(quite a lot of spoilers really)
Greatness often lies in contradiction.
Take David Gemmell himself. For a man who spent a lot of his life writing, he’s sure quick to have his characters talk about how words have their limitations.
Take Druss the Legend, the Deathwalker of these books, Gemmell’s first and toughest hero. He is a legend for his courage in battle yet in his own mind, if he had true courage he’d be living at home as a farmer with his wife, rather than chasing the thrill of battle.
The Legend of Deathwalker comes before Legend and after The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend. He is neither the age-defying veteran or the brash angry man on a mission in this book. Here he’s a man in the peak of his powers, uneasy with his love of violence, wiser than he was but still learning his limitations. He doesn’t enter this book expecting a war. He’s just there to take part in an Olympics-esque event. Still, one thing leads to another, and the next we know Druss and the saga poet Sieben are off into the world of the Nadir, seeking a pair of magical jewels.
The Nadir, for those who don’t know the Drenai novels well, are a non-Khanate Mongol grouping of tribes with a straight-forwards view of life and a lust for its simple pleasures such as violence, sex, and strong drink. Here, they are under the heel of the Gothir, dreaming fitfully of uniting to fight back and more often of tribal feuds and revenge. A few such as Talisman and Nosta Khan do more than dream though and it is into their plans that Druss will walk – along with a Gothir army, led by the embittered bigot Gargan Nadir-Bane.
I tell you this partly as a flavour of Gemmell’s thinking, and partly to show the number of ingredients going into what doesn’t feel like a very big book. Personally, I thought the number of ingredients detracted from the overall plot, making it a little disjointed and lacking in resolution in places. But they might have made the book better in other ways.
There are two main ways to read this book.
The first is as a book of heroic action. There is almost seemingly no end to the number of different types of fight scene Gemmell can put in here – fist fight, tavern brawl, ambush, spirit quest, duel, massed battle – and he writes them all. It’s what Gemmell does as well as anyone, mixing emotion with movement. I particularly like the element of venturing into the void and seeking out relics through as a way of offering a different element. Here, the extent to which the scenes are joined up doesn’t matter all that much.
The second is a series of scenes that examine the following statement from the book: “There was only one real enemy in all the world, he knew. Hatred.” We see how the Gothir’s and Nadir’s history of violence against each other spur them on to atrocity after atrocity. We see how the Nadir have become given into feuding tribes by their leaders’ love of power and ambition. We see how Druss’ violent past has drawn him to this point, far from his beloved wife and finding a war that means little to him.
There is something contradictory about those two stances. To me that contradiction elevates the book higher than it would have otherwise been (a satisfactory bit of Heroic Fantasy). It is not particularly fancy on either score, but arguably obtains more power for its simplicity. It is neither the first or last time Gemmell put that particular discussion before us, and definitely not the best. It doesn’t quite reach greatness. But when reading The Legend of Deathwalker, it’s more than good enough to add a little bit more to Gemmell’s own legend.