David Guymer's Headtaker (2013) is a Black Library novel, part of the Warhammer Fantasy setting. Like the miniatures wargame behind the books, Headtaker features a variety of armies, all smashing together in bloody and relentless conflict.
In this case, the war is underground. The Orcs have snaffled a fortress from the Dwarves. The Dwarves are pissed. They were fond of that fortress, but there's also an honour thing going on here (plus, the hostages lost) (double-plus, the Dwarf prince is now crazy). They'd like to retake it, but have too much other stuff to deal with, including every other army, plus internal difficulties. It has taken years, but now they're more or less ready to go.
Except... there's another army on the scene: the Skaven. The Skaven are Warhammer's rat-people - slinky little verminous types without much to recommend them. They're cunning cowards, with only pointy teeth and the weight of numbers on their side. Yet in these troubled, ratty times, a hero arises: Queek Headtaker, warlord of the Skaven, big as a house and crazy as a loon.
Headtaker follows the impact (often literally) of Headtaker on this delicate 'political' situation. The Dwarves certainly aren't expecting the Skaven menace to be an actual threat. Nor are any of the other factions prepared for the skittering terror that is Queek's horde. Even the other Skaven are taken by surprise. The elderly Sharpwit tries to manipulate Queek, only to find that that the warlord has a mind of his own...
Flowers for Queek?
Warhammer's not an American thing, and, as someone that moved to the UK after his teens, I'm prone to underestimating its significance. There's a good reason that British authors are leading on the whole 'grimdark' thing (hint: the name itself comes from Games Workshop), and it isn't solely because of the perpetually gloomy weather. Games Workshop has a combination of both the ubiquity and the distinctiveness that leads to real influence.*
Dungeons and Dragons, as expressed in 4th Edition, favours the philosophy of "points of light": adventurers are rare and special, the world is rural and static, the wilderness is strange and dreadful. This also reflects a certain moral ideal as well - heroes are 'candles against the darkness', rallying points of a good in a world that is slipping into evil. This is, in many ways, the codification of epic fantasy ever since the days of Tolkien.
Warhammer Fantasy, however, takes a different approach. The world is a sprawling place, teeming with life. And, perhaps most unusually, everyone thinks that they're right. There are no 'good guys' and 'bad guys' - every faction (every army) thinks that it is the One True Cause. Granted, from the reader's external point of view, a world run by the Skaven might be... distinctly unpleasant, but, within the text, there's a consistent reliability to each faction's perspective.
Headtaker, I'm delighted to say, takes this a step further by being about the Skaven. There's something really compelling about a novel that's focused on what is essentially a tertiary fantasy race. The whole scenario is delightfully subversive: while the Orcs and Dwarves face off in a classically apocalyptic scenario, the Skaven are like "YO, FREE STUFF", pile in from the flank, steal everything that's not nailed down and then wander off again. Warhammer is a non-binary world, and when the Dwarves make the mistake of focusing on 'one big evil', the Skaven remind them that their grudge doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Mr. Guymer punctuates his narrative with Dwarven points of view, so we understand that something big and epic is happening. Honour and glory and once-in-a-lifetime battles and redemption arcs and such. And, it is wonderfully refreshing how little the Skaven care about any of that. The Dwarves are all just interchangeable lumps of hairy meat to them; there's not even the barest recognition of whatever Edda-style heroism is playing out within their ranks.
Conversely, the Skaven have their own issues - which, of course, the Dwarves completely fail to recognise. The Skaven council of rulers is utterly Machiavellian, and 'government' consists of clever advisers - such as the book's best character, Sharpwit - doing their damndest to keep the other Skaven pointed in the right direction. Queek is a total wild-card, and it takes every trick in the book (and a few unwritten ones) to keep him focused and in line. Another virtue of Headtaker is the emphasis on brains over brawn. Sharpwit, the Dwarves Thordun and Handrik - they approach their tasks intelligently. This is a book about war and, ostensibly, martial prowess, yet the perspectives selected are all advisors and scouts.
A sinking ship?
As charmed as I was by the concept, Headtaker did have some executional hitches.
First, and this is a little unfair, a lot of the Warhammer 'cliches' bug the hell out of me. Ale-swilling Dwarves for example - their obsession with drink, barrels of drink, carrying their drink, defending their drink, I get it. It is a setting-wide in-joke that, on a functional level, doesn't really make any sense. Similarly, there are linguistic ticks that bugged the hell out of me: the way the Orcs speak, is like a cheese-grater on my eyes. And the Skaven dialogue, with random hyphenation "old-thing", "kill-kill", "paw-steps", "lose-fail", etc-etc. is neither consistent nor sensical.
