Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Ulrika Trilogy Ends

Ulrika Magdova, heroine of Nathan Long's Vampire Trilogy, a young Kislevite noble woman, first appeared in William King’s Daemonslayer (Games Workshop 2003), and should be familiar to all readers of the Gotrek and Felix novels. Alive, she is brave, beautiful, and maddening, especially for Felix. In death, she is still brave and beautiful but now also ruthless and deadly.

The trilogy is now complete and ready for a summing up. Bloodborn (Games Workshop 2010), Bloodforged (Games Workshop 2011), and Bloodsworn (Game Workshop 2012) are together both a Bildungsroman and a Vampire tale, grounded in sword and sorcery. The Ulrika trilogy employs elements of horror, adventure, and the Bildungsroman to introduce us to a fascinating heroine. Irrespective of the novels' vampire characters and setting or the fact they are a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, they ultimately succeed as adventure tales set in a horrific Gothic environment, where sword and sorcery rule the day.

The first novel, Bloodborn (Games Workshop 2010),  begins a few weeks after the events of William King’s Vampireslayer (Games Workshop 2004). Ulrika’s abductor, Adolphus Krieger, dies at the hands of Snorri Nosebiter, and Ulrika, a fledgling vampire, tormented by an insatiable hunger and under the control of Gabriella, her mistress (figurative mother), is deserted by her friends. Gotrek and Felix, knowing they cannot help her, leave, as she struggles to come to grips with her destiny. Long shows us her maturation from death to her bid for independence. As a newborn (born of blood), she is, in every sense of the word, a child. At times she is petulant, demanding, selfish, reckless, and stubborn; and, throughout, her mistress, Gabriella, like a stern mother, has to rein her in and instruct her to focus and be disciplined and sensible.  Ulrika and Gabriella are sent to the city of Nuln to investigate the very public and brutal murders of several vampires. The exposure of vampires in the midst of the city sets off panic in the streets and Long minutely describes the city and its inhabitants’ fears as well as their brutalities as days pass and the number of corpses increases. He also describes the social castes of the city and the various organizations that run it as well as the empire. Witch hunters follow the vampires and ghouls spring from the cemeteries. Long even sends his characters into the famous sewers of Nuln, the home of the skaven, to ferret out clues.

In Bloodforged, Long moves the action from Nuln to Praag, Ulrika's starting point. Like a petulant teenager now, she rebels against her Lahmian mother, Gabriella, and heads north, vowing to use her supra-human strength to fight the creatures of the Ruinous Powers. Her goal is to be a Vampire avenger, protecting the weaker humans, who she feels a closer affinity to than the vampires that now control and protect her. When she strikes out for home, she is seeking freedom, family, and friendship. Mr. Long brilliantly captures the anger and frustration of a young vampire (teenager), showing her virtually tearing apart her safe home in Nuln in a youthful rage and fleeing her sisters for her human home in Praag. Once there she makes contact with Snorri Nosebiter and discovers that Gotrek and Felix have disappeared. She also tracks down Max Schreiber, an ex-lover, only to discover that he is has taken another lover. This discovery results in unnatural paroxysm of jealousy, which demonstrates Ulrika's immaturity. "Quivers of rage made Ulrika's arms shake, and her claws dug deep into the bark of her branch. A growl started low in throat and she crouched forward like a hunting cat. How dare he take another lover!" (Bloodborn p.111)

Without friends and family, Ulrika, now truly alone, takes up residence in an abandoned and ruined bakery; however, because of her self-imposed rule--she can only feed on villains--she finds herself hungry most of the time. When she sees some abusive men, running a protections racket, rob a poor blind singer she quickly acts to avenge the wrong. However, in a scene, somewhat reminiscent of Aragorn's meeting with the Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, she is seen by another vampire, a handsome and dashing male. This moment--this discovery by a male--acts as the exciting point of the story's main plot lines: the life and death struggle between the van Carstein vampires and the Lahmians, Ulrika's inability to tell friend from foe, Ulrika's acceptance that she is a vampire and no longer human, and Ulrika's sexual awakening.

Finally, in Bloodsworn,Ulrika has accepted her fate as a Vampire but this fact does not end her quest or her education. The world of Vampires is as nuanced as the human world and Ulrika must choose which group with whom to align. Like a troubled teenager, she has rebelled against the Lahmians, balking against their need to control her. She is torn between feelings of love and hate for her mistress, Countess Gabriella; whereas it was the von Carsteins, who initially entrapped her, turned her, and now threaten both the Empire's and the Lahmians' very existence. Her next move must be one of election: which Vampire group will she align herself. She must ask herself where she belongs in the world. Once again she is forced to evaluate the war against humans, her loyalty to her kind, and her own need for independence.

The three novels are exciting reads: well-plotted, with fully-developed characters. Mr. Long carefully delineates the definitive movements in Ulrika's character; she matures (very, very slowly) from a child-like creature in the first novel to a figurative teenager in the second and to a young, somewhat erratic, independent adult in the final installment. Throughout, however, the novels remain true to their sword and sorcery roots: they are rollicking adventure tales that roll along a fair clip like Saturday morning serials, never really pausing to examine the psychological manifestations that occur simultaneously with the full-throttle action of their full-bodied (and charismatic) protagonist.

Mr. Long is the master of what he calls sabrepunk; that is, an adventure tale similar to those written by Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Alexander Dumas, and Raphael Sabatini. To quote Mr. Long's own definition: "Sabrepunk is swashbuckling, street-wise sword and sorcery that draws from low fantasy, hard-boiled pulp, cloak-and-dagger thrillers, and old-fashioned romantic adventure. It is visceral and immediate. It is crude and sly. It is red and black and break-neck. The doings of sorcerers and kings may spark the action, but rarely are they the story themselves. Instead, the tales are of hard men and dangerous women whose lives are mauled by the whims of the powerful, and who must therefore draw swords and fight in order to survive. There are heroes here, but no saints."

