I wrote a few weeks ago in my review of In Thunder Forged that the Iron Kingdoms (TM) is a place I was looking forward to visiting again. Simon Berman was kind enough to send me a review copy of the latest novella in Privateer Press’ Skull Island eXpeditions line. (Thank you very much, Simon.) The Warcaster Chronicles consists of two novellas so far, but if the quality of this one is consistent with the rest of the line, there will be more once word gets out about them.
Personally, I prefer the novella length because it allows an author to develop character and world while still maintaining a good pace. There’s no time to get bogged down in unnecessary details in a novella. Plus, I can read one in one or two sittings without investing a major portion of my life.
The Butcher of Khardov is Orsus Zhoktavir. He’s seven and a half feet tall and more than a match for any man. He watched his parents butchered by raiders when he was ten. He’s working as a lumberjack and engaged to a girl named Lola. But you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Wells doesn’t tell this story in chronological order. Instead he skips around, showing us various parts of Orsus’s life. He shows us the conflicted, damaged man Orsus is, one who wants to do right and leave the killing and violence behind him but can’t for a number of reasons, including madness and regret and the consequences of his own choices. Wells displays a wide range. The battle scenes are exciting and well executed. Orsus’s courtship of Lola is filled with warmth, humor, and love. Contrasted with the courtship is Orsus’s regret and madness as he struggles with his failures and all the things he’s done. There’s an overarcing story, concerning the new young queen. I have to admit, while I wasn’t surprised at the queen’s response to Orsus, it was the perfect ending. It’s also an ending that raises the question who the greater butcher will ultimately turn out to be.
Orsus isn’t always a likeable character, particularly in the novella’s opening scene. But he’s a very human one, a man the reader can relate to on some level because he’s a man wanting to belong, to protect, to serve, and one who sometimes fails. By showing us the human side of Orsus, especially his feeling towards his parents and Lola, Wells makes us care for him. Which makes his failures all the more powerful. This is someone you will want to succeed, and you’ll root for him even when you know he’s going to fail.
A few days ago, Tom Doolan wrote a post on his blog in which he brought up the perception of gaming fiction in the minds of the general fantasy reading public. I have to say that while I’ve not read a great deal of gaming related fiction, I’m going to keep reading in the Iron Kingdoms setting. I’ve only read two works so far, The Butcher of Khardov and In Thunder Forged, but they’ve been as good or better than much of the independent novels I’ve read over the last few years. It’s this type of book that’s helped me overcome my literary snobbery. It’s books like these that will change people’s perceptions about gaming related fiction.
The Butcher of Khardov is only available in ebook format. The formatting is top notch. There are no jumps, weird line breaks, or other problems. The illustrations add to the story rather than detract from it. My only complaint is that the map doesn’t show up well in greyscale on a first generation ereader like the one I have. But that’s a minor point.