Let’s not be coy. Here’s the TL;DR version:
I hated it.
That seems to put me in the minority among WoW players who read Christie Golden’s retelling of the life and times of Arthas Menethil, though Anna brought up some of the flaws in her review.
Chances are, this is going to get a bit rambly and spoilery, so how about a jump tag for you to follow?
I’ll get this out of the way first thing: I’m a book snob. My tolerance for lazy writing is low. Cookie-cutter characters make me grit my teeth, as do bad dialogue tags and telling rather than showing.
Those all ran rampant in Arthas.
The prologue lets you know that Ms. Golden has chops. In describing how Northrend’s native creatures and inhabitants are affected by the Lich King’s bad dreams, she evokes a genuine feeling of dread. I think this is what irked me the most later on in the book: the first few pages showed SO MUCH promise, that when it fell apart later on, I felt horribly let down.
From the desolate north, we travel back in time, to a nine-year-old Arthas witnessing the birth of the real main character of the book: his horse, Invincible.
I’m only sort of kidding.
In the early chapters, it’s a bit unclear whether we should give Arthas the benefit of the doubt — is he merely a precocious child, prone to occasional selfish, petulant thoughts because he’s, well, nine, and has lived a charmed, peaceful life… or is he just an unlikable brat with occasional periods of not-sucking?
On learning that Prince Varian is on the way to Capital City with the remaining survivors from Stormwind, Arthas worries for his own family, hoping he’ll never lose his father the way Varian lost King Llane. However, when King Terenas tells him he can’t be present to receive the orphaned prince, we get our first flash of something wrong with Arthas: “He felt a sudden flash of anger. Why did his father insist on sheltering him so? Why was he not allowed to attend important meetings?” On their own, the questions are understandable. The “flash of anger,” however, seems… off… for a nine year old. A flash of indignation? Feeling wounded? Those I could understand. But anger conveys something different.
Not long after, though, he’s alone with Varian, and is once more struck by the enormity of what has happened, swinging me back into the “Give him a break, he’s nine” camp.
Then two years pass. Just… bamf. War’s over, brief mention of Doomhammer’s capture and escape, brief setup for Muradin, and OH HAY, REMEMBER THE HORSE?
Here’s the thing, though — I didn’t mind the parts where Arthas is just out and about, being a kid. Once again, it proves that Golden can write well. She can get inside a character’s head and describe a scene. When she’s showing instead of telling, I enjoyed the book more.
Soon enough, we’re introduced to Invincible’s only rival, Jaina Proudmoore. Jaina is the classic tomboy:
Both his sister and the Proudmoore girl were fair haired and slender. But the resemblance stopped there. Calia was delicately boned, with a face right out of old paintings, pale skinned and soft. Jaina, however, had bright eyes and a lively smile, and she moved like someone who was well accustomed to riding and hiking. She obviously spent a great deal of time out of doors, as her face was tanned with a smattering of sprinkles across her nose.
Reader, I /facepalmed. She’s cute and pretty, but not a girly-girl, and later on we’ll learn that magical clumsiness (problems with her fire spells) replaces physical clumsiness on the Mary Sue scale.
Now, I understand that there are plenty of well-written female characters in other books that exhibit some of these same characteristics, and I’d never call them Sues. The difference is, they don’t seem to exist solely as plot devices for the main characters. There are brief scenes where she starts to have her own personality — sneaking over to spy on the orc internment camp, her scenes with Antonidas — but even when we’re in her head, when it comes to Arthas, her reactions scream “Sue.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When he’s a few months shy of 19, Arthas is out riding Invincible and leads him into a jump they’ve done hundreds of times before. Except it’s icy, and the horse slips and breaks his front legs. Arthas has to do the merciful thing and kill the horse. This is where he decides to do “whatever it takes” to protect people going forward, because he couldn’t save his horse. Not because the orcs destroyed Stormwind, or because girls like Taretha Foxton were being used by men like Aedelyn Blackmoore, or because his sister was going to be forced into a marriage she didn’t want. Because he forced his horse into a jump he shouldn’t have asked for, and then lied and told everyone it was an accident. (Which, the wording of that still confuses me. It was an accident. He didn’t exactly dismount and break Invincible’s legs himself. I guess the lie was suggesting that Invincible lost his footing at a regular trot, maybe, rather than owning up to the jump, but now I’m overthinking this. Onward.)
