Legend: Reaction

It was with considerable trepidation that I opened my well-worn copy of Legend. Once, I loved this book. I first read it, I think, when I was nine, or maybe ten, and I reread frequently from then on. At the time, I was reading mostly Eddings and Pratchett, a few old copies of minor Dragonlance novels, and the occasional Isaac Asimov. Legend was something quite, quite different. Of all the fantasy I had read up to that point, it came closest to capturing what I had felt reading Tolkien, but it did it in a far more accessible manner. Yet those days were a long time ago now, and I hadn’t read Legend for many years. In that time, my horizons in both life and literature had expanded considerably, and I would like to think my tastes had improved. Would my childhood memories be despoiled by going back?

Well, no. To be honest, any part of them that could be despoiled by rereading had already been despoiled by a decade of retrospection – by the time I opened the book, I was already expecting it to be badly written. And, indeed, it was.

Legend is not written so poorly as to be painful; rather, the writing kept me at a pleasant distance where I could try to understand what it was that was wrong. Why did this book that so enchanted me now ring hollow? The question echoed something I had thought recently when re-watching a childhood cartoon: why did the plot seem so much more complex when I was young? Now, I see a problem posed only to be answered a second later – then, I saw a saga of epic twists and turns. What has changed?

My conclusion is that our perception of time is malleable; specifically, our perception of time is warped to fit the importance of what occurs. Looking back at that cartoon, I remembered the story in the form of a sequence of events, each event having its own internal constitution; yet looking at it now, I can see that each ‘event’ is no more than a single scene, perhaps only ten or twenty seconds in length. To me it seemed at the time far more lengthy – not because I had invented additional occurrences to fill the gaps, but simply because the drama of the event caused me to assign more time to it in my imagination. I would have taken a long time to overcome that problem, so the character must have done so too – even if we only see it portrayed briefly. And along with the expansion in time comes an expansion in drama – what are presented as minor difficulties attain the status of epic calamities.

I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well. Here’s a trio of theoretical equations: detail + sensation = magnitude; magnitude + investment = drama. Because it is difficult to remember sensation directly, in hindsight we (or at least I) ascribe a higher degree of detail to an event than it had, in order to explain the drama. Ascribing more detail means ascribing more time. Rewatching, the sensation is less than it was, so I can see plainly that everything is much quicker than I thought it was. Why has the sensation lessened? Perhaps simply because with age I have found more shiny things, and am thus less easily distracted. I think that writing for children is like shooting down biplanes: the best way is to come at them out of the sun. A certain glamour can be cast by bright sensation that hides all inadequacies.

Anyway, Legend. The most striking thing is that the first half of the book is concerned with a sequence of very short events, which are meant to find dramatic, and which indeed I did find dramatic as a child, but which now read much the same as watching a children’s cartoon – the events unfold so quickly and with so little detail that I am unable to build up any care for what happens. This, in turn, makes it harder to care about the characters in time for their next episode, creating a vicious cycle of apathy.

If I had to pick two words to describe the general style of Legend, they would be ‘blurred’ and ‘sketchy’. Gemmell seems just to indicate in the direction of things, rather than outlining them clearly. I found this highly problematic. Dialogue does not seem to represent spoken words, but merely a vague idea of the information transferred, together with a general tone of voice. There are very few such tones of voice, meaning that no nuance of situation is possible, and no real differentiation of character. It is never Rek speaking, or Druss, or Bowman; it is Cynical Voice, or Heroic Voice, or Flippant Voice, and any one of these voices can be in the mouths of any of the characters, depending on the situation. “Character” is simply in this book a certain ratio between the prime voices. It feels like a combination of an over-literal Myers-Briggs test and a sort of latent multiple personality disorder pervading the entire cast list. Accordingly, there is little or no actual character development – merely mentions by other people that development has occurred, which we must take at face value.

