The Great Betrayal by Nick Kyme – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the new War of Vengeance trilogy for the Time of Legends meta-series.
“This is quite possibly Nick’s best work to date, better than even Nocturne perhaps. The only way to decide might be a novel deathmatch.” ~The Founding Fields
I make no secret of the fact that I really enjoy Nick’s work, and that I hold his Tome of Fire trilogy to be some of the best Warhammer 40k fiction put out by Black Library in recent years. My first introduction to his work, the Warhammer Fantasy novel Oathbreaker, was a highly negative experience but most of the other stuff he’s written since then (that I’ve read) has impressed me. With The Great Betrayal, Nick has continued his streak of successes, and I am now a huge fan of the Warhammer variety of Dwarfs. In this novel, he has done a great job in exploring their culture, their society, their history, and their attitudes. Barring some odd stuff here and there, I could not have asked for a better novel to kickstart the long-awaited War of Vengeance trilogy, which is going to be complemented by Chris Wraight’s War of the Beard trilogy, which will tell of the great war between the Dwarfs and the High Elves from the latter’s perspective.
The central drive for this war between two of the elder races of the Warhammer world is that Malekith, formerly a great High Elf prince and now the bitter ruler of the Dark Elves, wants to destroy his former people completely. And to do this, he begins by staging false attacks by the Elves on Dwarf merchantmen, patrols, holds and villages. He uses his extensive knowledge of the Dwarfs and their empire, gained when he first came to their lands ages ago and befriended their High King, and the result is utter mayhem and confusion. The entire event is one of the greatest tragedies in Warhammer history, a tragedy compounded by ignorance, ego, recklessness, and pride.
Participating in the entire debacle are Dwarfs from all levels of their society. One of the most central characters is Prince Snorri, son of High King Gotrek Starbreaker. The Prince is a man who is always in his father’s shadow, the Dwarf hero who crippled the Orcs and has led his people into a golden age of peace and prosperity. Snorri wants to prove himself as great a warrior as his father, but such a thing is impossible in times of peace, at a time when the Dwarfs are very much at the peak of their power. Initially Snorri seemed to be a mostly average character, but as Malekith’s treachery unfolds through his various agents, he grows into a very complex character. He straddles a very fine line between war and peace, a fulcrum balancing those who want vengeance on the Elves and those who want to prevent an all-out and destructive war that could cripple the Dwarf race for ages. For me, he was at his best when he was compassionate and friendly, whether with his cousin Morgrim or the High Priestess of Valaya, Elmendrin. When Snorri made snap decisions to incite war with the Elves, he was irritating, because I wanted to reach out through the pages and give him a good shake and tell him that he was being manipulated like a fool. Alas, watching the train wreck was a bit of fun too, so I’m not really complaining.
As the two level-headed Dwarfs who wish to prevent the war and keep peace with the Elves, Gotrek Starbreaker and Morgrim, were characters I really enjoyed. As the entire narrative unfolds, they turn into really strong characters, and their diplomatic approach to the whole affair was almost heartbreaking to see. See, the thing is that we know the war is going to happen. It’s already in the Warhammer lore built up over the last 30+ years, so there are no surprises there in that regard. The beauty of the novel is in seeing how it all came about, how it began, and how it was almost prevented. Both Gotrek and Morgrim are foils for Snorri and his supporters in that regard, and their efforts are only to be appreciated. When it comes to it, they will fight for the honour of their people, but they would rather that such an event never come to pass. As the wise old ruler with a headstrong son, Gotrek is initially stubborn and highly critical himself, but in the later chapters he does mellow out and eventually realises his mistakes. When that particular dam breaks, the narrative reaches one of it’s high-points, one of the best scenes in the entire novel. With Morgrim, I would make the comparison that he is very much like Faramir from The Lord of The Rings, with a dash of Aragorn and Gimli both thrown in for good measure. His was a standout character, one of the best written in the entire book. If there’s any criticism of the book with regards to him, it is that he gets far too few scenes. All for the best though, since he is going to be a major player in the sequel.
There are several other characters that deserve a mention here. Gotrek’s senior-most Runelord, Ranuld Silverthumb is one. Heglan Copperfist, an engineer of the Barak Varr sea-hold who creates the first Dwaf flying ship is another. Rundin Torbansonn, a champion of the Skarrenawi, the Hill Dwarfs, is yet another. Each character, whether major or minor, brought something to the story, and added a new dimension to the ongoing story. The narrative is, in many respects, quite fragmentary since there are several parallel narratives going on at the same time. It makes for some rather disjointed reading but the disadvantage is outdone by the advantage of seeing such a huge cross-section of Dwarf society, from mighty kings down to the simplest soldiers, great engineers to traders. The entire novel is a huge setup for what is to come, but at no point does it feel like an incomplete book, or one that is rushed.
Of course, there are quite a few Elven characters here too. The most notable among these are: Caledor II, Phoenix King; Imladrik, Caledor’s brother and the “Master of Dragons”; Liandra, Imladrik’s former lover and a princess of her people. Each of these three represented an important facet of Elven society within the novel. Caledor is the arrogant and vainglorious feel who would rather hunt on his estates than deal with the “mud-dwellers” and their petty concerns, but will gladly go to war to prove his people’s superiority. Imladrik is the honourable one who wants to avoid the war, but will ultimately acquiesce to the wishes of his King, quite unlike Morgrim (his counterpart) who always speaks plainly and speaks the harsh truths. Liandra is a supremacist, who believes in the superiority of her people just as Caledor does, but is far more tied to the Elven colonies on the continent than to either of the other two. One of the low-points of the novel was that we get to see very little of any of these three characters, as more page-time for them would have done wonders. The consideration to keep in mind though, is that Chris is going to be handling pretty much all of the other side of the conflict, so seeing things from a primarily Dwarf point of view is right on the money, and it makes sense. After all, if two writers were writing all these different characters at the same time, it would prove to be a confusing mess no doubt, and probably involve constant checking that they are both doing the characters “right”.
Finally, to round off all the notes on the characters, are the Druchii, the Dark Elves, carrying out Malekith’s orders. There aren’t many of them to be honest, which is great since the book is already featuring a ton of characters, but what few there are make a strong impression on the narrative, since they are the instigators of it all. Although, I do have to say that I didn’t particularly care for the Shades, especially their leader Sevekai. His characterisation seemed to be odd at best, since he switched from efficient killer and strong leader to someone who would jump at shadows and show little initiative until forced to do something, whether by the Sorceress Drutheira or fellow Shade Kaitar. I just couldn’t take him as seriously as I wanted to. Thankfully, we see little of him in the novel. Drutheira however, well, there’s a conniving character if there ever was one, and certainly someone who is likable while being the opposite at the same time, given some of the things she does, such as having the entire crew of a ship murdered so she can regenerate her magical powers. Cold and ruthless, reminds me of Dan Abnett/Mike Lee’s Malus Darkblade.
Of course, this is a Time of Legends novel, so it is expected that there will be some great battles here, and being a Dwarf novel, also that we get to explore their culture. The set piece battles in the novel are actually not that many, but what few there are do leave a lasting impression. The novel starts off with a prologue which introduces both the High Elves and the Dwarfs at the time of Malekith and Snorri Whitebeard’s friendship, as they battle one of the greatest Chaos hordes to come from the North. Mighty Dwarf throngs of infantry and great dragonflights of Ulthuan clash with daemons of all stripes who call the gods Tzeentch and Nurgle their master. The prologue is overlong, but it shows one of the best “epic” battles I’ve read in fantasy, and I loved both the bird’s eye view of the whole affair, as well as the ground-level descriptions of massed cavalry charges and infantry defense. There is a great siege sequence in the latter third of the novel, which served to show off in great detail the Dwarf way of war, a case of what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, if I may be a bit dramatic here. The siege is also where several characters such as Nadri Guildtongue (a merchant guildmaster from Barak Varr), and Snorri, and Morgrim really get to shine, which made it into a far more important battle than anything else.
As far as the Dwarf culture is concerned, other than everything I’ve already mentioned, one thing I really loved was that a lot of times Nick uses Khazalid words. Khazalid is the Dwarf tongue, and its extensive usage in the novel adds a good layer of complexity to the narrative. It added to my enjoyment since it gave the novel a very distinctive Dwarf feel, even though at times some of the words I didn’t understand directly, and had to use the glossary at the back. If the novel hadn’t been so good on the pacing, this might have rankled, but thankfully that wasn’t the case here.
And the Dwarf “men” weren’t all that we saw either. We got to see some Dwarf women, particularly Elmendrin and her fellow priestesses of Valaya. They feature in short cameos, so the exposure isn’t all that much, but it helps to break the monotony of reading about all the male Dwarfs all the time. And the relationship between Snorri and his father is shaped quite a bit by the death of his mother, an angle that Nick Kyme builds towards throughout the book, culminating in that emotional scene between Snorri and Gotrek I alluded to up above.
My main criticism of the novel is that Imladrik, the only really sympathetic High Elf character here, makes a bare minimum effort at sharing with Gotrek Starbreaker the knowledge of how the Elven people are a divided race now, thanks to Malekith. It is a very important fact and I expected this to be a big deal, but that wasn’t how it was unfortunately. It is one of those things that might have served to prevent the coming war, but Elven obstinacy and reluctance are what rule the day.
As an introduction to a new Time of Legends trilogy, The Great Betrayal works far better than I expected. After reading C. L. Werner’s Dead Winter last year, I wasn’t sure if any other Time of Legends could come close to that particular level of excellence, but The Great Betrayal comes close. It is very much on the same level as other first novels I’ve enjoyed reading in this meta-series: Heldehnammer by Graham McNeill, the first Sigmar novel, and Malekith by Gav Thorpe, the first Sundering novel.
It will be a while before the sequel comes out, since Chris Wraight’s “complementary” book is next in line for the release, but I’m definitely amped up for it. The only way to go for Nick after this novel is up, as far as I’m concerned, and I have faith in him to do justice to the material he is expanding upon, the characters he is handling here. I actually have a mind to go read Oathbreaker all over again, and see how far Nick has come from those days. We shall see.
In the meantime, go get this novel. I recommend it highly.