C.L Werner 'Dead Winter' Review and Analysis
CL Werner 'Dead Winter' Review
Now let me start off by saying that I consider myself professional in my reviews. I would never scathe for the sake of scathing, it is rude and disrespectful to an author who has put a lot of hard work into their product. I almost dislike being negative about a book by an author I like so much, but unfortunately I had expectations this book failed to fulfil. As such this review will be quite extended and have some spoilers.
Dead Winter is the first book in a trilogy based around the skaven releasing the Black Plague upon the Empire of Man and the subsequent war between the two races. The first book only really shows the effects of the plague upon certain segments of the Empire but unfortunately chooses to focus more on the Empire's various political struggles.
Unfortunately the reason I am so frustrated with this novel is because I understand its context. Black Library publish books that suit their style. They do not aspire to be high literature with critical themes that will be debated for generations, they publish to please. I appreciate this and I'm happy with it. Unfortunately the story Werner is trying to tell here is more of an epic than anything I have read before by Black Library and in my opinion he is not skilled enough as a writer to bring it all together. Oh the plotting is tight and the pacing is wonderful, and the way the plot flicks between the various storylines works, just not in quite the way I would have liked.
The main problem I had with this book is I couldn't stop comparing it to what it reminded me of so much, and when compared to that it does fall down in many areas because of the inferior writing quality, so here it is:
A Game of Thrones.
I know of no one else who has this opinion so maybe it's just me, but there are similarities aren't there? Humour me here, please.
We have a large and varied cast of characters with different religions and motivations. A story panning out in different parts of the world but with a focus on the intrigues of one court. A set of characters and plots removed enough from the main plot (with a few links) that they are basically doing their own thing now but we know these plots will link up in the future. Lots of intrigue, very manipulative characters and (for the most part) each section of each chapter is narrated by a single character and seen from their viewpoint. Oh and as a final one a completely separate race of characters preparing to wage apocalyptic war against the people of the main plotline, which hardly anybody knows about or is adequately preparing for.
Come on, do you need more? I could be describing them both down to a T with that description. Maybe it's just me but I draw a lot of parallels between the two books. Now while it might be unfair to judge Werner against Martin I personally feel there are enough similarities that I can, despite feeling quite bad about it (I do like both these authors a lot, at the end of the day!).
Whilst reading Dead Winter I got the vibe Werner was setting himself up a saga, he had a time period to cover so he devised this whole fractured Empire thing to set up the conflict that will happen in the next book when the skaven attack. Unfortunately because of the that other epic fantasy saga I was reminded so much of my immersion in the book was shattered as I was constantly either drawing parallels or wondering how it would have been done if this was in ASOIAF. And this applies to both times I have read the novel now as even on the second reading when I was determined to judge it on its own merits I came away disappointed and frankly with even more criticisms.
For example sometimes mid-chapter the protagonist in the text changes very suddenly and sometimes we have an omniscient narrator thing going on but for the majority of the novel each segment in each location is based upon a single viewpoint character. This makes the incidences when this structure is broken very jarring as I was used to the character being the viewpoint of the reader. This is a technique Martin employs in A Game of Thrones (and the whole saga really but I'm mainly drawing parallels between Dead Winter and the first book) and by and large Werner succeeded in it, if in a much less polished way. Every protagonist feels the same and there is very little to differentiate them. They're all men for a start, and I got the impression there weren't enough differences between Frederick, Erich and Walther that any of them would have done anything different in each other's situations. There simply wasn't enough distinction in personality, mannerisms and writing style to differentiate them enough.
The exception to this is the Prince of Middenheim, Mandred's character. If I'm being blunt about, he irritated me constantly.
Idealism has its place but as prince of one of the most powerful city-states in the Empire Mandred should have known first-hand what horrors assail the realms of men in the Warhammer world and sometimes a leader has to put aside compassion. This is after all the overall message the Warhammer setting gives out and Mandred's constant attempts to undermine his father the Graf Gunthar amazed me. If he was my son I'd lock him up after the first silly thing to stop him harming himself and the people in the city. Mandred does what he does in the name of heroism and compassion but mostly they backfired and in the worst case probably led to the death of 50 of Middenheim's elite knights of the White Wolf. This moment did leave an emotional impact on me but I was more satisfied that Mandred finally realised what a twit he was being rather than sad about the men whose fate he sealed.
