Underground Reading: Legend by David Gemmell
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
I have a theory... (that's your cue to skip the next few paragraphs) it involves the mid-80's and the fantasy scene. I'm not sure exactly what was in the water, but there's a two-ish year period between late 1983 and early 1985 that generated some of the most amazing sf/f. The sorts of books that broke new ground, proved immensely important and still dominate shelves.
(I'm also aware that fifteen minutes of research could probably prove the same point with any three year period. But indulge me, will you?)
The Colour of Magic, The Mists of Avalon, Ender's Game, The Name of the Rose, Neuromancer, The Dragon Waiting, The Anubis Gates, The Armageddon Rag, The Digging Leviathan, The Tomb, Hawksmoor, The Wasp Factory, The Damnation Game (& "The Last Illusion"), The Belgariad, The Pliocene Epic, Fionavar Tapestry, Mordant's Need, The Dragonlance Chronicles, etc. etc. etc.
The total is pretty impressive. And I suspect, the internet being what it is, you could probably add a few more. From alternate history to urban fantasy, high fantasy to low fantasy, cyberpunk to steampunk, cross-over-literary-slipstream or flat-out-commercial - whatever your subgenre poison of choice, its genetic line runs right through this slice of time. Or possibly even begins with it.
David Gemmell's Legend (1984) belongs in the ranks of these immortals. When all is accounted for - when the great Horn of Asimov sounds and all dogs go to heaven - Legend will step up and take, if not its throne, at least a comfy footstool.
There. Now that I've acknowledged its importance, let's get to the fun part, shall we?
The thing is, just because a book is important doesn't mean it has to be any good. We all figured that out when suffering through Ralph Waldo Emerson in high school or, perhaps more recently, when doing a frantic re-read of A Game of Thrones. Legend is vastly significant for a lot of very legitimate reasons. But it also really sucks.
With his debut novel, Gemmell boldly bent a lot of the rules. No stableboys in sight - his hero was Druss, an arthritic old man. No coming of age story - with the exception of some minor characters, people, in the best Popeyed fashion, are what dey are. And, his most critical innovation was a wonderfully perverse notion of the "quest" - in Legend, everyone is out to get killed (and most succeed). Unlike the distant battles of Tolkien (Kili & Fili die in battle - did you remember?), Gemmell sets everything extremely, disconcertingly close to the action - when people die, you know it. That's both the characters' goal and the author's - to make memorable deaths rather than heroic lives.
Who are these groundbreaking, suicidal heroes? Rek is a wandering ex-soldier. He's still young, he shags a lot, and he's supposedly a bit of a coward (although we later learn that he's more afraid of himself, and what damage he does when he goes "baresark"). Serbitar is an albino warrior-priest with mysterious, plot-bending mystical powers. And, of course, Druss the Legend - grumpy old man, dead set on getting those pesky invaders off his goddam' lawn.
As is fitting for a novel about the Manly pursuit of warfare, there are only two women. Virae is a tomboyish, Amazonian type. She's tall and a bit gangly, but she carries her very own rapier (repeatedly referred to as "that weapon that really isn't very useful") and wears sparkly armor. After Rek saves her life at the start of the book, she lets him shag her (which fulfills her and makes her "beautiful and desirable") and then marry her (which makes him into an Earl and her into a doormat). She then disappears for a few hundred pages, only to resurface and get herself killed.
There's also Caessa, who springs fully-formed from the head of late-night Cinemax sex thrillers. Her parents were killed when she was young, so she's gotten revenge by turning into a batshit crazy serial killer. Any man that sleeps with her (and she's defined by her foxiness), she kills the next morning (method unknown, presumably with an icepick). But, now, in Legend, she meets real Men. Sure, they'd shag her if they wanted - and what man doesn't want to shag [women]? But sometimes Men just aren't in the mood - dammit. Caessa is especially impressed by Druss. Once she establishes he isn't gay, she becomes weirdly fixated with him - massages, tuck-ins, bedtime stories, the works. His Manly aura is such that it has even conquered her poisonous feminine need to devour her mates.
