Thursday, 27 August 2015

Oldhammer Book Club: Zaragoz

I should start this post with a confession. I've never read any GW books before. Well that's not quite true, I did start 'Fulgrim', part of the Horus Heresy series. However the first few chapters were so incredibly dull that I never got any further.
When Orlygg over at Realm of Chaos 80s suggested an Oldhammer Book Club I was quite pleased. A chance for me to start again with GW fiction with an example from the good all days. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, I had never heard of Brian Craig before, nor Orfeo or Zaragoz, the eponymous setting. It turns out Brian Craig is a pen name for Brian Syableford, but I hadn't heard of him either to be honest.
The book its self was pleasingly of its time and took me straight back to my days reading Fighting Fantasy. Several artists did illustrations. Ian Miller is always wonderful, his illustrations on the cover and frontspiece (left) are no exception. Likewise Tony Ackland's work on the title page is awesome.
The internal work by Martin McKenna though, I found a little lacking (see below). It is by and large very static, with the protagonists in somewhat awkward poses. It also seems somewhat childish and na├»ve. This may seem hypocritical, after all one of the great joys of Oldhammer is reliving some of the more awesome parts of our childhoods. But then this isn't a book aimed at children. The violence and gore is not too strong but there is quite a raunchy sex scene, I won't say too much except one of the participants was a worshipper of Slaneesh.
There is one exception to the poor interior art, the picture of the horrors from the dark (bottom picture), which is as good as much of the stuff from the Realms of Chaos books in my opinion. The chapter dividers are also rather nice, I must admit.

Like much of the Warhammer world the location is grounded in real world geography. Zaragoza is a city in Spain (also known as Saragossa), though I don't think the two cities share much beyond this. The name alone is enough to conjure up an exotic medieval bed of intrigue and corruption, exactly what I think Brian Craig was going for.

Right, less of this jibber-jabber, let's answer the questions Orlygg set us:
1) Did the book engage you immediately or did it take time to draw you in?
Yes. The book takes the form of a story-within-a-story, which sometimes I am not to keen on. Quite often the reader is just getting invested in one setting when they are ripped from this and dumped elsewhere. The set up is sufficiently brief and simple in this case that it is not too much of a wrench to move from Araby to Estelia.
I did find the writing style rather florid to start with, almost verging on the overwrought, but once you appreciate this is a minstrel telling a tale, then it seems more fitting and I very soon got into it.

2) What was your overall 'feeling' about the novel once it was complete? Amused, sad, confused, disturbed etc?
Intrigued. This was a nice view on the Warhammer world. It didn't involve characters central to the history of the setting, nor world changing events, it was just one tale of the descent into chaos of a small group of minor nobles. This pulled me in much more than if the protagonists had been  mighty warriors or kings.

A couple of people have picked up on the fact that there wasn't too much in the way of action in this book. True, but I didn't find that detracted. The Warhammer world (at least back in the day) was a place full of creeping horror. Darkness lies just under the surface in each town, each farmstead and each palace. That is the scope of this novel.

3) Pick a character - are their actions justified?
A tempting character to go for here would be Archangelo, but a few other people have already given their thoughts on him elsewhere, so instead I shall go for Semjaza.
Are his actions justified? Well that depends on you perspective. From that of Orfeo, no they are not. Semjaza attempts to use the powers of chaos to his own ends, a plan that goes disastrously wrong, though Archangelo has a hand in that.
From Semjaza's point of view though, you can see his logic. It is probably important to point out that at this time in the history of Warhammer Chaos did not equal evil. There were two sets of opposing axis, good vs evil and chaos vs order. Semjaza made a pact with the powers of chaos, but his intentions were not evil. He hoped to bring peace to Zaragoz by uniting the warring noble families.
It could be argued that Archangelo, who is a priest of the Gods of Law was actually more evil than Semjaza. His soul motivation as it turned out was revenge.

4) Do you feel your character 'changes' during the course of the story? If so, in what ways?
Not really. I think his change came before the timeframe of the book. Initially he thought he could use chaos. Somewhere along the line though he realised that chaos was using him. He still tried to justify himself to Orfeo, maybe even to himself, but deep down he knows.

5) Is the overall plot engaging?
It is not the fastest moving plot ever written, but it is intriguing. Orfeo is being played right from the beginning and there are twists and turns enough to keep the reader wanting to find out more.

6) How did the book's structure affect you as you read? Did you appreciate the 'interludes'? 
As I mentioned before the danger with this structure is uprooting a reader from a setting they are enjoying. I felt that Brian Craig managed this though. The initial 'Araby' setting is not overly explored and it is not too much of a wrench to move to Zaragoz. The story-within-a-story structure suits the fact that the narrator/main protagonist is a minstrel. The summing up at the end did feel a little tacked on, as if an editor had been afraid that some readers would still need more explanation. But this was short and did little to detract.

7) Which passage in the book strikes you as being the most poignant or memorable? 
Semjazza's world view was rather elegantly put. I am often turned off by long passages of thought, which is what this is although it is technically said aloud. This section is in a slower passage of the book though, so it doesn't feel like it is holding up the action. And it is a believable piece of self justification. The idea that what we do has no real consequence, that we are wholly unimportant when viewed from affair enough, does make it easier to do horrible things. Well I imagine it does anyway. I haven't opened any gateways to chaotic realms. Honest.

The difficulty with judging this book is that I don't really have anything to judge it against. I haven't read any other Games Workshop books, so can't really say whether this is better than the herd, or a lame beast. I have read plenty of fantasy and judging 'Zaragoz' on these lines it fairs well. I want to read more of Brian Craig/Stableford both his GW stuff and works set in other universes, so he has done something right. But there are other things to consider when a book deals with a universe we all know and love. This requires it to sit well within the general canon and I don't feel confident judging this yet. Therefor I have decided to judge all other books in the Oldhammer Book Club based on Zaragoz. 

This means Zaragoz scores 100% on the Zaragoz scale of awesomeness.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting read, Tom. I find it fascinating how our people can interpret the same book in different ways and latch on to quite different characters.