Lord of the Night reviews the comical but in a good way Warhammer Heroes novel Skarsnik by Guy Haley.
"A deeply funny novel that had me laughing on nearly every page, Skarsnik is a story that will entertain the reader with an intricate tale of villainy, backstabbing and improbable plans, and keep them laughing the whole way."
Skarsnik is a story that I was rather interested in for being an Orcs and Goblins novel, and with an ambitious subject at that. Choosing Skarsnik, King of Karak Eight Peaks and the greatest living Goblin, for a story was a good choice by Guy Haley and I feel he has definitely done the eponymous Goblin king justice with this story that may or may not be entirely true, because as one character says in the book regarding Skarsnik, "Believe only a half-measure of what he tells you." Good advice for a story that has reasons for both being believable or unbelievable, but admittedly not as much is made of Skarsnik's untrustworthy narration as it could have been.
Deep within the mountains of Karak Eight Peaks, the lost city of the Dwarfs, where sneaky Goblins roam in the streets and slinking Skaven rule the tunnels beneath, there is a being like no other of his ilk. Skarsnik, the King of the Mountain, the most powerful and devious Goblin warlord to ever live and without a doubt, the smartest Goblin in history. But how did this unlikely king achieve the lofty heights of power he has risen to? There is a story there, a story about cunning prevailing over strength, survival in the harshest places the mountains can offer and unlikely plans succeeding beyond expectation. And now as told by the lunatic playwright Jeremiah Bickenstadt, is the origins of Skarsnik as was dictated to him by the Goblin himself, but is this incredible story true or false? Make of it what you will.
The story in Skarsnik is told in a rather interesting fashion. A first person narrative is used but in addition the chapters also read a little like a play with a real narrator, a narrator that explains things when the story doesn't and who asks little questions to the reader and muses on what Skarsnik's story tells us of the Orcs and Goblins and their culture (or Kultur'). The story itself is divided into several areas, first the framing story set in the asylum where the story is told by Jeremiah Bickenstadt, then the chapters and parts in the narrative where Bickenstadt is told the story by Skarsnik, and then the chapters that delve into the main story and show the origins and rise of Skarsnik. All of these parts blend together nicely, brief reminders of the overall story being told in a few chapters here and there that shows how it is being received, before going back into the main story with Skarsnik that is broken up by taking the reader of out of the adventure and returning them to Skarsnik and Bickenstadt; all of which give this story a unique feel beyond the subject matter, it really did feel like I was being told this story by Bickenstadt and Skarsnik. Considering that and the fact that the main story was exciting, very funny and very engaging, I deeply enjoyed Skarsnik from start to finish.
The characters are a very odd and memorable group, Skarsnik being the oddest (by Goblin standards) and most memorable of all. Haley immediately shows that Skarsnik is no ordinary Goblin, every part of him screams that he is different from his peers, and the story reveals the depths of his differences. Skarsnik is intelligent, cunning, observant, patient, and above all good at both thinking quickly and thinking long-term; all of which make him a great and interesting protagonist as through him the reader is shown the world of the Goblins and how they live, think, act with each other (which I found vastly funny) and their enemies, and their natures when compared to humanity and even one of their own who is vastly different from them. Haley really makes his Goblins feel like unique from each other despite most sharing similar flaws, cowardice and avarice namely, but some like the shaman Duffskul or the Great Grizzler-Griff Makiki the Cunning also stand out from the crowd but for different reasons than Skarsnik. Haley also does non-goblins well with a very amusing Skaven character who plays a fairly important role in Skarsnik early days, some Dwarfs that Haley shows out of their normal place and in very dire straits, and his human cast who range from sceptical of the story to academically intrigued by it and to enraptured by it. And of course the cast are funny, apart from the Dwarfs and Humans, Haley's characters provide many jokes, comical moments and witty rejoinders that had me amused through the entire novel, even Skarsnik was funny many times. Also I must say that two characters who only appeared very briefly were excellently done, though I can't say who for spoilers but Warhammer fans will definitely recognize them, and I really liked how they interacted with Skarsnik and with each other, and the narrative in that scene was great as well.
