Monday, January 11, 2010

"Reiksguard" by Richard Williams

Reiksguard by Richard Williams is one of the first books in Black Library's new series-- "An Empire Army Novel"-- and as such follows like a good trooper all the requirements, tropes, fluff, and alignments necessary to fit within the parameters of the for-hire IP(intellectual property)novel. It is also a contestant in the Dave Gemmell Legend Contest.

The novel concerns the exploits of several characters; there is no one central protagonist in the novel. Instead, it is a ensemble piece, like most "military" novels. Instead, of the lone hero, Williams focuses on the group--the Reiksguard. The novel begins with a new class of inductees to the Reiksguard, an elite order of knights, based in Altdorf and led by Marshall Kurt Helborg. Williams focuses on the group of young nobles who arrive to train during a major war in the north. The enemy is bleeding the knights of their men and replacements are necessary. Consequently, the initiates' training takes on not only a sense of urgency but also one of intrigue and danger. This tension is underlined by the appearance of a vivid group of mercenaries led by the uncle of one of the major characters of the novel Siebrecht von Matz.

The first part of the book concentrates on the training of young nobles from all the regions of the empire and the petty disputes born of nationalistic prejudices that those young men bring to Altdorf. The second part of the book concerns an expedition in the south to free up supply routes choked by an infestation of goblins led by a mutant goblin by the name of Thorntoad. Thorntoad, like all great villains,almost steals the show from the Reiksguard.

The strength of the novel lies in Williams' faultless prose, his understanding of military actions and behavior, the vivid battle scenes, and the well-described world of the goblin invaders. Additionally, the novel presents a certain psychological complexity: the young nobles are purblind, obstinate, ignorant, and petty; the politicians manipulative, cunning, and cruel, and the generals (except for Helborg) foolish and ambitious. The battle scenes are well wrought and explicit. Williams seems to understand the use of his military arsenal and he describes action scenes in a facile, believable way.And finally, the novel moves organically; every action seems to grow out the scene before it, which makes for an enjoyable, seamless read.

The one problem I had with the book was the conflict or mystery concerning Delmar von Reinhardt; it was one of those problems (so common in genre fiction and the mainstay in romance fiction) that could have been solved simply by having a meaningful conversation between the parties involved.

Reiksguard is a flawless military fantasy novel that involves a well-described, interesting, ensemble cast. However, sometimes the epithet "IP" spells doom to the writer who wants to attract a larger audience; that larger audience being, of course, the general fantasy reader who desires new worlds, new monsters, and new adventures. The moniker "IP" also has a chilling effect for judges of contests like the Dave Gemmell Legend Award. However, in the case of Reiksguard, I hope the readers avoid the stereotype. Yes, the book fulfills its pedigree; it is a Warhammer novel and the fans of Warhammer will enjoy it and applaud the "fluff." However, irrespective of its setting and pedigree, the novel is also a rousing military yarn with interesting, complex characters, operating in a well-wrought fantasy universe, which qualifies it to stand with the other non-IP novels in the Legend contest.

The strength of Gemmell's novels lies not only in his settings and characterization but in his pacing and narrative; he could also describe a fight (any kind of fight--from siege to knife fight) vividly. Further, he had no qualm about letting a character face his fate. Many brilliantly wrought characters died within the narrative structure. Williams has this same talent. There is a scene late in the novel where two characters, who had been enemies, fight back-to-back to survive an onslaught of goblins. It is a touching and at times humorous scene; well executed. As I read it, I felt the Gemmell touch (influence). I think that it is this kind of emotion and execution that the Gemmell reviewers are looking for and will find in Richard Williams' Reiksguard. Because ultimately emotion is what sets the Gemmell novel apart from most fantasy literature.

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