Saturday, 22 August 2015

An Oldhammer Bookclub: A Review of Brain Craig's Zaragoz


This post has been a while in coming, despite me having completed Zaragoz over two weeks ago. It must have been by third or fourth read through ( I cannot quite recall) since 1997 when I discovered a copy of the Boxtree edition in an Exeter bookshop. At that time, the book seemed to me a sad relic of what GW used to be about and I often felt that I was the only person in the world who preferred the old, 1980s style of Warhammer. 

How wrong I later turned out to be, eh?

So Zaragoz is a familiar tale to me. Though it must be said, that with each reading I have discovered something new about the book, so re-reading the novel is more than worthwhile in my opinion. But if you discount the fact that the book is linked so strongly to Oldhammer and '80s Games Workshop, is it actually any good?

We all know that answering such a question is going to be a personal judgement, rather than hard fact. Especially if you are looking for something different in Warhammer fiction. If you haven't read the book, there are no massive pitched battles, little carnage and the focus is very much on atmosphere rather than long action sequences.

I know that other members of the community are interested in contributing to this discussion. I order to help with this I have developed a series of questions that I intend to answer in this post. You can choose to cheery-pick any of these questions to add your own contributions below in the comments section, on on the accompanying Facebook thread, or indeed, do you own full blown blog post about the novel.

1) Did the book engage you immediately or did it take time to draw you in?
2) What was your overall 'feeling' about the novel once it was complete? Amused, sad, confused, disturbed etc?
3) Pick a character - are their actions justified?
4) Do you feel your character 'changes' during the course of the story? If so, in what ways?
5) Is the overall plot engaging?
6) How did the book's structure affect you as you read? Did you appreciate the 'interludes'? 
7) Which passage in the book strikes you as being the most poignant or memorable? 


Right, here I must state that SPOILERS are indeed ahead of us. So if you haven't yet read Zaragoz you might want to find something else to do here. Without any further ado, let's open the book and get talking.....


Opening up one of the first edition novels is always a pleasure. I love the attention to detail and really appreciate the lengths GW Books went with the illustrations with the first run of novels. The art was suitably dark and baroque and akin to some of the better Fighting Fantasy work we all poured over in the 1980s. The cover and frontispiece were produced by the legendary Ian Miller, title page art by the brilliant Tony Ackland while the internal illustrations, of which there are many, are by the wonderful Martin McKenna. 

Quite a pedigree. But what of Brian Craig? If you didn't know, he is a pseudonym of Brian Stableford, a prolific and well known science-fiction and fantasy author. So no hack this. And if you are coming from more recent Black Library efforts the literary style might come as a bit of a shock. In fact, it was the lack of quality writing the ultimately turned me away from BL, though I cannot praise Dan Abnett enough.  


1) Did the book engage you immediately or did it take time to draw you in?

A difficult question to answer considering I have read the book before, but I can honestly say I enjoyed reading the novel even more with this read through. Perhaps it was because I knew the characters and the main thrust of the plot I was able to appreciate the little details that are often missed on an initial read through. Despite being very knowledgeable of the overall story, I found I was very quickly drawn into the relationship between Orfeo and his captor, Alkadi Nasreen. Sure, its a riff on the One Thousand and One Nights (and the Warhammer version of this story is even referenced here) but serves very well in my opinion as a method of tying the three stories together. 

The premise of Nasreen having a brother present in Zaragoz was also very interesting, and I can recall with pleasure my initial read through all those years back trying to second guess who this sibling may or may not be. 

The initial chapters in which Orfeo explores Zaragoz are also enjoyable and you get a strong sense that chaos is indeed lurking around (and beneath) the city, but you are never directly told what this evil is which, again, gets your mind working. The setting (based on a small Estalian city-state) is also intriguing and makes a real change from 'another story set in the Empire' syndrome. 

So yes, I was engaged immediately. 


2) What was your overall 'feeling' about the novel once it was complete? Amused, sad, confused, disturbed etc?

Satisfied, I suppose. I like the character of Orfeo and I have always appreciated that the first story in the trilogy concerns him, otherwise he would have just appeared as a ghostly entity used to join together three rather different tales. I enjoyed the slow development of the 'destruction from beneath the crag' theme that builds through the story and that it alludes to rats (and perhaps skaven) as well as far worse things. 

