Monday, 8 September 2014
Gotrek & Felix: The Serpent Queen (Book Review)
If you ever stop to look at the Gotrek and Felix series in detail, you'll notice a sharp divide between William King's departure and its return with Orcslayer. Along with the obvious difference of having a new author, many elements of the series were altered to try and make it far more in-line with the current Warhammer Fantasy setting. Along with a timeline update bringing the stories into the era of the End Times, just after the last Chaos incursion into the Empire, the series lost many of its more lighthearted elements. While rarely shying away from bloodshed, sorrow or the grim nature of the setting, the series was noted for having more upbeat moments than many tales of a similar nature. Rather than being set in a doomed world, the original series seemed more akin to heroes fighting against overwhelming odds but still stood a chance of walking away victorious. In almost every respect The Serpent Queen is a return to the classic style of these tales, both for better and worse.
Set during the duo's travels away from the Empire between Giantslayer and Orcslayer, the two end up in the steaming jungles of Lustria. Upon being separated thanks to an attack by undead corsairs, they soon find themselves caught in the midst a war between factions vying for power. Not the servants of the Old Ones, but the undying lords of distant lands bound forever to their ancient duties. Just what deal was Gotrek forced to broker between the dynasties of old, and just how far will they be forced to go in order to repay it?
Despite the lack of Ulrika, Max or Snorri, from the very start it is clearly channeling the style of old stories. Starting with Gotrek and Felix just arriving at their next location for this book, the gallows and humourous elements are present in force. While the violence, threat and undead minions are there from very early on, there's a clear willingness to make jokes about Gotrek's death seeking nature or the nature of their certain foes. It gives it far more variation than other books and this willingness to actually laugh at itself makes the book feel more lifelike. Given its setting and style, the series was never going to win any awards for being a literacy classic, so this helps to build up a sense of goodwill and familiarity from the reader.
What helps to make this work is that the characters themselves play into this extremely well, even those newly introduced. While we do have certain straight man characters akin to Felix, these have their own blend of humour or attitudes which can be played off of for the occasional joke quite easily while the rest of the time serving as a serious individual. This allows it the same balance the old series had, maintaining the ability to instantly flip between moments of surprising drama and humour at the drop of a hat without it ever feeling misplaced. While not directly replicating King's writing style, Josh Reynolds has managed to nail the best qualities of the old series.
There is also a willingness to only go so far with certain ideas and the presentation of old civilisations. While the books have repeatedly visited multiple arcane societies, the strongholds of mages and lost cities, they make the point of never becoming completely caught up in them. The reader is shown just enough to satisfy any questions they might have and leave the door open for possible future exploration, but the focus is still upon an adventuring quest. Given how the Khemri are presented here, the novel could have easily become bogged down explaining too much of them, but by using their arrogance and Felix's nature as the viewpoint character it manages to avoid these problems. This said, while it does make fun of certain internal squabbles, the writing here is fairly respectful of their capabilities and even the joke characters are shown to have a degree of competence.
The actual quest itself does manage to visit a surprisingly varied number of locations throughout Lustria. As great a setting as a jungle might be, it can often prove surprisingly limiting and without too many features to work with. Much like a desert, if treated in the wrong way it can come across as featureless and generally samey, but here the journey visits enough varying locations to keep the plot moving. It stays with each one long enough to make them interesting but never for so long that the story doesn't feel as if it's lost momentum. This is especially helpful to the battle sequences, as Reynolds does seem to focus upon environmental descriptions and larger details rather than individual sword swings in battles, so it means the action is often strong. Even if there is a fight taking place which isn't to your tastes, this is soon sorted out by the time they move onto somewhere else.
The only two notable problems, besides seeming a little insubstantial in terms of dramatic impact at times, come from elements of the old series. The Serpent Queen is taking the best elements of the old books, but it also brought with it a few failings as well.
The relationship between Felix and Gotrek in particular seems to have regressed back several omnibuses, and there's a distinct lack of real trust between the two. While they do cite they have been together for some time, the way the dwarf acts towards Felix is far more directly condescending than usual, as if there is no degree of respect between them. While this was present in the earlier books, it rapidly diminished over time and was more or less gone by the time of Daemonslayer. The same goes for Felix's fighting prowess which seems to have been taken down several notches, and his overall experience has been dialed back a good decade. Overall, out of all the characters he is easily the one to come off worst here.
The other problem is the villains. William King's books were notably hit or miss for their antagonists, and even the Macharius series and Space Wolf books suffered from this curse. Even those which did feature solid antagonists often had them distanced from the heroes or oddly disconnected from events. This is unfortunately true here, and while Reynolds does try to give them some dimension with internal struggles, relationships and ambitions, it really doesn't amount to much. There's very little to really be said about them one way or the other, and despite the effort being spent to build them up they ultimately have little presence beyond killing people.
These are the only minor issues however though, and for the rest of it the book proves to be entertaining from start to finish. It's more fun escapism than hard hitting literature, but that's what the Gotrek and Felix books have always done best above all else. Between decent action, entertaining characters and writing by an author who knows when to have the novel make fun of itself, it's well worth a read by anyone irritated by the current direction of the series. Just don't expect to see Gotrek slaying anything bigger than a dragon this time around.