Yesterday I posted my review of a Horus Heresy short story by Gav Thorpe – Inheritor. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and gave it an appropriately positive review – to me it gave a nicely fresh view of part of the Heresy that’s been covered quite a lot, and did a good job of telling a fun little story within a story. It also highlighted the virtue of letting different authors tackle similar themes, as Gav’s take on the World Eaters and their Butcher’s Nails felt interestingly different to how they’re normally portrayed. While it wasn’t perfect, in my opinion it was definitely an entertaining read.
Having posted my review to Goodreads as well, I glanced at a couple of other people’s reviews to see whether my thoughts chimed with everyone else. It’s always interesting to see how different people approach writing a review, and the different areas that people choose to focus their comments on, so I often enjoy having a look to see what everyone else thinks once I’ve finished getting my thoughts down on paper (so to speak). This time around it’s safe to say my review was quite different to the others on Goodreads – nothing new in itself – but reading through one particular review it struck me just how hard a job an author really has.
I don’t want to go into detail on this particular review, as it’s that reviewer’s prerogative to write what they want, but what interested me the most about their review was that they saw this short story in a completely different light to me. The main reason for this is down to a gap in my Warhammer 40,000 knowledge – it came as news to me that the main protagonist in the story was in fact a character who appeared in the Dawn of War computer game. I’m not much of a computer game fan so I’ve never engaged with the Dawn of War narrative, either in terms of the game or its accompanying novels, and so I had no idea that Eliphas was an existing character. To me he was a brand new face and this story was simply another part of the Heresy arc, but to this particular reviewer – and presumably a good number of other readers – this was an opportunity for them to see the origin of a character they were already engaged with.
As it happens this reviewer wasn’t too happy with the story and didn’t feel that it achieved what they had hoped it would, in contrast to how much I did enjoy it. Fair enough.
Put yourself in Gav’s shoes for a moment, though. When planning out this story he presumably (and I’m putting words into his mouth here without any knowledge of what his process was) sat down to figure out not just what story he wanted to tell in purely narrative terms but also how to tie in with the existing tales set within the 500 Worlds, and the previous depictions of Word Bearers, World Eaters and Ultramarines, and the overall tone of the Heresy. He probably gave thought to how to structure his story and make sure it had a clear start, middle and end, how to pace it to make sure there was a balance between action and contemplation, how much detail to go into in terms of the Word Bearers’ arcane rites and the workings of the Butcher’s Nails.
All these elements will (I assume) have gone into his preparation for writing the story, to try and make sure what he writes is as good a story as possible, keeping in mind the (sometimes conflicting) expectations of the Black Library readership. It’s fairly safe to say we all expect a good helping of action, adventure, epicness (sorry), cool characters, all coloured by our existing knowledge and expectations of the Heresy, the wider 40k universe, and the character of the legions that the story is looking at…but while some of us read these stories purely for the visceral thrill of the brutal action, others of us like the less immediate side of things, and value character development or complex plotting.
That’s an awful lot to consider, right? Well on top of it all, for this story there was also the fact that Eliphas has a direct connection to the rest of the 40k timeline, and a well-established narrative in the shape of the Dawn of War storyline. So this story had to work not only as a straight-up Heresy story for those (like me) who don’t know the Dawn of War background, but also as a preparatory tie-in, describing the early stages of a character who will eventually develop into how he’s seen in the game. That’s even harder. Sure, in theory there’s always a connection between Heresy stories and 40k, but it’s usually an indirect one, more of a thematic link than anything tangible. Here it’s specific.
Now I haven’t got a clue whether this story works on both of those fronts, so I can only judge it on what I know – and in my opinion it’s great. As to whether it works for fans of Dawn of War… I can see from one review that it didn’t fulfil one reader’s expectations, but ultimately it’s for each person to decide themselves. As for an author’s responsibility to those conflicting elements, there’s also the question of whether they should even consider (and I apologise for this term) fan service – the idea that there’s an obligation for authors to simply please their audience by giving them what they want (in this case presumably a cool background to an established character, and a full explanation of how he got from a to b). Should that be a priority, or should the focus be solely on making sure the story is as good as it can possibly be? I don’t know, and I suspect there probably isn’t a concrete answer.
All I know is that there’s a vast amount to think about when writing something like this, and that whatever we think of a story it’s important to remember just how much work went into writing it.*
Who’d be an author, eh?
*Ok yes, I know it’s an author’s job to juggle all those different elements. Doesn’t make it easy though!