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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Legend

Legend

by David Gemmell

Publisher: Del Rey (October 1, 1994)

ISBN-10: 0345379063

 

Druss, Captain of the Axe, is a Legend within the Drenai Empire. He has stood against armies, won thousands of battles, some more hopeless than others. He has journeyed the length and breadth of the world to rescue the one love of his life. The Nadir tribesmen call him Deathwalker, and believe him a spirit of death itself.

He’s also sixty years old, has arthritis and a bum knee.

Thus, more or less, begins Legend, David Gemmell’s seminal work of fantasy which, despite being a best-seller and well respected title for years, I had never given much serious thought. I once again blame cover art, which makes the book look like another one of hundreds of schlock fantasy novels with all the literary merit of a toilet paper roll. Despite appearances, however, it’s a fantastic book.

The story of Legend takes place around the fortress city of Dros Delnoch (which bears a striking resemblance to Minas Tirith, though I think that’s mostly coincidence), the last bastion between the hordes of the Nadir (a Mongol like tribe of barbarians united under a single strong leader) and the Drenai Empire itself. When the current Earl of the Dros Delnoch realizes that he’s about to come under siege for what is probably the last time, he sends a message to his old friend Druss, who drags himself out from his mountain home for one last great battle.

Druss is one of the main characters of the novel, but he’s hardly the only one. Several others flit in and out of the story, and while many of them are essentially archetypes, they are generally well-written and interesting archetypes, so it’s not a terrible burden to bear.

Gemmell’s writing has been compared favorably to REH’s, and I think it’s a pretty apt comparison. Both have a similar evocative style that glosses over the details that don’t matter to the story, in favor of those who do. For all the talk of empire and nation conquering, the reader gets only the barest picture of the world beyond Dros Delnoch. For the purposes of this book, it’s the only place that really matters. The battle scenes, which are really critical in a book like this, are extremely well done: fast paced enough to be excited, vivid enough to feel real, and gruesome enough to make you appreciate the awfulness of war without overdoing it.

Gemmell apparently wrote this book shortly after discovering he was diagnosed with cancer, which makes the work both more moving, and makes it clear how much of a personal work it really is. In a lot of ways, the book is a meditation on fighting, not literally, but metaphorically. What makes a man fight? Why do some surrender, when others won’t? Why will some never surrender, even when the battle seems hopeless? Legend tackles a lot of these questions, either implicitly or explicitly. And it does it all through a brilliantly compelling narrative.

Fantastic stuff, that is totally worth the read. I will probably check out the second book in the series at some point, and perhaps Gemmell’s take on Troy as well (I believe he wrote one).

 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

Northlanders Vol. 1: Sven the Returned

by Brian Wood

Publisher: Vertigo (October 2008)

ISBN: 1401219187


I like Vikings.

Okay, that isn’t true. I LOVE Vikings; I think they are, without question, one of the most fascinating groups of people every to rape and pillage their way across Europe (there’s a surprising amount of those, if you think about it).

All joking aside, however, I really do love Vikings. There is something about their culture, history, mythology, and overall world-view that I find deeply fascinating. I suspect some of it is a result of my Tolkien love, as he borrowed liberally from bits of Viking myth, as well as my reading of D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths as a youth. So when my friend Seth recommended that I start reading the Northlanders comic, I took him seriously. I also realized that I couldn’t add another book to my pull list, so I just decided to pick the first trade up.

The first trade collects the saga of Sven the Returned, a Viking warrior who abandons his post in the Varangian Guard to return home and claim his title and lands from his uncle, who has usurped his place. Sven’s motives for doing this are a little shaky, since he makes it clear, constantly and without end, that he hates Norway, hates the Viking ethos and world view, and in general, wants nothing to do with the whole thing. Yet back he goes. What follows is a saga full of all of things you ought to expect from a good Viking tale: fighting, betrayal, fighting, arctic survival, fighting, old rune seers, fighting, feuds of honor, fighting, philosophizing, and yes, some fighting.

Okay, there’s actually a lot of fighting, though perhaps not quite as much as I make it seem like. But there is a damn lot of it, no matter how you count it out. Most of the fighting is quite brutal. Some of it is brutal to the point of being cartoonish, frankly. There’s a particular scene involving a deerskin that just comes out as being over the top silly.

The dialogue is variable. Sometimes it flows well. Other times, it feels stilted and forced. Sven’s witticisms sometimes come out as being very clever, and other times, just sound damn silly. Likewise, the rest of the characters are a bit variable, though some more consistent than others.

I think the hardest thing I had with this, honestly, is that I didn’t like Sven terribly much. He comes across as a bit of a whiner at times, and his attitude grates for a while. Granted, that may be the point, as he does undergo some interesting growth and change as the story moves along, but I did find it hard to care about him consistently. Several of the other characters are rather superficial, particularly the female lead, who’s name escapes me at the moment (which may say something in itself).

The art is good; it fits the story and the setting well. I’m not an art critic, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

Overall, I enjoyed this. It’s not the most amazing work I’ve ever read, but as a modern Viking tale, it’s pretty solid. Worth picking up, if you are into this sort of thing.