[Middlehammer] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: Vampire Wars, Steven Savile, Black Library (2008)

(The title is for Huge Ruined Scott. Consider this your content warning, dude.)

This post can be blamed on all the Mordheim: City of the Damned and Warhammer Total War I’ve been playing of late. The experience has confirmed that despite my recent less-than-entirely-negative reaction to Age of Sigmar, my deep-seated love for the ‘Forces of Death’ is rooted in the Old World, the cast of characters created or lovingly plagiarised to populate it, and the fine tradition of homage it established. (Even Kemmler, despite my previous storm-in-a-teacup peak-fake-woke-white-boi social-justice-necromancer ranting on the topic. Terror of the Lichemaster is a decent little railroad and whoever voice acted the old goon for Total War nailed it.)

Anyway, I’ve been spending some time in the Old World and it’s made me thirsty for trashy tie-in fiction that I’ve not read twenty times already.

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RIP Wayne England, you could always be counted on for a frontispiece.

Let’s get something out of the way first.

These books are not good. Not irredeemably awful, but they circle the drain in which R. A. Salvatore is the eternal and unyielding clog. I first read them on publication, during the height of my mania for all things Vampire Counts, and age has not improved them nor the years condoned. However, said mania means I have an undeniable interest in the contents of these volumes, which may in turn lead to a more positive reaction than they deserve.

These books are bad, but I don’t hate them.

The Bad

Savile’s prose is stilted and repetitive. Once or twice per page, a reader who’s accustomed to ‘hearing’ the sentences in their mind will come across a line that’s missing some crucial punctuation. This skews their internal rhythm, bringing the reader down face-first into a stop that can’t be parsed without unpicking. Unless you have a total tin ear, it’s jarring, and it comes often enough that the sensitive reader will need to flit away from this book and recuperate in between times. You can pick a page at random – I just have, it’s 317 – and there’ll be one of these clunkers waiting for you.

“Don’t mock me, dwarf,” Mann said, the edge of reason creeping back into his voice. “Kill me or be done with it and leave me to rot in peace would you?”

Where would you put the commas, dear reader? How would you punctuate this so it sounds like something an actual human would say?

Lindsey Priestley, ‘editor and friend’, you were asleep at the wheel when you let stuff like this through. You are also to blame, I think, for the way certain sentences and clauses just keep coming back. At the time I noticed “his brow contorted as he unleashed the beast within” and “he was the wolf” as particular offenders. It makes for a fine drinking game, but it’s the sort of thing an editor is supposed to catch. “You always use the same phrase for this,” you say. “Show some imagination, you bloody hack.”

I don’t blame either of you for the frequent ‘impact sentences’, the ones which stand out from the paragraphs to either side to give them more punch, which is squandered if you have three of them back to back, three times in two pages. That’s the GW house style, that is.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Warhammer tie-in fiction to scale the dizzy heights of masterful prose. It could, in theory, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s product. Grist to the mill. These books came out because there was a new Vampire Counts range to sell and that’s an end on it.

Thing is, though… I write content marketing copy, OK? I write things that nobody will read after a week, things even I will have forgotten about after a month. I still make an effort to pace my sentences properly, and my editor still calls me out if I use the word ‘branding’ thirty-seven times in a four hundred word article. It’s about pride in your work.

The Merely Mediocre

Savile’s prose breathlessly tells-not-shows its way through decades of fictional history. I’m not the biggest fan of half-page statements of what Vlad von Carstein is like as a person, not when that can slowly uncurl from observing his actions and behaviours, bereft of the author’s guiding hand, but I understand some people need everything spelled out for them. It’s a house style thing. At the risk of doing an ableism on myself, autists gonna autist.

(Usual disclaimer: I’m on the spectrum and I can infer subtle cues from text even if I struggle with faces. I know ‘not all autists’. That’s the point. Autism is a spectrum of behaviour and difficulties. This material is written for an audience that’s no stranger to Dr. Asperger. To be honest, the style may even be a strength: it’s accessible material for the special interest crowd. ‘S probably why I like this stuff.)

However… it does have its advantages. By working his way through the timeline of the Vampire Wars without worrying too much about subtle unfoldings of theme and character, Savile’s able to move from location to location and cover an awful lot of ground. It’s as if he treated the timeline in the army book as a checklist, knocking off this incident and eliding that one, showing the things he knew his readers expected to see and skipping the rest. It works.

Also, he treats death well. I don’t mean that a high body count is a prerequisite for good storytelling – not even in these Game-of-Thrones-addled days. I mean that he understands death as the arbitrary, circumstantial, abrupt thing it is, and he’s not afraid to kill a character like that. War is hell, doubly so when one side is made up of mindless hordes and vicious backstabbing predators.

Some of the deaths are executed better than others – there’s one that’s handled neatly in half a page, and it’s excellent, but there’s another which involves stopping a melée for a chat about what it means to be a vampire, which strains credulity. That’s an after-the-fight conversation. Wouldn’t take much to have the vampire character bust his pal in the nose, sparing him in the field only to dispatch him during their heart-to-heart: or to have it be another arbitrary, vicious death, and then hop to the vampire’s perspective as he realises he’s killed his only friend and worse, doesn’t give a shit. Same impact, same message, but you don’t have them stopping in the middle of a battlefield for the boring lecture about how he feels nothing now and it’s all so liberating.

