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Thursday, October 06, 2005

In review: Blood Bowl, the novel

Blood Bowl
Matt Forbeck
GW: Black Library
http://www.blacklibrary.com/bookdetail.asp?id=435

Well, as alert regular readers might've guessed, I was lucky enough to blag myself a copy of this from author Matt Forbeck when we met in Prague recently.

This is my review.

Before giving my opinion of this novel, I must enter some traditional disclaimers.
  1. I was given this book by its author, so don't expect me to turn round and 'bite the hand that fed me', although I can promise no bs.
  2. I am a big fan of the game this novel is based on: in fact, I regard 3rd ed. Blood Bowl (BB3) as one of the slickest new editions of any game I have ever seen; so expect my enthusiasm for Mr. Forbeck's subject matter to shine through.
  3. I like the gridiron game, and have followed the fortunes of the Green Bay Packers on and off ever since this sport hit British TV- to the extent that my own Orc BB team is called the Green Bogey Pickers; so while I would never call myself a 'cheesehead', expect enthusiasm as per #2 above.
So, the first thing that struck me (and others I would imagine) upon seeing this book on the BL site was a question: is the Blood Bowl game suitable material for a tie-in novel? I mean to say: the game is manifestly set in the Warhammer Old World. Well, to be precise: a Warhammer Old World, because the crazed and brutal sport that is Blood Bowl is notable by its absence from the offical Old World setting of WFB and WFRP.

This question provides the first hurdle that this novel has to get over: can it credibly make this game of fantasy football feel at home in an Old World which doesn't really admit that the sport exists in the first place?

The second hurdle that Matt Forbeck's first BL novel has to cross is that of bringing to life the on and off-field antics of a team participating in a Blood Bowl season.

So what has our author given us in his run at these hurdles?

Our hero is one Dunk Hoffnung, elder scion of a disgraced family. We first meet him on an adventure upon which he has embarked to restore the family's honour. When this proves to be a futile quest, he falls in with a smooth-talking halfling- Slick Fullbelly, who just happens to be a Blood Bowl agent on the lookout for new talent. There follows a long journey so that Dunk can attend the training camp of the Bad Bay Hackers- the only Blood Bowl team down-at-heel enough to take a tip from Fullbelly.

Long story short: Dunk makes the team and is plunged into a world of murderous rivalries, treachery, backstabbing, the attentions of media hacks, Blood Bowl officials, and sundry other lowlives. By the time he takes to the Astrogranite for his first play as a would-be star player, young Dunk finds himself in a world that is, if anything, even more dangerous than the adventuring life whose grim and perilous realities had proved such a shock.

Throw in some sibling rivalry, a dash of romance, heavy doses of skullduggery, and the stage is set for a dilemma in which Dunk must chose between a rock and hard place with more than just his life at stake. At least he makes a friend or two he can rely on.

By now you might have twigged that I liked this book quite a lot. It captured my attention quickly, and kept it.

I liked the idea of playing Blood Bowl being a survival option for those would-be adventurers who would otherwise be unsung for being less than heroes. This part of the story thrust me immediately into the Old World that I like so much, thus getting Mr. Forbeck quickly and neatly over the first hurdle. Matt kept this up throughout the book too:- whether it is the various journeys our hero and his companions take, or the places like Altdorf where the games are staged: the strangely 'invisible' #1 sport of the Warhammer Old World is put right where it belongs with nice attention to detail.

If Forbeck's treatment of the Old World is as convincing as you'd expect from someone with the Blood Bowl game in his resume, then his handling of the game itself is also up to scratch. As the name of the story's team- the Bad Bay Hackers- suggests: Matt is a longtime fan of the gridiron game (a.k.a. American football), being a 'cheesehead'; ie. a hardcore fan of the Green Bay Packers. The knowledge this implies shines through in the story: whether in the high jinks on and off the field of play; or in the cast of supporting characters our author has assembled for our entertainment- they are all archetypes recognisable to pretty much any and all fans of BB the game, or of real-life sports for that matter.

All of this is helped by the book being rather well written. The story moves along briskly, with good dialogue, evocative descriptions, plenty of jokes (some of which I am laughing at from memory even as I type this), and enough plot twists to keep this reader at least guessing to the last. Mr. Forbeck's treatment of the actual games deserves some mention. He cleverly restricts himself to a key moment or two from each game. This gives a good flavour of how the game works and of Dunk's early career therein, while at the same time allowing the book the scope to cover an entire Blood Bowl season, something I would regard as more-or-less essential for a successful novel about this lethal sport.

So, after all these nice words, do I have any complaints? Well, yes, and no. There are a couple of moments when I thought that Matt had taken his eye off the ball (if you'll pardon such egregious punning) with accounts of events that didn't ring true to me. But these are really quite minor, and they certainly don't undermine plot or character development. Yes and no #1.

And I also have to repeat what someone else said to me after reading the first couple of chapters of my copy: Dunk Hoffnung is a homage to Felix Jaeger from Bill King's Gotrek and Felix novels. I would like to suggest that this goes further: there is a 'mutt and jeff' thing going on in this novel which is a homage to Gotrek and Felix both. Is this a problem? Well, only if you want to make it one. I mean to say: as Matt himself tells us in his own blog: Bill King is one of his best friends. It's sufficient to add that the 'mutt and jeff' pair-up is one of the classic narrative archetypes; and that Bill King's Gotrek and Felix are the Old World archetypes of this well-used duo; so that..., well just draw your own conclusions.

In sum then: Blood Bowl is a thumping good read, and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in fantasy without a po-face. If you like the Blood Bowl boardgame, or even just sports, then that'll be a bonus.

Score: 4/5 (Because it can't be perfect, can it?)
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