Book Review: The Last Witchking by Vox Day

As indicated in my post earlier today, it's been a crazy couple of weeks for me. What with the demands my clients are making of me and the requirements of babysitting (and that is the correct term) my other team members, I've had precious little time to do anything other than go to the gym and read.

Fortunately, I've had a few good e-books available on various devices to occupy my scant free time. One of them is of course the latest set of short stories available from the world of Selenoth, the pet project of internet superintelligence Vox Day. I had previously reviewed his other works of fiction set in this universe, and anyone who reads this blog knows full well that I have great respect and admiration for Vox and what he has created.

This latest e-book is really a collection of three new short stories- the eponymous "The Last Witchking", an intriguing little allegorical tale called "The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro", and a tale concerning a very interesting character from the very first Selenoth book called "Opera Vita Aeterna". Put very simply, if you liked (and in my case, really liked) Vox's work in Summa Elvetica and A Throne of Bones, then you're certainly going to like this collection. The first and third stories are in my opinion more about tying off a few loose ends than about expanding the universe of Selenoth in any meaningful sense; this isn't like the previous set of short stories where interesting new characters were introduced in their own self-contained stories that could just be enjoyed as stories on their own. Unlike The Wardog's Coin, the first and third stories do need to be read within the context established by ATOB to be fully enjoyed.

The first story concerns the feared witchkings of ancient Selenoth, and might well give an indication of just where Vox will be taking us in the next instalment of The Arts of Dark and Light. The witchkings are Vox's equivalent of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, or the evil druid Brona from The Sword of Shannara- an evil so terrible, so terrifying, so destructive, that the combined might of the Elves and the nations of Men rose up to annihilate them in a war that shaped and defined the modern world of Selenoth. The way Vox sets up the witchkings is rather interesting- he sets them up almost as outright atheists, for the witchkings reject the idea that there should be any limits to the power that Man should be allowed to wield. Very early on in the story, the father of the... you can't really call him a protagonist, so let's just say "main character", pretty much says exactly this- that Elves and Men fear the witchkings because they reject the "truth" that nothing is off limits to the sufficiently Wise.

As the story unfolds, we meet the main character, Speer, taken in by adoptive parents and raised ostensibly as a perfectly normal human being, all the while secretly being prepared for his destiny as a witchking. The manner in which Vox Day reveals that destiny is a very effective literary device- there is no ambiguity about Speer's true identity as Ar Dauragh, the last true pure-blooded witchking, and his adopted family is killed off with a brutality and swiftness that might surprise those who aren't familiar with Vox's other works. Frankly I think other fantasy authors would greatly benefit from doing this sort of thing- I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin- and avoiding these horrible drawn-out family dramas in which the main character vacillates between good and evil.

Over time, Speer's powers develop and mature, and he becomes a truly terrifying force in the world. He summons a demon, later revealed to be his "brother" of a sort, and uses that demon's powers to create the beasts that eventually become the aalvarg from ATOB. That is really the climax of this story, because it comes to a rather sudden end just a few pages later. As any longtime reader of Vox's work knows, his writing does not have much by way of ambiguity to it, so Vox doesn't exactly leave any room to the imagination as to what happens to Speer in the end. Without ruining anything, let's just say that it doesn't end well- for Speer, or the race of witchkings, or for the other races of Selenoth (as for that last point, you'll only really discover why if you read, or have already read, ATOB).

As I wrote earlier, this story and "Opera Vita Aeterna" are really about tying off loose ends. The whole point of TLW appears to be to illustrate three things:

  1. The origins and brief history of the witchkings, establishing them as a pivotal yet silent force within the world of Selenoth;
  2. The origins of the aalvarg, who were most effectively used in ATOB to setup one of the three major conflicts shown in that book;
  3. The true origins of the Chiu, the cat-people from "Qalabi Dawn".
The third point is worth expanding upon slightly. It is hinted both in the text of QD and in Vox's subsequent writings on the matter that the Chiu are demon-spawn; as the main character in QD himself states, the Chiu are "the children of Baasia", some sort of cat-god or demon. That line of thought is conclusively established in TLW. The cat-people are in fact the spawn of the last witchking and a demon named Baastiel, and the manner in which Vox goes about showing how this happened has to be read to be understood fully. Let's just say that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would seem ridiculous; in Vox's hands, it works rather well. Ultimately, TLW is about answering questions raised by previous stories, and in that respect it succeeds quite well.

From there we move on to a story that rather defies easy classification. "The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro" is quite obviously an allegorical tale- Vox himself states very plainly in the Author's Note to this story that it was inspired by the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy during WWII. (Anyone who thinks that Vox is some sort of anti-Semitic lunatic might do well to read this story and the note that succeeds it.) This story, as Vox later states, doesn't fit well into the overall canon of Selenoth- in no small part because it concerns the efforts of a village of goblins to hide a bunch of little critters called "hoblets" from persecution and slaughter at the hands of an occupation force of orcs.

