Sunday, July 04, 2010

A welcome return?

Sometimes we just can't help ourselves
Geek culture can sometimes be less a cultural panorama than a minefield for the unwary. I'm talking of course of the irrational passions and prejudices which can be oh so easily aroused by our own version of 'brand loyalty'. Sure, so-called 'mainstream' culture is no more free of blind partisanship than any other social sphere in which personal tastes are justified against other people's by being raised to the level of intellectual generalisations, or just by plain mule headedness. Mainsream culture though lacks the wide spectrum offered by edition wars- RPGs and miniatures games; new writers and/or artists- comics and books; the full range of cross-media adaptions (which rarely stray beyond prose into movies in the mainstream)- most any geek medium into most any other; Euros versus Ameritrash- boardgames; 'old-school' versus 'indie'- RPGs again. And this is just a selection. I'm sure readers could easily add to this list.

The recent Black Library Warhammer novel Bloodborn is a case in point for yours truly. Its author is Nathan Long, of whom I first heard- as I imagine would have most of my readers who recognise his name, when he took over writing the Gotrek and Felix series from Bill King, with the novel Orcslayer. You can imagine then, dear readers, that the geek spasms so induced meant that this was hardly the best introduction a reader could have to a new writer. This misbegotten mentality was only encouraged when I heard that Nathan Long was going to be writing a Gotrek and Felix spin-off series featuring Ulrika the Vampire.

A step too far?
I confess in all honesty that my heart sank when I read this news. In a world full of heartless remakes and soulless spinoffs, how could BL do this to Ulrika, of all people? Had she not suffered enough already? I mean to say: not only was she the last great love of Felix's life, but the dolt had gone and lost her because he was too emotionally inarticulate to express his feelings to her in a way that'd've won her to him forever. Then she'd been captured by the single most chilling villain Gotrek and Felix ever encountered, the vampire Alophus Krieger (Vampireslayer, collected in Gotrek and Felix: the Second Omnibus). Ulrika was rescued, naturally enough, but hardly in the nick of time: she'd been turned into a vampire by the evil Krieger. Oh woe was me.

So you can see, dear readers, that Ulrika was a character who'd had a strong impact on me, who'd tickled my taste for a good romance- tragic or otherwise; she was- in short, the perfect minefield. The irony wasn't lost on me that Ulrika might even end up twice undead: once as the actual character, and again as the sorry spinoff who'd shatter my fond memories of the great role she'd played in the life of a favourite fictional character.

It has to be said that BL were very crafty: the announcement of the imminent new series was accompanied by the cover art for Bloodforged, which will be part 2 of the Ulrika the Vampire trilogy. The cover for Bloodborn- which I first saw at Conflict 2010 back in April, is good; but the cover for Bloodforged is frankly stunning, and was almost enough to sell me on the new book by itself. Yeah, I know what they say about books and their covers- especially when it's for a different book, but at least I knew who was going to be inside, and there was something about that cover which just spoke to me about the character I remembered.

But sometimes we just can't help ourselves
In the end it was a glowing online review and Andy's recommendation which overcame my purblind resistance. It became only a matter of time before I succumbed to my curiosity. That time ran out last week.

The fact that I am already writing this is itself an answer to the crucial question: how well did Bloodborn negotiate the many hurdles it faced thanks to this particular geek's predispositions? The short answer: very nimbly. This novel is a right ripping read and I consumed it avidly in two or three sittings, a bookworm's pleasure I hadn't enjoyed in some time.

The next important question is how does the character of Ulrika fare at Nathan Long's hands? My answer here is in two parts. First, I can't usefully compare Ulrika in Bloodborn with Ulrika in the Gotrek and Felix novels without going back to the latter for the sake of a detailed comparitive study. Geek I might be but I've not done that. In any case any inevitable disconnect between two authors' treatment of the same character could here reasonably be explained as a consequence of Ulrika's transformation into a vampire.

Beyond that I have to say that Ulrika in Bloodborn is a good character in her own right. There are at least two significant moral conflicts at her core as she struggles to come to terms with her new life as a vampire. "Yes, but is she really Ulrika?" was a refrain which echoed in my mind as I read the novel, and it was the facets of her character which came to the fore through these personal struggles which reassured me of one thing: whatever else you might want to say, Long's Ulrika is no travesty of the original.

The story too is good, with a decent plot, interesting characters and a colourful evocation of a city- Nuln, on the verge of major civil disorder. There were a couple of features which struck this reader as slight weaknesses:
  • The foreshadowing of the villain's identity isn't good enough, so that when this identity is revealed I was left asking myself, "Yes, but why?" This could be unfinished business for a future installment I guess, but it just felt like a loose end to me.
  • I found Long's fight scenes confusing; writing this I find myself wondering if this could be because he writes with a screenwriter's eye after his long years in that line of work.
These really are minor complaints because I still enjoyed Bloodborn, a lot. More than that, I am glad that the Black Library took the decision to bring Ulrika back in this series. Colour me pleasantly surprised dear readers. ;)
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