On my second reading I realised that at the end of the Middenheim plotline, I cared more about Mandred's bodyguard Franz more than Mandred himself. This is due to Werner actually having given him the character trait of rubbing his bald head whenever he worries. For a start that is actually quite a subtle nuance of a character and frankly it gives me more of a picture of Franz than I had of Mandred. I can just imagine him grimacing as he rubs his head, worried about whatever scheme young Mandred is getting him into now but determined to protect him. I don't know whether to class that as a failing of Werner's characterisation as a whole or applaud it for creating such a sympathetic character. While Mandred is going off on all his wild plans to subvert what he sees as his father's tyranny there is poor Franz, a knight torn between his loyalty to his graf and to his friend the prince. Mandred is a bit of a dick to him honestly because he gets irritated at Franz betraying him to the graf when Franz is really just trying to keep him safe. And then at the end Mandred gets him stuck outside of Middenheim and exposed to the Black Plague. Yeah I hope you do feel quite guilty Master Mandred!
Back to my main point though; Other than Mandred most characters felt the same and I think this was due to one of the main limitations of the novel. It simply isn't big enough to cover the ground Werner wants to cover. Making another Martin parallel here, but when Martin writes he covers the ground he wants to cover in the saga. Then the publishers split it up into convenient book-sized volumes which he then bookends with prologues and epilogues. This works because we never feel like an issue never got enough coverage, because Martin makes sure he at once makes volumes self-contained but with enough connections to the overall saga to feel relevant. In Dead Winter I never really cared much for the peasants of Bylorhof or the nobles' revolution in Altdorf because there was not enough time with them. The characters in both just felt like cardboard cutouts other than one of the standout characters Frederick Van Hal.
The Bylorhof storyline in particular I have gripes with because it has one of the best plotlines in the novel and could probably fill a book of its own if stretched a bit. However in this book when Werner describes the peasants of Bylorhof and their descent into madness due to the plague the prose is so bland I was just bored. Okay so people are doing stupid stuff like self-flagellating and burning each other, and our protagonist is very angry about that because the naughty peasants musn't defy the death god Morr. Great!
The last few parts of the Bylorhof storyline do manage to be emotionally engaging, and Frederick Van Hal's spiral into evil, while cliched, was probably the second best part of the book. The early parts involving his family though? Not interested dude, they'll need to be more than just names and descriptions before I'm invested.
I feel like I'm really hating on the novel here but this did irritate me in certain places. Werner often doesn't bother subtly showing us what his characters are feeling. He just tells us straight up. Sometimes telling not showing works but mostly showing not telling works better, and in this case it really would have improved the prose if there was sufficient detail in the book to give us a reason for characters to feel that way other than just stereotype.
One very prominent example of this is when our Altdorf (the city of intrigue and the capital of the Empire) protagonist the knight Erich Von Kranzbeuhler feels disgusted and angry that one of the barons conspiring to overthrow the Emperor plans on marrying his beautiful daughter off to the Emperor's right hand man.
What annoys me most about this is that despite the Princess Erna being perfectly willing to take the risks she is taking, Erich seems to think that she's just a woman and obviously doesn't know true danger! Marrying and then murdering an obviously cruel man who deserves to die is much too dangerous a job for a noble woman, a man should do it for her!
Sarcasm and hyperbole aside this sort of naivete just feels silly in a world as dark as the Warhammer one. Also, this dilemma could probably be stretched out over several chapters, examining Erich's worldview, his character and the motivations of the conspirators in general and what lengths they will go to to depose a tyrant. It could also examine and subvert the role of women in fantasy and medieval courts. Nice philosophical stuff that would, you know, invest me in the book and the characters.
Oh and when Erich's former lover Lady Mirella asks him if he is jealous of Erna's husband to be, I was just waiting for the tension to start mounting!
“'I wonder when Konreid will be back,' he said, brusquely changing the subject.”
Oh ok. I guess that was just a crafty red herring from you Werner, you old devil you.
Now, while it's obviously clear Werner's skills in writing believable human protagonists and characters are a bit iffy, there are parts of the novel that excel. The skaven plotline is an obvious example. We know Werner can do skaven, he's done it in three excellent books already (the Thanquol trilogy) and in various short stories. As such Puskab Foulfur's moments shine through in between the various struggles of our human protagonists. That's really all I can say about that particular plotline, it's werner skaven. Fun, conniving, deceitful and manipulative, and it also gives us a good feel for the skaven world at this point in the timeline. It's the only part of the novel I would call flawless, and it's because this is an area where Werner knows his stuff.
In conclusion what can I say I haven't already said. I understand Black Library mainly publish tie-in fiction to satiate consumers' lust for blood-drenched Warhammer and 40k action. I know this and yet I find myself disappointed at the lack of nuance in what is mostly a political novel. I would mostly call Dead Winter a failure and a disappointment from what it could have been. However enjoyable enough in its own right as, well, tie-in fiction about a fantasy world with humans and ratmen. While I guess this is all it needs to be it left me wanting more, but not in a positive way.
Hey, I write a lot, I read a lot, and everything from BL that I read I'll review.