The context of the story is pretty interesting- it appears that the orcs and the trolls are essentially at war with each other, and the goblins are caught in the middle. Other stories within the world of Selenoth indicate that goblins are basically press-ganged into orc and troll battles as auxiliaries (and quite often as unwitting and unwilling sources of food for their bigger, nastier cousins when supplies run short). Moreover, ATOB literally starts with a massive battle between the righteous forces of Amorran might and a shrieking, undisciplined, bloody dangerous horde of goblins. So it is more than a little surprising to see the goblins treated in such a sympathetic light. They basically come across in this story as fairly decent sorts who just want to be left alone and live their lives. So, like I wrote earlier, this story seems pretty odd when compared with the rest of the Selenoth canon.

Vox's take on "hoblets" is unusual too. You never really get a good description of these creatures, but they are basically Selenoth's "hobbit" analogue- though like anything else in Vox's world, there's a twist to them. Hobbits in Middle-Earth are depicted as peace-loving, contented folk, concerned with good ale, good food, good pipe-weed, and generally living quiet and peaceful lives. Simply put, they are Tolkien's epitome of all that is simple and good in the world- the very thing that a deep introvert might wish to be. In Vox's world, hoblets are depicted as mildly troublesome outcasts from goblin society who occasionally steal from their host community but generally stay out of everyone's way. In this respect Vox is essentially using a modified version of what most Europeans thought of the Jews in their midst from the Middle Ages onward- they were outcasts, they were never really liked in any meaningful sense, but they were for the most part tolerated in countries like Italy and left in peace. (Poland, Germany, France, and especially Russia are very notable exceptions to this general rule.)

There is no overarching moral tale in this story; it's just a good diversion from the bigger world of Selenoth. For that alone, I would say that it's worth reading, if only to give you an idea of Vox's real skills and versatility as a writer.

From Hoblets, we come to the last story in this collection, "Opera Vita Aeterna". Now, if you haven't read Summa Elvetica- and specifically, the second of two short stories included in that book, the one specifically concerning the story of Bessarias the Elf- OVA won't mean a damn thing to you in a wider context. If you have read SE, however, this story is essentially the story of how Bessarias went from being a heathen Elf to a true believer in the Immaculate and the faith of Amorr. It doesn't tell the complete story, which is the source of one of my criticisms of this collection of stories (more on that shortly), but it gives you a good idea of how Bessarias came to accept the power, the glory, and most importantly the grace of God. This story tells of how Bessarias came to a monastery and came to live among the monks, all the while copying out, by hand, the entire "Bible" (so to speak). For anyone who knows anything of Church history, this tells you that Vox knows exactly what he is talking about; until Guttenberg invented the printing press, the only way to produce Scripture was by hand, often in beautifully illuminated books of the finest vellum, and the only institutions that had the time, means, or skill to produce them were churches and monasteries.

The pivotal event that seems to spur Bessarias in his path towards salvation is the brutal murder of the order of monks among whom he has made his home. Up until this point, Bessarias lives peacefully and contentedly among monks who are described as pious men of great faith and great humility. Their shocking murder leads Bessarias to rail against God, asking why He would permit such a tragedy- and yet, Bessarias chooses to demonstrate his friendship with the monks by immortalising them using the images he weaves into his massive Scriptural illumination. The story ends with the introduction of a painfully young Clericus from ATOB and SE, and in all honesty I thought that the way Vox ended this story was really very touching and very well done.

If there is one criticism that I have of this collection- and it is a fairly strong one- it is that the same problem that afflicted SE is present yet again in this collection. I don't know what it is about Vox, but he has this annoying habit of very abruptly ending his stories in a way that makes little to no sense to the reader. I have no idea why he does this, but he did it with SE by ending the story in a manner rather reminiscent of a car travelling at 60mph down a very scenic and beautiful highway, with the sun shining down through the sunroof, only to smack headfirst into a concrete block. It really is that abrupt. Both TLW and OVA end in this exact manner. It's almost like Vox just got... I dunno, tired of writing, and decided to wrap things up with a minimum of fuss. That is of course entirely his choice and perfectly valid as such, but it just makes for a very jarring experience for the reader. Vox is a writer of some considerable, if rough-edged, talent, so it is unfortunate that he chooses to interrupt the pace of his work like this. Good literature should flow from one point to another without losing the reader's interest, not slam the brakes on just after the best part.

In summary, if you liked what Vox has already done with his world of Selenoth, you will not be changing your mind anytime soon after reading this collection of short fiction. (And if you didn't like it to begin with, may I suggest that you go back to your Gamma rabbit warren and reflect upon the smallness of your own mind, because you sure as hell aren't qualified to understand what really good fantasy literature is all about.) If you can stomach the flaws in the editing (and there are a few), and especially the abrupt ways in which both TLW and OAV end, then you are certainly going to enjoy reading these stories.

Verdict: 4/5; despite some uneven pacing and some annoying literary contrivances that interrupt the flow of the stories, this is definitely a collection of short stories that is very much worth reading.

Note: Vox and Marcher Lord are offering up a hardcover collection of Summa Elvetica and ALL of Vox's Selenoth short stories in one outstanding book. Given the sheer amount of thought, work, and quality that went into this collection, I would seriously urge you to buy it; $26 for that much material strikes me as very reasonable indeed. I personally am giving serious thought to buying both this collection and ATOB in physical form; there are very few e-books that I ever consider buying in physical form, so that should give you some idea of just how good I think these books are.

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