Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sins of the Father-A review of Gav Thorpe's "Malekith"

I was very anxious to read Gav Thorpe's new novel "Malekith." In fact, I haunted the bookstores until I found one in Austin at Book People. I quickly started it, although I was already two-thirds through a biography of Robert Frost. It was a good read and I quickly submitted a review to Amazon.com. Here is the review.

Although Gav Thorpe's new novel is entitled, "Malekith," its scope is greater than the story of one man. Instead, it delineates the development of the Warhammer world as we know it and recounts the rise and fall of Malekith. In a sense, the story of Malekith is a tragedy rather than an epic. Although the novel has "epic" qualities--the expansion of the elves and the exploration of the unknown world--it is ultimately the story of one man's greed and lust for power. Like Macbeth, a great warrior is lured from the light to the dark by greed and the ministrations of a woman. In Malekith's case it is the greed and ambition of his Mother, Morathi, that taunts him, goads him, and tricks him. Thorpe's Malekith, however, is not one dimensional. Throughout the novel, the reader feels that the means, no matter how despicable, have within Malekith's twisted thinking a logical and noble end--to protect the elves from the Chaos gods. It is this element that raises Thorpe's novel from simply being a good Warhammer story to being a great Warhammer story.

The first novel of the planned trilogy begins with the end of Aenarion and concludes with the death of Bel Shanaar, the Phoenix King. The narrative involves four major set pieces: the expansion of the elves in the east and the alliance with the dwarves; Malekith's exploration of the west and the Chaos waste; Malekith's war against the cultists in Nagarythe; and the betrayal of the Phoenix King.

Thorpe handles the exploration of the east and the establishment of the elven colonies in the old world brilliantly. His description of the dwarven cities is meticulous in its detail. However, the dwarven segment is not simply a side show; it is important to the development of Malekith's character and to the reader's understanding of that character. Although Malekith's anger and ambition are apparent from the beginning of the novel, Malekith truly respects the dwarves and their king. At the end of Part One, Malekith mourns for his lost friend and intends to honor his oath to the Snorri Whitebeard. However, the next section of the novel finds Malekith on his way to the Chaos wastes in the west, where he discovers an ancient city of the Old Ones and discovers a magic circlet that imbues him with new power and insight into the threat of the Chaos gods. From this point on, Malekith moves toward his inevitable fate. His hubris ultimately leads him to the Shrine of Asuryan.

As I read the novel I was struck by several things: the psychological complexity of Malekith's character; the clear detailed descriptions of all the locations; the distinct personality and character of the various Warhammer races; an abiding continuity to Warhammer lore and fluff; and the lucid prose. I have read most of Gav Thorpe's work and I think this may be his best. I am quite anxious to read the second volume of the trilogy.

I highly recommend this novel to both fantasy lovers and gamers. The Warhammer intellectual property is so rich and so developed that it transcends tie-in fiction. With the Time of Legends series, it seems Black Library has decided to up the ante; to create epic works that can proudly compete with any non-IP fantasy fiction. As a companion piece to this work I recommend Graham McNeill's "Guardians of Ulthuan," and "Heldenhammer," Mike Lee and Dan Abnett's Malus Darkblade series, Mike Lee's "Nagash the Sorcerer," and Nathan Long's "Elfslayer."

Review Of Steve Parker's "Rebel Winter"

I rarely cry. It is usually at the end of a war movie where a person has given his or her life for the good of the squad and bagpipes are playing. Like at the end of "Gunga Din" or "Wee Willie Winkie," or even "Saving Private Ryan," although there were sadly no pipes.

While reading Steve Parker's first military science fiction novel, Rebel Winter, I found myself tearing up several times. Each time a well-drawn character sacrifices himself for the unit or a group of men die in a burning Chimera or a beloved colonel runs pell-mell into a mass of orks I felt a tear rolling down my cheek. Consequently, I have to say early in this review that the writing is damn good, the characters are well-drawn, the battle scenes are intense, and Parker's knowledge of Warhammer 40,000 fluff is dead-on accurate.

The novel involves a regiment of Vostroyan Firstborn fighting both rebels and orks on the ice-crusted planet Danik's World. The Vostroyans are similar to Russian Cossacks and their culture is tribal and militaristic. According to their laws, every firstborn son of every household serves in the Vostroyan regiments. Vostroyan soldiers and officers maintain an archaic appearance and their history can be traced back to the Horus Heresy. They pass their weapons down from firstborn to firstborn and are usually worth more than the guardsmen who carry them. They serve ten-year terms but most re-enlist because their persona is based on their identification with the regiment and the company in the regiment in which they serve.

In Rebel Winter Parker plays with the Vostroyan "fluff." First, the Vostroyan leadership is picked from the nobility. Our protagonist Captain Grigorius Sebastev is not a noble; instead, he is a sergeant, elevated to leadership on the battlefield. Second, Vostroyans pick the first-born son to serve the Emperor; Stavin, another important character, possesses a secret, which haunts him: he is a second-born son. Third, the Vostroyans are a close-knit tribal unit. The Commissar of Fifth Company is not a Vostroyan but from Delta Radhima. He is dark and tall and obviously a foil for the short and stocky Sebastev.

Parker begins the novel with a framing device: Captain Sebastev is on trial in the Exedra Udiciarum Seddisvarr for some unspecified crime. The story, then, is a remembering rather than an unfolding. In my opinion, a framing device is a two-edged sword. It either creates suspense by engaging the reader with the question: why is this man on trial, or it dissipates suspense because the reader knows the protagonist will survive. In this novel, the framing device accomplishes three things: one, it is simply a sketch and does not explain who any of the bizarre characters in the courtroom are; therefore, it creates an element of suspense and expectation; two, it begs the question of why this captain is on trial; and, three, at the end of the novel it provides the springboard for a sequel (which I suspect is its primary purpose).

Once, we enter the "remembering," we are plunged head-first into the action. The Vostroyans are fighting a battle of attrition against both rebels and orks. Here is where Parker shines. The battle scenes are brutal and beautifully constructed. Very rarely is an author able to manipulate a squad, let alone a company, and Parker does it well and efficiently. Something else that he does well is to describe the strategic elements of a battle. I particularly appreciate the map at the beginning of the book. By referring to it during the reading I was able to see and understand both the strategic and tactical decisions made by the combatants.

In conclusion, I found the novel a brilliant first effort. I enjoyed the mixture of pathos and bravura in the characters and when I say characters I mean many characters, each one is well-drawn and memorable. I have two minor criticisms though: one, the framing device distracts from the strength of the plot and, two, in an attempt to fully handle his "company" of characters, Mr. Parker switches point of view several times, which I found disturbed the smooth progression of the narrative. In that regard,I prefer either a single or at most a double point of view.

As a final word, I would recommend this novel to both Warhammer fans and military science fiction readers. I think Steve Parker now shares the stage with other great military science-fiction writers like Dan Abnett, Andy Remic, Paul Kearney, Chris Roberson, and Steven Pressfield.

I am looking forward to reviewing his latest novel--Gunheads.