Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Blood War Trilogy: Dawn of War review

   Epic fantasy is a descriptor which gets tossed around a lot but we rarely have any idea what it is. What is epic? The short, not quite Webster's definition, is "big." The events have a huge scope and far-reaching consequences for massive numbers of people.

    Oddly enough, I've always felt The Lord of the Rings straddled the line of a fantasy epic and only really became so because we got the perspectives of so many individuals within the Fellowship. It's not just Frodo's view Sam's, Aragorn's, Merry's, Pippin's, Eowyn's, and a half-dozen other characters of varying backgrounds as well as social-classes.

    What does this have to do with The Blood War Trilogy? These books are an attempt to analyze a somewhat typical fantasy premise (Orc-like Humanoids and their savage allies invade a Medieval fantasy kingdom) from multiple perspectives so we have a sense of their scope.

    Dawn of War begins by giving us the perspective of a border guard in love with a Princess and their doomed romance but moves to a farmer's son, a group of religious tribals, a pair of Not-Quite Elves, the Orc-like Humanoids themselves, some impoverished lower-class citizens, and even a group of 'civilized' members of their race who are disgusted by their kind's behavior.

    If you were to do a story about World War One from the perspective of, say, a gentry-born officer then you'd have a very different one from a man recruited from South London. The same for German, French, or Italian troops. That's not even getting into the women, children, and other noncombatants in the story who still might have vitally important stories to tell. The event was huge and impacted countless lives.

   These books, basically, try to answer the question, "So, what would Sauron's invasion have looked like to people not in the Fellowship?" Well, not quite, since we get the start of a group of heroes not-too-disimilar from Tolkien's in their own way but a lot of time is spent getting their perspective on the events around them. They are not in control of the story but being swept up in the flow of events and that's an interesting angle to take.

    So what is Dawn of War about?

    On a purely superficial level, it's about an invasion of the kingdom of Lathah by the Grol who are a bunch of wolfmen who behave in a fashion similar to Tolkien's orcs. The Grol have armed themselves with a bunch of magical items they've (apparently) seized from the Sha'Ree (similar to elves) and have gained an insurmountable military advantage against humanity.

    The Grol are irredeemably one-dimensionally evil but Tim Marquitz is smart enough to make it clear it's not because of their race but because of their culture (with the Tolen being another nation of their race which considers them the murderous savages they are). The book follows a variety of characters as they struggle to deal with the horrors of war brought to their borders by a people they can't realistically fight.

    As my father was want to say, "war is incredibly heroic in movies but it forgets most people who fight are terrified of getting killed, which can happen at any time and any place." There's more going on, including a conspiracy related to how the Grol got the equivalent of magical V2 rockets, but it's really all about how shocking and terrible all of this is.

    Dawn of War thrives on its excellent characterization, its multiple viewpoints, and strong world-building. This is a living world and it had a lot of interwoven relationships before the Grol decided to kick over the game board and change everything. Fans of action sequences will love the gory but rousing action sequences which reminded me of the John Milinus Conan: The Barbarian. Killing people was nasty, brutish, and short but also all the cooler for the authentic detail. Enemies rarely become "just" targets in this book, even when fighting merciless invaders.

    The book isn't perfect, Tim Marquitz opens the story with its primary viewpoint character having a long and involved backstory involving a princess explained to us rather than showing it in text, but this is a small quibble over an otherwise excellent book. Once I figured out what he was doing, I became invested in understanding this world and everything going on. War is hell and that includes fantasy war, which the author beautifully brings to life in all its pathos as well as angst.

    Also, this book has orc-werewolves, so what's not to like?


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