Fail of the Lich King

by Wardog

Wardog critical hits Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, the World of Warcraft tie in novel, for 4000 points of damage.
Uh-oh! This is in the Axis of Awful...
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Here’s a confession, Ferretbrain readers: I’ve never read a tie-in novel. Truthfully, I have enough trouble getting invested in the world in original fiction, so there’s a pretty low likelihood of me wanting to read about a universe specifically designed to have movies or games or a tv show happening in it.

I do, however, play World of Warcraft.

And I am, secretly, a bit of a Warcraft loregeek – having played Orcs Versus Humans, and Warcraft II and Warcraft III back in the day, despite being abysmal at RTS games. Azeroth is basically Generic Fantasy Setting#3 but having been splashing about it in since the age of eleven, what can I say, I have a fondness. For anyone who doesn’t give a toss (i.e. the rest of you) lore has kicked off in a big way recently in WoW, with the release of the expansion Wrath of the Lich King. This is a big deal.

Arthas, Rise of the Lich King, a WoW tie-in novel by Christie Golden, is the history of that big deal.

The short version: There’s this Lich King, right? He’s wrathful. He needs to taken out by a bunch of PCs.

The longer version: I’m not going to go into the history of Azeroth, which has a long and detailed history. Arthas, later to become part of the entity known of the Lich King (like, whoops), was the son of King Terenas Menethil, ruler of Lordaeron, and a paladin of the Order of the Silver Hand. An impetuous but basically okay youth, hope of his people yadda yadda yadda, he boned the only girl in the entire Warcraft universe, Jaina Proudmoore, for a bit and then went off to do, err, war things.

It’s all a bit complicated and involves a plague of undeath caused by infected grain, evil wizards, demons and Arthas going off the deep end, culling infected villages and burning the boats of his own army so they have no choice but to fight for him. While making questionable military decisions (this is WCIII, by the way) Arthas also gets obsessed with the deathly hallows runeblade Frostmourne, a sword rumoured to give its wielder limitless power. This is, as anyone could guess, a plot. In this case, orchestrated by the Lich King Ner’Zhul.

Arthas nabs Frostmourne from its prison of ice, despite the “DON’T TOUCH THE SWORD IT COMES WITH TERRIBLE PRICE YOU STUPID PILLOCK” signage and heads off to save his people. Except, this apparently involves murdering his own father, because, of course, the sword has completely corrupted him, and the Lich King is whispering to him, and controlling him, through it. Way to go, Arthas.

So, now some gothylooking sub-human Death Knight, Arthas charges around the land, generally wrecking it and raising people from the dead for kicks. But it turns out the Lich King isn’t as powerful as he thought he was and things start to go wrong. Arthas is recalled to Northrend, which is currently attack anyway by some other dudes from the lore (The Burning Legion, don’t ask). Again, it’s insanely complicated but Arthas fights his way to the Frozen Throne, releasing the Lich King and consuming him or something or other in order to become the true Lich King. Mwhaahaha.

And, then, in true Lord Voldemort fashion he’s just … been … like … sitting on there on the Frozen Throne. Raising an army, or whatever. Although everybody knows that “raising an army” is fantasy-speak for “doing fuck all.”

This is the story told in Arthas: Rise of the Lich King.

What neither my summary, nor the book itself, quite encompasses is the fact that there is quite a bit of WoWlore that’s quite cool and interesting. The original Lich King, for example, is actually an ancient Orcish shaman, tricked by demons into betraying his people. His transformation into the Lich King was actually a punishment for defying his demonic masters. Arthas, of course, is Generic Fantasy Concept #5: uppity princeling is stupid and turns evil. But there is something iconic about him, it must be admitted. He’s one of the most popular and enduring figures of the Warcraft universe.

I think part of his resonance comes from the fact you actually got to be him in Warcraft III. That game blew my tiny mind when it first came out. Not only was it sweeping, epic, and sub-Tolkeinesque in the way that Blizzard does supremely well (here’s the scene of him murdering his father – check it out!) but the narrative arc is, well, a bit of a mindfuck. You start out playing Arthas in his whiny Prince incarnation and, even though the game is utterly linear, it’s hard not to feel some responsibility for all the messed up stuff he does. Or rather, you do on Arthas’s behalf, because it is a RTS.

