Legend - early Grimdark Fantasy
Aside from some of the ancient sagas what we now call grimdark fantasy kicked off in 1984 with two books, The Black Company by Glen Cook and Legend by David Gemmel. Rather than follow the anti-heroes, Gemmel wanted to explore why and how people can choose to stand before overwhelming odds to fight for their beliefs. From the beginning the reader is told that its a hopeless fight. One well built but neglected fortress with nine thousand poorly trained defenders protecting their empire from half a million barbarian warriors. The dying nobleman in charge sends two desperate calls for help. He sends to the White Temple for the Thirty, a band of psychic warrior monks willing to die for the right cause, and to his old comrade in arms, the famed Druss the Legend who has never lost a battle.
Druss is now sixty, battered in both body and spirit but he takes up his battle-axe Snaga and walks south to the fortress Dros Delnoch. His job is simple but seemingly impossible, convince the defenders that they can hold three months against the horde. The Earl of Dros Delnach sent his daughter Virae to hire the Thirty. She's a talented swords woman but lacks self confidence in herself as a woman. Along the way she meets Rek, a self proclaimed wanderer, thief, and coward who wants to get as far away from the war as possible. For Virae, Rek will do anything, including lead the fight at Dros Delnach. To his surprise Serbitar, youngest of the Thirty, is chosen to lead them. His job is to be the strategist. These four, their hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and determination form the compelling heart of Legend.
Legend is not a polished piece of writing. Its like watching a train wreck, fancy words and descriptions would only lessen the raw impact. Its about what each character is thinking at a particular moment. The Nadir warrior climbing the siege ladder impatient to be up on the wall certain that glory is his for the taking. The farmer who realizes that he's bored of his life and wife and chooses to stay at the fort rather than go home to possible safety. The characters may not be complex but they are completely exposed which reduces the battle to the human struggle to survive. Because Legend wasn't just Gemmel's first book, its what he wrote when they told him he had cancer in 1976. He planned to end the story based upon his prognosis but further testing showed he didn't actually have cancer. A few years later he dusted it off and gave it an ending but it still retains that element of facing what you fear is certain doom.
Gemmel went on to be an international bestselling author but was widely criticized for only writing about violent conflicts and a repetetive vocabulary. No argument on either point, and I don't especially recommend any of Gemmel's other works except for Echoes of the Great Song. However, the spare straightforward style of the 80's makes a nice contrast to the heavier style of today's grimdark works and there is just enough spark of the human spirit to prevent Legend from wallowing in defeatism. Gemmel died at age 58, coronary failure, and his last book was finished by his wife Stella Gemmel who has gone on to write some good books of her own.
Sean Barrett apparently gives a good performance reading the audio version and it has 4.5 stars on Audible.