The action is very well written and as with the rest of the novel, rather different than what Black Library readers will be used to. Goblins may be cowardly at heart but they are still greenskins and greenskins love a good scrap, and the novel has plenty of them. It's rather odd to be on the other side of the fight, watching Orcs and Goblins fighting against men of the Empire, Skaven, Dwarfs and each other, since normally the greenskins have only ever been the antagonists and not the protagonists. There could have been failings here, mainly that the fights be too uncoordinated and too numerous, but Haley balances the action with the story very nicely and though there's plenty of good fighting in the book, there's no so much that the book could be called bolter-porn. Haley really showcases the Goblins well in their wars in addition to their everyday lives, the use of Goblin fanatics, madcap mushrooms, squig herds and even wolf riders are all shown and why the Goblins despite being so small, usually, are such a big threat in battle, especially when Skarsnik is in command. I particularly liked the later battles in the book when it branched out from fighting other Goblins to fighting different enemies, particularly the Skaven who I feel Haley also portrayed very well, the final battle between the two showed both of these armies at their best and most powerful and what the running battles between them constantly going on in Karak Eight Peaks must be like. I think the best thing that Haley did was show that Orcs may be the more powerful of the green races, but Goblins are not to be discounted for their size and that in ways, they are far more dangerous than Orcs.
The pacing of the book is quite good, it's unusual narrative flows quite nicely and feels like a story being told to the reader rather than a story that is just being read. The switches from setting to setting are often done as a real play would be, for moments of explanation and even a chapter that is actually titled Intermission. One thing that I think Haley did extremely well was the dialogue, specifically the dialogue of the Goblins and the Orcs. Their stilted language can be grating for some but I like it a lot, I find it amusing to read and say, and especially the words that aren't normally used and so are mispelled and mispronounced much more prominently like complacent or confrontations, which Skarsnik said well enough albeit quite mangled. Plus the books humour which was handled very well, the Goblins were portrayed as a funny group but one that could turn serious in a heartbeat and though they were quite madcap and often hilariously incompetent, they were still a credible threat and the book featured plenty of reminders, including a very horrific scene early in the book, that reminds the reader that Goblins may be funny, but they are monsters and they are dangerous.
Now for my favourite quote, it's definitely this line that had me laughing for ages after I read it,
"You will be the bashiest gobbo what ever there was since fat old Grom went all the way to pansy land and gave them elves a kicking."
The ending of the book is the natural ending that the book was leading to, it's not about a twist or an ending that you never saw coming because the ending is obvious, Skarsnik becomes the Goblin that we all know him to be, the Warlord of Karak Eight Peaks and King of the Mountain. The point of the story is to show how he became these things, not that he did become them, and the story achieves that quite well. I did find the resolution to Jeremiah Bickenstadt's own story quite a surprise, but in hindsight it shouldn't have been, not because the story gave it away, but because I had actually been charmed by Skarsnik and forgotten that despite his differences, he is still a Goblin and I should have seen what he did coming. Haley ends the story on a dark note, though I think the very last line of the book could have been better as it felt rather abrupt, perhaps a recollection by one of the characters about what he saw at the end would have been better. One thing I did appreciate was that Haley didn't reveal the fate of every character, specifically those that Jeremiah would have had no way of knowing and thus we are left to wonder at what happened to them, and speculate on exactly what happened to one or two characters that Haley only gives hints at what might have befallen them.
For a great and very funny story, a memorable cast of characters that were both hilarious and scary at times, and some brilliant action scenes that showcased the best of the Goblins I give Skarsnik a score of 8.2/10. This is a book that I would suggest to any fan of the Orcs and Goblins, and to any who enjoy reading about villains more than they do heroes as I do as this novel is filled to the brim with them. However if you want heroes and happy endings then this isn't the novel for you, because neither of those things can be found in Skarsnik. With this I am convinced that Guy Haley joining Black Library is a good thing, his success in 40k with Baneblade and now Fantasy with Skarsnik prove that he has a great grasp on the Warhammer worlds, and hopefully he has much more to offer us.
That's it for this review. I am not sure what will be next, it may be Seventh Retribution by Ben Counter or something older, so until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!
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