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Review of Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole

Anne Stickney
Anne Stickney|June 21, 2013 1:00 PM
Review of Vol'jin Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole
I've been dying for a good troll novel. Despite their longevity in Warcraft's timeline, we really haven't seen much of anything regarding the troll race, their traditions, their customs, the loa -- none of the rich history that has been cultivated and told over the years. Needless to say, I was very excited when Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde was announced at the New York Comic Con last year -- and even more so when Michael Stackpole was revealed as the author of the book.

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.

Review of Vol'jin Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole
The story has a very firm anchor in the current Warcraft timeline. Players who have played through the Dagger in the Dark scenario will instantly recognize the events when they are mentioned very early on in the book -- it's a brief mention, but it firmly sets the stage for what happens next. After players help Chen cure Vol'jin during the Horde quests in patch 5.1, the Darkspear leader is then whisked away to Shado-Pan Monastery to further recuperate. Shadows of the Horde tells the tale of what happened to Vol'jin during that time -- before he returns to the game universe in patch 5.3.

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.

Review of Vol'jin Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole
While the Alliance character is not one that has ever been mentioned in lore before, and seems to have been solely created for the purpose of the book, that doesn't really take away from the character at all. He's a strong, capable counterpoint to Vol'jin's journey -- and he's got a compelling backstory to back it all up. He's not a sudden, powerful hero emerging from the masses. He's a character who eloquently represents the Alliance half of Pandaria's storyline, in a grim manner that was previously unexplored.

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.

Review of Vol'jin Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole
It's a book about the nature of the trolls and how they relate to the rest of the world as much as it is the struggle of trying to find oneself after facing certain death. Vol'jin is trying to sort out where in the world he fits, where the Darkspear fit. Shadows of the Horde provides some illumination to the Darkspear's place in the eyes of the rest of the troll nations -- and it isn't a place of reverence or even of any worth, as far as the rest of the troll race is concerned.

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.

Review of Vol'jin Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole
Chen has a significant journey of his own in Shadows of the Horde. A character who has been presented as both humorous and serious as players quest through Pandaria, Chen is handled with a deft hand here. His journey of balance is explored as well -- the balance between humor and seriousness, the balance between wanderer and family man, and the struggle between a keen wanderlust and a desire to settle down.

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.

Review of Vol'jin Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole
It isn't mentioned in passing. It takes a highlight in the book. The nature of being a troll is one of the key elements of the book itself. To put it bluntly, this is a very dark, violent story -- and the violence isn't glossed over. Scenes of death and destruction are told in effectively gory detail, battles and deaths are treated with almost mechanical, brutal efficiency. I don't know what the final death toll was by the end of the book, and I'm pretty sure I would have lost count if I'd even attempted to keep track.

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.

Review of Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde by Michael Stackpole