This lack of strong characters is particularly surprising given the rapid, blurry camerawork (Legend should be seen primarily, in my opinion, as a film or miniseries related in words). The narrator resides behind the eyes, but has no faithfulness to one character or another – it zooms from head to head, paragraph after paragraph. We walk into a conversation in one head and leave in another; we see a man from a distance and suddenly we hearing that man’s thoughts. This is a prime source of those miniature ‘events’ I mentioned, because whenever we explore a new brain we must always, in Legend, explore their entire life history. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it is always welcome to see new viewpoints on the action – but in Legend it is badly performed. Each vignette lasts in general no more than a couple of paragraphs, and it is simply too difficult to care about a man from so little information. When I was nine, perhaps the knowledge that a brigand had lost his family to government oppression, and had set out as a freedom fighter but had increasingly come to question the morality of his life of crime, was enough to make me empathise with a character. Or the knowledge that an engineer had fought all his life against a crippling disability, and had become an intellectual, but still retained his loyalty to the man who saved his life as a child. But now, merely being told these things is not enough to make me care. I need to see the character.

Gemmell does not literally ‘tell’ us these facts, but he conveys them in flights of thoughts so rapid and summarised that he might as well be giving us bullet points – we do not get to ‘live’ with how the character has been shaped by these formative influences. The best example is a man who climbs a wall and gets killed at the top of it – the brief potted life history we see on the way up does not make the man’s depth any more powerful to me, because it is so disembodied, so distant, so safely encapsulated. It is, after all, only a paragraph or two. The sin is particularly great where, as in the case of the aforementioned brigand, the backstory and its impact on the character are central to the plot. It feels like a deus ex machina, because although we glimpse the natural machinery by which such events could occur, we see it so fleetingly that it feels as though the god has simply put on a hasty disguise. Or, more seriously, that the author has decided what will happen and then simply written in a paragraph of hypothetical justification for it.

Because these vignettes feature flashbacks, we get to see yet more shaky camerawork – through time. Back a decade, forward a year, back three days, forward three months – the time shifts alarmingly between paragraphs, and every line must be read to understand what is going on. Nor does the author choose to follow such outmoded notions as consistent use of tenses. No! A paragraph may begin in the pluperfect, and yet migrate to the preterite in the second sentence, yet be referring to the same time in both cases. Or the shift to the preterite can mark a shift to the ‘present’ occurrence (which may itself be in the past relative to the rest of the story, which is of course in the past tense itself). The worst instance is in a very early chapter, where Hogun is on a scouting mission with his cavalry – a single short chapter cuts between a three or four different times during the weeks-long mission, as well as cutting back to the briefing where the mission was assigned. It is all rather confusing. Each time something happens, we must ask when it is happening – is this attack in the ‘present’, or did it follow on from the event the narrator was just describing? The author gives few clues, and I had to reskim the chapter two times to piece together what happened when.

This is not a fault unique to the handling of tense. The author is sketchy in the extreme about all sorts of things, from physics to time to setting to motivation. Sometimes the problem is simply bad writing. For instance, as the walls fall, I found myself on the wrong wall – I had not realised that two retreats had happened in quick succession, one of them occurring in a single line or two at the end of a paragraph about something else. To be honest, I still don’t understand the actual architecture of Dros Delnoch – the walls, the ramparts, the gates, the tunnels, the battlements, the towers, the killing grounds – again and again I found myself fiddling in my mind with different models as new information came in (eg sometimes the ramparts seem to be behind the walls, but other times things fall or jump from the ramparts; sometimes the ramparts are next to the gates, and other times they seem to be above them) until eventually I just gave up and concluded “everything is next to everything else”. Or, who on earth in Earl Drada of Dros Segril? We know he hates the Drenai, but his fortress is clearly named in the Drenai fashion, and he was clearly within travelling distance of the Temple, which seems to be in the heart of Drenai territory – and it never seems to say what nation he belongs to (and there is no mention elsewhere of ‘Earls’ in either Ventria or Vagria). And speaking of that, why does Ulric refer to Dros Delnoch as “Dros”, when it clearly means “fortress”? Everyone else calls it “Delnoch”, and Ulric is not an uneducated man to make such a mistake.

This confusions are more of a problem because there has clearly been little editing, and there are numerous minor inconsistencies, making it hard to distinguish authorial error from reader’s mistake. A prominent example that I went back to check on: when the mercenary bowmen are recruited, it clearly says that they are contracted to stay until Wall Three (Kania) falls; yet in fact they leave after Wall Two (Musif) falls, having ‘fulfilled their contract’. I thought at one point that this was part of a wider mistake regarding wall numbers that explained the apparent error regarding retreats noted above – but in fact the error in the latter case was mine. On the subject of walls, however, there is at one stage a detailed explanation of what the wall names mean, according to the emotions that will be felt on each. Musif, for instance, is a wall of despair, after the retreat from Eldibar, while Kania is a wall of renewed hope, because the defenders have survived Musif and Kania is easier to defend. This is a powerful, if brief, passage. Yet in fact none of this is borne out – Musif is held confidently, for a long time, and when they retreat to Kania there is panic, as Kania cannot be defended for even a fraction of the time that Musif could, it seems. Now, some authors would create this contrast between expectation and reality on purpose – I regret to say that I do not trust Gemmell to be so sophisticated (and there is no sign anywhere that he is cognisant of the issue).