Brian Craig doesn't over use the Warhammer backgrounds wealth of super evil daemons either, and creates his own Howardesque 'white apes' as a foil to Orfeo's journey through the ancient cave system below Zaragoz. When the forces of chaos do appear. their origins are left rather vague, and the art by Mckenna tells you more about their nature than the text does, though knowledge of the mythos allows you to suspect Slaanesh worship is at the base of all that is evil. 

I also enjoyed the series of 'mysteries' Brain Craig clears up at the end of the novel. Arcangelo's fate for instance and right at the end, the identity of Nasreen's brother - which in turn leads you into thinking how will Orfeo's involvement with Semjaza affect his future captivity. Some things are merely alluded to, and this is nice - such as the strange black leech like thing Arcangelo uses to destroy Semjaza - what is it??


3) Pick a character - are their actions justified?

I am going to select Arcangelo here. We first meet him at the beginning of the story as he is affronted by a group of bandits. Looking like a mere priest, Orfeo becomes involved in the plot by simply stepping out of the woods in defence of what appears to be a vulnerable traveller. Together, they deal with the incompetent footpads and strike up a friendship of necessity along the road towards Zaragoz. It is Arcangelo who tells Orfeo that the Night of Masks is soon to be celebrated in Zaragoz and that his talents with song and lute may well be appreciated. Of course, subsequent read throughs allow you to wonder if these suggestions are not just the easy conversation of a fellow (and grateful traveller) but the calculations of a man who would stop at nothing to enact vengeance on his enemies.

During your initial read through, Brian Craig lets you believe the Arcangelo has been defeated by his enemies - that Semjaza, and the powers he wields, have crushed the weaker follower of Law. First in the House of Cordova, and later beneath the crag of Zaragoz itself. You never 'see' the destruction of Arcangelo, instead the hideous scream is used to signify his end. At the time, you assume that the scream is caused by the pain inflicted by Semjaza's magic, but by the end of the novel you are left doubting. Was that the scream of a man who has just sold his soul to Chaos?

Returning to the question, is Arcangelo's pact with chaos in order to destroy his enemies justified? I would say on a personal level, no. Who would want their soul as a plaything for that likes of Slaanesh, eh? But for the other characters; Orfeo, Cordova and Serafima, I cannot see how they would have been saved without Arcangelo's terrible sacrifice. So he could appear to be a selfless hero who would stop at nothing (even the condemnation of his own soul) in the quest to protect his friends. However, I see a little of the obsessive in Arcangelo. And the temptations of chaos are manifold and tempting. 


4) Do you feel your character 'changes' during the course of the story? If so, in what ways?

I think I have answered a fair bit of this question previously. Arcangelo does indeed change in your perception of him during the novel, but his true character remains ultimately the same. To begin with, he seems but a weak priest, not lacking in courage mind, set upon a path who's ending he cannot possibly reach, his enemies are just too powerful! 

His sudden reappearance halfway through the tale as Orfeo and Falquero's rescuer is unexpected and makes you re-evaluate him. How did he recover from Semjaza's attack? What means does he use to escape the prison beneath Zaragoz? It is suggested that Arcangelo descends the terrible hole that leads to the darkness below, and makes his pact with the powers of darkness there. So perhaps, that is the moment that he changes. From hero of 'good' to one who is now soiled by the horrors of chaos. 

Be the end of the tale, Arcangelo is gone. Destroyed by his own pact but the fruits of his actions steer the story towards its conclusion. He awakes the magic within the fabric of the building of the House Cordova that protects Orfeo and his friends and hopes, in time, to bring peace and justice to Zaragoz itself. In a philosophical aside, I think it is Orfeo who points out that 'goodness' and 'justice' ultimately depend on which side of the argument you stand, and despite Cordova being raised as the new Duke - injustices and intrigues with remain forever. 


5) Is the overall plot engaging?

Yes, I think that it is. Though there are no set piece battles the classic 'good verse evil' theme runs through the tale, and as always, you hope that the 'goodies' win. What makes it a little more interesting is that fact that many of the positive characters (such as Orfeo and Arcangelo) end stained by the influence of chaos. We have discussed the affect dealings with the Dark Gods has on Arcangelo, but on Orfeo they are subtler. He finds his way into the bed of Morella d'Arlette, a noble of Zaragoz with a taste for the pleasures of Slaanesh, and due to the spell cast by her during sexual intercourse, is bound to be a pawn in her desires. I have read elsewhere that the sex scene and its later references were edited out by the Black Library when it was later reprinted, though without a Black Library copy in my collection I cannot be exact about what is altered. 

