Gigantic fantasy series are amazing experiences, but tend to also be gigantic time sinks. As such, each year I pick one large and famous fantasy series to work though for the sake of reading diversity. This year I decided to read David Gemmell’s pivotal Drenai Saga. While reading through this 11 book series, I am going to break down my experience reading it into four parts so that I can hopefully track how my feelings and thoughts evolve as I progress through the series.
For those of you who don’t know, The Drenai Saga is a collection of books set in a classical fantasy landscape that detail different stories about heroes standing against impossible odds, written by David Gemmell. Gemmell is often regarded as one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time, and after reading one of his other trilogies, Troy, I can see why. The books are strange in that they are published not even slightly in chronological order (seen here), something I expect to bother me a lot. However, before I start judging the series I am going to dive in and read some.
Book 1 – Legend – Legend is Gemmell’s first, and likely most famous, novel about a Drenai fortress of a few thousand soldiers holding out against an invading Nadir horde of over a million troops. Gemmell apparently wrote the book after he had been diagnosed with cancer, using the hordes as a metaphor for the disease. The hordes must pass through the fortress of Dros Delnock, a choke point, in order to invade the Drenai land and the story follows several heroes as they make their stand at the fortress knowing they will eventually die. The heroes exemplify a mix of classic fantasy tropes, but the story sticks to one in particular; Druss, the legend, a retired hero and all around badass who returns to battle and for whom the book is named.
The book is very simple in premise: a small group of good guys hold out against bad guys and impossible odds. I was, however, honestly astounded how much Gemmell was able to accomplish with such a simple and short story. The prose is simple but elegant, accomplishing in a few pages what takes other authors half a book. The prologue of Legend is four pages long (and can be previewed here on Amazon.com) but it’s tight and exciting writing pulled me into the story immediately. The characters were deep and interesting, despite many falling within classic tropes. I found the dialogue gripping while also having deep emotional impact. However, one negative aspect of the book for me was that the world building felt fairly unclear. I did not have a good sense of the nations or lands in the Drenai Saga, yet I also got the feeling they are extremely important to the story at large. Despite this, I ended up really enjoying Legend as it reads like a very polished tale of some of the most classic hero fantasy out there. I was super excited to continue the series, especially because the second book is chronologically subsequent to Legend.
Rating: Legend – 8.5/10
Book 2 – The King Beyond the Gate – The King Beyond the Gate was an interesting experience. When I started the book I grew concerned that the Drenai Saga was going to be a bit too repetitive to read all the way through. Once again we found ourselves with an unlikely cast of heroes standing against impossible odds and I started to have deja vu. However, I quickly learned that while the books follow a similar skeleton structure, they are most definitely not the same. The King Beyond the Gate picks up decades after Legend, and almost no characters carry over. Instead, we are introduced to a completely fresh cast of heroes who have a new problem: the Drenai nation that was the defender in book one is now the aggressor and run by a corrupt tyrant. In order to stop the tyrant’s reign of terror, the remnants of an elite fighting force established in the wake of the events in Legend make a stand.
One of the most interesting things about The King Beyond the Gate is that it drives home a philosophical idea that started to surface at the end of Legend: heroes of today can be the villains of tomorrow. For the first time in any book series I have read, The Drenai Saga manages to mix the idea of unambiguous evil that must be fought with the idea that all people are shades of grey. It does this by showing that individuals can be unambiguously terrible, but that nations are slaves to who is in charge. A nation might be ruled by a benevolent saint in one period and a satanic bastard in the next. It was here that I started to understand that Gemmell didn’t simply mean to tell a story about a group of people accomplishing something. Instead, Gemmell’s story takes clips of conflicts across the history of the world to show you how it changed and evolved, while also venerating the people across all cultures that took a stand for what was right. It is an extremely powerful storytelling technique and one that only grows stronger as the series continues.
At a more individual level, The King Beyond the Gate is a fantastic tale itself. The protagonist is the classic half-breed; part of two people, welcome to neither. While the cast is completely new, I think I liked them more than their counterparts in Legend. Some of the characters are descendants of the heroes and villains of book one, but they are all completely distinct with their own personalities and backgrounds. It is clear that a lot of work went into sculpting every aspect of this book and that Gemmell did not rely on Legend at all, despite their similarities. This effort keeps the book fresh, new, and unique; a fact which will be impressive if Gemmell can keep up through all 11 books. The King Beyond the Gate was a great read, placing just slightly higher than Legend in terms of my enjoyment.
Rating: The King Beyond the Gate – 9.0/10
Book 3 – Waylander – I was really worried about Waylander as it takes a huge chronological jump backwards and takes place as the first book in the series. The story also has a completely unestablished set of characters, which was alarming. With The King Beyond the Gate, we had a new cast, but at least many were descendants in some way from the heroes and villains of book one. Losing all the investment from the previous novels seemed off-putting before I started Waylander, but I should not have worried.
Waylander follows the story of an antihero, the assassin Waylander, as he tries to find redemption for a job he took and later regretted. After assassinating the Drenai King during a war that the Drenai are losing, Waylander sets out on a quest to retrieve a magical artifact that will turn the tide of said war. Again, the plot is something I have seen time and time again, but the devil is in the details. The prose, characters, and action continue to be fantastic, all while Gemmell demonstrated a new strength of his short 300 page books; novelty. Waylander uses almost exclusively projectile weapons in a world of swordsman, and it’s honestly one of the most badass things I have read. Whether it’s throwing knives, daggers, using a bow and arrow, or shooting his signature double-crossbow, Waylander weaves through combat doling out death at a distance. Due to the short and chaotic nature of these novels, you really never have enough time with any one personality, fighting style, story, or badass weapon, making each chapter exciting and novel. There is much less of the massive fatigue that happens with a series such as The Wheel of Time, where readers are always inching towards a far off goal on the horizon. Additionally, there isn’t the problem of characters growing stale or running out of room to grow. Waylander packs all the previously great things from the other books into a story with a kickass assassin turning his talents to good. The book continues to expand the character morality spectrum into even more shades of grey, but still anchors it with some truly reprehensible people. However, Waylander’s story shows that not everyone is so far gone down a dark path that they can’t come back and was the book I enjoyed most of the first three.
Rating: Waylander – 9.5/10
So it was right about here that I realized I had a problem. When you review things, books or otherwise, you should try to make sure that you don’t just give everything highmarks because it starts to make your ratings lose value. To this end, I try to make sure I think deeply about my ratings and temper them so they don’t suffer from inflation. That being said, I looked at my ratings of these books creeping higher and thought, “This is a problem, I can’t just give everything a high score.” However, after sitting and thinking about it I can’t find a single good reason to lower the scores of any of these books. They are fantastic reads that will delight any reader of fantasy and I look forward to seeing if the rest of the books are also this good.