Anyway, that’s the background and a little bit of justification as to why I’m reading a tie-in novel, an experience I don’t think I’ll be repeating any time soon. This is not, you understand, a dig against tie-in novels, I’ve had absolutely nothing against them at all and I suspect I found the right sort of universe and the right sort of writers I’d enjoy them. But Arthas: Rise of the Lich King is absolutely terrible.

Dear me, dear me, it really is.

The problem is, I’m not sure what extent its just plain bad and to what extent signs I am interpreting as manifestations of badness are merely the tropes and tools of the tie-in novel form. Obviously tie-in novels are operating on a different set of rules to those governing original fiction. I’m not entirely sure what they are, truthfully, but I suppose it’s about evoking characters and places that are already familiar to the reader. And since the writer is working within an already quite restrictive canon, I suppose I should have expected an element of sketchiness but … but … it still feels incredibly tepid to me. It’s simultaneously bland and over-written, if that makes any sense at all. There’s no depth or conviction to the narrative – I suppose, I’d say it’s supremely utilitarian.
Northrend was the name of the land. Daggercap Bay the site where the Lordaeron fleet made harbor. The water, deep and choppy, with an unforgiving wind, was a cold-blue gray. Sheer-cliffs were dotted with tenacious pine trees soaring upwards, providing a natural defense of the small, flat area where Arthas and his men would make camp. A waterfall tumbled down, crashing in a billow of spray from a great height.


Do you see what I mean? It’s like looking at flat image. The information is presented list-like – there’s very little connection between the introduction of the sea, the cliffs, the camp, the waterfall. No senses other than the visual are engaged, and no effort has been made to do anything with the scene setting other than present it as it is. The waterfall tumbles down from a great height? Oh come on. It’s a waterfall, obviously it moves from a higher place to a lower place. Dan has pointed out that we’ve all been to Daggercap Bay so the description doesn’t have to do more than sketch in enough of the details to remind us and, bam, we have a ready-made vivid picture of it. Now maybe I’m just failing to engage with the differences between tie-in fiction and original-setting fiction but is it wrong of me to want just a little bit more effort than this?

One of the lines that Dan and I never tired of mocking in Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith is “from my point of view the Jedi are evil.” This is profoundly mockable from every conceivable angle but my favourite joke is that Lucas simply forgot to finish the line. He was sitting at his writing desk, thinking something like this: “what I want to do here is capture something of the moral ambiguity of this scene, the way morality is so often a matter of perspective. I suppose what Anakin is trying to say, from his point of the view the Jedi are evil.”

Writes down: “From my point of the view the Jedi are evil!”

And the entirety of Arthas: Rise of the Lich King reads like this to me.

For example, there’s scene in which Kael’thas, Prince of the Blood Elves, confronts Jaina Proudmoore over Arthas’s destruction of his entire race. This is naturally complicated by the fact Jaina, tastelessly, chose whiny Arthas over fabulous Kael. Now, I think the thought process behind the scene went something like this: “what I’d like to show in this scene is Kael’thas verbally attacking the woman he loves and cannot have because he cannot attack his real enemy, Arthas, and therefore feels helpless and impotent. In order to capture this quite subtle interplay of emotions and ruined relationships, Goldie writes:
Jaina felt quick tears come to her eyes as she suddenly understood. He was attacking her because he could not attack his real enemy. He felt helpless, impotent and was striking out at the nearest target – her, Jaina Proudmoore, whose love he had wanted and failed to win.


Everything about the way the book is written is as laboured as the scene above. There’s no hope of anything, or anyone, accruing any emotional depth because, Rowling-like, everything the characters say, think and do are mercilessly explained to us. Take this little discussion between 9 year old Arthas and Prince Varian, whose father has just been assassinated.
“He was assassinated,” Varian’s voice was blunt and emotionless.



Arthas stared. Death in glorious battle was difficult enough to handle but this-

Impulsively he placed a hand on the other Prince’s arm. “I saw a foal being born yesterday,” he said. It sounded inane, but it was the first thing that sprang to his mind and he spoke earnestly. “When the weather lets up, I’ll take you to see him. He’s the most amazing thing.”