This is what I’m getting at with the tell-don’t-show stuff. I get that we don’t have time to show the slow evolution of Vlad and Isabella’s eternal bond, not without spending too much of this Vampire Wars series on stuff that ain’t Wars involving Vampires. When we have a heroic warrior bond that we’ve taken the time to establish, and a character who we’ve been with on the battlefield, so their slide into vampirism can be portrayed without derailing the brief, it seems a waste not to do a bit of show-then-tell.

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Sensual predator in the sheets, horrific fanged wossname in the streets.

The Redeeming

I didn’t buy the anthology at the time – I bought Inheritance, Dominion and Retribution separately. As is the custom with these big fat collected editions, there’s some extra material. Two short stories are added and they’re not bad.

‘Death’s Cold Kiss’ shows and tells how unprepared the Empire was for Vlad’s first invasion. They don’t have a clue what they’re up against, so their solution to the problem of a potential vampire priest is raddled with superstitions, guesswork, reluctance and overkill. Every character has a different take on the problem and nobody gets it quite right. Nice little prelude. Also, it might just be me, but the prose is a lot more polished than in the rest of the collection.

‘In The Court of the Crimson Queen’ depicts an incident which is elided over during Inheritance, mostly because our point of view character is elsewhere at the time, and needs the rumour of the incident to draw him further into Sylvania. However, it’s an important one; the death and resurrection of Isabella von Carstein, and an exploration of the bond between the von Carstein power couple. I can see why it was left out of the original trilogy but I’m glad it’s here, especially when so much Warhammer lore makes such a big deal out of vampires as predatory fiends animated by dark magic who are not the people they used to be. Vlad knows this and he’s as surprised as anyone to find that the person he is can still pair-bond. The story also bridges what, in Inheritance, feels like an abrupt change of character on Isabella’s part. It’s filler but it’s necessary filler which makes the first volume of the trilogy stronger.

Personally, I’d have kept the stuff about Isabella’s classical education and her love of ‘traditionally masculine pursuits like hunting or falconry’ (cf. every Vampire Counts army book in which she’s appeared). It’d mirror, contrast, and finally overcome the gender essentialism Savile has Vlad display with his comment about ‘women are creatures of beauty and vanity’. Such would add another layer to their relationship, another way in which Isabella is a sharp contrast to everything Vlad thinks he knows. She is not like other women, she complements him and subverts his expectations, her learning and studied seduction support and contrast his savagery and raw charisma… tell me that wouldn’t add something to what’s basically a character study of these two. I feel Savile missed a trick there. As it is the story’s a good start, does necessary work in fleshing out the novels, and has a lovely little flourish at the end.

Isabella_Von_Carstein
I see how it is, the girl one gets to keep her nose…

Finally, there’s the introduction. I do like reading author’s introductions for GW tie-ins – it’s amusing to see how well people avoid voicing the dark truth what bubbles under the surface of all such material. Savile almost cops to it, admitting that his magic words are “I can do this”, which is exactly what I say when someone offers me money to write things.

He also does some craft discussion though, explaining that his brief was to avoid spending too much time with the Vampire Counts themselves because he didn’t want to humanise them, and that he made a conscious effort to kill off anyone who looked like a conventional protagonist because he didn’t want anyone hogging the Von Carsteins’ limelight. It’s a tough call for sure, but it does explain something I hated on my first readthrough – the amount of time Savile spends with characters he invented or fleshed out from one-line references in the timeline. I still think he should have left Jerek Kruger for dead, as is stated in the lore dammit, but the choice makes sense to me.

With one hand I cross that line from my Book of Grudges, but with my other I reach for my axe. Basic craft faults cannot be forgiven and I cannot in good conscience award a higher than average score, despite my predisposition for the source material and appreciation for the perspective architecture of the story.

2/5 contorted brows as I unleash the beast within. I am the wolf.

2 thoughts on “[Middlehammer] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: Vampire Wars, Steven Savile, Black Library (2008)

Add yours

  1. That impact sentence thing they do really grates me at the start, when I first dig into a Black Library book. After a while I’m able to just shrug it off, but then I’m left with the vague uneasy feeling that I’ve just been desensitized somehow, and will never again appreciate fine things to quite the degree I once did. There was an absolutely hideous example in a Horus Heresy one I read last year, but mercifully I can’t recall it.

    “Don’t mock me, dwarf,” Mann said, the edge of reason creeping back into his voice. “Kill me or be done with it and leave me to rot in peace would you?”

    I… I had a go at this but it’s a veritable Gordian Knot of clunky prose. Maybe “Kill me, or be done with it and leave me to rot in peace, would you?” But it needs more than that I think.

    Also, Wayne England is dead? He can’t have been that old, surely?

    1. He was not. It was a friggin’ tragedy.

      Your attempt at punctuating Savile’s gibberish is noble. For what it’s worth, that’s probably what I’d have done with it too.

      “I’m left with the vague uneasy feeling that I’ve just been desensitized somehow, and will never again appreciate fine things to quite the degree I once did.”

      Yes friends, Jimmy has lost his taste for claret, and pedigree hounds leave him cold inside. He will never again be moved by the dapple of sunlight on a fresh mown lawn, or the lovely smile on a little baby’s face. It’s sad – but this is what the Black Library does to you.

      (I’m more amused than I’d like by the idea of the Black Library house style inducing a corrosive mind-rot that leaves you unable to recognise and embrace quality when you see it. It may be true…)

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