I also want you to note that the death of the horse is described over the course of four pages. Four. This will be significant later.
Forward to Arthas’ induction into the Silver Hand, and another warning that something just ain’t right. The Light hesitates to acknowledge him at the end of the ceremony and he hesitates a second too long and missed a shot at kissing Jaina. Remember that flash of anger when he was nine? It hits again. He’s now nineteen. No more excuses: there’s something wrong with the Prince and I am now pretty comfortable in my dislike of him. From here on out, even during his few remaining moments of not being a total dick, I feel like anything Arthas does or says is coated with slime.Af
Anyway, with Invincible out of the way, Arthas is now free to court Jaina. Again, this is one of the places where Golden does better — we get to see some moments in the courtship, and if these were the characters we were following through the whole book, it would be a pretty decent story. Unfortunately, the Arthas and Jaina we’ll see from here on out bear very little resemblance to these two young people falling in love outside of Dalaran.
After deflowering one another at Hallow’s End, Arthas breaks up with Jaina about ten minutes before the Winter Veil ball.
Yep. Freaks out, pulls a Rand al’Thor “I’m going to fuck this up” and breaks it off. And Jaina…accepts it. Confused for a minute, hurt, but she pretty much just takes it. Because for some reason she’s not allowed to have emotions beyond that.
From here out, we’re getting a retelling of Warcraft III. This is a large part of why I got over my normal aversion to media tie-in novels and read the book: I am a horrible person and haven’t played all the way through WC3 yet. (I’ll go stand in the corner after I’m done writing this, don’t you worry.) The problem is exactly that: it’s a retelling. The scenes and dialogue are pretty much word-for-word from the campaigns and cut scenes of the game (I installed it about twenty minutes after I finished reading and started playing, for SCIENCE. Er, research.)
So, hey, five-year time jump. A retelling of the first few campaigns with a glossed-over mention of some rogue mage named Kel’Thuzad who did naughty things with necromancy. Arthas and Jaina are reunited while they’re investigating the plague, and, well. Let’s move forward to their first meeting with Kel’Thuzad.
“Lady Jaina Proudmoore,” Kel’Thuzad purred…
“I saw the rats you experimented with!” Jaina cried. “That was bad enough — but now you –”
“Have furthered my research and perfected it,” Kel’Thuzad answered.
“Are you responsible for this plague, necromancer?” Arthas shouted.
Purred. Cried. Answered. Shouted. This is about where I threw the book. The crappy dialogue tags had been there for a while, but most of the time they were at least broken up with actions or internal Arthas whine-alogues. Four in a row meant I couldn’t trick myself into ignoring it anymore.
Listen to me. Listen. Your third grade teacher was wrong. It is perfectly acceptable — no, preferable — to use “said” more than once when writing dialogue. “Said” is invisible. Cracking open your thesaurus and using every alternate-word in the entry yanks your readers RIGHT THE FUCK OUT OF THE STORY OMFGARGH. Even better, use the words they’re saying and the things they DO to convey how they say something. (Because if you’re tacking “he said”/”she said” after every line of dialogue, now you’re just getting monotonous.) But seriously, back away from the synonyms. It’s annoying. It’s lazy writing, and I don’t understand why editors let that stuff stay.
Okay, enought digressing. Back to Arthas.
There are battle scenes. Sort of. Considering as, y’know, WC3 itself is mostly comprised of battles, there ought to be. The battles described here, though, are oddly short. Things die quickly. When the men are fighting unnamed skeletons, constructions like “His hammer rose and fell, seemingly effortlessly, and he didn’t even see those he struck down” are common. Plenty of battle, compacted into a phrase to mark the passing of time. Even fighting the Big Nasties goes quickly. Remember how it took Invincible four frickin’ pages to die?
Kel’Thuzad bites it in less than one.
Terenas’ murder takes two and a half pages.
Fighting Kael’thas in Northrend, three pages.
Battling Illidan — Illidan bloody Stormrage — just before reaching the Frozen Throne, three and a half.
So Arthas culls Stratholme, goes to Northrend, acquires Frostmourne, comes home, commits regicide, and brings his horse back from the dead (sorry, Jaina, you had your chance.) (Also: two and 3/4 pages for the resurrection of the pony.)