Events build up slowly and develop towards the Night of Masks itself. You know from the offset even on the first reading that Orfeo must survive, he recounts the tale after all, but you are still trying to work out who Nesreen's brother is until the very end. The dramatic events at the celebration itself are suitably exciting and the deaths of the villains suitably graphic and unusual. 

All the pieces are nicely woven together in this conclusion and just enough is left unexplained to leave you thinking. 


6) How did the book's structure affect you as you read? Did you appreciate the 'interludes'? 

Overall, I like the structure of the novel. The story within a story just adds to the drama in my opinion anyway. And as I have yet to read the final novel in the sequence, Storm Warriors, I still don't know how Orfeo escapes even after twenty years of being a fan of the novels! 

I find that the interludes help break up the story and help build on the 'who is Nesreen's brother?' mystery. It also introduces some suitable peril for Orfeo, who's survival at Zaragoz is assured before the tale begins.  


7) Which passage in the book strikes you as being the most poignant or memorable? 

I would easily say Chapter Thirteen and the discussion about good and evil between Orfeo and Semjaza is the stand out moment in the novel for me. The wizard remarks that the Warhammer World is just a mere crack in some mystical wall and the whims of men are as relevant to the higher powers as the insects that reside within the walls of our dwellings. 

He says:
"Put crude thoughts of good and evil out of your mind, and try to move beyond such silly ways of thinking - beyond even thoughts of order and chaos. In the true way of seeing, the authentic excitement of existence lies not in the feeding of the animal appetites but in reaching beyond the petty stupidities of ordinary life, in feeling the awesomeness of the greater world, and in bringing just a little of the intoxication of that greater existence into the narrow confines of our lesser one."

Semjaza's argument is a convincing one and shows just how alluring the powers of chaos can be. But is it 'the truth', or just the thoughts of an individual already seduced by the dark powers of the warp?

Overall Score: 4/5 - A worthy read, and a very good start for Orfeo, but not the best of the GW Books novels. 

So what do you think about the novel Zaragoz? Feel free to add your own contributions here, in the Facebook Group or in your own way. You need not follow my questions either. But your thoughts would be very welcome indeed. 

Orlygg.

8 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the book it was an entertaining read. The high point would be the way chaos was represented subtly. Its easy to see how the characters could justify their actions gradually sliding down into damnation (or climbing the tower) rather than murdering kittens and growing tenticals out of their eyes. The low point would be the caverns. They started out fine with a little bit of Lovecraft to it but went on too long. I also thought skaven right up to the point the apes turned up, still not sure if I find that better or worse. Writting this I think showing skaven as mangie scavengers would have been cool.
    This was my first time reading Zaragoz and would happly read the sequels. 72.6/100

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    1. Yes, the subtle use of chaos is a must for me too. Society in the Old World is ultimately doomed, and its citizens are totally (by and large) unaware of it. Naive fools fall to damnation slowly as time is irrelevant to the dark powers. A great setting, terribly mangled by those who came after Bryan.

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  2. Hi - true to my word I decided to pick this up off the shelf after you mentioned your interest in reviewing it. And... I was pleasantly surprised, having only read more recent BL efforts (and I completely agree with your comments on this - the quality is highly variable). Zaragoz compares favourably to the better output. With hindsight I think the ending (in the castle, and Alkadi Nasreen's revelation) is a little weak, but that didn't stop my enjoyment of the book which I finished quite quickly (a sign of a good read for me).

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    1. I found that the illustrations helped me read though the book at speed and increased my enjoyment of the title. I always thought that the loss of purpose drawn art in later titles was a shame. I am glad that you enjoyed the work, perhaps you will read the second book in the series too?

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    2. I have mixed feelings about the illustrations. I love the art work but don't like it steering my own imagined image of the characters, etc. As for the next book in the series - guess I'm along for the ride now! :)

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    3. Glad to hear it! Though on the subject of illustrations, they are just character studies of the main players in Plague daemon. Perhaps if you read the first edition you will find them less intrusive!

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  3. I love the book. Was one of my first GW books to read. But to be true my most loved book(s) was the Konrad triology.

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    1. Konrad was my first Warhammer book too. Unforgettable!

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