The Lich King of Azeroth.
It's difficult to really convey the story of Arthas to anyone who hasn't played Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion The Frozen Throne. I may eventually get to reviewing those real-time strategy games someday because they remain the apex of storytelling in their genre. Which, admittedly, means it's them against Command and Conquer plus Starcraft but I digress.
For those who didn't play the game, it was a wonderful "Fall from Grace" story as Arthas attempts to save the Kingdom of Lordaeron from a zombie apocalypse. Well, undead apocalypse. Arthas went to increasing extremes throughout the book, doubling down on his bad decisions, until he ended up losing his soul to the accursed sword Frostmourne.
Arthas' story was very similar to what a lot of fans expected from the Star Wars Prequels. Arthas as the good but flawed knight who ends up selling his soul for the power to help others. In his attempts to save everyone, he becomes the very thing he despises. Oh so tragic. Arthas also had elements of Michael Moorcock's Elric with his magic sword that appears to be less evil than the monster it slays.
Christie Golden has the unenviable task of expanding the story of Azeroth's most iconic villain. How do you improve on a story which was told well in another medium? A simple repetition of the story would not be satisfying while changing things runs the risk of removing what fans liked.
With the defeat of Arthas not yet having been detailed by the time of the book's publication, a lot of fans were also looking for some way Arthas might get his comeuppance too. Christie Golden succeeds by making it a story about Arthas the man versus Arthas the monster.
Arthas: Rise of the Lich King is a character study of a flawed and weak man who still had many admirable qualities. Arthas was born to a lineage of heroes in the wake of the extra-dimensional orc invasions. Everything was expected of Arthas and he did his best to deal with these monumental expectations, even when it would have been better for him not to be so perfect.
Arthas was a man who would not bend and thus simply broke.
Surprisingly, despite the fact I'm not often a big fan of this, the love triangle was my favorite part of the book. My favorite World of Warcraft character, Jaina Proudmoore, falls in love with the person Arthas pretends to be and is ultimately betrayed when she gets a peek at the weakness inside.
It was a powerful moment because it's something which doesn't need wizards, witches, or undead but all-too-human fear. I also like the addition of Kael'thas to their relationship as we see another character like Arthas, used to getting everything he want and surprised when he doesn't. By the end, poor Jaina has been put through the ringer emotionally and her suffering has only begun as later books show.
The book has many memorable moments, including how Arthas acquired his signature horse and meetings with other signature characters who would shape the setting. None of these scenes are used as an opportunity for a cameo but are exploited to give insight into Arthas' thinking process. He's a man smothered by his lack of choice and, arguably, this prevented him from ever developing the ability to make good ones.
No wonder he chose the "freedom" of evil.
The ending of the novel is excellent because it deconstructs excuses for evil. Arthas has many reasons for why he did the things he did: Frostmourne, Ner'zul, Mal'Ganis, Uther, his father, and even Jaina. People who loved him want to believe he could be redeemed and that his previous goodness outweighs what he'd become. That he's not at fault for what he's done. The book provides an answer and lets Arthas take responsibility for the first time in his life in a great but terrible way.
In conclusion, Arthas: Rise of the Lich King is a great "Start of Darkness" story which gets us into the head of the Lich King and shows us why he's the dangerous monster he is. What makes him so terrifying, though, isn't that he's a remorseless evil psychopath. It's that he chose being one over being a hero because it was easier.
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