I appreciate that these are all established tropes of the setting. But I'm also giving Headtaker a lot of praise for the setting's established philosophy, so that's only fair. These styles are also an attempt to make the various races and factions different from one another - I'm not utterly buying it. It is, I suppose, a form of showing not telling, but it is an oddly annoying one. I'd rather see their individual points of view expressed coherently and consistently than using this sort of dialect crutch. Again, c'est la vie - that's how the world works.
Second, I'm actually not too sure what happens in this book. In most cases, "I have no idea what the plot was" would rank higher, I think Headtaker is supposed to be a chaotic mess. Fortresses are invaded and abandoned and re-invaded, adventurers are sort of wandering around, only to be absorbed into the armies, everyone's fighting everyone else. The main characters only occasionally interact, as well, and even then, our Skaven and Dwarven perspectives bounce off one another like, um, rats in the night.
This leads into my third and final criticism, there's a lot going in a small space in Headtaker, and, as a result, only one of the characters actually has much of an arc - Sharpwit (who, as noted above, is very strong). He has a ferocious loyalty to the Skaven (as a whole, even if he fights with all the other individuals), and a talent for juggling self-preservation with his loftier motivations.
The other points of view are less compelling. Queek is fun, but Queek plows forward as Queek does: his attention span is approximately a half-chapter, so it is hard to know either what he wants or why he wants it. Rat-like, I suppose, he's solely keen on survival. Handrik has something of an arc - from famous general to failure (sort of? Again, see the point above) to redemption arc (eh?). But the significance of his actions and his choices is lost on me, if that'd due to my lack of knowledge of basic Dwarven customs, that's still not an excuse: if what he's doing is important, it needs to come across within the text. Ditto, Thordun - the Dwarven adventurer who gets caught up in the war. His own redemption arc (his father's failure, his own unusual approach to Dwarfishness) is given short shrift.
Squeaking across the finish line
Let's submit Headtaker to the checklist of criteria.
'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:
- Secondary world: Yes.
- Traditional: Yes. Very.
- Heroic: Although it is about heroism, I don't think it does so in the sense of this award's criteria. In fact, I think one of the strengths of the book - no objective measurement of good and evil - is in direct conflict. There isn't a strong moral compass to this book. There are a half-dozen relative compasses - some about honour, some about duty, some about survival, and none really about morality at all. So... kinda.
- Epic: Again, kinda. Although there are really big battles, I don't really get the sense of progression. This is a book about unending warfare, not a search for resolution. Certainly there's a sense of scale, but even then, you get the impression this is one tiny, relatively inconsequential corner of the universe.
- High fantasy: Yes. Lots of magic and magic weapons, all woven throughout the setting and more or less taken for granted.
- Entertaining: Yes. Headtaker is story gumbo, with all sorts of intriguing nuggets held together by a thin broth of plot.
- Innovative: Absolutely. This is a fantasy book that follows the exploits of a completely 'incidental' fantasy race, that demonstrates how every 'side' has its own sense of right, wrong and accomplishment. It also shows how insular factions are: that there's no attempt for 'good' to understand 'evil' and vice versa.
- Reactionary: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure there's not a single woman in this book. Where do the little Skaven come from?!
Overall, Headtaker - like 2011's Blood of Aenarion - is a surprisingly solid addition to the DLGA shortlist. I don't think Black Library have anything to be ashamed of, and if Headtaker is representative of the quality of their debuts, they've a strong list indeed.
Headtaker gets a lot of credit from me - as you may have noticed - for focusing on a non-traditional fantasy race, and showing that they have a 'rich' (I guess) culture of their own. And demonstrating, very clearly, that every society has its own challenges and goals, prophecies, heroes, quests, achievements... you name it. That's a much more mature - even realistic - way of looking at fantasy.
The set-up, the atmosphere and the approach Headtaker takes to epic fantasy - all make it well worth reading. Plus, crazy rat-people warlords are fun. And, for what its worth, if I do ever get into Warhammer, I now know exactly what army I'll be playing. Enjoy your cheese while you can, hairless ones.
*For more on my theory on what makes 'influential' fantasy, please see this post on Dragonlance.