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God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 12:31 am
by J D Dunsany
This is partly in response to a conversation with Vivia elsewhere about philosophies of reviewing and, in larger part, it's also an attempt to put my thoughts about God King into something approaching a coherent pattern after some interesting conversations with Ath.

I don't like reviews that just bash an author's work and I hope I haven't done that here. Although it would be fair to say that God King wasn't as enjoyable as I expected, I'm still very glad I read it. I offer the following as an explanation of why I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I have been about other McNeill novels.



God King - A Review

I enjoyed Empire. Unashamedly and unequivocally. My surprise that it won the David Gemmell award in 2010 owed more to my longstanding mistrust of genre awards and their voting systems than to any doubts I had about the novel itself. For that reason, I opened God King with a fair amount of anticipation. For that reason – and, perhaps, for only that reason – I found myself a little disappointed.

That's not to say that God King is a poor novel. Far from it. McNeill is an accomplished writer. I've read a fair amount of his stuff now and he's one of the best writers of action – full-blooded, exciting, the dictionary definition of 'epic' – I've ever had the privilege to read. There are several examples of that in this concluding part of the Sigmar trilogy, but they seem to me to be isolated flashes of McNeill's skill, glittering jewels of awesomeness in an altogether much more mundane setting. And there are, I think, a couple of reasons for this.

The first is the plot. The opening chapter is profoundly misleading. While Sigmar's pursuit of Gerreon makes sense in terms of his character, both the fact that he doesn't find him and the fact that we never see Sigmar's arch-nemesis again in the entire novel means the story starts off on a distinctly uncertain note. There might have been an interesting character seed here. Sigmar's desire for vengeance making him more brutal in his treatment of the Norsii is something that could very easily have played a part in the main Nagash plot, but it doesn't. What we're left with then is an opening whose incongruity becomes increasingly apparent as the story develops.

That story is remarkably straightforward. Nagash would quite like his crown back and assembles an army of undead to assail the fledgling Empire and do just that. That army is led by a charismatic, smooth-talking vampire with a line in cod-philosophy (favouring the nihilism end of the spectrum, oddly enough) and the kind of skill with a sword that makes Zorro look like Elmer Fudd. The Empire still being a fairly loose confederation of previously independent states, Nagash's plan is to pick off the particularly weak states one by one while assaulting some of the stronger states from the sea. Goodbye Jutonsryk, Siggurdheim and, amongst others, the entire Menogoth tribe.

There are a number of strong set pieces here, not least the invasion of Jutonsryk from the sea and at one point McNeill almost starts to tell a proper horror story with Tilean sailors' chilling tales of ragged ancient ships crewed by the undead providing an all too brief moment of uncanny disquiet. But this is Warhammer Fantasy and the demands of a full-blooded action narrative take precedence. The invasion of Jutonsryk has some very atmospheric moments (the fading of the beacon lights on the night of the attack is a nice creepy touch), but at its heart it remains as much a war story as the Battle of Black Fire Pass or the siege of the Fauschlag Rock. And, as good as it is, it also isn't the main event.

And that is a bit of a problem. In attempting to convey the scale of Nagash's assault, McNeill presents us with a narrative that, if not outright disjointed, is certainly groaning under the weight of its ambition. For example, about a third of the way through, the action moves from Jutonsryk to Three Hills to Ostenburg in the space of a couple of half chapters. That's half a continent and back again in just a dozen or so pages. While much of the action takes place on the Empire's periphery, the centre remains for much of the novel remarkably still. Safely ensconced in Reikdorf, Eoforth and Alessa find things out, Govannon and Bysen (who are great characters in their own right) repair the superweapon that you just know will make an appearance in the final battle, and Sigmar... Well, that's another issue.

I like Sigmar. While it wouldn't be true to say that he does nothing in the first two-thirds of the novel (he actually fights the undead at least twice in that time), such is the power of the events that are happening elsewhere (Marius slays an undead dragon, for crying out loud!) that Sigmar's actions seem fairly mundane by comparison. But that's the problem with being an Emperor, isn't it? Ruling means issuing orders and devising strategy – except... well, there isn't a great deal of that either. Most of the city-states of this new Empire are left to fend for themselves, tending to co-operate with neighbours on an ad hoc basis with little or no sense of co-ordination from the centre. There is possibly a point being made here about the desperate nature of the threat facing the Empire in that Nagash has isolated its constituent parts so effectively (and there are one or two mentions of roads being cut off and what have you), but the overall impression is of a land that is an Empire in name only. Reikdorf only really becomes important when it's attacked in the final third of the novel.

