Saturday, November 29, 2014

Retro Reviews: Valnir's Bane by Nathan Long

Valnir's Bane
Author: Nathan Long
Series:  Warhammer: Black Hearts
Original Publisher and Date:  Games Workshop, December 16, 2004
Still in Print:  No
Formats and Length: Mass Market Paperback, 256 pages
Availability:  You can find it used online
ISBN:  9781844161669

Brief History

Nathan Long started writing at the age of 12 and spent several years writing screenplays for TV and films. He's written 15 novels in the Warhammer shared world so far, and Valnir's Bane was his first book published in 2004. His first original book written out of the shared world is Jane Carver of Waar, a parody/ode to Edgar Rice Burroughs. He's also written a few video games.

The Black Hearts series is a reflection of Long's love of the old classic film heroes, everyday men who went through incredible events, and, just as often as they were heroic, they also showed their fear or weaknesses. He has mentioned that he likens Valnir's Bane to the Dirty Dozen in the world of Warhammer.

Back Cover Description

Fantasy heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but few are less able to fit the classic image than the Blackhearts. In a terrific twist on the classic war story, this disreputable band of convicts is released from the dungeons and given a grim choice: volunteer for a suicide mission or die by the noose. They do the former, of course, but when they learn their quest is to venture deep into the lands of the enemy and retrieve an ancient relic that could turn the tide of the war, they begin to seriously regret their choice. With broad characters and violent action, this riotous novel introduces the Blackhearts in just the first of a planned series of adventures.

Brannigan's Review

I have two confessions to make. First, I actually bought this book by mistake. Back before I had a smartphone to take notes on, I read an article talking about a great fantasy series called The Black Company, and while I was perusing a bookstore I remembered the article, but only that the word black was in the title. I saw this book, saw Blackhearts, and thought, this is it. Once I got home, I found out I had purchased the wrong book, but the back cover description sounded good so I wasn't too upset. Later, I found The Black Company by Glen Cook. My second confession is I have only ever read one Warhammer book before, and, to be honest, I wasn't impressed. I have also never played their role-playing games, so I have no real background in the Warhammer world. For these two reasons, I left this book on my bookshelf unread for several years. Once again, the Retro Review has come to make amends in my life. For my second Retro Review this month, I will finally read Glen Cook's The Black Company, as it inspired this whole serendipitous event.

Reading Valnir's Bane felt like watching one of your favorite childhood or teen movies on a day you had nothing better to do. I know we all had those films. I can't tell you how many times I watched Die Hard on an old VHS tape as a kid. I loved that film. Valnir's Bane is like that almost immediately: you like the characters, their interaction with each other, and their disdain for authority and rules. The 'heroes' (I use that term lightly because no one but the villains of the book would ever consider themselves heroes) are all very real. Well, let me stop myself, most of them feel real. For the most part, all of the characters are fleshed out as they attempt to fulfill their mission. At the beginning, it takes some time to figure out who everyone is. There are nine prisoners and a leader/guard. Out of the 10, only five make it to the end. Reiner Hetzau, a pistolier, is the primary character and closest thing to a true hero. I say closest because for the first half of the book he's only concerned with protecting his own hide and using the others as bodyguards. He's also a gambler, womanizer and disgraced noble.

Now, I wouldn't consider these characters anti-heroes in today's sense of the word. In today's fantasy fiction with the sub-genre of dark and grim fantasy that's out there, you would expect these guys to be much much worse than they are to be labeled anti-heroes. I'm more apt to call the Blackheart group reluctant heroes. I actually prefer a reluctant hero over an anti-hero because I feel good about rooting for someone even if they try to deny the good inside themselves.

The pacing of the book is perfect for its length. It has an episodic feel as one trial after another hurtles the group toward the climax, where fighting against every opportunity to be heroic until they realize if they don't save the world, no one else will. Long has a talent for putting his characters through hell. I kept thinking that sooner or later these guys have to catch a break, but for the most part they never do. Still, you're kind of glad they don't because they come up with some entertaining ways out of those messes.

For being a book in a shared world, I didn't feel like I was missing anything. Long provided enough information to get a feel for the world and the different warring factions. And, for a book this size, Long did a great job spending time with the characters that mattered.

Valnir's Bane is a comfort book, immensely satisfying, with a quick pace. After reading the first book in the trilogy, I look forward to reading the other two books to spend some more quality time with heroes I could relate to. There are a few minor moments of descriptive violence and implied sexual abuse off camera, to borrow a film term, and little if any bad language, for these reasons I have no problem recommending this book to teens or adults. This is definitely a book to borrow from a friend or the library. I personally will be keeping my copy for future reads, but due to the fact you have to hunt for the book, maybe wait to read it before grabbing your own copy.


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