The villains of the piece are a horde of umpteen billion savages from the land of Mongolasiastan. They've been fighting amongst themselves for a thousand or so years, but got their act together in order to mount a pretty impressive attack on the heroland of Drenai. The Drenai empire has grown old ungracefully - it is flabby, slightly senile and prone to pissing itself. So when its weak and un-Manly peace talks with Mongolasia fail, the Drenai are caught with their elastic-banded-pants down. Only one small fortress stands between the ravening hordes of stranger-dangers and the soft underbelly of wholesome Drenai farmland.
With disaster looming, Druss is summoned from his wilderness cabin (where he punched bears and had shouting matches with Death for fun). Fully a quarter of the book is merely his Manly approach to Fort Doomed - wrestling, shooting and axe-cleaving his way through the countryside. When he does show up, he brings a tide of engorged Manliness in tow.
Outnumbered umpteen billion savages to a mere ten thousand fightin' blue-eyed whiteys, the Drenai shouldn't stand a chance... BUT, Men enjoy being doomed. Without the impending death by rending-apart-and-being-tortured, Men would otherwise never realize how Manly they really are. There's the occasional lackluster moaning about the farming life, but that's then buried behind six pages of drinking rough red wine and hurling people off battlements in the Manly joy of battle.
The rest of the book is, of course, battle battle battle. And not even - dare I say it - good battle. Serbitar (he's the pale one) has a weird sort of precognitive ability which allows him to circumvent the need for strategy by telepathically nicking the enemy battle plans. This trick also works for assassination attempts, well-poisonings, night raids and anything else that might break up the monotony of chucking invaders off of walls.
The plot is repeatedly chucked off the wall as well. Fort Doomed is saved over and over and over again by the infusion of [something] from [someone or someplace you never could've guessed]. It turns out that Serbitar isn't just psychic, he's also royalty! So his two-hundred strong bodyguard comes rolling in to save the day! Rek impresses the Middle Eastern analogue culture to the point where they come swooping in to save the day too! And, little did he know, by shagging Virae, Rek didn't just become Earl, he also fulfilled a prophecy and earned himself a set of magic armor! Start of chapter - doomed; close of chapter - saved. Rinse, repeat.
The formula also works for the bad news (if there is any truly "bad" news in book where the characters are actively seeking death). When Druss finally dies (for the first time), he's killed by a Big Scary Famous Bad - so Big, Scary and Famous that he was introduced on the same page. "This was a man that Druss would be hard put not to recognise: Nogusha the Swordsman". Good thing he handed out business cards, because the reader had no clue he was coming.
Fortunately, post-Nogusha, Druss still has a few more deaths in him. The final victory over the combined forces of Mongolasiastan comes when Druss (now dead twice over) mysteriously re-appears alongside all the other fallen heroes as Manly spirits. Naturally, this occurs in the bad guys' moment of triumph. The reverse of fortune is simply too much for the cowardly foe. The three hundred thousand remaining Mongolasiastani soldiers pack up their three hundred thousand remaining wheelie bags, wave to the six living Drenai defenders and roll peacefully back home. Explanations are for girls, get out of our treehouse.
Perhaps that's the real problem with Legend: it doesn't go far enough.
Focusing on a battle is unusual, interesting and pretty fun, but it isn't a substitute for plot. Setting a tone of impending doom makes for an intriguing atmosphere, but it still doesn't preclude the need for character growth. And creating a gritty, character-focused setting is meaningless when the plot is advanced - and the day is ultimately saved - by spurious magical fluffery.
Legend talks a big game, but doesn't actually deliver on its promise. It does, however, foreshadow bigger and better books in the realm of gritty, military, low-fantasy fiction.
*All book covers from the spectacular cover gallery at Legend Readers.