Finally, a more serious problem: how many men does Ulric have? Wild numbers fly around, but we are given to believe that he has half a million men. That’s a lot, when Dros Delnoch never has more than eleven thousand. But not all those men go to the siege, and it is explicitly stated that Ulric has only twenty thousand men. That should hardly be a problem for eleven thousand men behind impregnable fortifications! And later Ulric himself says he has four more armies the same size, putting his force at one hundred thousand. So perhaps the half a million figure was still an exaggeration. But even one hundred thousand is enough to crush the Drenai, as they have only the eleven thousand at Delnoch and a few thousand more elsewhere. Yet Woundweaver is able to summon up an army of fifty thousand men in what can’t be more than a few months. My suggestion to Woundweaver: given that Ulric only has twenty thousand men, don’t hang around until you’ve got fifty thousand, just run to Delnoch as soon as you’ve got 10k and win that that battle! So maybe it’s simply a mistake when we’re told that Ulric has only 20k. So, if we take 500k as his total force and divide by five (taking him at his word as to the number of his armies), we’re left with 100k. That is impressive. But then why are they bothering to buy time for Woundweaver’s 50k, when that army will be swept aside anyway? Maybe Woundweaver thinks that 50k can hold Ulric if they get to Delnoch in time. But then he doesn’t have much faith in the impregnable fortifications, does he, if he wants to only be outnumbered 2:1. After all, if we open our Gemmell corpus to (iirc) Waylander, we’re told that fortifications can withstand direct assaults at ratios of 5:1 or even 10:1 – and Delnoch is meant to be the strongest fortification going, so even the 11k stationed there should be able to hold off Ulric’s force. I guess the best option is to ignore the later books, ignore the 20k figure, and assume that Woundweaver’s only hope is to arrive before Delnoch falls. But I don’t like having to do detective work on something so simple and important!

So, as you can tell, I’m rather critical of the writing. Dialogue is not only characterless, it is also unrealistic and clunky, particularly when moving forward the plot. Events occur with no concern for feasibility – the utterly predictable love-at-first-sight thing it cringe-inducingly bad, since not only is it out of character for both characters, it is not even at genuine first sight. Rather, two characters complain about each other for a few days in a ‘oh, they’re going to quarrel a lot but love each other eventually’ way, before suddenly, spontaneously and utterly falling in love one morning for no apparent reason and with no qualms or reservations, and being inseparably romantically entangled from that point forth with (iirc) only a single brief argument (ie one page) in the rest of the book. To me, the overwhelming feeling is that the author has been planning a slow romance before suddenly realising ‘oh shit, they’ve got to be in love really soon, let’s just say they’re in love now’. And the prose? Mostly not painful, but very rarely inspired in any way, and frequently predictable. Characters barely exist. The plot in the first half of the book is rambling, and in the second half is unvarying. Few ideas are put forward.

And yet… halfway through the book, something magical happens. Everything… starts to work. This is not because the problems are done away with, but simply because… they don’t matter as much anymore. Battle is joined. Suddenly, it’s OK for everyone to be alternating Heroic Voice and Flippant Voice – they’re half asleep anyway, and shellshocked, and don’t have time to be individuals. They don’t have time for character progression, they’re in a battle damnit. So what if the prose is unable to withstand flashbacks coherently – we’re in a battle, we don’t need flashbacks any more. Relationships? They’ll have to wait, I’m afraid. Don’t care about the vignettes? That’s OK, all that really matters is the mounting panic as the battle is slowly lost. Dialogue seems forced and unrealistic? Of course it is, they’re making a speech for the good of the men! All the errors in the writing fade into the background.

What comes to the front is, to be honest, saccharine and one-dimensional honour-porn. Endless speeches about honour and death and defiance and killing. Honour. So much honour. It’s like the blood-drenched fantasy version of To Kill a Mockingbird, only every character is Atticus! It’s a Churchill speech, drawn out into a book!

