Because of this, I figured it would simply be a standalone piece. It'd be a well-written, fun little tale that would explain where the heck Chen was has been all these years. But when I started playing the Mists beta, I fell in love with Li Li, Chen's precocious niece with a penchant for acrid sarcasm. After meeting Li Li, I was a bit more excited to read the book, because I figured more Li Li would be a good thing. And then I got Pearl of Pandaria and sat down to give it a read, fully expecting a simple lighthearted and fun little piece of work.
I don't think I've ever been quite so delighted to be utterly wrong.
That said, Pearl of Pandaria is set to release on September 25th right along with Mists of Pandaria. And just like Curse of the Worgen, this is really a book you don't want to miss. Unlike Curse of the Worgen, you don't have to wait for individual issues to be released -- you can just pick up this stunning hardcover and read it all in one sitting. Which is fantastic, because the story is engaging enough that you don't really want to stop until it's all over.
But before we go into the book and the story, we need to talk about the artwork behind the story. Pearl of Pandaria was illustrated by Sean "Cheeks" Galloway, otherwise known as the character designer behind Hellboy Animated and Spectacular Spider-Man. Galloway has a really distinctive style; crisp lines and flat shading gives his artwork the look of traditional cel animation. And while it's nothing that we've seen in conjunction with World of Warcraft before, it really works in Pearl of Pandaria, giving the book the kind of vivacious feel you expect a young pandaren like Li Li to have.
The story takes place just before or during Wrath in the WoW timeline -- there's a scene in Stormwind where characters are recruiting for the war against the Lich King. Li Li Stormstout is the niece of Chen Stormstout, and at the beginning of the book she's stuck on the Wandering Isle, much to her dismay. The story begins when Li Li's adventure begins as she sets off to find her wandering uncle and figure out where he's been.
Her travels take her all over Azeroth in a wild goose chase, following clues that her uncle may or may not have left behind specifically for her. Along the way, we get the history of Brewfest, some history behind Chen and his life before his travels, and the introduction of some new villains who are looking for the mysterious Pearl of Pandaria. This may sound straightforward, but there's a lot of plot to be had along the way.
Neilson has an amazing knack for writing rapid fire, snappy dialogue. Li Li is quite the character, and her back and forth with other characters gives the book a sense of humor that simply adds to its charm. But Neilson also has a knack for writing with emotion, and that comes across as effortlessly as the humor. Li Li may be a happy, joyful character with a penchant for exploring and getting into mischief, but the world is not a happy, joyful place.
It's the contrast between the two that really makes the book work. Here we have the Azeroth we know, the raw, gritty world of war waging against the Lich King, and then we have Li Li, who is quite happily floating among it and simply taking it all in. We have the stoic character Bo, sent to retrieve the girl, and his attempts to bring the kid down from the clouds and drag her back home.
As far as plot, the fact that we've got another holiday explained made me very happy. I loved the story behind the Headless Horseman and the Wickerman festival presented in the Warcraft: Legends manga, and I was hoping we'd see more about Azeroth's holidays at some point. I also loved seeing what Chen had been up to all these years -- I've been a fan of Chen since Warcraft III. Each tale of his travels led Li Li further on her quest, and the tales highlighted parts of Azeroth's history that had previously been left in the dark.
It was the little tales that grabbed me. They remind me in a way of the various short stories we saw in Warcraft: Legends, except presented as part of a whole and cohesive story rather than a series of vignettes. I was expecting to see parts of Chen's past explained, I wasn't expecting stories about Azeroth's history. And because of this book's place in the timeline, I definitely was not expecting the appearance of an important character from Cataclysm, cleverly tucked into the middle of it all.
Although Pearl of Pandaria references hanging plot points, it ties up its own, ending on a poignant, hopeful note that leads directly into a short story called Quest for Pandaria that we'll see on Blizzard's official website at some point after Pearl of Pandaria is released. Quest for Pandaria was also mentioned at BlizzCon, it's a four-part novella written by Sarah Pine that follows the further adventures of Li Li and Chen on their way to Pandaria's shores.
Pearl of Pandaria is not the gritty, raw and emotional novel that Tides of War is. But the graphic novel works beautifully at making that transition from raw emotion to the breath of fresh air that is Mists of Pandaria. It does a fantastic job at highlighting the difference between pandaren culture and the rest of the world. Galloway's version of Azeroth is at once recognizable, and Neilson's writing makes it real. I highly recommend picking this one up.
Pearl of Pandaria is slated to release on September 25th. You can preorder the hardcover edition on Amazon for $17.32. At this time, it doesn't look like there's an ebook version set to be released. If a digital edition becomes available, we'll let you know.
While Pearl of Pandaria isn't required reading to understand what's going on in Mists of Pandaria, it's an excellent addition to Blizzard's lore library, and it fills out some further history behind the expansion and what's going on. Galloway's art and Neilson's writing go hand in hand to make this a graphic novel worth treasuring. It's definitely not the simple, lighthearted tale I was expecting -- instead, it's a tale with a lot of depth, and a lot of heart.