Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Book Review: The Last Witchking

There’s nothing like a good pogrom, fatwā, book banning, congressional committee, or concerned citizens group to pique my interest in something. The greater the moral panic, the better the advertising. It was inevitable the hand-wringing surrounding the Hugo nominations this year would be just enough to get me to see what the fuss is about. I dove in to a book by the infamous Vox Day just hoping to be scandalized. (It’s the least I can do after growing up in the shadow of B.A.D.D. and the PMRC.)

I almost didn’t finish it. The first few pages consisted of two star-crossed lovers saying their last goodbyes to one another. I just about gave up right there, but the depiction of elves shortly after that held my attention. They weren’t the stereotypical tree-hugging types, but had a bit of an edge to them. Before long I was caring about the main character and clicking the page down key. My eyeballs were glued to the monitor and I couldn’t stop reading. (I’d picked up the Kindle edition that was free the other day because of the third story’s controversial Hugo nomination.)

Now, I’ve been hooked on page turners before that ended up making me feeling disappointed afterwards. You might know you’ve been had, but you keep buying books in the series because you have to know how it ends. This wasn’t like that. The main characters here are all so different from each other: an evil witchking, a goblin warrior, and elvish “seeker.” What’s intriguing to me is the extent to which I became immersed in the perspectives of each one. I really want to see each one to succeed… even when I maybe shouldn’t such as in the case of the titular character.

The diversity and the depth of engagement that I got here was particularly refreshing.  I’m starting to get sick of the way that the same character types are getting repeated over and over lately. While these three stories are too short for elaborate plots, they do culminate into thought provoking punchlines. I’ve seen criticism about the need for a little more development– the witchking could have had a few more qualms about killing innocent people early on in his career, perhaps– but as a sample of a larger world, there is enough here to let you decide whether or not you’d want to invest in a full length novel in this vein.

This is very nearly game fiction, however. There’s elves and orcs and dwarves and demons and monsters and magic. It’s hard to believe that the author can make something so hackneyed seem fresh and real, but there’s a vibrancy to his world building that makes it compelling. A big plus for me that that it’s almost as if he has interpolated the background details of the classic Dwarfstar Games’ Goblin and Demonlord. Reading the book, you can almost pretend for a while that the past couple of decades didn’t happen.

The average internet denizen is going to more concerned with whether or not this particular author’s politics interposes itself within the storytelling. If something like that is in this collection, I failed to find it. An evil character realized that he sort of enjoyed hurting women, but, well… he was becoming more evil with every scene at that point. One of the stories had gag on the tendency of people to create fake phobias about their pet issues. I thought it fell flat because it seemed anachronistic in the context, but it really was just a joke and not a serious attempt to gore anyone’s ox. The third story has two pages of an elf debating a theological question with a Catholic monk. It seem to me to be there more establish the characters and move the plot along than it was to preach at the readers– and if you read to the end, you’ll see that it actually turns out to be integral to the story.

Admittedly, the religious axioms that underlie this setting are kind of the point of it. For instance, when you read Asimov’s Foundation stories, it’s pretty obvious that no one in his future will have remembered anything about Jesus or the apostles. In Herbert’s Dune, you can tell that the major world religions have changed radically as they adapt, evolve, and cross-pollinate each other in the far future. Lewis wrote stories where the gospel was so fundamental to reality that Christ would manifest into alternate universes to die for peoples’ sins there. Clarke wrote about a future alien invasion that was so traumatic, that it retroactively triggered the creation of legends about demons at the dawn of history through the psychic shock. (That’s why the aliens looked like demons!) Tolkien’s world successfully synthesized mythical analogs of the Greek pantheon with his own religious beliefs, but the age of myth fades into “real” history at some point and is gradually forgotten. Every epic story is necessarily going to bring some sort of metaphysics to the table.

What Vox Day has done here is allow the mythical to hold on long enough that Christianity has to actually confront it. This is something that Tolkien strained himself to avoid. In The Lord of the Rings, the prayer of Faramir’s men is silent, for example, and the hobbits are ignorant of the religious practices of Númenor. Tolkien’s only reference to real world religion is when he slipped up and mentioned how the “heathen kings” would burn themselves to death. Other than that, he avoids the topic except for a few wry hints about prophecies coming true and how Bilbo was meant to find the ring by some unspecified higher power.

