HoP Idol Round 4: Best of Boxtree Books
Last up for this round, we’ve got Von’s article.
The Best of Boxtree Books
Back in the late 1980s, when times were hard and rules were harder, when Jervis Johnson had yet to invent the Grand Tournament and the Black Library was just a one-liner in the Eldar background, when bad puns and playful political jibes were the order of the day… back in them days, Games Workshop produced a line of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels.
These were sometimes written by in-house word-wranglers or regular freelance filler-smiths, and sometimes by Proper Authors parachuted in from ‘respectable’ genre fiction. All but one of those Proper Authors wrote under pseudonyms, being slightly embarrassed at the association with GW’s not-even-proper-sci-fi-let-alone-literature background material – which is weird, given that most of them took GW’s worlds and ran with them, trying to push them into the realms of Proper Literature.
Seldom did this endeavour succeed, but now and then something surfaced that made the most of the material provided and kick-started a tradition of quality pastiche and halfway decent writing in GW tie-ins. I’m going to bung a few recommendations for books that the Black Library has bothered to reprint in your general direction today. I make no apologies for the Warhammer-without-boltguns bias here; these books date back to the earliest days of 40K and there’s honestly only one choice for recommending old-school grimdarkery. Besides, there’s too much guns-and-spaceships talk around the House as it is: I see the HoP Idol as my chance to redress the balance a little and talk swords, sorcery, and stereotypes instead.
Sundry Short Stories
Slightly tricky to recommend, as the Black Library has changed the running order of the three original books (Wolf Riders, Ignorant Armies, and Red Thirst) in reprinting, putting most of the stories in other places. The books I’m actually recommending, therefore, are the modern re-shuffled reprints: The Laughter of Dark Gods and Trollslayer.
The Laughter of Dark Gods makes the list largely because almost everything in it is pretty well written, and almost none of it is set on the battlefield. Dating back to the days when Warhammer Fantasy Role Play was bigger than 40K (laugh all you want), Laughter brings you stories of how necromancers become necromancers, of halfling P.I.s scouring the mean streets of
Marienburg in search of the setting’s closest available analogue to the Maltese Falcon, and of the creeping, insidious ways in which Chaos appeals to more or less ordinary people. And if you really must have burly Chaos Warriors striding around hacking at one another to get your kicks, Bill King delivers a decent version of the road to Daemon Princedom. It’s even got plasma guns in it.
Talking of Bill King: Trollslayer. Collecting together most of the early Gotrek and Felix stories, which were essentially writeups of King’s WFRP campaign, I recommend this one because it’s a classic picaresque. While there is a sense of overarcing journey toward some goal, the stories begin and end with Gotrek and Felix on the road to their next adventure, with none of the turgid continuity porn that burdens so much genre fiction these days.
King seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, writing in a scale and scope that’s comfortable to him rather than the inflated shenanigans of Gotrek and Felix’s later cash-cow period. It’s by no means perfect, falling foul of almost every generic fantasy Issue (women are less interestingly developed and described than swords, for instance, and the stock phrases that appear and reappear will make you wonder if Gotrek actually has a left thumb to run down the blade of his axe any more), but it’s essentially fun. The short story format forces some brevity on King’s part and so things rattle along at a tidy pace, and neither Gotrek nor Felix has the impervious plot armour they’ll be sporting from one chapter before the end of Daemonslayer onwards. I’m fond of the two stories which sideline Gotrek and make Felix take on the protagonistic role he’s really not comfortable with. ‘Ulric’s Children’ is particularly notable for some halfway spooky atmosphere and a plot setup that actually provokes a few questions.
First up, a couple of props for Kim Newman – film critic, playwright, owner of the most impressive fancy waistcoat collection in England and the man I’d like to be when I grow up. Despite adopting a pseudonym for his GW work (bizarre, given that he’d later rehash the same approach as Anno Dracula under his own name), Newman can never be accused of taking himself or his work too seriously, which is yet another reason why he’s a legend.
Seeing the Warhammer World as it was in the ’80s – a tissue of nerd culture, history, literary asides escalated to the level of plagiarism, bad puns and comfy, tea-sipping digs at the government of the day – he decided to turn all that up to eleven and write a series of genre stories, ticking off fantasy epic, detective story, and gothic melodrama, one by one.
Whether you like Newman’s work or not depends on whether you insist that fantasy has to be played absolutely straight without a hint of irony or self-parody, whether you think parody is mutually inclusive with bad writing, and whether you have a problem with expatriating Dirty Harry into the Warhammer World, complete with Magnin six-incher (the heaviest throwing knife in the world).
Drachenfels is not your average fantasy novel. Newman-as-Yeovil sidesteps most of the genre traps by setting his book twenty years after the titular evil wizard has received his comeuppance, moving the action from the battlefield to the theatre stage, and managing to make an ensemble of supporting characters compete for quality and page time with his protagonists. Almost every character is… well, a character, and a rounded, slightly grotesque one at that, with an actual recognisable voice and a hint of sympathy (even Drachenfels himself comes across as, well, motivated at least, terrified of his own mortality and driven to evil largely out of the decadent boredom that comes with being the oldest thing on the planet). The book has a recognisable theme – immortality of various kinds, and the various means by which it’s attained. Plus, it’s bloody well written. There’s not a hint of flab or puff about it, and the tone slides smoothly between the horror, comedy, romance and occasional serious literary ponderings that occupy Newman’s attention. Stonking good.
