A prolific author, Stackpole has written a ton of books set in the Star Wars universe as well as BattleTech and a variety of original works as well. Familiar with both fantasy and sci-fi, Stackpole is an impressive author in his own right -- and his realm of expertise with both guaranteed he'd be a good fit for the Warcraft universe and its unique approach to fantasy. So how did Shadows of the Horde hold up?
This is quite possibly one of the darkest novels in the Warcraft stable. And it's brilliant.
Because of this, it involves the game universe, ties into the game timeline, but what happens in the novel itself isn't really anything you absolutely need to know in order to understand the game's storyline. It's an ancillary tale about Vol'jin's recuperation, the Shado-Pan, Chen Stormstout, and the Zandalari -- and it leads up to the assault we launched against the Thunder King in patch 5.2. While we're busy with the Divine Bell, Shadows of the Horde is going on in the background.
Some might think this is solely a Horde novel -- after all, it involves the leader of the Darkspear and the current figurehead for the Darkspear rebellion. Let me just put a halt to that train of thought right now. The novel involves Vol'jin, yes -- but it takes the unique tack of pulling in an Alliance character as well. The Shado-Pan are, after all, fiercely neutral, dedicated not to one side over another, but to the protection and defense of Pandaria. More importantly, they are dedicated to upholding balance -- a theme that is explored in detail over the course of the book.
And although the Zandalari, Vol'jin, troll customs, the loa, and other troll lore are presented in the book with a deft hand, I was surprised and absolutely delighted to find a lot of pandaren history and folklore woven into the book as well. Set against the backdrop of the Shado-Pan, it was only natural that this come into play. The pandaren are utterly fascinating, and the Shado-Pan are perhaps the most fascinating, simply due to their history and how it is tied to the fate of Pandaria.
As I said before, the book is very much about balance -- the delicate balance of Pandaria, the balance of Alliance and Horde, the balance of war vs. peace, the inner balance of self that each character strives to achieve. And that's where the book gets really fascinating. Vol'jin isn't just recuperating from a serious injury, here. He's dealing with the fact that as leader of the Darkspear, he dedicated himself and his people to the Horde -- a Horde that turned on him and tried to have him killed.
As far as Vol'jin knows, Hellscream's Horde views the Darkspear with similar contempt. So where, in all of the world's madness, do the Darkspear fit? More importantly, where does the life of a shadow hunter and leader fit, when he's been nearly cut down in a surprise attack that he, by all rights, should have seen coming? Woven in with this is the similar journey of Alliance hunter Tyrathan, whose journey is smaller in scope, but no less important for what it represents.
Taran Zhu makes a large appearance in the novel, bearing none of the self-importance or perceived arrogance that seems to have rankled players in game. He is simply the leader of the Shado-Pan, a group shrouded in mystery as heavily as Pandaria was once shrouded in mists -- a cunning leader, capable fighter, and wise pandaren who watches both Vol'jin and Tyrathan on their journey, asking the two to work together in order to best observe how these two factions, Alliance and Horde, could ever possibly hope to achieve balance with each other.
There is a romance woven into the story as well, but it's handled so elegantly that you really can't help but be charmed by it. Both characters involved are intensely strong individuals in their own right, and the progression of their relationship feels effortless and natural. The romance isn't the emphasis of the book, it's simply one of the many side stories that progress as the book goes on, providing some sweet moments to offset all of the battle and bloodshed.
And oh man, is there ever a lot of bloodshed.
Although I was initially worried about whether or not the troll language would be difficult to understand, Stackpole elegantly managed to imply a troll accent without making it completely illegible to read. You can tell when a troll is speaking, but the accent isn't an overpowering thing at all. More importantly, however, I was wondering how the violent and often brutal nature of the troll race would be addressed -- whether it would be glossed over or simply mentioned in passing.
This is not your usual Warcraft novel. There's a real depth of character exploration presented here, and Stackpole handles each character with a deft, sure hand that makes me fervently hope he's going to be a permanent addition to Blizzard's stable of novel authors. Shadows of the Horde was one of the best Warcraft novels I've read to date -- and whether you're Alliance or Horde, it's well worth picking up, because it highlights neither. It's not about the factions, it's about the balance between, that nebulous gray area where enemies can become, if not friends, grudging admirers of each other. Where a lost soul -- troll, human, pandaren or otherwise -- can discover the path that leads him back to who he is at his core.
Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde, by Michael Stackpole, will be available for purchase on July 2. It's available for pre-order on Amazon.com in both hardcover and Kindle format, or at Barnes and Noble in hardcover or Nook format.