Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells

The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press)

This novella is available on Audible, so I listened to it on my commute.

Spoilery thoughts behind the link.
No, I could not do better myself.

From the title and the cover art, I was expecting a violent story. I wasn't wrong.

This story was mostly lots of violence, with a little bit of story stringing it together. And that story was sad. In other words - very much not my cup of tea. The rapid-fire switching back and forth between different points in the story's timeline also felt disruptive to me.

I wanted to know more about the world, beyond the violence. There were occasionally glimpses of things that interested me, but then they were gone.

The ending didn't make any sense to me at all. This was clearly a dangerously crazy person. He had killed not only that entire village, but he had killed an entire bar as part of a hallucination, and we have to assume he's killed a lot of other people as well in delusional rage. Why would the queen decide to employ him? Why on earth would she immediately jump to the conclusion that this was someone she could use and trust, who wouldn't turn on her and hers? And his madness completely fled when she said she could use him? No - not believable to me.

That was my initial reaction.

Then, my sister sent me this link, where it describes the Warmachine figure called the Butcher of Khardov. Same name, same image as the cover art, same character, same axe name, same world. Dated 2010. REALLY funny. That explains a LOT of what bothered me about the story. In that light, the lots and lots of violence strung together with a little bit of story makes perfect sense - it's my understanding that that's what the game is all about, wars and fighting and bloody violence with a little bit of story stringing it together. And of course he couldn't die for his crimes at the end of the story. I'm disappointed, though, because it turns out most of the things that I found interesting in the story are not the author's creations at all. He did create the tragic backstory of this war game piece. Confirmed when I found this blog, where Dan Wells explains his love of the character and the creation of this novella. Everything else (and some elements of the backstory) seem to come from the Warmachine game.

For what it is, a story lovingly exploring the tragic and violent backstory that created a really vicious favorite character in the game, it's really not a bad story.

I'm struggling with this one. This story is competing with completely original works which are entirely the authors' own creations. I should probably do a little research on the other stories to confirm that just to be fair!

My initial thought is that a largely derivative work such as this cannot be judged on equal footing with completely original novellas. I don't know if this means that a new category should be created, or whether it just means that I don't think this story qualifies for a Best Novella award. I'm leaning towards the opinion that a story up for a Best Novella Hugo Award should be much more the author's own creation. There's a lot of gray area here - I'm going to have to think about it some more.

Up or down ballot (note for myself): either MIDDLE, fairly well-told story that isn't my cup of tea; or DOWN, I do not think this is an appropriate entry for this category. I'm still thinking about this one. If anyone is reading this, what do you think? Do you think a work that is largely derivative should qualify for a Best Novella Hugo Award on the same footing with completely original works of fiction?


  1. I think that if largely derivative works were not allowed on the ballot, last year's Novel winner would never have even been nominated.

    And really, almost everything is derivative. Where would Wheel of Time be without Tolkein?

    If this novella imbues empathy and brings humanity to a character which is otherwise just a killing machine, the author probably deserves an award in the eyes of those readers who love this world, for enriching it in ways they wouldn't have imagined.

    I feel like it would be a difficult, if not impossible, line to draw. Better to just let folks vote on what they love, and let the quality of the work speak for itself.

  2. Your points in the last two paragraphs are very good ones. You're right.

    Derivative may not be the word I'm looking for. Yes, Redshirts is highly derivative of Star Trek, and Wheel of Time (and a really huge chunk of the Fantasy genre in general) are highly derivative of Tolkein as well as a lot of other things. But they don't take the characters (by exact name, personality, physical description, etc.), world (down to every detail of geography, names and descriptions of peoples and creatures and machines and plant life), and basic storyline (in all its details) from the works that inspired them. What's the word for that?

    I was initially calling this story "fanfic," but after a discussion with Rick was pretty sure that's not accurate since this story was commissioned by the Warmachine game company and he was paid for the story. Rick says legally it is "Work for Hire," meaning the property he's writing about remains the property of the gaming company and no part of it becomes his, but "Work for Hire" doesn't mean anything to me so I assume it doesn't mean much to most people.

    Redshirts and Wheel of Time create their own universe that is similar to works that inspired them, but almost every actual detail is different, and the stories go in different directions.

    Butcher of Khardov is almost entirely someone else's intellectual property. The author just played with that intellectual property a bit.

    Yes it is a grey area. Look at all the Doctor Who episodes that get nominated every year. That said - if a Doctor Who, or Star Wars, or Star Trek novelization that involved mostly characters and scenarios already existing in those properties was nominated under one of the Best Novel* categories, I think I'd have the same issue I'm having with Butcher of Khardov.

