Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dirge review

    Zombies, by nature, are a fantastical creature but they've never actually taken off in fantasy itself. This is something I've always been curious about as they play a huge role as enemies in video games like Skyrim and Warcraft 3 but aside from Army of Darkness, I can't really think of any major fantasy works where the undead are the major enemy. That may change with George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire but the Others are still a long way's a way as of 2015.

    Personally, I blame Dungeons and Dragons as that wonderful work made it clear the undead were low-level enemies not fit to do much but threaten 0-level peasants. The zombie, by contrast, is the major antagonist in more "realistic" (for lack of a better term) fiction. An entire industry has emerged around regular humans facing down the walking dead. But can wights, ghouls, and revenants really threaten the heroes of a world where heroes are more likely to wield spells than shotguns?

    Dirge says yes.

    The premise is the fantasy world of Delham is on its last legs. The necrolords, the on-the-nose named group of death mages, have pushed humanity to its breaking point via an endless army of cannibalistic ghouls. Humanity's survivors are united under the not-quite-as-but-still-pretty-damn-evil Emperor Valtore in walled compounds designed to keep the undead horrors at bay. This is a simple, easy-to-understand, but effective premise for generating lots of tension. In this environment, our (anti)heroine is Kallie.

    Kallie is the daughter of a destroyed noble house who was rescued from slavery by a benevolent group of priests trying to minister to the dying remnants of humanity in this hellish world. Kallie, like Garrett from the Thief series of video games, is grateful to her rescuers but possessed of a decidedly more flexible code of conduct.

    Taking up a new trade, Kallie has carved a name for herself as the genderless hooded assassin Dirge. Kallie dreams of someday putting a knife through the heart of Emperor Valtore but has the more immediate concerns of making sure the refugees her priestly friends guard have enough to eat. That means killing people. Ironically, more often than not, for the Emperor.

    After all, he pays the most.

    Tim Marquitz succeeds in creating actual moral ambiguity as opposed to many of the series which claim to do so but really just mean, "the hero is justified in doing whatever they want." Every single person, save the necrolords, has a sympathetic motivation for what they're doing even if said motivation means they want to kill each other. Kallie is a strong female protagonist, more concerned with survival than sex appeal, and I could easily see her the star of a more visual medium like a comic book or movie.

    The world he's created gets special kudos because it passes a test which many other fantasy novels fail: it does not require a manual to understand. Despite there being only one book in the series, I get who Kallie is, what the situation is, who is doing what, and why. It's a fantastic world but I was never lost in who the players were, what the stakes are, and who was after what.

    Simplicity in storytelling doesn't mean dumbed down and, ironically, is more often the reverse. I could easily get into this world and understand what was going on. Too often, fantasy tries to deluge you with useful facts while not saying, "This is who these people are." Delham's people are a desperate, pragmatic, but fundamentally good people trapped in a horrifying situation. I could easily read an anthology or series of stories with other characters in this world and hope to do so in the future.


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