My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Way back in the that mythical age known as the 90’s, I was wandering around a Barnes and Noble in New Hampshire, where I found a paperback copy of this novel. Upon opening it, I discovered a different approach to fantasy, an older way that was increasingly rare in those days, and seems to be almost non-existent today. And the genre is much poorer for it.
David Gemmell is by my lights the only truly worthy heir of Robert E. Howard to come up in the last thirty years, as a writer of a brute-force, unashamedly masculine style of heroic fantasy that embraces its pulp origins and takes them to a whole new level. Indeed, the story of Gemmell’s life is almost as fantastickal as any tale he penned of Druss or Waylander. Growing up poor in a rough urban neighborhood, he learned through boxing how to stand up for himself. Expelled from school at sixteen for running a gambling syndicate (compare that to the kid at my school who thought he was a bad ass for smoking tea leaves in a corncob pipe…) he worked as a laborer and a bouncer before becoming a journalist, ultimately a writer. This philosophy, of always standing ones ground and never backing down in the face of overwhelming odds, is one of the overarching themes of his work. When he died in 2006, the fantasy genre lost a true giant.
The story is a fairly simple one. Druss is a legendary warrior, now in his twilight years yet still as dangerous as he was in his prime. Word comes to him of a barbarian horde attacking the fortress of Dros Drelnoch and Druss is called to fight He picked up his ax, knowing this is a battle he will not survive, that he and the fort’s defenders face overwhelming odds. Yet this, to him, is all the more reason to go, to stand ones ground, spitting in Death’s eye and daring him to do his worst. Along with his fellow defenders – common soldiers ordered to hold the ground at all costs, as well as an order of monks sworn to die in righteous combat – they will face their fears and hold their ground, and show that a good death can be the capstone of a life well-lived. Or at least that was my take on it at the time, when I read the book in the space of a single night.
Legend, like all of Gemmell’s work, is suffused with a grim stand-your-ground power, filled with the conviction that the more overwhelming odds, the more necessary it is for the hero to stand against them and die fighting. There’s no irony here, none of that post-modernist we’re-not-really-serious-about-this nonsense winking. The story wears its cliches honestly and without apology. Rated M for Manly, it may very well put hair on your chest…or at least inspire you to pick up the metaphorical battle ax and start swinging.