What does one do when one survives an assassination attempt by your nation's leader? A leader who has proven willing to do anything to accumulate power and may use your species as cannon fodder in a genocidal war against other races?
Apparently, the answer is sit around and talk a lot.
This is perhaps unfair but this is novel goes in a strange direction after its explosive beginning. There's no lack of action in the book. It's one of the bloodiest World of Warcraft novels ever, at least in terms of body count, but the obvious hook never materializes. Instead of desiring revenge against the person who tried to kill him, Vol'jin spends much of the novel feeling like his old life is over.
This is a realistic reaction to having your nation's head of state try to kill you. If the President tried to have you killed, most people wouldn't start thinking about how they might take him out. They'd go into hiding. Still, it's an unexpected reaction from one of Warcraft's signature heroes.
The premise of Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde is the titular character, Vol'Jin, survives an assassination attempt by Warchief Garrosh. Garrosh has determined Vol'jin is a potential threat, a fact Vol'jin grudgingly admits was true. Rescued by the peaceful Panderan race, Vol'jin takes up residence in a monastery and tries to figure out what he's going to do now that he's an enemy of the Horde. Vol'jin can't return to his people, the Darkspear Trolls, because they're too weak to oppose Garrosh on their own.
Rather than try to figure a way out of this conundrum, Vol'jin decides he'd prefer to begin his life anew. He's encouraged in this pursuit by a similarly wounded Alliance soldier named Tyrathan. Tyrathan has his own reasons for not wanting to return to his old life and believes he might find peace by adopting a new identity. Neither of them get their wish as Panderia is soon invaded by the Zandalar Empire. The Zandalar are aided in this by the Mogu, ancient conquerors with dark occult powers.
On a basic level, I think the book spent way too much time ruminating about looking to your past life versus looking to the future. Michael A. Stackpole is a great author and I loved his Star Wars novels but I get the sense he believes he's saying something really profound but I'm just not feeling it.
It was hard to buy that Vol'jin would be so demoralized by his near-death experience given the constant battles he's had to endure up until this point. One doesn't become a leader of a group like the Darkspear without an iron will and strong sense of self.
Oddly, I prefer the supporting cast in the book to Vol'jin himself. Chen the Brewmaster, Li Li, and Tyrathan are all interesting and nuanced characters. The Panderians are a lovable race and there were times I just wanted to climb into the book and hug them all. Michael Stackpole does an excellent job establishing their culture too, giving a real sense of a living world. I could have used more Li Li, though, because I absolutely adore her character.
The villains are kind of iffy as their motivations boil down to: we're a bunch of racist imperialists who want to conquer the Panderians because we want their stuff. Which, to be honest, is hard to argue with because that was the motivation for a lot of empires throughout history. There's a nice bit with the heroes all recognizing something familiar about the Zandalar and Mogu's motivations.None of their cultures are innocent of holding similar ambitions.
In conclusion, this is a good book and I enjoyed it but all the naval-gazing detracted from the fun factor. I will say Panderia was a fun setting, Tyrathan was an interesting character, and the insights into Troll culture were cool. I also liked the action in the book.
At times, it felt like a martial arts epic.
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