Varian turned towards him and gazed at him for a long moment. Emotions flitted across his face – offense, disbelief, gratitude, yearning, understanding. Suddenly the brown eyes filled with tears and Varian looked away. He folded his arms and hunched in on himself, his shoulders shaking with sobs he did his best to muffle…



“I hate winter,” Varian sobbed, and the depth of his hurt conveyed by those three simple words, a seeming non-sequiteur, humbled Arthas.

Putting aside for a moment, young Varian’s impressive ability to communicate a range of complex emotions in a short space of time using only his face, for God’s sake, you stupid woman, there’s no need for you spell it all out for me. I get it. You don’t have to join the emotional dots with a crayon. A seeming non-sequiteur my seeming arse.

It doesn’t help that it lacks any sort of consistent narrative voice, swinging from an attempt at Tolkeinesque portentousness which inevitably just sounds lame (“long had he lived” or “tall he was”) to an incongruous modernity. Arthas, in particular, sounds like he’s voiced by Keannu Reeves:
“I destroyed your homeland … fouled your precious sunwell. And I killed your father. Frostmourne sucked the soul right out of him, Kael. It’s gone forever.”

Like, totally, duuuude.

As you can see, the dialogue is generally pretty shite (sorry, I’ve lost my objectivity now). Kael’thas, my favourite character in the entirety of WoW canon, is its most tragic victim. A beautiful elven prince, thousands of years old, bizarrely into Jaina Proudmoore (I think because, as we have established, she is the only woman in the entirety of Azeroth), cultured, sophisticated, tremendously intelligent, and, ultimately, terrible tragic as Arthas’s destruction of his people reduces him to utter madness. He spends much of the book pouting and sulking after Jaina, flouncing out of rooms in “a swirl of violet of gold” (way not to look gay, Kael), throwing hissy fits and bickering with Arthas. His dialogue encompasses such immortal gems as
“In Quel’Thalas, there are trees that tower over these in a glory of white bark and golden leaves, that all but sing in the evening breezes. I think you would enjoy seeing them someday” (take me now!) and, rather less impressively, while verbally and literally fighting with Arthas: “You’re good at killing noble elderly men.” All together now: whooooo.

Oh sigh.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, it’s just somehow plain misjudged a lot of the time. From Arthas’s weirdly homoerotic consumption of the Lich King Ner’Zhul (just, no thanks) to lines like “long had he lived, the length and yellowness of his tusks and the wrinkles on his brown skin testament to the fact.” Yellowness?! What the hell?

Below is a picture of Illidan Stormrage, part demon, part night elf, blind and wholly mad, another of WoW’s iconic figures. Isn’t he kind of fabulous? Wouldn’t you just love to get together with a group of friends and kill him?



Would you at any point, if writing about him, use the phrase: “Sweat gleamed on his massive, lavender-hued torso?” Lavender-hued? LAVENDER-HUED? Lavender is for grandmas and bath oils. Not insane demonic night elves. Come on, Christie Golden, don’t you give a damn what you’re doing?

I could criticise the writing style endlessly but the problems with Arthas: Rise of the Lich King are even more substantial. Again, I understand that writing the story of a life of a character who was probably made up as they went along is probably quite a challenge but I don’t think it alters the fact that the one event constantly cited as the most traumatic and character-defining of Arthas’s entire life is… Actually let’s do a quiz. Is it:

a) That time he murdered his father?
b) That time he killed an entire town of innocent people because they’d been infected with the undead plague?
c) That time he burned the boats of his own army to force them to keep fighting for him?
d) That time the guy he was staying with offered him a serving girl to rape?
e) That time he was picking up Frostmourne and it directly caused the death his mentor and oldest friend?
f) That time he killed Sylvanas Windrunner, turned her into a banshee and rape/tortured her for kicks?
g)The death of his horse.

What the hell? He even has recurring nightmares about it.

(by the way, it’s option g)

Okay, this has degenerated into ranting now. By whatever standards you’re judging it, Arthas: the Rise of Lich King is a bad, bad book. Just because something is a tie-in novel doesn’t mean readers aren’t entitled to flair, conviction, a small scintilla of actual talent. Is there anything good at all I can say about it? Well, the commas are all in the right places.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 22:37 on 2009-07-14
Dan has pointed out that we’ve all been to Daggercap Bay so the description doesn’t have to do more than sketch in enough of the details to remind us and, bam, we have a ready-made vivid picture of it. Now maybe I’m just failing to engage with the differences between tie-in fiction and original-setting fiction but is it wrong of me to want just a little bit more effort than this?

