Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review: Legend

Before you start reading this review, take a moment to bask in the glory of the amazing cover art for this book.  This is a near perfect cover.  The cover promises a gray-haired mulleted dude, filled with rage, smiting his enemies with a fuckin' mighty battle axe...and boy, oh boy does this book ever deliver.  

The kick-ass old dude on the cover is none other than Druss, a living legend to the Drenai people.  A veteran of uncountable battles, Druss has earned the right to retire to his mountain lair, drink wine and reminisce about his past glories.  However as Druss is playing out a stalemate with his old enemy Death, a massive barbarian horde is gearing up to march into the Drenai lands and start conquering, raping, and pillaging everything in sight.  The only thing that stands between the barbarian Nadir hordes and the Drenai people is a mighty mountain fortress by the name of Dros Delnoch.

The Dros was once the mightiest of all fortresses, but it has been neglected of late, and is currently under-garrisoned, run by an ineffectual general, and a strategic nightmare due to the large civilian population that lives behind its mighty walls.  At the pleas of an aging Earl,  Druss' last remaining friend, the crusty old legend decides to dust off his battle gear, head to the Dros, and whip the soldiers there into shape before the barbarian horde attacks the walls.  The battle might be a lost cause, but it least it gives Druss a chance to die with Snaga, his mighty axe, gripped firmly in his hands. 

Legend isn't just a story about Druss the mighty, mulleted hero.  In fact, before Druss is even introduced, we first meet Rek, a skilled swordsman, who hears of the impending invasion, and decides to flee in the opposite direction.   Rek is a man who knows discretion is often the better part of valor, and does all he can to avoid confrontation whenever possible.  Too bad his escape route led straight through bandit territory.  Before you know it, Rek is rescuing an attractive warrior-lady from a bandit ambush, and soon after that, the two are in love.  The love story between Rek and Virae isn't the best developed, or the most convincing, but what I did appreciate was how the love of a good woman made Rek a better man.  Through Virae, an accomplished warrior and daughter to the Earl of Dros Delnoch, Rek gains a degree of courage, and together, he and Virae acquire a mighty ally to the Drenai cause, The Thirty, a sect of highly skilled warrior-priests.  Together with the priests, Rek and Virae head for Dros Delnoch to help stem the tide of the Barbarian horde.

Written back in the 80's, Legend has a bit of a dated feel to it, especially given that "small force defends against a massive unstoppable army" is a fairly common theme in fantasy.  That concept might feel a bit dated, but Legend is quite a bit better than the competition.  I may have joked about Druss early on in the review, but Gemmell does a great job presenting an aged hero who's best days are long behind him.  Though his legend is mighty, Druss might just be the most regular and easy to relate to character in the book.  The guy might have once single handedly taken on armies, but now he's an old duffer with a bad knee, a bad back, a sore shoulder, and you better believe he's tired as hell after a day of drilling.  Sure, Druss still brings a lot to the table in terms of physical prowess and might, but you don't get to be his age just by being good with an axe.  You gotta be the best, and that means being smart too, and Druss is also pretty cagey.  Druss doesn't just teach the Drenai soldiers how to fight, but he also revamps the defenses, handles battle logistics, and most importantly, raises morale.  Druss isn't the only well developed character, Gemmell develops each of his characters well, and by the end of the book I felt I had walked in the shoes of nobles, common soldiers, warrior priests, and even barbarian kings.

There aren't a ton of fantasy elements at work in Legend.  Druss' world is one with little magic, but what magic there is does play a significant role in the book.  The Thirty possess some arcane skills as does a shaman in the Nadir horde.  These skills play out in some degree on the battle field but you wont get mighty magical conflagrations like in Erikson's Malazan books.  Legend is more about the grit and the grime of battle, the blood and the wear and tear, both physical and psychological. 

Ultimately, this is a book about fate, and two men finding their destiny.  Two things that are hard to write about and not have them come across as cheesy, but Gemmell succeeds.  Legend manages to shrug off cliche a be a great novel packed to the brim with memorable characters, an exciting story, and great writing.  This is definitely a book that deserves to be called a classic of the genre.  There are many copy cats and look alikes out there, but there is only one Legend.  This was a great read for me, I loved the characters, especially Druss, and Gemmell's writing style jived well with my tastes.  Definitely worth a read for die hard fans of the genre.

Grade: A

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