Friday, 30 November 2012

Blood Royal

With the Kal Jerico comics having come to a close and Gordon Rennie having moved on elsewhere one could assume that it was best to leave Kal Jerico be. But no franchise remains untouched for long. At the mantle of three new books comes Will McDermott (I realised my mistake after uploading the review. I assumed that like Lasgun Wedding that this was only written by Will McDermott. Assumption is the mother of all what? Precisely. Hopefully I won't do this again, and I'll address this issue in the upcoming Cardinal Crimson review)
As you may’ve sussed, reading these at current has caused me to speak and view these writings in a past tense. Now I've downed the twelve-chapter Blood Royal, doing a bit of background delving on the named author has proven a little difficult. It seems his archives are fairly empty and what does exist of them is franchise related, being a writer behind Magic the Gathering novels and at least one Guild Wars game.
The story here deals with many different levels. What’s encouraging to see is, as an author, Will decides to put to play all of the words in “Kal Jerico, Necromundan Bounty Hunter for hire”. It’s something that has been haplessly void in the comics. I've complained about before. Necromundan only seemed to come into use to let us know where he resides. ‘To hell with the game that shows us the constant gang wars and power struggles’, the comics seemed to say, ‘Because there’s a really big spider across there.’
Blood Royal is not only a story following Kal Jerico & friends on a mission from high up to track down a rogue son of the Helmawr household, it is also the story of many other characters and how they get entwined in the biggest espionage war on Necromunda. I’ll confirm suspicions right here – Nemo is a big feature of this story.
Without any real spoilers the story goes that Armand Helward, heir apparent has gone bat-shit insane, gone on a killing spree and escaped with an exceedingly valuable item. Kal Jerico is called in by his father and ruler of the hive, Gerontius Helmawr, to track down Armand and retrieve the item. To this end he assigns one of his personal bodyguards, Valtin, to aid Kal on his mission and make sure he fulfils his objectives. Oh, Valtin is Kal’s nephew by the way. If you thought the family ties in Above & Beyond were a little out there, there’s a lot more of that in this. This isn't, however, one of the harder to swallow elements of the plot, as Gerontius is portrayed as a form of king of the ancient civilisations. He has had many wives and lovers thanks to his position of power, and thus has been able to satiate his carnal wants.
In this part at least we see a connection between Gerontius and Kal, but other than that there’s nothing else. This is in part due to Gerontius’s engineered longevity as a ruler in the Imperium. In turn, though, he’s become quite mad, slowly losing his mind. Whilst this has been happening, Katerin and Kauderer, two of his advisors, are scheming to overthrow him.
Kauderer is Gerontius’s spy-master, and the clear mastermind in this operation. So we have three characters all after this object that’ll effect whether or not house Helmawr crumbles: Kauderer, Nemo and Valtin.
There’s also the emergence of a vampire in the underhive, and the mystery surrounding it. As you realise that this vampire is consuming vast swathes of the story, it becomes pretty apparent who the vampire is. Not that this detracts from the fun of the large-scale vampire hunt this kicks up. Nor does it rob it of the fun of the mystery. When you figure out who it is, it only leaves you asking why he needs all of this blood as he feeds more and more frequently.
The pinnacle of what I enjoyed in this novella is Will’s readiness to explore the mentality and motivations of gangs and vastly different characters. He brings back places and people we do know and integrates a few wild, beautiful and exotic places that instantly absorb your interest. Also, by including such details that just seem too obvious to include, yet the comics never did, he further gains my appreciation. One scene where Kal visits his weapons-vendor is particularly nice. He does a decent job of making a believable, living, breathing Necromunda.    
This all seems very good, yeah? Well, that’s how I was hoping things would hold up. Unfortunately, for all of the greatness in this novel, every other scene has something to suck me right back out of the immersive & believable bits.
Firstly, Will seems set on being as loyal to the comics as he can be. For better or for worse, everything from the comics is dragged over: Characters whose motives and character change for no real reason – quite a few. Accident-prone characters who frequently and unintentionally end up as the butt of other people’s laughs – way too many. An ending that feels rushed and somewhat disappointing – just about, only due to some elements rather than others.
We also have Yolanda with the equipment she’d acquired in Homecoming. Luckily, a description showing which artist he’s going by doesn't seem to feature. With that in mind, I took this as an advantage and imagined her with her new equipment but old appearance.
At least some of the more important characters keep coherent enough in their motives. Kauderer, Katerin, Nemo, Armand, Kal, Scabbs and Yolanda all stay on track, just about. Here’s a gripe though: Will McDermott’s Nemo.
Our author clearly realises the potential of the spy, how to utilise this in the story and with all of the spyfare going on even gives us a good insight into his gadgets and methods of keeping tabs on people. However (!), he is just too damned out of character. The brooding, seething, behind the veil spymaster is completely outside himself in the good half of the scenes he’s in. Moreover, his characters traits seem to have been absorbed by Kauderer, who is doing a much better job of being Nemo.
At least there are some more redeeming features. 1) If a part of the gangs making up Necromunda from top to bottom hasn't been featured in the comics, they’re in here! 2) Armand’s motives round up in a really satisfactory way, making the whole maguffin quest make perfect sense. Moreover, it makes him one of the most relatable characters. Likewise his blood-sucking is explained in a very convincing and satisfactory way. 3) Watching the way the multitudes of characters out-do eachother until only a bare handful survive is quite engaging. 4) Keeping track of such a vast amount of characters is difficult enough that their popping up causes a good two handfuls of twists and turns, keeping things fast and exciting. 5) There is only one mention of giant underhive spiders in the entire book, and not once do they make an appearance!
As I got closer to the conclusion I also started noticing a lack in a range of words being used. At first this came to my amusement as I wondered how many women Will could describe as being “buxom”. But later on he seemed to be becoming less capable of conjuring the world he’d so efficiently magicked into my mind earlier. To take a sample: 
“He threw a punch that knocked the ganger onto the next table, and then jumped on top of him. 
“The table broke, and all of the drinks went flying.”
How exactly did he throw a punch to that effect? How exactly did the table break? Where did the drinks go? And how were they flying?
He could've employed a powerful haymaker that sent his opponent staggering backward barely catching himself by the shoulders on the round table directly behind him. As he begins pulling himself up, Kal lands on top of him snapping the disc top from it’s lone support, catapulting a hail of drinks into the barkeep’s counter.
Alternatively, he could've punched him square in the abdomen, dislodging the ganger from his feet and sending him arcing into the air, only to land flat on his back on a square four-legged table. As Kal jumps onto him, the already weakened table snaps at all four appendages causing a few drinks to spring slightly up, levitating briefly by the force of the downward bounty hunter before raining down upon the bar’s cobblestone floor.
Oft I found myself filling in the blanks as I did above. In conclusion, I wanted to like Blood Royal more than I did, and for good reason. At the start I was thinking about giving this something along the lines of a 7.5 or 8 out of 10. Really, this ends up scoring 6.5 out of 10. Despite all it improves on from the comics, the overall experience is passable. Sometimes it’s even really a great piece. I suppose this’ll enter my guilty sci-fi pleasures alongside The Chronicles of Riddick.
Do I have hope for the upcoming Cardinal Crimson? I don’t know. At first the writing of mister McDermott had me believing that Cardinal Crimson may end up being a really worthwhile read, what with his exploration into the mentality of gangs and individuals. But looking at how accurately he sticks to the source material, and how often he is not only great and well thought out but also clumsily able to break my immersion with Blood Royal, I can only read the novel and find out as I go.


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