The battle with Uther the Lightbringer is (at just over three pages) is probably the best told of all the fight scenes. However, neither his death nor the fact that Arthas takes from him the urn filled with his father’s ashes has quite the emotional impact I was hoping for, because all interactions with those two men — who should be right on par with Muradin for significance in his life — were kept to a minimum. Uther’s an imposing figure in Arthas’ youth. Terenas was important when he was nine. However, aside from the argument outside of Stratholme and Terenas’ murder, they haven’t been visible in the story for more than a hundred pages.
Sylvanas Windrunner is the most interesting character in the book. We get a first-hand feel of the Quel’dorei desperation as Arthas marches on Silvermoon and the Sunwell, and the rage and sorrow she feels as a Banshee. Silvermoon falls in a paragraph, though, and far too soon we’re back in Arthas’ head.
Another book-throwing moment, on Quel’Danas: Anasterian’s facing off against Arthas, and severs Invincible’s forelegs, which of course is what spurs Arthas to victory.
As I said to Anna, Seriously, Arthas, just marry the fucking horse already.
And yet another missed opportunity — the whole time Arthas is marching through Eversong, Sylvanas is wondering who might have betrayed the Quel’dorei, who would have told Arthas about the key to Silvermoon, and who lowered the wards. His name was Dar’Khan. We only find this out in passing:
She stared sickly at the cackling lich, and the only thing that gave her even a hint of surcease from the agony was watching Dar’Khan, who had attempted to betray his master as he had betrayed his people, dying, as she had done, from Frostmourne’s keen edge.
So this guy, who was the key to Silvermoon falling, apparently just tried to off Arthas somehow. RIGHT IN FRONT OF SYLVANAS. Only, we don’t know what he did, or how he tried to betray Arthas. Only that he did something, and that he’s dead? Seriously? I have to wonder if there was a longer description of this that got edited out somehow, only I don’t understand why it would be cut. What had been a pretty interesting Sylvanas POV falls victim to the glossing-over that’s by now I’ve come to expect. She rallies the dreadlords in Undercity (oh, by the way. Dreadlords in Undercity.) Arthas escapes via a SEKRIT PASSAGEWAY EX MACHINA.
You know what? I’m okay with secret passages in palaces. Really, I am. Except when they’re TOTALLY RANDOM PLOT POINTS. “Oh, by the way, there was one in every royal chamber. LOL.” I know, I know. It’s part of one of the WC3 missions. It was a SEKRIT PASSAGEWAY EX MACHINA before Golden wrote the scene. However, why not go back and foreshadow it way back when Arthas was nine? That’s one of the virtues of novelizations — you can make events seem a bit less plucked out of thin air. Hell, Arthas could have used it once when he was sneaking out to go ride Invincible. Show the audience a gun in the first act so we’re not wondering where the hell it came from when it goes off in the third.
Arthas flees Lordaeron, goes back to Northrend, fights Kael’thas and Illidan after the Nerubians bring him through an underground shortcut. Merges with the Lich King. Then, in the epilogue, kills the shades of both Ner’Zhul and young Arthas, who are both fighting for his soul, proving once and for all that he’s OMG TEH EBIL, and probably beyond redemption (which Tirion Fordring already figured out in his infinite badassery.) And it all happens about that fast, too, compared to how long it took to get to that point in the book.
The book spans twenty-something years in 308 pages. It covers the events of Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne. This shouldn’t have been a single book; it would have been much better served as a trilogy. I wonder if, given a bit more room to expand upon the events and battles, Golden could have done a lot more showing, thus filling out the story rather than transcribing the major cut scenes from the games. Also, I’m aware that some of the events that happened in this arc have already been covered in other Warcraft tie-ins, and in the comics. However, we haven’t seen them from this particular point of view before. It would be fresh for both tie-in newcomers like myself and for the die-hard fans who’ve read everything that’s come before.
It probably sounds a little odd, on the heels of me shredding 90% of the book, to suggest that it should have been longer. I just can’t let go of the writing in the prologue. Knowing that Golden can write at that caliber, how much better would that story be if she had an adequate page count in which to write it (and someone to, ahem, get rid of those awful dialogue tags…)?
Though, uh, considering as the only in-game mention of Invincible is his gravemarker and some disturbed earth, I’d hope that the gorram horse subplot could go, too.