I can’t deny, I came very close on occasion there to shedding a manly tear, in a defiant-speech-and-heroic-last-stand way. It may be entirely one-dimensional, but it’s good at its dimension. Really, really good.

It may be objected that even the second half of the book is littered with increasingly improbably deus ex machinas – sometimes almost literally. I had no problem with that. Legend, you see, is not a typical mechanical magic world – it is a medieval magic realist world. It is about legends – and just as Garcia Marquez conflates the myth of an event with the truth of the event and tells us the myth as though it were true (and sometimes the truth as though it were myth), so too Legend presents us with exactly the sort of ‘miracles’ that the legends and sagas are full of, and tells us that they really happen. In my opinion, it works.

Where it does not work is where the other side of the equation is lacking – the realism. The technique relies upon a firm ground of realism to make the magic powerful, and Legend never really succeeds in doing that. It’s clear that it tries to – so many of its characters are cynics who do not believe in sagas and magic. But it still remains, ultimately, a children’s cartoon – where, as in a cartoon, an entire army is represented by a handful of men, every single one of whom fights on the front line. The heroes in cartoons fight on the walls? Well then, every single one of the higher echelons of the Drenai strategic command will be out on the battlements every single day fighting hand-to-hand like champions. Who cares about realism? The Nadir are barbarians who practise polygamy, so obviously every single one has seven wives – even the soldiers in the front line assault, explicitly described as the dregs of the army. Would that be a realistic economic model? Who cares? And who cares if that Nadir warrior has a life story that makes him sound like a noble despite the fact he’s clearly a low-ranked peasant footsoldier? Time and time again, it’s clear that the battle is no more than a cartoon – larger than life, oversimplified, melodramatic, with no real attention paid to logistics. This is not a fatal flaw – as time goes on, it becomes less important, as the massive death tolls make it more believable that there seem to only be ten men actually left in the battle. But it does weaken the power of the novel – a grittier, more realistic tone established from the beginning would make the heightened, legendary conclusion even more overwhelming.

Only, not the conclusion. Because although the book gets better as it goes along, the ending is still appallingly bad. If, indeed, it can be said to exist at all. Dear gods, I don’t even want to think about that ending any more. Not the magical bit of it – actually, not any bit of it. Just the fact that there are so few bits of it. Can’t you devote a few more pages to the most important events of the novel? No? Just a little more? No, the epilogue does not count…

Finally, one last topic: the breadth of the perspective. Legend goes far beyond most pulp fantasy in its fairness and greyness. As said above, we get to see Nadir perspectives as well as Drenai ones, and it is far from clear that the Nadir are villains (despite the fact they want to slaughter everybody in the city and sell the children into slavery). The Nadir individuals we meet are all sympathetic individuals, and Ulric even makes explicit the fact that the story would look very different told from his side (because he knows the tale of the siege will be the tale of Druss the Legend, and he is on the other side, which makes him the villain). It’s a charmingly and refreshingly insightful view into the important of perspectives, and the nature of legends. It’s only a pity it’s usually done so summarily. Legend could have been a genuinely good book, if it started halfway through and used the extra length to flesh out the characters.

Unfortunately, the same favours are not done for non-warriors, and to a lesser extent for women. Politicians and merchants (seen as essentially the same) are more or less equivalent to cockroaches or excrement in this book – and while great care is taken to show that the warriors are not superior to the farmers (indeed, even suggesting that they are inferior), we never actually see too much of the farmers. It is true that the nature of heroism is that it is the focus – but much could have been gained by having seen more through the eyes of those who are not heroic. Including, pardon the heresy, giving a voice to some of the burghers – as it seems that as neither straightforwardly destructive like the warriors nor destructive like the farmers, all townsmen are essentially untrustworthy scum with no place in society. With the exception of one honest innkeeper and his daughters), every single town-dweller is a villain, or at best a culpable fool. It is not only tiring, it is worrying.