    I guess that makes me a little bit hypocritical.

    I think I don't have a problem with the t.v. shows because it's really all one story, one world, contributed to by a lot of different people. And it's the show that's winning, really, not the author as a stand-alone creation like it is for the novel/la/ette categories.

    For the movies, it doesn't bother me really when a print story is translated into movie form and is nominated, like the comics-superhero movies, etc., because it's translating the story into a different medium. It's like a different creature in my mind.

    I suppose I could look at Butcher of Khardov in that sense too - translation of the game into a different medium. But it still doesn't feel right to me.

    Hmm. Still thinking about and wrestling with this. Please keep sharing your thoughts. :)

  3. Also - just to be clear - not suggesting it shouldn't be on the ballot at all. If enough people love it, then it definitely should be on the ballot. I'm not sure Best Novella is the right category. But clearly the Hugo committee thinks it is, so it's a moot point, I guess, really. :)

  4. I'll also confess that it's possible I might be singing a different tune if I liked the story at all. I just don't know.

    And that's also possibly hypocritical of me. :)

  5. I'm glad you made a thorough research on that one. I, as a Warmachine player enjoyed this one quite a bit. I don't know whether it worth a Hugo price, the only Hugo-winner I read is Frank Herbert's Dune - which is an unfair basis for comparison. But it fleshed out quite well the background the game rulebooks and materials provided. Not very original, but well executed.

    Regarding the originality, it is both a boon and peril at the same time.
    Should you venture into a (more or less) known scif-i/fantasy/steampunk universe, you must battle for the approval of the fans of those settings - because many did the same before you.
    Of course, it is also very admirable if someone can create a powerful and gripping universe on his/her own.

    But in terms of theatre, which one demands more effort to gain the audience's approval? Acting in an independent, premier piece, or donning the role of Shakespeare's Hamlet, like countless actors before you?

  6. I'm glad you managed to read this one. I happened to quite like it. I was pleasantly surprised by the character depth. (Also, I read this after reading Wakulla Springs, which I really didn't care for.) It's very much a Dan Wells story, who mostly works in YA horror and dystopia. Dan Wells already has a Hugo for Best Related Work, (where he is nominated again this year), so don't feel bad if you don't vote him up.

    Some have mentioned that there should be a "media tie-in book or shared universe book" category which would allow for stories written in pre-existing intellectual properties, such as Dr. Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, D&D, Transformers, RoboTech, Pokemon, Halo, etc... These stories have always been getting nominations for the Hugos but haven't been making the final ballot. Media tie-in novels are the bread-and-butter of many working authors who later become big name authors, so giving them some credit might be worth-while.

    Writing media tie-in stories is different than writing a novel in one's own world. As you've pointed out, a lot of the work with the setting is already done for the author. Of course, the author has to work to learn the setting well, really well, to make the story work for the target audience. Also, media tie-in novels usually have much stricter dead-lines than most published novels. An author might be given two months to write the book, but often less time than that. I know one author who was paid to write a Star Wars tie-in novel as long as he could write, revise, and turn it in within a week. I'm not sure how much time Dan Wells was given, but I doubt he was allowed more than a month.

    So I'm please that Butcher of Khordov got a nomination and I hope it starts a discussion about a segment of the science fiction and fantasy community that might be getting ignored. I don't know if fans of media tie-in books would want to join Worldcon or not. But they have strong showings at the various Comicons (which all have about hundred times more attendees), so it seems like it should be explored.

    1. I could TOTALLY get behind a "media tie-in book or shared universe book" category. Are you going to WorldCon this year? Please bring it up at the business meeting! I can't make it this year, but I am going to try to go next year. I'd be able to support its "second year" vote to get it into the official rules.

      Wow, I had no idea about the tight deadlines. The person I know who does some work for hire has way more generous deadlines than that, but it's more in the RPG-related industry, so that may be completely different. Thanks for that info!

  7. I'm here via your link on goodreads-- thanks SO MUCH for including it.

    There's a difference between a work that's an homage to or inspired by an existing thing (redshirts, people riffing on tolkein) and game/media tie-ins, in my opinion. And I say this as someone who's read a TON of star wars expanded universe novels and every single Vampire: the Masquerade novel written... some of which were amazingly good and some of which were simply appalling. I'd really love to see a media tie-in/shared universe type category.

    I wasn't very impressed with this piece, which isn't because it was a tie-in (although I might have liked it more if I were more familiar stuff a Warmachine fan would be familiar with). Unlike a commentor above, though, I really liked Wakulla Springs. :)