That laziness isn't a trope of tie-in fiction, it's a disease of tie-in fiction.

Games Workshop/Black Library, who seem to have a better batting average than most with this sort of thing, seem to work on the assumption that any tie-in novel is potentially someone's first contact with the franchise in question - that's is why they put the classic "laughter of thirsting gods" blurb at the start of all the Warhammer 40,000 books, after all. This does mean that the authors have to explain who the Space Marines are every time they're introduced in a novel, but it also forces the authors to have some degree of discipline and not Christie Golden the place up.
Rami at 22:38 on 2009-07-14
The fact that the other prince's name is the same as that of the author of one of my first-year textbooks just highlights the ridiculousness of it all to me; I couldn't take anything seriously past that point.

That having been said, I've read some pretty good tie-in fiction and there's lots of mediocre-but-not-actively-crap tie-in in campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance, so in my experience at least tie-in fiction's rules aren't that compromised by the rules of whatever they're retelling!
http://serenoli.livejournal.com/ at 10:46 on 2009-07-15
Studying Microeconomics, Rami?
Shimmin at 12:11 on 2009-07-15
Dan has pointed out that we’ve all been to Daggercap Bay so the description doesn’t have to do more than sketch in enough of the details to remind us and, bam, we have a ready-made vivid picture of it.


Actually, I haven't been to Daggercap Bay, in fact I know nothing at all about the Warcraft universe except what I've picked up via gaming conversations/blogs/comics. Maybe I should read this thing as a control sample?
Andy G at 14:03 on 2009-07-15
The fact that the other prince's name is the same as that of the author of one of my first-year textbooks just highlights the ridiculousness of it all to me; I couldn't take anything seriously past that point.


I misread that, I thought there really was an economics professor called Arthas.
Rami at 17:07 on 2009-07-15
@serenoli: I'm pleasantly surprised anyone got the reference, although I don't suppose I should be as it's a pretty typical text, isn't it? Certainly everyone I met at my uni on an economics course used it.

I misread that, I thought there really was an economics professor called Arthas.

Well since I used to play Warcraft III I would have loved a textbook I could call the Book of Arthas ;-)
Wardog at 14:26 on 2009-07-16
@Arthur & Shimmin

Since WoW produces far fewer tie-in novels than the Black Library (those things are taking over Borders, there are shelves of them!), I don't think there's any particularly need to make them "introductory." I suspect the thinking behind it is there's genuinely *utterly no reason* to read a Warcraft novel unless you're already hugely into Warcraft.

I can has macro-enconomics joke?
Arthur B at 16:27 on 2009-07-16
Since WoW produces far fewer tie-in novels than the Black Library (those things are taking over Borders, there are shelves of them!), I don't think there's any particularly need to make them "introductory." I suspect the thinking behind it is there's genuinely *utterly no reason* to read a Warcraft novel unless you're already hugely into Warcraft.

That's precisely the sort of thinking that tie-in franchises get stuck in, of course: they don't write for newcomers because they don't expect any newcomers to buy the books, and as a result no newcomers buy the books, which discourages the publishers from producing more and discourages the writers from writing for newcomers, and you end up with a vicious circle which results in the novel line ghettoising itself. (It gets particularly bad when the authors and/or publishers also believe that the audience for the franchise is too stupid or too loyal to care about quality, and so can't be bothered to write well.)

I think Black Library managed to become huge in a way that the previous Games Workshop book line never was at least partially because they were able to rid themselves of that thinking, and made a conscious decision to a) try their damnedest to be accessible to newcomers without patronising hardcore fans, and b) not regard the fans as morons who will buy anything with the Warhammer logo on the cover. I strongly suspect that the later volumes of Konrad didn't match the potential of the first one at least partially because neither author nor publisher really gave a crap about what they were producing.
http://fightsandtights.blogspot.com/ at 07:05 on 2009-09-30
That's precisely the sort of thinking that tie-in franchises get stuck in, of course: they don't write for newcomers because they don't expect any newcomers to buy the books, and as a result no newcomers buy the books, which discourages the publishers from producing more and discourages the writers from writing for newcomers, and you end up with a vicious circle which results in the novel line ghettoising itself. (It gets particularly bad when the authors and/or publishers also believe that the audience for the franchise is too stupid or too loyal to care about quality, and so can't be bothered to write well.)

