commander of the Dros, Earl Delnar, sends a message to his old friend, Druss, known by many names, including Captain of the Axe, Deathwalker, and, simply, the Legend.
Druss is in his sixties by the time the call arrives, a hermit living alone on the side of a mountain, the love of his life dead and buried. This Drenai hero, a killing machine who has waged war for most of his life, has carved a name for himself across the continent, and Delnar believes his mere presence will help lift spirits at the fortress while providing invaluable experience to the defenders. Druss is reluctant at first, knowing his best days are behind him, but eventually he decides that he would rather look for death on the walls of Dros Delnoch than wait for him on the mountain top.
It is with Druss that the author excels here. Though deeply flawed – a man forged by violence, Druss has a fiery temper that often leads to unnecessary conflict – he is yet extremely likeable. It is his interactions with his fellow characters, big or small, that drives the reader on.
Gemmell once said, “Legend has all the flaws you expect in a first novel, but it has a heart that wouldn’t be bettered by improving its style. I am as proud of that book as I am of anything I’ve done in my life.”
Druss is that heart. He strides through the book like a force of nature, idolised by the Drenai, feared and respected by the Nadir. The hopes of his people rest on his giant shoulders, yet, beneath it all, he’s just an old man struggling to hold his body together while he does what he can.
The story is told from multiple POV characters, some of them major, some minor, but they all blend together nicely to give a good overview of the siege – from both sides of the conflict. The number of minor character centric scenes might be frowned upon stylistically, but I’ve always enjoyed them – especially in Gemmell’s work. It’s often refreshing to see main characters or major events from a completely different perspective, or to have information revealed that the central characters may not be aware of. There’s nothing quite like getting to know a lowly soldier shortly before one of our heroes cuts off his head!
This time around I listened to the Audiobook, as narrated by Sean Barrett. The performance does the book justice, with Sean Barrett’s gravelly voice giving just the right amount of steel to Gemmell’s words. Though the voices he uses are not the most varied, there is enough difference in them to tell characters apart. All in all, an enjoyable effort.
As Gemmell himself said, Legend isn’t the perfect novel, but when it comes with such a big heart, there’s a lot of room for forgiveness. I fell in love with David Gemmell’s work on the back of Druss the Legend, and without him I probably wouldn’t be writing my own novels. Some people will take that as a blessing, most others as a curse, but I certainly appreciate it.
This wasn’t the first time I visited Dros Delnoch, and it won’t be the last.