Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Warcraft novels – crap and pleasure

The other week I went on vacation, spending a week on the beach. But actually I spent a couple of days in the Warcraft universe as well – even though I was completely offline. For the first time in my life I read a couple of Warcraft novels.

Until recently I honestly didn’t know those books existed. It was when I was doing some last minute book shopping for my trip that my eyes fell on those titles on the sf/fantasy shelf in the local book store. Afterwards I realized my picking was rather random. As a matter of fact I didn’t have anything to choose between – there were just two titles, both written by Richard A Knaak. There seem to be some more Warcraft writers around and quite a few books, but this was what I found in my little shop. In the hurry I thought I had got part 1 and part 2 from a trilogy. It turned out that I was wrong – the first one, Day of the Dragon (first published 2001) was from another trilogy than the second book, The Demon Soul (from 2004), which turned out to be the middle part of The War of the Ancients trilogy. Well. Things happen. Actually it didn’t matter much. Some of the main characters appear in both and I got the hang of the plot pretty fast anyway, so the only thing I really regretted was not having access to part three in the War of the Ancients series.

I guess there are a lot of connoisseurs out there who know a great deal more about the Warcraft novels than I do, so you’ll probably think I’m quite stupid and unknowing, but I’ll use my blogger privilege and write about my experiences from reading those books anyway.

First of all – the whole concept felt a bit weird. I may be a bit old and conservative, but when I grew up you usually first read the book. Then you saw a movie based on the book. If you had read the book first you’d probably get disappointed since you had all the pictures in your head and the movie rarely could live up to it, with all it’s limitations when it came to special effects as well as the very short format. No matter how great job you do with the movie you always have to kill the darlings… (like Tom Bombadill who sadly but necessarily disappeared in the Lord of the Rings movies, which I by the way think were excellent on the whole.)

And after the movie you would read the cartoons and play the games and the toys and wear the clothes and chew the bubblegum… you know. But the book was always the original, which everything else came from.

Now the world seem to have turned upside down and for the first time in my life I’m reading a novel where the cover tells me it’s based on a game. Mind you, I don’t complain about it, but it makes me realize how different it is nowadays. And that’s for good. Why couldn’t a game be the artistic original and the book a sort of copy? When you think about it.

Secondly: what did I think about it? Was it worth the money and time I spend on them? Well, to be honest, those books aren’t the best examples of fantasy I’ve read in my life. If you’d compare them to the classic, recognized fantasy eposes I think they’re meagre, written in haste by a very, very productive writer. They lack depth, especially when it comes to portraying people – they’re all sort of plain, flat and show up a lot of clichés. The language isn’t beautiful or original in any way and the plot doesn’t make me go wild. History is told rather clumsily in longue ranting parts sometimes. That’s the negative side of it.

BUT (here comes the twist)

I loved to read them! I really did and I don’t regret reading them at all, on the contrary. It’s just that it’s unfair to compare them as fantasy books to other fantasy books – because they aren’t – you could rather see them as companions to the game, the extra material you’ll find in any good dvd box.

I must confess that I’ve never until now been able to understand much of the lore until now, to conquer it and make it to a part of my own game experience. I don’t know why, but I found the descriptions in the manual that accompanied the game when I first bought it rather boring. I was eager to start playing and didn’t pay much attention to the glorious passed of the dwarves or whatever it spoke of. And once in the game I read at least some of the quest texts and dialogues properly, but I found it hard to put anything into my memory and to get the full picture of it. The world was too confusing, the game so huge and new, that I couldn’t grab that side of it too.

Of course there are an abundance of websites where I could catch up. Wowwiki would be a great start. Whenever I’m looking up tactics on the next raid boss I tend to come to the lore department by mistake, but then I’m usually in a hurry, so I quickly go forward to the strategy part of it. When it comes to reality I’ve never taken myself the time, and reading huge chunks of text on a screen isn’t really enjoyable.

Those books offers a solution – they’re far more accessible to me than heavy websites. By reading those novels, no matter how crappy written they were, I can now see the game from a slightly different point of view. Even though I’m not actually roleplaying, it’s quite a lot more interesting to go and take down a raid boss if you can think that you’re actually part of an ongoing war, and know what’s he been up to so far, and what this event actually is about. If you just ignore the lore altogether, I sometimes get the feeling that we’re rather technically trying to beat a PC-game just like Pacman or Lemmings, just a bit more technical. If you get the difference.

Especially the book from 2004, The Demon Soul, made me happy and excited. I was reading about how they were defending Mount Hyjal, where I hope to go very soon (typically I missed the guild-first kill of Rage Winterchill the other week when I was on vacation.) I’ve followed how Illidan grew up and I know why he turned evil. And my server, Stormrage, turned out to be named after his twin brother, a nightelf druid – I had no idea about that before! Maybe everyone else does, but I didn’t, noob as I am. Now that I’ve met Archimond in the battlefield through the eyes of this young druid, I just can’t wait to see him in the game as well.