I think Black Library managed to become huge in a way that the previous Games Workshop book line never was at least partially because they were able to rid themselves of that thinking, and made a conscious decision to a) try their damnedest to be accessible to newcomers without patronising hardcore fans, and b) not regard the fans as morons who will buy anything with the Warhammer logo on the cover. I strongly suspect that the later volumes of Konrad didn't match the potential of the first one at least partially because neither author nor publisher really gave a crap about what they were producing.


You raise an excellent point here, and it's one worth considering. Despite WoW's massive fanbase (as well as the fanbases of their other universes), Blizzard just really focuses on writing novels for the existing fans, not in bringing in new ones. A good deal of their tie-in fiction are simply novelizations of the games in some capacity or prequels to upcoming stuff, and unlike Games Workshop, they rarely give the writers a chance to produce original stuff within the confines of these worlds they have created, though they are getting a bit better at it. As well, one of the things that Games Workshop really excels at with their tie-in fiction is that they take more risks and allow the writers to investigate and play with their creative properties much more frequently.

This also leads to a greater depth of genre material, for example, you can find Warhammer stories that involve big quests and swash-buckling adventures (Gotrex and Felix), detective stories (Zavant Konniger), horror (Vampire Genevive), etc. Now Blizzard is expanding a bit, particularly with their manga works, but they are still a long way off from getting anything close to the Black Library's level of quality, range and depth.

One of the major problems I had with this story was the lack of epic scope that I would expect for a novelization of much of Warcraft III, and it's a problem that Blizzard's novels seem to be running into frequently these days. Part of that is simply the transition from an interactive visual-based medium to a non-interactive text-based one (unless you count throwing the book against the wall a point of interaction), but honestly, Golden could not seem to capture the intensity and the epic nature of the many of the events she was writing about. Take the Siege of Hearthglen, for example. In the game, it's a mighty 30-min last stand against an overwhelming horde of flesh-eating nasties, and about a third of the way through, you're faced with the choice to save a series of nearby villages, possibly gaining an expansion town and preventing the undead from massing even more troops with the risk of possibly losing your main base because your forces are stretched too thin. In the novel, Golden doesn't bother to show it, beyond transcribing the start and end cutscenes to novel format. It's like the writers Blizzard has hired to write these books say to themselves, "I have to write battle scenes, intense drama, and make the reader feel like this stuff matters? Fuck it. Let's talk about Arthas' horse." I'm half-expecting when the inevitable novel chronicling the Exodus to Kalimdor and the events of the second half of WCIII comes out, the Battle of Mount Hyjal will be reduced to a schoolyard slapfight between Archimonde and Stormrage. Perhaps not the biggest problem with the book overall, but one of many, and as a major Warcraft fan, one that really stuck in my craw.
Wardog at 12:19 on 2009-10-05
Hello there - welcome to Fb.

I don't much to say really except: yes, I agree with you entirely :)

The novel really does feel, and read, like a cutscene - I think because she makes no attempt to engage with the interactive elements of the game. So what you end up is a book that's basically a string of cutscenes. Wheeee.

It's a shame becaus the Arthas story does have a lot of potential, as you say, for drama and intensity.
http://fightsandtights.blogspot.com/ at 13:39 on 2009-10-23
Hello there - welcome to Fb.

I don't much to say really except: yes, I agree with you entirely :)

The novel really does feel, and read, like a cutscene - I think because she makes no attempt to engage with the interactive elements of the game. So what you end up is a book that's basically a string of cutscenes. Wheeee.

It's a shame becaus the Arthas story does have a lot of potential, as you say, for drama and intensity.


Many thanks for the warm welcome, and glad to hear I had something useful to contribute.

One of the things that really struck me when I was reading this novel was that Golden's writing skills seem to have dramatically declined since she wrote Lord of the Clans. That was a pretty good tie-in novel that worked both as a Warcraft story and a general high-fantasy one, and I'm considering doing a review of it for this site. Reading Rise of the Lich King, I had a uncannily similar feeling when I read the sixth Harry Potter book, namely, "Who is this woman and where has she stashed away the writer I had come to love?" Or just like, in this case...
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