Skarsnik by Guy Haley. A Warhammer Heroes (Warhammer Fantasy) novel, originally published by The Black Library, June 2013. Approx. 402 pages.
One of the very first short stories that I ever reviewed on this blog was The King of Black Crag, a fun piece that revolved around the notorious ork King Gorfang Rotgut. The tale told of Rotgut's journey to sort out "what's wot" with the rumored new "King" of the Eight Peaks, an upstart goblin daring to bear an orkish name: Skarsnik. King was released at the time as companion piece to Haley's then upcoming novel about said goblin king, named for that goblin king. Based on the strength of his orky writing in King (as well as that great cover), I grabbed a copy of Skarsnik soon after it was released. This month, I decided to finally dust it off and give it a read. Hard to believe that it's been a full year and a half since I reviewed King of Black Crag. Alas, tempus fugit.
There were a few considerations going into a full-length goblin novel. First, considering that Haley is a self-admitted orkyphile (orkophile?), the potential for this greenskin-centered book being a great read is quite high. On the other hand, the greener races in the Warhammer universe (both Fantasy and 40K) are usually portrayed in two completely manners: as opposition, their brutality is showcased. However, as far as characterization goes, they usually serve as comic relief. Usually employing exaggerated Cockney accents, they lampoon the social undertow, reminding us always that the orky races are projections of the qualities that we all possess, hate to admit that we possess, and hate even more to admit that we admire to a degree. So my concern was as to whether or not the comic aspect would become numbing when spread over 400 pages. It would take a gifted author to properly blend and incorporate all the elements of goblin psychology, physicality, diversity, and behavioral tendencies into a solid narrative. Luckily, it was Haley that answered the call.
As it states on the title page, this book serves as a "True and Compleat History" of Skarsnik (by the way, that old-fashioned style title page sold me on this story from the minute I opened the book). Instead of utilizing a first-person POV for Skarsnik, Haley uses human filters to relay the tale. The story is told by the now-insane playwright Jeremiah Bickenstadt, who was a "guest" of Skarsnik's, charged by the goblin lord with recording his history. He recites this oral account from his cell in an insane asylum to Kaspar Wollendorp, an academic who has authored the most comprehensive treatise on goblins in the Empire. Finally, the transcript we are presented with has been tidied up by one Guido Kleinfeld, a scribe who remains offscreen during the proceedings. It is safe to assume that Kleinfeld is the pen name of Haley himself, an author whose task it is to compile the embellished ravings of a lunatic and the methodical notes of a professor. Or maybe Beckenstadt and Wollendorp are the aliases for the voices in Haley's head. We may never know.
Either way, the usage of human filters is the best medium for delivery of this history. Skarsnik the story is both the biography of a megalomaniac and a press release to the Empire at large, putting them on notice that the King of Eight Peaks is looking to expand his holdings.
As a biography, the book details Skarsnik's rise to power from his humble roots. Skarsnik was spawned runty, and remained runty for most of his ascension. What he did have a surplus of was the cunning that is such a large facet of the goblin psyche. He was also gifted with a higher intelligence than his peers. Lastly, and most importantly, he possesses an uncanny amount of luck (as to whether it is luck, or being chosen by Gork and Mork is ultimately up to the reader to decide). Being born a goblin in Karak Eight Peaks, the young runt matures in an environment filled with not only the perennial violence between greenskin factions, but with other races as well; the noble dwarfs in the upper levels, and the verminous Skaven in the lower holds.
What follows is an account of Skarsnik's (then known as Runtgit) schemes and ploys as he uses not only his gifts, but everyone and everything around him to advance his cause. In theory, this sounds like a thin premise, but it is fleshed out richly. No matter how clever he might be, Runtgit was still a little body in a largely strength-dominated society, so the entire trip is an uphill climb. And so, everyone who comes in contact with him is used, betrayed, and discarded, be they friend or foe. It's all part of the goblin mentality; any friendly gesture comes with a knife in the back, metaphorical, literal, or both.
Skarsnik's green contemporaries are not the only adversaries obstructing his climb. On top of an exile into the world under the "Evil Sun" to remedy, there are still the persistent threats of stunties and skaven. How will this history of the greatest goblin since Grom climax? How much is fact, and how much is truth with a little dressing? Let's take a look at the book bit by bit and see how Haley constructed this masterpiece.
