When White Whale Games released their critically acclaimed God of Blades (our review) hack and slash title last year, there was one aspect of their highly lauded release that the developers were not nearly quite so happy with. While the not-quite-an-endless-runner style gameplay of God of Blades did an exemplary job of capturing the weight of the epic battles that filled Sword and Sorcery classics, of which they sought to pay homage, the structure of the game presented its creators with a dilemma. As part of designing the worlds and backstories that led up to the game’s core conflict, of which the resurrected Nameless King must take up blade once more to stop, they successfully created far more details than could ever be comfortably contained with an action title the likes of God of Blades.
It has been said that wherever there is a will there is also a way, or at the very least that whenever a product is successful that its profitability will open windows to new opportunities. By getting in contact with Django Media, whom in turn put White Wolf Games in touch with up-and-coming fantasy writer: Greg Moller, a plan slowly hatched to create an actual trilogy of novels based upon God of Blades’ mountains of unused backstory material. Considering that the well-reviewed game was already supposed to be an homage to a fictional series of fantasy novels that had been forgotten over time, bringing new classically inspired Sword and Sorcery books to life is easily the next obvious step for such a tribute.
To be certain, Greg Moller was definitely up to the task of whisking gamers away to a distant planet – filled with its own cultures and wildlife – where God of Blades takes place. While merely creating a compelling narrative would be considered a massive success for most product based literature, Greg Moller has stepped up and approached this material with an exacting A-Game. After all, what is a tribute to Sword and Sorcery classics – such as Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian – if the end product isn’t itself going to read like a story from the now past literary era?
Before you clench your teeth in abject horror by conjuring up in your head visions of awkwardly written purple prose designed to sound like a bad parody of the original King James Bible, take comfort in knowing that Greg Moller took no part in any such tomfoolery. While Hand of the Sable King (out now, $2.99) otherwise follows perfectly modern grammatical structure, the author has managed to lend the story an aged feel by employing a plethora of perfectly valid words that are otherwise in disuse these days. This means that the novel will be a source of absolute bliss for those of you who love learning deprecated terms, but could easily end in hair pulling frustration for any who don’t want to keep a dictionary on hand (assuming they aren’t in a place where they could just use wiktionary.com).
Hand of the Sable King begins long before the game its based upon, back when God of Blades’ legendary Nameless King was someone who was both still alive and had a name he was known by. In this tale the origins and motivations of the Sable King are revealed, explaining both how and why he beckoned the Void Dwellers to journey to his planet from the place known only as the Hidden Star. Also revealed is much of the history – religion – and former hierarchy of the world upon which God of Blades is set; all before it became lost to the passage of time, leaving only the ruins and relics glimpsed at it in the critically acclaimed game.
There is an unfortunate problem that comes up when trying to review books, and that’s the fact that it’s more or less impossible to meaningfully discuss something that is only plot without also providing spoilers to the experience in the process. I will therefore now be delving into a truncated synopsis of the book’s plot that will be chock full of spoilers, as otherwise this entire review would be little more than meaningless gear spinning. For those of you who would rather finish reading my review without having any facets of the plots ruined for you in advance, please skip forward past the next three paragraphs without perusing them.
The book’s plot begins with four members of the Bright Hundred – the elite warriors of the Temple Guard – concerned with rumors that have been running throughout the capital about a Sable King, and the Cult of the Hidden Star that he allegedly commands. Although the warriors quickly chide themselves for giving into the jumptales of commoners, the fact of the matter is that the Sable King – as well as the Hidden Star he proclaims to draw power from – are both all too real. Worse yet than the fact that he exists is that the Priest Kings and Queens of the religious hierarchy that leads the empire – having lost touch with reality, as a result of always been cloistered away from the normal pabulum of life – are too busy bickering amongst themselves to take precautions against this dangerous foe, at least not until it’s far too late to preemptively to halt his sorcerous machinations.
When the trap springs it becomes up to the temple hierarchy to stop bickering in time to unite under a single solution before the Sable King, already having gained a foothold in claiming the most important of all temples: The Star in the Center of the Earth, advances his plans forward to absolute destruction of the entire empire. It certainly doesn’t help things when some of the Bright Hundred – as well as many members of the temple staff – have become so fed up with the empire’s rote status quo that they’re considering defecting to the side of the Sable King, all merely because he is planning to shake everything up. After all, wouldn’t the Earth Gods have stopped the Sable King from ever getting this far unless they had – as the cult leader has frequently claimed – already long ago abandoned this world (assuming they ever existed to begin with)?
In particular I loved how Hand of the Sable King really goes into great depth on the path that led the now sorcerous cult leader to where he currently stands, making each step of the journey feel all too human. In a sort of Greek Tragedy sense you really get the feeling that if things had gone differently – and he hadn’t discovered the power of the Hidden Star – that you might have actually been able to champion his initial cause, but certainly not where he ended up. Those who hate fantasy stories dealing with moral gray areas – where neither side is right or wrong – will not need to worry about the content within Hand of the Sable King, for the great cult leader – and all of his followers – have forever been corrupted by the dark void powers of the Hidden Star.
(Thus ends my spoilers)
Anyways, the plot of heroism – religious politics – and forbidden dark sorcery readily gel together in a way that is the perfect tribute to the various Sword and Sorcery classics that used to rule the now dead era of pulp fiction. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to this tale is that knowledge of anything that happened in God of Blades is entirely unnecessary to enjoying the final product, and thus Hand of the Sable King can easily be enjoyed by anyone who never played the game (although it will certainly add much meaning to the various locales the Nameless King must charge through). The most sobering warning I must give is that the book – the first of a planned prequel trilogy – ends on a massive cliffhanger, one that may never be resolved if enough copies aren’t sold (not that serialized Sword and Sorcery classics of the Pulp Fiction era were ever exactly a stranger to sometimes being left utterly unresolved).
With my general happiness for the book now out of the way, I would like to take a moment – because that is unfortunately all that will be needed – to discuss the video documentaries that were promised to be included. While there are three videos to be found at the back of Hand of the Sable King, each and every last one of them has been up on White Wolf Games’ YouTube page for ages at this point. These include a short three minute interview with the project’s lead artist, a short three minute interview with the game’s main programmer, and the not-exactly-a-documentary-at-all launch trailer for God of Blades. While this aspect of Hand of the Sable King has proven to be utterly disappointing, the bulk of the book itself – even if one must often stop to look up words at times – is otherwise still stellar.
Oh, yes, and there is one last thing to mention: for those of you who are already playing God of Blades, the game has since been updated with a new blade – the almighty Hallow – that can only be unlocked by answering a riddle based on events from the book itself.
iFanzine Verdict: From writing style, to language choice, to world details, to savagery of combat, Hand of the Sable King is a perfectly wrought tribute to the Sword and Sorcery classics of yesteryear. It is even easier to recommend when – unlike most other books based on video games – the material contained within stands up entirely on its own, rather than merely being subservient to the product it is spawned off of. The downside is that for some the constant need to look up the often deprecated words can at times murder the book’s pacing, and there is also the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger which – depending on how well Greg Moller’s product sells – may never be continued onwards into a glorious sequel.