In contrast, the Selenoth stories seem to tackle this head on while naming names. Critically, the reader is free to draw his own conclusions about the ultimate truths that underlie the setting. (The absence of such a freedom is of course why Tolkien detested allegory, so he might have approved of it here.) It isn’t clear if the Catholic characters are right about the nature of reality or not. They’re just fairly true to life Catholics. There is no breaking of the fourth wall and no place where an omniscient narrator breaks in to show you that Christ really did rise from the dead, for example. The effectiveness of the final story in the set rests in the questions that it leaves with the reader rather than any sort of pat answers the author could have peddled.

I’m glad for this brouhaha over the Hugo nominations, because this book would have never crossed my radar otherwise. It was well worth the few hours it took to read it, but I’m skeptical of the idea that a book set in this world could go toe to toe with George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. That sounds extremely audacious given the popularity of the latter. Still, believable characters in a traditional fantasy setting handled with this degree of verve is something I’m willing to take a look at. I expect to read another book by this author before long.

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12 responses to “Book Review: The Last Witchking

  1. sevendarks April 25, 2014 at 6:41 am

    hmm may have to pick up a copy myself

  2. alauda April 25, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Of course, the mere existence of elves makes it even worse.

  3. JSpace April 25, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Those Talislanta advertisments were kind of deceptive. Talislanta does have a sort of elves, they’re just called cymirilians. They have green skin, pointed ears, are skilled in magic and their origins are somewhat alien in nature. It is still a great game however, regardless of one’s opinion of elves.

    My favorite Talislanta species will always be the caravan-bugs though, tiny tribal insects that use tools and trade herbs and nuts with other creatures. They occupy a spot on nearly every wilderness encounter table I’ve made for years.

  4. dgarsys April 25, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Have not read the whole book. DID read Opera vita Aeterna. Given the title is a blend of Latin and Italian, it has multiple shades of meaning, all of which apply to the story – Work of eternal life, work of a lifetime (both in the sense of something done so well nothing else like that can be done in a lifetime, and a work that literally takes a lifetime…), etc.

    I think your note that the theology is the frame of the story but not the point – the point is the friendship, and the quest to find and create truth and beauty. In the end, the reader is left to decide for himself whether, and in what, the elf believed.

    I’ve also read the collected stories in Wardog’s Coin, and found them an entertaining read, if not as profound as Opera. His openings tend toward clunky, but he’s skilled at taking a trope we’re familiar with as shorthand, and breathing life into it.

    On a related note – I’ve picked up a copy of John Wright’s “Awake in the Night Lands” but am holding off so I can finish Hodgson’s original “The Night Lands”. You can think of it as a blend of Vance’s “Dying Earth” with the Cthulhu/Dreamlands (the more nightmarish end of the latter) and one of the earliest archeology concepts I’ve ever seen in fiction with the Last Redoubt of mankind.

    • jeffro April 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      “The theology is the frame of the story but not the point – the point is the friendship, and the quest to find and create truth and beauty. In the end, the reader is left to decide for himself whether, and in what, the elf believed.”

      Well said. Also… thanks for the translation!

      Edit: And ah… here’s The Night Land for free. Hmm…. 1912 is old school!

      • alauda April 25, 2014 at 12:33 pm

        The Night Land is free. Get it for free.

        [Jeffro: I found it, thanks!!]

      • dgarsys April 25, 2014 at 11:10 pm

        VERY old school – roughly the same time as Lovecraft. One of the earliest of the “dying earth” genre, as well as one of the earliest examples of a full-blown archeology. Instead of a vance-style decay, there is instead a dead earth that has stopped spinning and lost its moon, and the last redoubt is beset by strange and nightmarish creatures and effects on all sides. Very poetic in a timeless sort of way.

        [Jeffro: Sounds like Thundarr the Barbarian.]

    • Radpert May 1, 2014 at 9:21 am

      I’m only on page 8 and I haven’t gotten any indication that the moon is floating away (I guess by Thundarr the Barbarian Jeff means the magic & monsters), so you must mean Awake in the Night Lands. Love the anachronistic style of The Night Lands, although the adventure-novel hero is more conflicted than most of the nineteenth century, with the almost obligatory physical prowess and Victorian adventurer backstory hinted at, matched with a personality cut from the cloth of adolescent fantasy and no apparent cultural sophistication whatsoever (so far).

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