Book Review: The Wardog's Coin by Vox Day

(It so happens that the inside cover of this pair of short stories has one of the usual "Praise for A Throne of Bones" things in it, and that section references my review of that book. That was my first internet-published book review, of any kind, so I appreciate the hat-tip there. Even if I was referenced as "Didact's Reach" and not "Didact". Vox, in the unlikely event that you read this, please note.)

After the brilliant success that was A Throne of Bones, Vox seems to be content to release a set of short stories set in and around the world of Selenoth that he created as "samplers" of sorts until the second book in his Arts of Dark and Light series is released. These serve both as a way of introducing new readers to his writing style and the world that he has created, and to keep longtime readers (like me) happy until he finally releases his next epic tome.

His latest release is a pair of short stories, one set in the familiar world that he created with Summa Elvetica and A Throne of Bones, and one set in the same basic world, but rather different in style, tone, and approach. The first story is The Wardog's Coin, which tells the story of a mercenary fighting for the Savonders alongside the forces of the Elves against a massive army of Orcs and Goblins. The second, Qalabi Dawn, is definitely the more interesting of the two, if only because it tries something completely new and introduces a new race into the world of Selenoth. I'll go over each story separately, for they are very different, but both stories can be read entirely on their own.

First up we have the eponymous story of the pair, which is narrated from the perspective of a mercenary sergeant paid by the Savonders to hold the line against a massed Orc/Goblin army. The sergeant is "volunteered" by his captain to work with an Elvish mage for a night mission into the Orc war camp to destroy some three hundred warboars that the Orc general plans to use to smash through the comined Elven and Savondese lines the next day. Having gone through with the mission with, shall we say, mixed results, the sergeant prepares his men for the coming battle and fights on through to that battle's end.

In this story, Vox showcases two real talents: his ability to adopt the voice and mannerisms of his intended narrator, and his skill at describing battle in vivid and realistic detail. In the former, the sergeant really does come across as a non-commissioned officer- one of at best middle-school education, with a poor command of grammar and diction, but one who cares deeply about his men and shows it by bawling them out whenever possible. Vox isn't consistent in this, however, which shows that he does have limitations as a writer (which I think he himself would readily admit); I found that from time to time the sergeant's grammar would suddenly become rather too polished for an uneducated, battle-hardened mercenary before lapsing back into the speech patterns of an old salt. I would venture a guess that this is what happens when you're a superintelligence; you cannot help but be too clever by half once in a while. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be an outright annoyance instead of juts a minor flaw; Vox manages to restrain himself admirably and succeeds in delivering a realistic narrative. (I am not, by the way, the first person to note these slip-ups in voice; Vox himself posted a defence, of sorts, of his writing recently.)

His other great skill is in describing battle scenes. Anyone who has ever read Vox's blogs knows damned well that the man is an avid reader of history, and anyone who read his descriptions of the battles between Amorr's legions in ATOB will know that Vox's understanding of classic infantry tactics is excellent. I personally think that he ranks right up there with writers like Ross Leckie, who wrote a phenomenal trilogy on the Punic Wars, and Robert Harris, whose work on the Rome of Cicero is required reading for anyone who loves great historical fiction. Fans of Vox's previous work and of the other two authors mentioned here will NOT be disappointed with The Wardog's Coin. The description of the night operation in the Goblin camp is amazingly well done- you literally feel like you're there, racing among the warboars to complete the mission. The subsequent battle is described in brutal detail- though perhaps not quite as brutal as the PoV narratives from ATOB. It is, after all, a short story. The aftermath of the battle, which is where Vox wraps up the story, is definitely the best part; there's a real sense of poetry in the manner in which Vox describes the loss of dear comrades, the feeling of achievement, and the hopes represented by each coin that the sergeant collects from his fallen friends. The very last line of the story alone is worth the price of admission here.

From the human perspective of battle against Goblins and Orcs, we move to something completely different in Qalabi Dawn. This story introduces the race of cat-people that inhabit Selenoth's desert lands, far to the south (at least, I think it's to the south...) of Amorr, the Elven kingdom of Merithaim, and the lands of the Savondese nobles. The story tells of the attempts of a young Khatuuli (cat-people) warrior to unite his people against the coming attack of a massed Amorran legion bent on genocide. As is expected with a short story, this one skips through time rather rapidly, instead of concentrating in detail on the campaign of unification and the final stand of the Chiu against the legions of Amorr.

