Monday, April 06, 2009

He is Legend

If you've been reading this blog for a while you're probably familiar with my story of how British author David Gemmell brought me back to reading heroic fantasy after a layoff of almost two decades. It was his book, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend which caught my attention one fateful day and set me back to reading books about guys with swords. It was the character of Druss that did it. As big and powerful as Conan with a hair trigger temper and a legacy of murderous rage left to him by his warrior grandfather, Druss still managed to be a human and sympathetic character. He was a killer by heredity but not by nature and his battle against his darker side is just as fascinating as his battles with men and monsters. Needless to say, being a large man with a short temper, I suppose I identify with Druss more than a little.
Anyway, after reading First Chronicles, I learned that Druss, at that time, had appeared in two other books by Gemmell. Legend of the Deathwalker and Legend. I snatched up Deathwalker but stayed away from Legend because having read up on Gemmell I knew that Legend was his first (and most famous) novel and that Druss dies at the end of it, (the other books are prequels) and frankly I have never much liked books or movies where the protagonist dies, no matter how heroically. So I read Gemmell's other books and series over the years but stayed clear of Legend, though I did pick up a used copy at some point.
This weekend I was in the mood to hang out with Druss again and decided it was time for a re-reading of Legend of the Deathwalker. However I had forgotten that I'd loaned the book to a friend and it hadn't come back. I scanned the shelves, looking for another Gemmell I might re-read and my gaze fell upon Legend. For some reason I decided it was time I finally read the story of Druss's last and greatest battle.
The basic plot is pretty simple. The Nadir tribes, who are sort of Gemmell's version of Mongol hordes, have managed to put aside their tribal differences and unite under a single leader, a master strategist called Ulric. Ulric has forged a mighty empire and is taking and army of 500,000 troops to conquer the land of Druss's people, the Drenai. The only thing standing between Ulric and his goal is the huge Drenai fortress Dros Delnoch. Unfortunately the fortress has become run down and is currently commanded by an unfit leader. The fortress would need to hold for at least three months to give the Drenai leaders time to put together a large enough army to stop the Nadir and no one believes that possible. The fortress is undermanned and morale is bad, to say the least.
An old friend of Druss's sends the once mighty hero of the Drenai a letter asking him to come of the fortress and inspire the troops. Druss is famous for winning another no-win battle decades earlier. The giant warrior, now in his 60s, has retired to the mountains after the death of his beloved wife Rowena. Old and tired, but still a mighty fighter, Druss decides that he would rather die in battle than waste away on the mountain so he sets out for one last adventure. His brain tells him that the Drenai, outnumbered five to one, can't hope to win, but his warrior's heart tells him that nothing is over until it's over. And ultimately that's probably what I admire most about Druss. He never backs down and he never gives up. The book is filled with a lot of other colorful and interesting characters and there are numerous subplots, but Druss remains the heart of the story.
I still wasn't too happy at the end, even though I knew what was coming, but I'm glad that I finally read Legend. Druss goes out in a manner befitting his stature as a hero. Sadly David Gemmell died far too young at age 57 in 2006, so there will be no more stories of Druss. The big warrior does appear in two of Gemmell's later books, White Wolf and the Swords of Night and Day, but those books have another hero as the central character. I did pick up another copy of Legend of the Deathwalker while I was at Barnes & Noble yesterday morning. I'll be reading that one soon so I can see Druss in his prime, before he was a Legend.

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