Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter

Not long ago, I stumbled across a blog post by a Forgotten Realms author named Paul S. Kemp (who's kinda sorta a neighbor of mine... in a way. Not that I know him personally or anything.) In this post, he mounted a defense of the concept of "shared world" fiction. Basically, the kind of stuff he writes; Forgotten Realms fiction that sells under the Dungeons & Dragons brand name.

And there's a reason he does this; there's a perception amongst a lot of folks that shared world fiction is bad. So bad, in fact, that it's almost guaranteed to be bad. I'm not quite that pessimistic. Plus, I don't mind a bad book as long as it's somewhat entertaining. I don't need great literature to be entertained. I've blogged about it before, and am in fact a staunch supporter of disposible mass market types of entertainment. Pulp writing, as it were. I think there's a lot of untapped and unappreciated value in a lot of stuff that's not meant to be taken too seriously; if nothing else, it's a mirror on our society and those who make this kind of material popular.

That said, even I was prone to suspect that shared world fiction had the deck stacked against it when it came to quality. I went on to post a bit on some messageboards about Kemp's blog post, and even prompted him to show up and offer his defense in his own words a bit. The discussion followed some interesting routes. I started off the discussion saying that his basic premise, that shared world fiction doesn't, of course, have to be worse than "regular" fiction, but that for whatever reason it sure seemed like that was the case more often than not. So I speculated on what in the environment of shared world fiction might cause that to happen.

Kemp's response is that msot of the possible problems I identified weren't common in that environment anymore. People weren't doing write for hire stuff, with editors who stipulated in exactly detail what they could and couldn't do in their stories, and deadlines weren't any more draconian in that environment than they were in the "real" fiction world. This lead to the hypothesis that much of the paradigm of crappy shared world fiction could have been based on outdated practices and older books. I think Kemp may have had a point there. Certainly I haven't read much shared world fiction in the last few years, with the exception of a handful of Predator novels and a handful of Eberron novels. The Predator novels were over fifteen years old, so are perhaps outside of scope for the idea under consideration, and the Eberron novels, which I've reviewed on this blog, were extremely poor to mediocre in quality. But I allowed for the fact that my selection sample wasn't very big, and maybe he's got a point. Maybe shared world licensed, branded fiction is as good as anything else out there. Certainly, it's not likely to be much worse than stuff Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan or Piers Anthony, Steven Erikson, or... well, or any number of "real" fantasy authors who's writing craft is suspect.

Maybe I'm taking a leap of faith here, but I've actually picked up a bunch of shared world books to read in recent months, including several by Black Library and several by Wizards of the Coast (including Paul S. Kemp's latest Forgotten Realms trilogy, by the way.) Three of the four Black Library books I have are actually omnibus format trade paperbacks that combine three complete novels plus a bit of other material in them. And of these, I just finished the first one, C. L. Werner's Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter. This omnibus starts off with three linked short stories that flow neatly into three linked novels. The entire six-part arc is really one continuous story of sorts covering the chase Mathias Thulmann (the titular witch hunter) makes of a mad scientist Herr Doktor Weichs, and the other problems he encounters along the way.

These other problems are considerable, including no less than three vampires, necromancers, corrupted wizards, two greater demons, zombies, mutants, insidious cults, and the skaven, underground-dwelling hateful rat-people that are a staple of the Warhammer setting. To say nothing of his supposed compatriots; several other witch hunters feature in the story, and to a man, they are scum; either brutal fanatics, or brutal scheming social climbers. Not a one of them isn't almost as much a villain as the dark forces of Old Night, as the monsters, cults and supernatural are called. In fact, they do a credible job of making Thulmann's hired torturer Streng and Eckhardt, the grim templar of the god of death, seem sympathetic and friendly in comparison.

Overall, as you'd expect in a book about a witch-hunter, the tone tries to approach that of a horror story. The Warhammer setting is already a pretty grim place (I like to quote the following, although I don't know who originally said it, "When you play Warhammer, you start off thinking that you're playing D&D. You very quickly realize that you're actually playing Call of Cthulhu.") But Werner doesn't quite manage to make it a horror story, most of the time. The horror he has is pretty classic, gothic even, but the immediacy of a good horror novel doesn't quite ever seem to materialize. Instead, it feels like a dark fantasy sword & sorcery, and frankly, that may have been more what he was aiming for after all. It wasn't until the last 150 pages or so of a 760+ page omnibus that I feel like Thulmann and Streng are really paying any price for a career of facing the worst of the terrors of Old Night; otherwise, they seem to glide through life rather heroically, and being witch hunters is just a job not unlike any other for them. Suddenly in what would originally have been the third book, Thulmann develops an interesting back story and some depth of personality.

That's too late, in my opinion, but mostly what I mean by that is that it sabotages the tone of horror somewhat. When we find out Thulmann's (of course tragic) backstory, then the book takes on more urgency, and the horror seems to become a bit more real. But, it's too little too late by that point, because the tone of the prior novels had clearly been set as a horror-imitating sword & sorcery as opposed to a truly horror-steeped sword & sorcery. Perhaps the difference is marginal, but I think it's an important one.

A couple of other minor quibbles with the book. It stops more than it ends. I wonder if Werner was planning on continuing it via additional volumes? The ending was pretty underwhelming and it ended on a minor cliffhanger. Also, the middle section of the book is a bit confused. Werner experiments with using lots of different points of view, bouncing from Thulmann to Streng to each of the (many) villains, to other supporting characters... it feels like a very Tom Clancy-esque technique in a way, but I think it got a little bit away from him. The middle section sub-climax, what would have been the climax of the second novel in its original form, was just a bit too ambitious, and as such, it isn't able to completely deliver on its promise. And a lingering problem with the multiple character experiment was that Thulmann was then saddled with several new supporting characters who were not as well developed as they should have been; they were just there as walking plot devices, really.

And an extremely banal complaint; the original titles were underwhelming. One of the short stories was named "Meat Wagon" for example, and the three novels were Witch Hunter, Witch Finder and Witch Killer. Huh?

Anyway, despite these complaints, I have to admit that Werner convinced me. This is a major trilogy (plus a few add-on short stories) by a major shared world licensed publishing house that publishes fiction as an adjunct to games, miniatures and (now) computer games. The Black Library section has very quickly engulfed massive amounts of shelf space at my local bookstores, and if this is any indication, the reason for that is that they manage to put out shared world fiction that's just as good as any "real" fiction out there on average.

Which is good; I've made a semi-major investment into Black Library; I've got two more omnibus trilogies on my shelf as well as the first volume of a brand new trilogy about the "historical" Warhammer setting. I hope to be able to report that the rest of the stuff I read by them will live up to the reasonably high standard that Mathias Thulmann: Witch Hunter has set.

1 comment:

Badelaire said...

I will second the opinion that the Black Library really does have some excellent works in it's inventory. Foremost among them is the new-ish Horus Heresy series of novels; definitely the best of the writers putting their best foot forwards to elevate "media tie-in" fiction above the second-class citizen status of which you speak.