If you've ever seen a great old movie called Zulu Dawn, or read the stories of the Battle of Isandlwana, one way to think of and relate to QD is to think of it as though we're looking at that battle sort of in reverse from the perspective of Zulus with cat heads. (Yeah, OK, it sounds weird; bear with me a moment here.) Essentially, the Amorrans send in two legions against a numerically inferior force of cat-people, but their leader is a bureaucrat and politician, not a strategist. The leader of the cat-people strives hard to unify the tribes of the descendants of Baasia (I'm reaching here, but I think this is a reference to Bastet, the Egyptian cat-headed war goddess of the Middle Kingdom)- as Vox puts it, "[a]ll of the Khatuuli are descendants of Baasia; they are quite literally demonspawn", which is why Amorr sets out to destroy them.

I rather like the way Vox strives for authenticity with this story. He's genuinely good at adopting the voice of his character and giving it authenticity through use of idiom, vernacular, and vulgarity. In this particular case, he uses actual Swahili words to lend some authenticity to his descriptions, although I personally had no idea what the hell the difference was between the Chiu, the Simba, and the Duma beyond knowing that "simba" is Swahili for "lion". Unfortunately, his attempts to make the story seem authentic fall a little flat because of the pace of the story; it's a bit uneven, rushed, maybe even forced.

Therein lies one of several major defects with Qalabi Dawn: it's much less accessible than the previous stories because it feels as if it was just sort of tacked on as an afterthought. This sense of being a bit overly hurried to get on with things really comes to the fore with the final battle scenes, which lose a lot of their force because Vox basically cuts out all the cutting. No, really. There is no epic final pitched battle, no mighty clash of sword and shield against tooth and claw. There's basically the build-up to a battle, and then the battle itself gets skipped over completely to segue straight into a sneak attack that brings the story to a rather abrupt close.

The other major defect is that if you haven't read any of Vox's other work, especially the centrepiece tome that started off this whole thing, then QD won't make the least bit of sense to you. It's not a story you can read in isolation. If you haven't read ATOB, you won't have the first clue as to why the Amorrans send in two full legions to crush the Khatuuli, because you won't really know that they're demonspawn and the products of the Witchkings, against whom the Amorrans fought a brutal and terrible war. You'll be left wondering just why you're reading a story about a bunch of cat-people running around the desert picking fights among themselves in order to fight an even more deadly enemy. So my advice to you is to read ATOB, then SE, then everything else, before reading this.

Also, this story had a certain... predictability about it that I found rather depressing. Like Vox, I am a complete bookworm. I'm always reading. And because I've read many, many, many books in the course of my life, I tend to recognise themes and patterns in writing very quickly. This is why, with books written by lesser writers, I tend to be able to predict very quickly whether the protagonist will get with the attractive young woman who was just introduced as the granddaughter of the enigmatic mystic at the centre of the story, for instance. (I'm reading a book called Dominatus which does exactly this, with 100% predictability. More on that later.) The reason I bring this up is that if you got the reference to the Battle of Isandlwana a bit earlier up, you'll know almost immediately how this story ends up for both the legions of Amorr and the Khatuuli. You'll also know, within moments of reading the first ten pages or so, how the young Chiu chieftain's quest for unification of his tribe pans out.

This is not to say that QD is necessarily a bad story. It's actually quite good. It's just not nearly as good as TWC, because all of the best elements of TWC- the action, the intensity, the ability to relate to the main character, the sense of camaraderie between characters, the sense of overarching purpose to the tale- are all missing from QD.

Overall, given that these two stories are available on Amazon for a bargain-bin price and given the quality of Vox's previous works, I'd say that you owe it to yourself to head over there and buy/download The Wardog's Coin. I'm very much looking forward to the next book in The Arts of Dark and Light, and the next set of short stories from the world of Selenoth are due for release in May, apparently. That one should explain the origins of the demonspawn and the fall of the Witchkings, which should be great fun to read.

Verdict: I give TWC 4.5/5 and QD 3/5; altogether, given that TWC is the bulk of the collection, I'd say we're looking at a 3.8/5. Definitely worth your time to buy and read.

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