Ulrika is definitely one of those heroes. And, although the trilogy is complete, I cannot believe Ulrika is finished. At the end of Bloodsworn, Ulrika is a powerful warrior but that cannot be the end of her education. I can imagine a series of novels where Ulrika grows, matures, and rises through the ranks to become not only a powerful soldier but also a wise and cunning leader.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Riff on Point of View in Historical, Military and Fantasy Fiction with a nod to Joe Abercrombie and Ralph Peters

Ralph Peters, the author of Cain at Gettysburg (Forge 2012), recently stated that  "history deals in externals, where historical fiction delves into the soul of man." With that statement in mind, I would like to look at several  novels--both realistic and fantastic--to illustrate the uses and devices of historical fiction and the way that certain writers achieve the objective suggested by Peters, while others fail. I am primarily interested in the way in which an author, when dealing with a battle or a war complete, attempts to inform the reader, through his or her choice of point of view, of the historical aspect of a battle as well as the participants' emotions.

Some writers employ the first person; however, this rhetorical device is limited in that we can only see what that first-person narrator sees or hears. It is quite difficult for an author to re-create the battle complete, while using the first person point of view, although some have used it and succeeded in creating an intense and entertaining work. The intensity comes, of course, from the immediacy the first person lends to the work. It is especially useful in recounting the persona's moment by moment encounter with death and fear. For instance, Peters, writing under his pen-name, Owen Parry, employs the first-person narrator to great effect in describing the battle of Shiloh in his novel, Call Each River Jordan (HarperTorch 2001). Major Abel Jones, his protagonist, leads the reader through the battle, subjecting us, during the process, to his beliefs, prejudices, perceptions and foibles. The novel begins with Jones remembering his arrival at Savannah just at the moment of attack. He begins his narration: "I remember the burning men. Wounded, and caught like the damned at the reckoning. In brush and bramble lit by battle's sparks." Hearing the sound of guns he quickly boards a paddle boat conveying troops upriver to the fighting and at Pittsburg landing he encounters fleeing Union soldiers: "Now I have seen fear, and felt it, but here is no greater danger for an army than panic." The persona sees it and interprets it for us.

Peters in Cain at Gettysburg and Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels (Random House 1987) both choose the limited omniscient point of view to tell the same story. Each man recounts the same historical facts but by picking different points of view characters to carry their tale, their novels differ. The author, using the third person, knows all but chooses to pick pertinent characters to carry the narrative, revealing only what they think or feel. We know only what they know and nothing more.Additionally, authors have their own themes and their own preoccupations. Peters concentrates on the diversity of the soldiers, choosing, inter alia, the 26th Wisconsin to carry his narrative to great effect. Probably the most exciting point of the book delved into the Irish's defense against Pickett's charge. Shaara, on the other hand, is more interested in the dynamic personality and character of Lee, Longstreet, and Chamberlin. Through these real men he ruminates on the mistakes made by leadership and the sacrifices suffered by the common soldier. Shaara's book is romantic and didactic, instilling its chosen POV characters with a metaphorical essence, whereas Peters is tough, dogged, real, earthy, and true.

A variation of this rhetorical device is Shelby Foote's Shiloh (Knopf 1991). Foote minutely describes the battle through a series of short stories, long chapters, each one dealing with a single character. This unique rhetorical choice of interrelated short stories illustrates both sides of the battle and most of the events with a haunting immediacy, somewhat similar to William Faulkner's civil war novel, The Unvanquished (Knopf 1991) and Stephen Crane's A Red Badge of Courage (Penguin Group 2005). However, Crane's novel follows one warrior through the unnamed battle. Here, Crane uses the third-person limited omniscient point of view to great effect. We don't learn much history but we do experience the soul of man.

When a genre novel fails for me, it is usually a failure of point view. Among younger genre writers, there seems to be an attempt to employ the rhetorical devices of film rather than the correct use of point of view. Nothing jars the reader worst than a sudden shift in point of view; similar to a jump cut, these shifts are between characters and point of view, sometimes on the same page and sometimes in the same paragraph.  Perhaps, even more egregious, some follow the strict third-person limited point of view through eighty percent of the novel and then jump over to another character to show us some new aspect of the action. One of the most recent examples that drew my ire was in Simon Scarrow's latest novel. It probably bothered me so much because I love Simon Scarrow's work. I've read everything he's written to this date. However, in his latest novel, Praetorian (Headline Books 2011), Scarrow jumps out of his single limited third-person point of view to follow Macro off on a bit of misadventure. The switch from the character carrying the narrative to another upset me and interrupted my reading rhythm.

A fantasy novel that impressed me greatly and illustrates the use of multiple limited third-person points of view is Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes (Orbit 2011). The novel set in Abercrombie's fantasy universe relies on the same techniques that Shaara and Peters used to re-create the battle of Gettysburg and to delve deeply into their characters' personality. More particularly, even though The Heroes is an example of the new grittiness and realism in fantasy fiction, it is also strongly character driven ( a nod to older fantasy fiction); something that only a dedicated and disciplined point of view can successfully deliver. Just as Peters attempts to reveal the soul of man in his re-creation of Gettysburg, so, too, does Abercrombie. And, even though the two novels arise from two somewhat disparate genres--one realistic and the other fantastic--they feel very similar to me and I would suggest that they be read together.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012