Of course, the bulk of the story falls upon Skarsnik's knobby green shoulders, and he carries it like a true performer. There is an nice array of secondary characters as well. Many of them end up as little more than disposable pawns, steps on Skarsnik's climb to the top. There are, however, some characters shrewd/useful enough to go the distance. One is Duffskul, top shaman for the gang Runtgit is affiliated with, The Backstairs Boys. It is he that proves to be a greater consul than Skarsnik would ever admit. Another favorite character is Skarsnik's faithful "pet", a massive squig named Gobbla. This twisted guard dog surely lives up to his name throughout, and steals many a scene along the way. It is no great secret that these two contribute more markedly to the king's longevity than his personal accounts of his physical prowess.
As mentioned, the disposable characters provide solid comic relief. Haley also makes sure to have at least one or two distinct characters represented in each of the races/tribes featured here. Again, he takes care to form their personalities from established canon and environmental factors.
Also mentioned was how well handled the human characters are here. Haley has a skill with descriptive terms that allows you to form a solid picture of a person from a few key words. I could fully picture Wollendorp, his guard Meisen, and the mad Bickenstadt.
Realization of Tie-In Universe:
World building is one of Haley's strengths, and you can see it here. From the fog enveloping the cobblestone streets of Averheim to the grandeur of Karak Eight Peaks, the feeling of immersion is engrossing. It is indeed the interior of the Eight Peaks that is a crowning achievement; represented as three tiers, each section shaped by its denizens (goblins, dwarfs, skaven). You get a true feel for the sights and smells of each, how these races have altered, defaced, destroyed, and added upon the magnificent architecture of the dwarfs.
The tactics employed by the races included are well researched and thought out, the battles plotted with excellence. There are minor skirmishes and all out wars. Haley includes a broad range of special unit types/weaponry for each army type. These books are, in some small part of their soul, a commercial for the tabletop product line, and Skarsnik serves to capture the imaginative essence that draws so many to the game.
Side note, one of my favorite portions of the book was the time that Runtgit spent during his exile with a band of goblin wolf riders (who he, of course, solidified ties with and rose withing the hierarchy of). I haven't had this much fun reading about wolf riders since I got the book of the same name (featuring the William King story of the same name) as a Christmas present when I was a wee pudgy youngster.
Still have my copy to this very day. Thanks, big brother!
Another favorite part was one chapter which was structured as a captive dwarf's lament. In this one chapter, with one sorrowful dirge, Haley encapsulates dwarf psychology more succinctly than some of the full length novels written about them. All of their motivations, their loves, the anger rising from injured pride, are made near palpable in this chapter.
Overall Writing Style:
This is, without a doubt, my favorite book by Haley to date. Heck, it's one of the top Warhammer Fantasy books I've ever read. You can tell that there is a good deal of personal investment in this story, and the end result is an obvious labor of love. Haley's pacing is spot-on, the book does not drag, meander, or lapse into mediocre moments.
Since the story is told (first) from the mouth of a playwright, there is a certain theatrical flair to the proceedings. Individual chapters are given names (something I really like), and many of them include stage directions. It all serves to solidify a clever motif that enriches the overall experience.
Perhaps the best balance is struck in the the dance of comedy and danger which is a core aspect of Skarsnik. The dialogue is fun, the physical comedy lively; then, at any moment, we can be reminded of just how sadistically malicious these little green critters are. It's always a jarring moment when we go from slapstick capering to a clinic on how much goblins enjoy experimental art using sharp blades and the faces of captives. But that's the world that spawned Skarsnik, King of the Eight Peaks.
Obviously I highly recommend this book. Grab yourself a copy, enjoy it, and then recommend it to your friends who might be wary of tie-in fiction. Any fantasy lover that can enjoy a great book written from the point of view of the monsters is sure to enjoy this.
Here's what it is:
Guy Haley's greenskin magnum opus is a highly enjoyable history of the baddest greenskin in the world of Warhammer Fantasy. Comedy, grand battles, and faithful presentations of various races are bundled with precision. Get yourself a copy.
Bonus! The cover is awesome as well. I really love the work of Cheol Joo Lee, who also did the Swords of the Emperor covers. There's something about the overall style, it has a feel as if the miniatures for the game came to life in your mind. It is also worth noting that this cover made the list of nominees for a David Gemmell Ravenheart Award. A well deserved nomination indeed.
Enjoy this pic of the full cover:
Cover Final Score: