Taking the first steps

This past weekend, the ebook version of the new Kings of War novel was released on Amazon as well as the publisher site (with the dead tree version to be available soon).  (I have to admit that I prefer reading on my kindle, but still like to get some 'real' copies of books.  Plus you can't have an author sign an ebook!)

Let me start off the bat by saying that I really enjoyed this book, much more than I expected to.  I generally have not liked many licensed books (they either feel too forced, or just don't seem to be true to the original characters), nor have I enjoyed reading most 'fluff' included in games (often for the same reason), but this was an extremely pleasant surprise, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mantic Games Kings of War universe (including Vanguard and Dungeon Saga).  In fact, I recommend this to anyone who enjoys good fantasy novels (without getting bogged down in a huge multi-volume epic), though some aspects might be more confusing than others if you don't know the game background already.

The book was written by Mark Barber, and published by the Zmok books imprint of  Winged Hussar Publishing, and distributed by Simon & Schuster.  Barbers previous works have been either military histories, Campaigns for Flames of War, or a couple of novels for Warlord Games 'Gates of Antares' game.  While I don't play Gates of Antares, I enjoyed this enough that I might event take a look at those two as well.

I do have a couple of nit-picky things to get off my chest however, though only slightly related to this book (and not with the content at all).  While it is being pushed and promoted as the first Kings of War novel, the first novel was actually "Bloodstone of Cerillion" by Jonathan Peace published in 2013 (wayyy back in the mythical 1st edition of Kings of War).  Originally only an ebook, it was self-published briefly back in 2015 before going out of print and  becoming almost impossible to now find.  (Unfortunately I believe there were some disputes over rights and ownership, and as such it will remain a rare nearly mythical beast (though I did find a used copy available on amazon for over $300!))  I do mildly regret not buying a hard copy when I had the chance, but I do still have my ebook version.

Secondly, while the cover is a fantastic piece of art, it is, unfortunately, not new.  This is also the cover of the Basilean Legacy Kings of War expansion (again, from the fabled 1st edition of the game).  While a great piece of art (I have a poster of it I use when running demos), it doesn't really reflect anything in the book itself.

But enough of that.  As I mentioned, I have generally not enjoyed licensed material, nor most gaming 'fluff'.  (The one notable exception has been the stories in the rulebooks for Wyrd Games Malifaux (with the third edition about to come out).  I haven't played the game for quite a while, but at one point I was buying the books just to read the stories).

Barber does an excellent job of bringing to life the characters and world of Mantica.  The story mainly focuses on Orion, a Basilean Paladin.  It starts off with a traumatic encounter when he was just a squire on a failed expedition to bring in the outlaw Dionne (who disobeyed orders and founded a band of rebels whose goal was to protect the people, not enforce rules from rulers far from the front line).  This serves to shape the rest of his life, and the book moves to the 'present' when he is a full grown Paladin, assigned once again to bring the rebel to justice 11 years later.

You quickly grow to like (and dislike) several characters, but all of them are fleshed out quite well and not simple one dimensional.  Tancred is the leader of the paladins, and is both ambitions but also conflicted as to doing what is right compared to what is easy, including following orders.  The Dictator-Prefect Hugh is the leader of the expedition, cruel and caring more about politics than the people he is in charge of, yet still not completely un-redeemable.  Constance is a tough leader of the mercenary band hired along with the expedition who shares a dark history with Hugh and Dionne.  Aestelle (ok, my favorite character) an adventurer with a mysterious past that is so much more than a simple hired gun.  Finally the unwilling mage Valleto joins the expedition, struggling between duty and loyalty to his family.

Even the villain Dionne is quit well fleshed out, a good man forced to break the law in order to do what is right, finding that each decision places him closer and closer to his own damnation.  At one point I was quite conflicted as these two forces begin to be drawn together over who I truly wanted to succeed.  However at what point do the means overshadow the end goal, so much that it becomes corrupted and lost.  When does fighting against corruption lead to being corrupted yourself?

In the limited amount of wargame fiction I have read, they always seems to focus on battles and warfare (indeed, the book of short stories "Edge of the Abyss" suffers from this), however this does not.  Yes there are battles both big and small, but this is not about the battles but about the characters, and much more about what happens off the batlefield.

Being based on a wargame, there are a lot of descriptions of military units and the book is set in this universe, so it was natural for me to see elements of the game there.  When expedition marches out of the city to begin it's quest, I kept saying to myself that these were not legal units nor formations.  However then when it comes time for a large battle (large being relative - with a few hundred participants on either side (much like the number of models in a full size Kings of War game)), the units now were formed up as they would be in the game, with some leeway allowed by the rules.  So the troop of 30 mercenaries in three ranks of 10 - well yes they could actually be a horde formation (which would normally be 40 models) - and made more sense operating in three ranks (with one rank firing their crossbows while the other two are reloading).

I'm not sure if there is a term for being able to see the game going on behind the story (I'd call it cinematic, but that isn't quite right - I wasn't seeing the events played out like a movie in my mind, but like an actual game).  Watching a horde of Basilean Paladin Knights hit (and utterly destroy) the flank of an infantry unit had me seeing that in my head (and knowing just how powerful and scary that unit would be in a game).  Even to the point of them pulling off a surprise maneuver to exploit an exposed weakness reminded me of how often I have been on the receiving side of that in my games because I didn't look far enough and realize that unit from way over there could reach mine, and my opponent capitalizing on my mistake to change the course of the battle (and the outcome of the game).

There are many little 'easter eggs' that fit naturally into the narrative - being shout-outs to other games and parts of this universe.  Whether it be the tribute to Dungeon Saga or the simple throw away line ("You hit like an elf!") these little bits made me smile at the subtle inside jokes.

Beyond just the characters, battles and nods to more of Mantics IP, the actually story itself was compelling.  At it's heart is it about both redemption - both earning it and failing.  The narrative was more than a simple quest. (as an aside (not that I ever do that or anything) I do wonder sometime if it is possible to tell a good fantasy story that DOES NOT involve a journey - though maybe the Thieve's World stories (oh my god - did the first book really come out in 1978 - over 40 years ago?  ok, let me get my walker - and you kids over there - get off my lawn!) does that).  There are some fun twists and at least a couple of genuine surprises.  I have to admit I was messaging Brandon Rospond of Winged Hussar (we had talked about when the book was coming out, and I was excited to see it was available) at times while I was reading it, and said how cool it was that about how something tied together, and then had to express my delight (and surprise) when I found out quite a bit later that I had jumped to an erroneous conclusion and was completely wrong.  Well played Mr Barber, well played.

Even though it is Barber's first foray into this realm, it has left me wanting more, which is a good thing.  I went into this hoping to not be disappointed, and instead found myself quite delighted.  While the story is complete, I like these characters, and was almost disappointed to have to let them go.  (It is nice however to actually be able to read a single, self contained fantasy novel anymore - as so many are huge multi-book epics).  I don't want a forced sequel (because we all know how badly those generally turn out), but if Barber (and, based on the dedication, his very young son) could come up with another story to reunite some of these characters I would definitely want to read it.

Oh yeah, and since Mantic is a miniature company after all - they need to make miniatures of some of these characters (especially Aestelle, though I'd also buy one of Constance and I'm not sure which version of Orion I'd want).

Because it is all fun and games . . .