Women are given some voice, but not enough. I am normally the last person to argue for more female viewpoints (I think the viewpoints should be those demanded by the story, and some stories do not have much place for women – this may be annoying for female readers, but in my view the onus is on readers to sympathise more widely, rather than for writers to conform to pre-set quotas, or even to distort their books by bowing to public or sectional opinion to any degree greater than that strictly required to get published and promulgated) – yet in this book I keenly felt the invisibility of women. This, I think, is because there are useful female characters already. They are simply not used! We see inside two female heads – Caessa and Virae. Both are immensely clichéd, but that is no worse than the men. What galls me is that both characters have room to be used – both are strong-willed, both have backstories, both are or could be involved in the events related, both have viewpoints quite distinct from those of the other characters. Caessa, in particular, seems perfect for a major character – her peculiar flaws and obsessions, while not really believable, have a powerful sympathy with the events in which she finds herself (as I speak carefully to avoid revealing what her ‘thing’ is). Virae too would have had an interesting perspective – whether as an inexperienced but eager fighter on the walls, or as a woman reluctantly caged behind the lines while her beloved husband risks his life for her. The poor woman must be wracked by doubts and hopes, but we hardly see any of them. Both characters are criminally underused. Likewise the woman we see preparing to leave the city late on, trying to persuade her husband to leave. A view from the city is sorely needed, and given that there is a woman provided who has that view, it feels criminal to relegate her to a single scene. I feel the lack of women because it feels natural to have these female characters – they seem slighted intentionally, not merely superfluous to requirements.

Anyway, I think that’s it. Short version: if you like fantasy and war films, you’ll like the second half of this book. I’m not sad I reread it – it’s a lot better than I feared it might be. I genuinely found it enjoyable to read, at least once I got to the good bits.

Review marks:

Adrenaline: 3/5. This is an average – the second half would easily be a 4, but the first half drags it down.

Emotion: 4/5. Overall, not that emotive – the characters just aren’t strong enough. However, as I say, I did feel my chest tighten and my eyes moisten as we came toward the end, and I think that has to merit an automatic 4.

Thought: 3/5. I thought this would be lower, but I want to be fair to the book – it did try to raise issues surrounding perspective and storytelling and the nature of war. In particular, the treatment of warriors was nuanced, suggesting they may be both greater and lesser than ordinary men.

Beauty: 3/5. Badly written and generally ugly – except that as it approaches the status of streamlined purified honour-porn it festoons itself in powerful images of life and death and human nature, which pushes the score up to average.

Craft: 2/5. It’s simply badly written – and until we reach the point where more interesting things are happening, the bad writing shouts from every page. That said, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen, and above an entire echelon of bad fantasy books.

Endearingness: 2/5. Well, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for a long time. I found the book, as it were, an obstacle – something was going on that was appealing, but the book kept getting in the way, like a boring man relaying interesting events. You’re glad you heard about them, but you wish you didn’t have to listen to him to get that information. Against that, there are few redeeming features – the power of the heroism is not a particularly endearing power (except in a very few particular moods). So… I can envisage situations where I would read this book for comfort and enjoyment, but such situations are unlikely ever to occur. Hence, this is not an endearing book. Perhaps if I find myself in a war-zone or all my family become terminally ill, I’ll reconsider.

Originality: 2/5. It’s simplistic, it’s predictable, it’s unsurprising. It escapes a 1 rating because it does try to do new things. It is more nuanced in its treatment of both heroes and enemies than it might have been, and the overall structure of the book, with its constant ratcheting of pressure in a fixed environment, while not really successful, is a departure from conventional fantasy structures (though clearly enormously in debt to the siege of Minas Tirith).

Composite Score: 2.71

Overall Score: 4/7: Not That Bad Really

On another day, I might have pushed this down to ‘bad with some redeeming features’, but I’m being charitable – and I’m granting it the benefit of the doubt not only because I used to love it, but also because although it is quite bad in quite a lot of ways, it’s not actually appalling in any of them – every flaw has some redeeming features, and, while its virtues are likewise not pristine, I think its high points are higher than its low points are low, so to speak. So, I won’t go so far as to say that overall it’s a bad book – but there are simply too many egregious problems for me to honestly call it a ‘good’ book.

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2 thoughts on “Legend: Reaction

  1. Hans says:

    On the children’s perspective issue – that isn’t surprising at all. The older we grow, the more we have experienced and the less is new and surprising; we are used to unravel levels of complexity that would have been incomprehensible for us to comprehend as children. Remember how long the days seemed when we were children? They were full of new things and we were living in the present much more.
    This is also true of the development of literature – if you read popular tales from early modernity, like Melusine, the story is very simple and it’s often an enumeration of adventurous encounters and deeds, without much charcterisation or athmosphere.

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