Of course it’s a bit disappointing that no gnomes whatsoever appeared in the novels (I guess there are historical reasons for that which I’m still unknowing of). But there are mages! And trust me, there’s something special to read about how they counterspell stuff, conjure food, mount their gryphons and do other things you recognize from the game.

Everything in the game becomes a bit bigger and more amazing after reading the books. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. The game can be just as thrilling as we want it to be. For instance you can chose to see the flying from point A to B, not just as another boring waiting for the next fight, but as a thrilling, dangerous journey, like in the books.

My conclusion is: if you ever like me stumble on those novels – give it a chance – for what it is: companions which can add a lot of pleasure to our beloved game – even though they may not be the greatest fantasy novels ever written.


Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, there are canonical conflicts between the books and the games as well. Some of them are minor and have been retconned, but a few still exist. WoWWiki usually notes these in respective articles if there are inconsistencies. I believe it is generally accepted that books are sub-canon compared to information from games if you're talking about Blizzard, meaning in the case of conflicting information, more often than not go with what's said in game.

Stormrage is not only the name of Illidan's brother. It's his name as well: Malfurion Stormrage and Illidan Stormrage. Malfurion doesn't appear in WoW because he is trapped in the Emerald Dream. As a result, Fandrel Staghelm has taken over as Archdruid. I'm sure you can look him up on WoWWiki if you'd like to know more.

Gnomes actually do appear in the older Warcraft games and are in the lore. Although not very prominent, they are credited with the Gnomish Flying Machines of Warcraft II.

For me, Star Wars draws me into its universe the most. I read many many of the books and own them as well. I know a lot of facts and history back and front, know starship models and their manufacturers, can identify alien species, know placement of worlds in the galaxy, etc. I think the main difference is development. LucasArts focuses on allowing Star Wars fans to experience the vastness of the universe. On the other hand, Blizzard focuses on story and historical development, thus going back all the way to the War of the Ancients. Although it'd be nice to see other planets in the Twisting Nether, Warcraft focuses on Azeroth and Draenor/Outland only. In limiting its focus, Blizzard can do its stunning work with story.

Eishen said...

I love reading "crap" literature when on vacation or between two dense "serious" books, only read a warcraft novel once (doesn´t really like it) but lots of "Ad&D" and "warhammer40K" cheap literature...

In another sort of things... your guild´s raiding progress is rapidly catching mine! we just downed anetheron yesterday so is only one boss on the lead ;-)

And wellcome back larissa.

Cynra said...

I haven't read the books as of yet, but I was loathe to do so because of the inconsistencies between what is considered the current accurate portrayal of lore and what was supposedly in the books. I tend to get most of my lore fix pouring over the WoWWiki, which usually compiles all of that information into bite-sized chunks while tying similar topics together.

One interesting thing to note is that Blizzard in general disdains the use of the word "canon" while describing anything in the Warcraft universe. This was especially a hot topic prior to the expansion when years were added to the timeline and a number of very notable retcons occured.

Larísa said...

Oh dear... Canonical conflicts...
Well I guess that's all sorted out in Wowwiki. I don't know why I'm so reluctant in reading lore in Wowwiki but I guess it's because of it's after all an encyclopedia, full of facts. Too much of information. I want the fluffy stuff in between to really get involved in the lore and the universe I think.

Of course Illidan should be named Stormrage as well, stupid I didn't think about it. Funny enough in the book only Malfurion is called by his last name, not Illidan. For some reason. But I really refuse to believe my server should be named after Illiadan. No way! It must be named after a hero!

krizzlybear said...

I discovered the Warcraft books pretty much in the same manner as you. I was bumbling through the fantasy/sci fi section of my bookstore, and amidst the Halo and Magic: the gathering series I found the Knaak Trilogy, actually published as one book containing all three parts.

Having read all of them in order, I highly suggest that you do read the first one (The Well of Eternity), since it adequately introduces the stormrage twins, and really sets the context of Illidan's decent into darkness. While I do agree that the quality of Knaak's work is sketchy at best, I also agree that the enlightenment is there, lore-wise, for the uninformed wow-gamer. it's actually because of the trilogy itself, that my favorite instances are the caverns of time instances, since it essentially plunges you in the same situations as rhonin, krasus, and brox.

oh, and warcraft II occurs AFTER the trilogy, since alextrasasz (rofl my spelling is atrocious) gets enslaved and her broodlings are used as the horde flying units. this means that gnomes don't emerge until after the trilogy, even though i would assume they were too isolated from the rest of the world, in the comfort of gnomeregan, to care otherwise.

hooray for gnomish mage blogs! *added to blogroll*

Larísa said...

Krizzlybear, thank you for further clarifications. I'm really a lore virgin as you see. I'll definitly read the rest of the triology even though I think I have an inkling of how it will appear. There's still something magic about really visualising it by reading it in the form of a novel.