And that final third is... odd. As you might expect from a Warhammer novel, the stage is set for bloodletting on an epic scale. McNeill does a reasonably impressive job of this. Different types of undead are described with some relish and, as is almost always the case with McNeill, the moves from 'longshot' tactical description to more 'close-up' personal melée are handled with considerable skill. But the final battle is a curiously empty affair for a couple of reasons. Firstly, virtually all the named characters survive it. Now McNeill has, in the past, proven himself a master of handling the peaks of heroism and troughs of human frailty that make up character trajectories in this kind of heroic adventure fiction. That depiction of bravery in the face of fear is one of the things that make his characters credible and very easy to identify with. Here, however, he falls short in his execution. Daegal, the Asoborn lad, who, very understandably, causes a rout by being the first to run from a battle earlier on in the novel, finds redemption by leading a ragtag army of commoners against a section of Nagash's horde outside Reikdorf. Fair enough. Shame redeemed by heroism. We like that. But, it's handled in a curiously perfunctory way. “Daegal fought with all the courage and strength he had forgotten by the river, killing a dozen enemies with as many blows.” Does he not feel anything at this point? Shouldn't we feel something? Similarly, Alfgeir and Leodan both end up staring death in the face and both are saved by external forces – Leodan by the timely arrival of Alaric's dwarves and Alfgeir by a boy in a brass helmet and (probably) the intervention of Ulric himself. Even Redwane the proto-flagellant survives – although most of his impromptu army is not so fortunate. And there's nothing terribly wrong with this, except...

I think it boils down to this: while I intellectually accepted that the Empire was in grave peril, in that final battle I never really felt that anything that huge was at stake. And the characterisation of Sigmar himself is a significant part of that wider issue.

The Sigmar of God King is a much more settled leader than the one in Empire. Nagash's crown holds no temptation for him, because he has forsworn any prospect of his own happiness (even to the extent of refusing to have much to do with his own sons) for the sake of his people. While that makes a certain sense in terms of the character's overall development, it renders him remarkably impervious to the temptations of a villain who's considerably older than him and, you would think, has much more experience of this kind of thing. That Sigmar's grand strategy seems to involve throwing a large amount of Empire lives into the battle just so he can confront Nagash, pretend to destroy the crown of Morath and then hit the sorcerer repeatedly with his hammer until he explodes doesn't really help either. There was no gut-wrenching moment like Pendrag's death in Empire, although there were opportunities aplenty. For too long during the novel, the language keeps the reader at an emotional arm's length and when it does allow us to get closer it's to experience the heroism of characters on the periphery of the main plotline.

Does all that make God King a terrible novel? No. There's enough to keep this reader interested certainly and some of the action sequences are very well-written indeed. The moments where Sigmar glimpses his Empire's future – both in positive and, later, negative lights – are very affecting too, but, compared to Empire – and, to a lesser extent, Heldenhammer, I couldn't help feeling just a little hollow at the end of it.

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 1:57 am
by Vivia
A fine review, JD Dunsany. You've done an excellent job. It gets me totally inspired on what to focus on with my next review. :)

Reading your review makes me want to read God King despite its flaws and well, it's McNeill. The extract isn't remarkable and I was disappointed as to how Sigmar was nowhere to be seen. The scene in the extract is supposedly a horrifying moment for the characters but it comes across as sort of silly and the dialogue doesn't help either. Though I'm curious of the characters you mentioned, the warrior vampire for example.
I get flashbacks from the 40k novel Courage and Honour were I also thought it was a rather shallow plot that suffered from not letting us in and it only moved around the edges of the main characters and the story. There were hardly any life-changing moments so to speak.
Sigmar himself doesn't come across as a interesting character from what you described and I know very little of him. Is it better to read the entire series to get a better picture?

I've more to say but this is enough for now. Again, great review.

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 7:59 am
by J D Dunsany
Thank you, Vivia. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. As to your question, well, yes - it probably is better to read the entire series. And it'd be worth your while to do so - Black Fire Pass in Heldenhammer and the ending of Empire are both impressive set pieces in their own right, but both novels are considerably more coherent and involving than the third one.

Like yourself, I rate McNeill. Storm of Iron, Guardians of the Forest, A Thousand Sons: the author of these works is no novice when it comes to writing for the settings. I just didn't feel the love this time round, though.

I have to confess that the Ultramarines books are currently one of those big, yawning gaps in my BL knowledge, so I'll have to take your word for it on those comparisons with Courage and Honour. :)

All the best!


Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 12:54 pm
by Vivia
Does the trilogy have the same main characters throughout and is this Magnus the Pious in them? I'll read the extracts for the rest of the novels.

After reading Storm of Iron years ago I've always thought McNeill as one of the better BL authors. I'm older now and more critical of his writing but I used to buy every one of his books. His action and battle scenes are one of the best I've ever read in books.
If you're curious there are plenty of opinions on C&H in the "What are you reading" thread. :) I thought it was a bit lacklustre and dull. Well, Learchus shined in a scene. Brains! *lol*

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 1:33 pm
by schaferwhat‽
Magnus the Pious is over a thousand years away, he reunites the Empire after the time of three Emperor's where there was a bit of civil war that was followed up by the largest Chaos Incursion for a while and wasn't matched in size until Archon came along.

