Blood of Aenarion (2011) is the first book in a new series by veteran Black Library author, William King. Although Mr. King may be a familiar name to Black Library readers, this is the first time I've encountered his work. In fact, it is only the third book I've ever read from this publisher - so I've come to it almost completely ignorant of the storied Games Workshop tradition.
Blood of Aenarion is the story of two young twins, Tyrion and Teclis. They're elves - everyone in this story is an elf, by the way. Apparently humans and dwarves are mucking about somewhere, but this adventure focuses on the elves, their perspective and, perhaps most importantly, their fading colonial empire.
Tyrion and Teclis are rural nobility, raised in the back-end of nowhere with a distracted widower for a father. Fortunately, they have one another. Tyrion is a hearty physical specimen, who, even at his young age (16) is a natural with both swords and young ladies. His brother, Teclis, is frailer but smarter. He spends his day coughing his lungs out and reading obscure treatises. (If this sounds a bit like Dragonlance's Caramon and Raistlin, well... it is.)
Both Tyrion and Teclis are distant descendants of Aenarion, the first high king of the elves. Aenarion (as we learn in a wonderfully bloody prologue) saved the world from the forces of Chaos, but only by using a vile sword and channeling its evil to good use. As a result, his bloodline is, if not tainted, at least substantially altered. Aenarion's descendants have gone on to do both wonderful and terrible things. Some, like the dark elf Malekith, have embraced the 'curse'. Immortal and very, very crazy, Malekith rules an eeeevil empire and is at perpetual war with the good (well, 'better') elves. Many other descendants have successfully shrugged off the curse and grown into the elves' greatest wizards, warriors and healers.
As a result, the elves get a little nervous whenever Aenarion's descendants - however distantly removed - come of age. The twins' own childhood comes to an end when they're summoned to the elven capital for testing. Either they're cursed (and will be put to death) or they're not (in which case they will immediately become pawns in the dangerous game of elven politics). The boys belatedly discover that their rural upbringing wasn't solely because their father is a loon: it was to protect them from their fate as long as was possible.
Tyrion and Teclis impress everyone with their genetic specialness. Tyrion turns out to be a very, very good swordsman and Teclis a very, very talented wizard. These revelations only raise the stakes. With such obvious talents, it seems even more likely that Aenarion's curse has struck. The boys are also swarmed by the Machiavellian (and utterly lethal) politics of the court. Duels, seduction, race riots, assassination and espionage all abound. As a pair of rambunctious teenagers, Tyrion and Teclis have a great time - with very little thought to the danger involved.
Meanwhile, another legacy of Aenarion builds to a bloody conclusion. A champion of Chaos, soundly thumped by Aenarion in a battle long ago, has regained its strength. N'Kari is a pleasure demon. Released from its incorporeal prison, it goes about getting revenge on Aenarion's bloodline in a series of increasingly unpleasant ways. Tyrion and Teclis' many relatives start dropping off (well, if being skinned for hours is 'dropping off'), and, as their numbers are whittled down, they climb closer and closer to the top of N'Kari's list.
Interestingly enough, as much as Blood of Aenarion is a Chosen One narrative, it is also a narrative about Chosen Ones. Tyrion and Teclis embrace their specialness - they like being better than everyone else, and they clearly enjoy how it comes effortlessly to them. But they're also born into a system that, for lack of a better term, processes Chosen Ones. There's an established procedure for handling those of Aenarion's blood: they're exceptional, but not unique.
In fact, on the spectrum of specialness, Tyrion and Teclis don't even rate very highly. Malekith still wanders the land, and Aenarion's other living descendants (the not-crazy ones) are people like "The Everqueen", the elves' spiritual protector. Even to N'Kari the vengeance demon, Tyrion and Teclis are merely two more boxes on the checklist.
One of the things that impressed me about Blood of Aenarion is how, despite being the umpteen-thousandth book written in a shared world, absolutely no knowledge of the Warhammer universe was required. In an free-standing ecosystem like Black Library's, it would be too easy to rely on a reader's prior knowledge. Yet Blood of Aenarion is completely self-explanatory and self-contained. The story of Aenarion - his curse, his heroism and the consequences of both - is deftly set up in a few short chapters. The political landscape of the elven court, the war with the dark elves, the steady rise of the other races... a vast world is brought out within this book. Unlike many other epic fantasies, this is all accomplished in a scant 320 pages.
Another impressive aspect of Blood of Aenarion's world-building is the seamless integration of the book's theme throughout the book. From start to finish, this is a tale of temptation, decadence and the last days of empire. The curse of Aenarion is a metaphor for the entire elven nation: the interweaving of brilliance and madness; lofty heights and inevitable decline. Elven princes stroll about in shining white armor and battle the minions of Chaos, yet, at the same time they poison one another, shag their cousins and fight bloody duels for the mere sake of it. N'Kari, as a demon of pleasure, is an apt foe as the elves are easily corrupted. Even before the demon appears, rumors of orgies float through the land - bored, near-immortal elves experimenting with dark pleasures, all just to get themselves through another day.
Even the heroes evidence this flaw. The twins' father is a good man and a loving, if distracted, father. But he's spent hundreds of years growing more and more obsessed around a single trivial task: restoring a set of armor that only he believes has value. He's been lax in his sons' upbringing because of this mania.
Teclis, of course, is wildly ambitious and more than a bit bitter. He can barely walk and the other elves, all physical paragons, refuse to meet his eye. He wants desperately to prove himself through magic, which, of course, provides many, many options for corruption and insanity.
Perhaps the finest example of all is Tyrion. He's physically perfect and a genius with strategy. He's introduced as soft-hearted and a bit naive - the square-jawed farmboy of elfland. But as the book goes on, the reader learns there's more to him, and not all of it is good. His blase reaction to his first kill is shocking and a little disturbing. Even Tyrion is surprised at how easy it is for him to take a life. His relationship with others occasionally borders on the sociopathic: he's a born tactician, and cares little about feelings, only results. By the end of Blood of Aenarion, it feels that both twins could fail their test - both carry the seeds of corruption within them.
To call Blood of Aenarion a pleasant surprise is to belittle it. What I found was not only a case study in how to write a shared world, but something much more: a character-focused adventure with a uniquely philosophical outlook. Blood of Aenarion approaches high fantasy from a pleasantly inverted point of view: the decline of empire, rather than its creation, and heroes that are chosen not for success, but damnation.