Tolkien Gestures Book 14: Legend

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we defend a narrow pass in the mountains against the unending waves of Genre Cliche, to hold onto some more precious.


SometimesI  think I’m turning in a critic. There seems to be a point where you stop looking at a product – a book, a film, a TV show – in itself, and simply start breaking it down mentally and analysing it. Looking so much at the “what” that it’s doing, and the “how” of it’s storytelling, and just sort of missing what it is. I wonder if that’s why shows like The Wire do so well with critics, as they’re intricate and layered constructs, high examples of the art of storytelling, as well as simply telling a story.

So early on with Legend I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.

See, initially you are introduced to the feckless, rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold-sort-of character and he appears to be the hero and meets a girl and *bam* they’re in love, totally, forever, after about a page of bickering and I thought “gosh, that’s a bit quick”. it was like they’d short cut all the character development and I was braced for another 300 pages of the two of them traveloguing around the world looking for this Druss guy and fighting evil foes. Boy, was I wrong.

Legend does a few interesting things pretty quickly. Firstly, it establishes a pretty huge set of characters quickly and smoothly, and whilst they’re all pretty much thumbnail sketch characters they’re drawn from such a diverse assembly of backgrounds it serves to give a very broad spectrum view of the “main event”, which is the huge Siege battle that takes up the book’s second half. Its a trick you get a lot in military fiction (and in many ways this is far more a War Story than a Fantasy Story) and it allows the book to flash around the action pretty damn elegantly at times, and also allows the battles huge casualty rate to be reflected in the deaths of characters you know.

The other interesting thing it does is meditate on heroism. So far I’ve read a lot of heroes but they’re mainly in a fairly standard “heroic” mode. In a compare-and-contrast, The Black Company posits a world where there are no heroes yet Legend gives you one with no villains, and nearly every character with a name steps up (on either side) to prove themselves. Even Ulric, the leader of the pseudo-Mongolian attackers, is portrayed as a noble, if brutal, empire builder – a clash of civilisations, not of morality is at play throughout.

Heroism in Legend is of course embodied in Druss, a sort of “Conan, but old” hero from a bygone age come out of retirement to die in one last glorious stand, whatever he says in public. Druss’ reputation and reality are at odds throughout the book; his name is a weapon as much as his axe and just as skillfully deployed. But at the same time you have the aged, increasingly infirm and lonely old man who has just come here to die in the only way he knows how to. And whilst he’s the Legend, the most famous participant, its the supporting cast that in many ways are the greater, unsung heroes, who will never be remembered. Its no co-incidence, I’m sure, that the volunteer everyman farmer dies right next to him, almost unnoticed.

I guess i got pretty caught up in a fairly short book with little on it’s mind other than telling a big sweeping story in a world where nearly everyone trying to be the best they can be in trying circumstances. The world-building is fairly basic (and rightly so!) and kept to the background, the magic is more mythic and shamanic than blatant and showy (though it has its moments!) and it never outstays its welcome or missteps its pacing. It is, thankfully, a complete work and doesn’t need prequels or sequels (though depressingly i believe it has them!) its been really refreshing just to be able to fall into a book and read it for the pleasure of the journey.

Next up: A bit of a change from all these fantasy-medieval-Englands to fantasy-medieval-Italy, in Guy Gavriel Kays’ Tigana.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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One comment

  1. Dion /

    Brilliant book, I’m really glad you covered it in the column and chuffed you enjoyed it. Gemmell really had a way of taking stock heroics and turning them into something meaningful again. With a writing style simple enough to whisk you along they make for a quick and enjoyable read. His characters are often larger than life but he always grounds them in enough psychological truth to make them feel individual, to get you invested in them.
    Top notch fantasy fun with blood-pumping action and a heart as big as the ocean.

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