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 1:40 pm
by Liliedhe
Magnus the Pious? Did he ever lose an eye? 8-)

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 2:26 pm
by Athelassan
No, although, somewhat curiously, both portraits of him in Empire at War show him wearing a monocle.

JD - I think you've actually put your finger on some of what I disliked about the novel and haven't previously been able to express. It feels distant and I found it increasingly difficult to care what happened in most of the scenes. There's also too much flicking between different battles and scenes. Nor did I find Nagash et al compelling villains. Nagash himself barely appeared in person but his half-present role was done to far less effect than, say, the Emperor in the Horus Heresy novels in which he partly appears, and there was nobody to take his place. Khalid didn't fill the gap and Krell was no better depicted than Nagash.

There's something, too, in what you say about the walloping the Empire takes here. I found this was overplayed throughout the series. Sigmar's reign is a golden age, the founding period of - literally - a thousand year Empire, but with the punishment it takes in these novels it's difficult to see how it could have lasted five minutes. The Menogoths and Merogens were all but extinct by the end of Heldenhammer and the Menogoths are exterminated here*. The Brigundians and Asoborns appear to suffer similar depredations here; the Udoses took a severe beating in Empire, as did the Teutogens, and the Endals and Jutones are all but merged by the end of this book. These aren't just battle casualties, either, but women and children. In a largely pre-urbanised society, this would be devastating. Even in Europe it would take centuries to recover, and in Europe there aren't orcs and beastmen and Skaven waiting to invade and pick off societies down on their luck. Yet the Empire still seems to have near-limitless reserves of troops to throw into impossible battles, and by the time it emerges from the troubles of each book it's like the previous one never happened.

Something else you note, which I didn't like in retrospect, is that Nagash's strategy, compared to Sigmar's, is too competent. Nagash isn't an idiot, but he's not a warlord either, and much of his apparent tactical nous comes from his ability to see all areas of the battlefield at once. This is why he's reliant on commanders like Arkhan and Vashanesh and (historically) Krell to handle his battlefield engagements. I suppose that Khalid, with support from Siggurd and Markus, was meant to fill that role here but he didn't really seem to be doing that. On the other hand, Sigmar is one of the greatest military commanders of any age, and he does nothing for most of the novel, sitting on his hands letting Nagash get more and more powerful. It's out of character.

Really, I think one of the problems with the novel is that Nagash's invasion doesn't merit a whole novel. This could have been dealt with very nicely in a third to half the space. But in order to meet the word count the story becomes a bit bloated and gets a little unsatisfactory.


*This is something else that annoyed me, but I won't belabour it. I found it suspicious that the Menogoths were picked on. Any fule know that Solland, the province of the Menogoths, endured until the 1700s when Gorbad destroyed it, so why are the Menogoths given such a kicking here? It seems Graham is anticipating later events, which seems somehow to defeat the point of ToL.

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 3:21 pm
by Xisor
Athelassan wrote:Really, I think one of the problems with the novel is that Nagash's invasion doesn't merit a whole novel. This could have been dealt with very nicely in a third to half the space. But in order to meet the word count the story becomes a bit bloated and gets a little unsatisfactory.

Give it to Mike Lee and we'd hopefully see 800 pages on the topic that still feels only 'a bit bloated'! :lol:

JDD: I like the review, I think it's primed me to read this and check for myself. I thought Heldenhammer had some neat scenes (shaggoth!), but broadly the book felt very underwhelming. With Empire it was sufficiently 'more of the same without the same affection/cool' to make me fall far, far away from God-King.

Mainly because the setting up of future events (so that they can be dramatic) seems a perfect opportunity in the ToL books. E.g. setting up an honest, idyllic near-enough-paradise for humanity that's about to suffer the changes of 2k5 years of war. It''s the opportunity wasted by Kyme in Promethean Sun and deftly done by Aaron in TFH/Aurelian: HH Salamanders act, except for some cosmetic/organisation points, almost identically/indistinguishably from 40k ones. Yet for the inhabitants of Cadia, we see it plainly that there has to be a 10k time difference between what we see on one hand and what we'll see on the other. Indeed, the only enduring aspect is the name and the eyes!

Still, I think I'm 'sanguine' about G-K now, I've been thoroughly warned, so it's perhaps time to have a look for myself.

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 3:33 pm
by Vivia
Completely random: Are these the novels that Ath referred to as the wretched Sigmar books set in Caliban? I specifically remember this because I laughed so much when I read it. :lol:

Re: God King - spoilers abound

PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 11:57 pm
by Athelassan
These are indeed the "wretched Sigmar books". :roll: