Golden's Arthas delivers the lore goodness

A note from Alex Ziebart: When Simon and Schuster sent Daniel and I a pair of free, early review copies of Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, we immediately went about planning how we were going to handle a 2-man review. We've been good friends for years, and one of our favorite past times is debating things like this back and forth. We rarely agree on books, and we can argue our sides until we're blue in the face. We were going to write an Alex vs Daniel knock down, drag out argument about Arthas and it was going to rule. Unfortunately, things didn't go our way.

When we finished reading the book, we got together to talk about it. It was... unsettling. We completely agreed with each other on almost every point that was raised. The high points and the low points, we were completely on the same spectrum. That's just not right. We decided that, rather than write two reviews parroting each other, we would just go with the one. Daniel's review says everything I want to say better than I could have said it, so once you read what he says, just pretend you can hear me say "Ditto" at the end. Take it away, Danny!

As WoW Insider's self-proclaimed junior lieutenant Lore Nerd, when Simon & Schuster so generously offered to send us a couple of free advanced copies of Arthas, the new World of Warcraft book by Christie Golden, I was all over that. As soon as the book showed up on my doorstep, I turned on the answering machine, grabbed a soda, popped some popcorn, curled up in my favorite chair, and pretty much read the whole thing straight through. The only breaks I took were to discuss various scenes and their ramifications for lore with Alex. And by discuss, I mean "fanboy out."

But I am being completely serious when I say, of all the Warcraft manga, comic books, and novels I have read, Arthas has the most solid, balanced writing and best realized characters. It's not a perfect book, but it's a very worthwhile read for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the why and how of that big armored dude up on the Frozen Throne.

It starts with Arthas' childhood, in which we learn of his thoughts on seeing his sister betrothed against her will, on seeing Varian Wrynn and Anduin Lothar arrive at court in Lordaeron as they flee from the first invasion of the Horde, and of meeting Muradin Bronzebeard and Jaina Proudmoore. It ends with his ordination to the rank of Paladin. The second part deals with Arthas' growth into a young man and his courtship of Jaina Proudmoore, then his campaign against the Scourge. The final part covers his actions as a Death Knight, ending with his ascension to the throne and an explanation of what he's been doing these past few years -- and why he's striking now.

There's much to love about this book. One of the most refreshing aspects is that Golden does not attempt to shoehorn her own original characters in, but instead focuses on building on the existing characters we know and love. Arthas, Jaina, Kael'thas, Sylvanas and Varian especially get some very insightful development, or at least much-needed clarification of their deeds and words in Warcraft III and WoW. Characters as varied as Thrall, Antonidas, Calia Menethil, Blackmore, Taretha, Turalyon, Anub'arak, and others make appearances, and by their words and actions give us new insight into their lives and characteristics.

All of this is incredibly rewarding for patient lore buffs, especially when we get insights into generally unknown characters such as Calia or confirm long held suspicions about characters such as Sylvanas Windrunner. I also appreciate that Golden has not romanticized the Horde or their actions in the first two wars as many writers (and sometimes, it seems, even Metzen himself) do. Ner'zhul and Ogrim Doomhammer are present in this book, and their malevolence is not understated or excused.

I feel I should especially highlight the development of Arthas, Jaina, and Kael'thas. Arthas' development is, for the most part, very well done. It offers new insight into exactly why he betrayed everything he knew and loved, and how Frostmourne and the Lich King gained a foothold in his mind in the first place. I would also like to declare Christie Golden the best writer I have seen for Jaina Proudmoore outside of the games themselves. Golden's Jaina is proud and regal without being stuffy or arrogant, Girlish without being vapid and empty-headed, wise and thirsty for knowledge without being a know-it-all or a Mary Sue. She is not glorified nor abased, but she's just plain, simple Jaina. Too many other writers can't seem to elevate Jaina above bimbo or set dressing status, but she is very much present and alive in this book, in nothing but good ways, even when she's being wrongheaded.

Beyond that, Christie Golden paints a vivid and romantic picture of Jaina and Arthas' courtship. It's never too sappy and never forced. It's very easy to see why Arthas loves Jaina and why Jaina loves Arthas. When it ended, I could feel the pangs in my heart as if I was one of the participants. And believe me, it's very hard to make me feel sorry for Jaina after some of her actions as of late in Wrath.

Speaking of love affairs, Christie Golden finally reveals Kael'thas exactly role in the famed but vague love triangle. Kael'thas has only a few scenes, but every scene reveals a new facet of the arrogant prince who nevertheless loved his land and his people with all his heart.Golden paints Kael'thas as a very intense person with a imperious mien and a quick temper, and once again, I found myself looking at an old figure in a new light. For the first time, I feel pretty bummed that Kael'thas died at Magister's Terrace. I want Christie Golden's Kael'thas back to be a thorn in the side of heroes everywhere.

Also well done is Golden's description of the various battles, especially once Arthas becomes head of the Lich King's forces in Lordaeron. His attack on Quel'thalas is especially vivid, with descriptions of teeming masses of undead slowly crawling over the earth, and leaving the destruction now known as the Dead Scar in their wake. The desperation and sorrow of Sylvanas and her rangers as the armies of the dead inexorably swallow them up and conscript their corpses is especially vivid. Later, when Anub'arak appears to command his Nerubian forces and escort Arthas to the Frozen Throne, I find myself amazed and awed by his stature and majesty, and sort of annoyed that all he merited in Wrath was a very simplistic boss fight at the end of a very simplistic 5-man dungeon. After reading Arthas, I am reminded that he deserved much more.

There's definitely some pretty staggering lore implications here, as well. One at the beginning of part three, while not necessarily a new revelation, should lay to rest a lore debate that has been raging for almost as long as WoW has existed and has flared up due to a few key happenings during Wrath of the Lich King. The other, at the very end of the book, pretty much casts both the past and future of the Wrath of the Lich King storyline in a whole new light, and I will be very interested to see the discussions it spawns once the book hits the stores. If for no other reasons, lore buffs will want to the read the novel for these revelations. Of course, luckily for us, the revelations are presented in the context of an enjoyable, well written novel.

That said, it's not a perfect novel. There's still some flaws that, while not game-ruining, do otherwise detract from it. For example, while the story of Arthas and his descent into madness is well documented, there's a few places where it's laid on far too heavy. For example, it seemed like at the end of each part, Arthas took a jump to a "deeper level of evil" that was generally a bit sudden.

One subplot in particular starts on page one of chapter one and does not let up until nearly the last page, appearing at least two to three times in many chapters, often in the most inappropriate places. It nearly spoils the dramatic impact of Arthas' conquest of the Sunwell, in fact, and by the time the book was over, I howled in laughter every time this supposedly "heart tugging" storyline appear on the page. Really, the book would have lost nothing if said storyline was ripped out, and would have in fact been very much the better for it in theme and flow.

Also a problem to some extent is the places where Golden didn't delve as deep into the characters and situations as I would have liked. Because she did such an excellent job at fleshing out the emotions and logic behind most of the action in Arthas' part of the Warcraft III storyline, the few places where she didn't go deeper felt the worse for it. In particular, I'm thinking of the culling of Stratholme. She paints a nicely vivid picture of Arthas' emotions, but less so on the part of Uther and Jaina. I've always thought that Uther and Jaina never offered a compelling alternative to cleansing the city, and that Arthas' tragedy is compounded all the more by the fact that he may have made the only choice he could have made regarding the infected city.

There's also the nagging thought in my mind that the Lore team sometimes oversimplifies or over-romanticizes some of the issues involved with certain aspects of the lore, such as Jaina's uncompromising belief that the Orcs should be released from the camps wholesale despite the fact that they're there because they, as a race, were committing genocide on the races of the Alliance. Then again, this is hardly Golden's problem alone. Very few lore scribes have really tackled it in a way that acknowledges the Orcs' own role in their downfall, and Christie Golden, at least, has presented a more balanced view than many, highlighting Terenas' and Antonidas' views of keeping the Orcs as essentially sympathetic and justifiable.

In the end, despite some minor flaws and one storyline that needed to be gutted wholesale, this book is well worth the price. It confirms Christie Golden's place as a master of Blizzard Lore, and is, as I said, easily the best of all Warcraft novels, comics, and manga thus far. If you're even the slightest bit interested in Warcraft lore or fantasy fiction in general, I'd strongly urge you to make plans to read this book now. It's already available for preorder, and you can even order a numbered first edition copy signed by Christie Golden via Premiere Collectibles.