Wednesday, 14 January 2009

‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ – David Gemmell (Orbit)


David Gemmell’s ‘Legend’ concentrated on the effect that one man’s legendary reputation had on a castle under siege whilst showing us how his fight to reconcile that reputation with the onset of age. What it didn’t do though (at least, not much) was to give the reader an insight into the history of Druss the Legend himself. There are references to the Battle of Skeln Pass, and the fact that he tracked his kidnapped wife halfway across the world to rescue her, but these references aren’t explored in any depth. That’s fair enough as they wouldn’t have added much to the story itself and the approach Gemmell takes shows Druss in the light that’s intended. It doesn’t matter where he came from, what matters is that he’s a hero right now.
Still, it would be nice if those gaps in Druss’ history were filled in. Wouldn’t it? This is what ‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ sets out to do and does very well...

Long before the events of ‘Legend’ (long before Druss gained the reputation that would follow him in ‘Legend’ in fact) Druss was nothing more than a simple woodsman; his unusually violent temper held in check by Rowena, Druss’ wife whom he loves more than anything else.
When Rowena is kidnapped by slavers, Druss becomes a man hell bent on her safe return. Half the world lies between him and his wife (and the obstacles he must face are innumerable) but none of this concerns him. A legend will be born from this journey and Druss’ life will never be the same again.

To begin with, ‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ comes across like a video game due to the repetitive nature of its sub-plots. Druss must overcome an obstacle to get to his wife, Druss overcomes obstacle but his wife has been taken away again, Druss proceeds to the ‘next level’ and starts again. Sometimes it left me wondering if Gemmell felt he had to drag this one out, a bit, to layer Druss with enough heroic deeds to merit Druss’ reputation in ‘Legend’. Was this book a victim of Druss’ ‘larger than life’ persona, was Gemmell left feeling that he had to justify the reputation that he had given Druss? Ultimately I don’t think so but that was how it came across to me at times...

There is also the fact that, by going back in time to fill in the gaps of Druss’ story, Gemmell robs Druss’ exploits of their tension. If you’ve read ‘Legend’ then you will know how ‘The First Chronicles’ has to end (although I shouldn’t assume that everyone has read ‘Legend’, if you haven’t then read ‘First Chronicles’ beforehand).
Having said all that though, I was also left wondering if Gemmell deliberately wrote ‘First Chronicles’ when he did because the end result was that he was able to devote the whole book to it’s intended purpose, a character study of his greatest creation.
In ‘Legend’, Druss can come across as a polarised character that sees things in black and white with no hint of the grey in between. By taking the character back to the very beginning, ‘First Chronicles’ charts Druss’ development and shows the reader that not only are there good reasons why Druss ended up as he did but that is also a moral ambiguity to his early actions. Druss wants his wife back and is prepared to do anything to achieve this, the only reason he agrees to adhere to the ‘Warrior’s Code’ is so he can get the help that he knows he needs. Druss’ battle with the darker side of his personality is illustrated vividly in his battle with the evil that lurks within the axe he carries, even more so as it is the final obstacle that he must face before he can be with his wife again.

On top of all this, ‘First Chronicles’ sees Gemmell giving his readers a hefty dose of what he does best; namely epic warfare that is soaked in heroism from both sides. Another aspect to Druss’ character is that he is pretty much an unstoppable force of nature and Gemmell shows this off to good effect by pitting Druss against awesome odds and having him club them into submission. You may know how a scene will end but you’re more than happy to stick around for the ride and the rush that it brings! It’s also interesting to see Gemmell poke a little bit of fun at the conventions that go to make up a hero through perceptive observations from the bard Sieben. Sometimes it’s not just deeds which go to make up a hero, it’s how they’re recounted (and embellished) afterwards...
Druss is also a charismatic leader and this is displayed in the course of the climatic Battle of Skeln Pass. There may be echoes of the battle that inspired ‘The 300’ (and I can’t remember its name, help?) but Gemmell makes Skeln Pass all his own through use of characters that we have come to know and love over the course of the book.

‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ overcomes some early obstacles to become a gripping read that fills in the background of an iconic figure in fantasy literature. If heroic fantasy is your thing, and you haven’t already given this book a go, then you could do worse than give it a go.

Eight and a Half out of Ten.

5 comments:

DanielF said...

The 300 Spartans versus the Persian Immortals (yes that's how far the inspiration stuck) was the Battle of Thermopylae. There, however, the reputation of the king couldn't save the Spartans...

Good review, and very perceptive - you've picked up on things I didn't notice myself on reading the book, thanks!

ediFanoB said...

Oh Greame, The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend has been my first David Gemmell read last year and love it!!!

And THE DAVID GEMMELL LEGEN ARWARD was the reason why I read it.

The remaining Drenai series is on my birthday wishlist (ok, ok, my birthday is in July, so I have to wait a bit. But it is worth waiting!!

James said...

Good review Graeme. First Chronicles is not one of my favourite Gemmell novels, in fact I think it is one of the weaker Drenai books. Still, a 'weaker' Gemmell novel is still head-and-shoulders above most other fantasy out there.

James g said...

It's a very good book and i like how it carrys on with The White Wolf where Skilgannon meets up with him on his travels and The Swords Of Night And Day. Good review cheers.

James g said...

It's a very good book and i like how it carrys on with The White Wolf where Skilgannon meets up with him on his travels and The Swords Of Night And Day. Good review cheers.