Beasts In Velvet, meanwhile, is the book that will divide opinions. It’s a tissue of pop-culture references, nods to the other GW fiction authors’ plots and characters, and threads that would be/had been developed in Newman’s short stories. That sort of thing can get people’s backs up, I know, but you don’t have to care about them, spot them, or know about them to follow and engage with the primary plot, which is a well-woven murder mystery/conspiracy intrigue piece, full of Chaos cults, anarchists, werewolves, broken hearts, corrupt nobility, drugs, churchies and political satire.
If one’s feeling cynical, one might ask whether Newman shouldn’t have just written a Jack the Ripper novel and have done with it, but he does such a job of weaving his various sources around one another and polishing his imports into believable Warhammer evolutions of themselves that it’s hard to begrudge him anything.
Besides, this sort of thing is how the Warhammer world was built in the first place. Rick Priestly, Bryan Ansell and Richard Halliwell were three overeducated blokes trying to fit all the fantasy cliches that Citadel made models for into one setting where they could all have a barney, and they did it by importing all their stories with them and then bolting them onto the one place where they’d all make sense; an exaggerated, twice-removed version of the world their creators lived in. Newman saw that, worked with it rather than against it, and manages to produce something that’s actually more than the sum of its parts, whether you’re enjoying it as a story or playing spot-the-source material. Either’s good.
The Black Library has, in its infinite wisdom, decided to rerelease all the stuff he wrote for GW as The Vampire Genevieve, which is a bit unfair since she’s only in about half of it and only part of an ensemble cast in most of that. The rest of the collection is either played rather straighter – ‘Warhawk’ is a less interesting version of Beasts in Velvet and ‘The Ibby the Fish Factor’ has the whiff of the anniversary reunion show about it, although Newman does have the decency to poke fun at how ill his work fits in with the modern Warhammer canon while he’s doing it. I like ‘The Cold Stark House’, but if you don’t share my love of eighteenth-century gothic novels (and why not, I ask?), you might find it a bit silly and over-the-top. I defy anyone not to find some time for ‘Unicorn Ivory’, though, which is the most serious and most moving of the stories in the collection, and frankly makes a better ending than the actual ending does.
One for the 40K players now, and to truly bring across just how, umm, unique the text is, I’ll need a bit of a run-up. Excuse me for a second…
Look, now, upon these blasphemous scrawls. Gaze, though your eyes grow raw, incarnadined with horror, and though your chops foam with the righteous fury of the pure. Partake, if your heart be steady and your conviction resolute as cold space-pitted ceramite, of heresies and lusts, conspiracies most vile, inferences most pernicious and language most wrought. Set down for the ages by the quailing cyber-hand of Ian Watson, who alone among the tech-scribes of yore thought his works worthy of his true name – ha! as if his true name has but half the worth of his glimmering, deranged outpourings! – set down by that same Watson who did claim the Emperor’s most potent Astartes as naught more than bandits of the botty, bugger it! – and set down by that Watson in a Boschean brew of fevered imaginings, paranoic characters blazing boltguns into uttermost umbra, plots within plots within plots forgotten by their plotter!
Seriously, it’s that overwrought, and then some. Ian Watson openly admits that the only way he could see to write the 40K universe was to go so far into the lurid, the gratuitous and the simply crazy that you came out the other side and suffered something of a sea-change about the way. The books retitled as ‘The Inquisition War’ – again unfairly, as that’s just one of of the plots Watson introduces, toys with like a playful kitten, and ultimately discards as he journeys deeper into the heart of darkness – are a similarly elaborate tissue of references (Watson loves him some gratuitous Latin, seems to have introduced the Illuminati to the forty-first millennium, and claims he patterned his characters after Shakespeare’s) to Yeovil’s work, but so much… huger.
Trying to follow the plot is a mistake, because Watson sure as hell didn’t bother. The book only makes sense as a psychodrama that reveals the horrid truth about the forty-first millennium. Jaq Draco, inquisitor at large, is a seeker after truth. In his mad, flailing quest to discover exactly what is going on in the galaxy (and bone the hot assassin he travels with and spends at least a quarter of the word-count lusting after), he penetrates layer after layer of lies and conspiracies, discovers organisation after organisation with designs on whatever will follow the inevitable death of the Emperor and whatever future humanity has to look forward to, and ultimately goes crazier and crazier, damning himself and all around him in a series of increasingly bonkers ventures to compromise his humanity that bit further because he’s sure the truth is out there.
It isn’t, of course. That’s the revelation that Jaq ultimately comes to, in his final moment of life. Nobody has the faintest idea what’s going on. Nobody has the faintest idea what’s going to happen next. It’s grimdark, sustained over two books (‘Harlequin’, the middle book, is in all fairness a bit of a trudge, as Watson works out how to get from where he started to where he wants to go), and made explicitly personal by exploring what happens to this one poor sod who’s been on a whirlwind tour of the most psychologically and spiritually damaging experiences the galaxy has to offer.
It’s ludicrous, demented, reminds me of the sort of fanfiction I was writing at thirteen, and yet I find it far more fulfilling than the stodgy bolter-fests the Black Library is putting out these days, that don’t manage to be remotely moving or revealing. Whatever The Inquisition War is, it’s not what you expect from 40K, and I recommend it just for sheer barking mad novelty value. And hot assassins.
That’s not to say that the contemporary literature is entirely void of merit, not at all. If I had another two thousand words I’d bend your ear about Ciaphas Cain, Planetkill, and the works of Aaron Dembski-Bowden… but I don’t, so if you ever want to read them, vote for Von at the end of the week!