jueves, 8 de febrero de 2018

Novels set in Glorantha: The Widow's Tale

6 comentarios
 
In the early 90s I had barely taken my first steps into the RPG hobby. I had only played a couple RuneQuest games (3rd ed.). However, I had already noticed that my beloved ruleset, and Glorantha, my favourite setting, lacked something other games seemed to have in spades. The world of Krynn, for example, and consequently Dungeons & Dragons had The Dragonlance Chronicles, The Legend of Huma and even the very popular Endless Quest Book series, to name a few. Middle Earth, and ICE's The Lord of the Rings by extension, had quite obviously one of the most well-known fantasy trilogies and even Warhammer and Star Wars had their own novels. In these novels, the setting comes really alive, they include thousands of details that serve as inspiration and help games masters know better how to describe the world the player characters are seeing. But what about the novels set in Glorantha? Weren't there any? Was it possible that no one had ever written any tale set in such a thrilling world? Yes there were some, it was just that I didn't know that yet. Below I am reviewing one of them: The Widow's Tale, by Penelope Love. (Puedes leer esta reseña en español aquí).

Cover art by Dario Corallo


A difficult publishing


Penelope Love is an Australian author of fantasy and horror novels and short stories, better known for her coauthoring Terror Australis, a Call of Cthulhu supplement. In 1993 Chaosium published her first dark fantasy novel The Castle of Eyes. In 1994, Love wrote The Widow's Tale and handed the manuscript to Chaosium for publication. But some difficulties made it impossible. Later on, The Reaching Moon Megacorp, the British publisher of the Gloranthan magazine Tales of the Reaching Moon, also tried to publish it. They also failed, however, but managed to publish some extracts in con-books and magazines. In some of this conventions the photocopied manuscripts were auctioned for large sums of money. The novel though, remained a sort of legend until 2003, when finally The Chaos Society, the German publisher behind the Tradetalk magazine about RuneQuest and Glorantha went ahead and did it. They commissioned the cover, asked Peter Metcalfe to write a short but detailed introduction to Glorantha and they published it through a print-on-demand publishing company. You could buy it for 14€. Unfortunately, the timing wasn't the best, as at the beginning of the century RuneQuest was no longer in print and Glorantha, as it was described in the new Hero Wars RPG, incorporated details that did not fit 100% with the setting as described in Love's novel. More on that later.


A modest edition


The Widow's Tale as a physical product is rather simple. Its 244 pages have very narrow margins and a rather small font size. This paperback book has a colour satin cover and backcover though. The cover art is by Dario Corallo and shows two of the fantastic characters of the story: a well-armed and armoured scorpion woman fighting a white unicorn. It's weird the artist chose these two characters, instead of some of the main characters. The backcover art by Dan Barker depicts another scene from the book with two other secondary characters: a small child and a wyvern.

After the prologue and contents page, the book is divided into twenty chapters in turn arranged in three parts. In the final pages there is a 6-page-long introduction to Glorantha including a glossary of all the gods and pantheons mentioned in the novel. This will come in very handy for anyone who wants to read the book with no previous knowledge about this fantasy setting. There is also a very basic map of the general area where the action happens. Finally, we get the author's acknowledgements and and several pages filled with ads from the companies that published Gloranthan material at the time.


A thrilling novel


The Widow's Tale tells of an epic clash between two enemy forces, each led by heroes with no intention to budge nor withdraw. On one side we have a contingent of the Lunar Empire, a theocratic and expansive civilisation, and opposing it we have a band of Orlanthi barbarians, warriors and farmers who resist being subjugated. So far this can remind you of the battles of the Roman Empire against the Gauls, the ancient Germanic peoples or the Hispano-Celtic Asturs, or perhaps between the Persian Empire and the Thracians, the Macedonians or the Spartans. However, Glorantha is a fantasy world, and that means the clash is filled up to the brim with magic, gods, fantasy creatures and monsters that give the setting its unique flavour and that bring about surprising plot twists. The story also has very Bronze Age flavour and consequently is closer to The Illiad than to The Lord of the Rings.

Ilustración de la contraporada, por Dan Barker.

This comparison notwithstanding, the confrontation described by Penelope Love is small in scale. Unlike The Illiad, here both sides only have a couple hundred armed men and women. But make no mistake: a smaller scale does not mean at all a smaller epic. This is a crucial conflict with huge repercussions for a big scale war that is taking place not far away. The Lunar Empire has conquered the lands of the proud Orlanthi barbarians, both for religious and political reasons. Only a free citadel remains, the last rebel stronghold, besieged by the invading army. And to tighten the net around it, the Lunars have cut all paths to the citadel, to prevent anyone from helping the defenders. All, but one.

That is exactly where the story takes place: a small vale in the Storm Mountains, a mountain range separating green Heortland from the arid plains of Prax. This valley, populated by two small Orlanthi villages is the last path that would allow the besieged to get help. And that is where Darlath-Lar's warband is heading. His mission: occupy the valley and subjugate its inhabitants. It won't be easy though, because Talloran, rebel leader and Orlanthi Wind Lord, has been organising the locals, and he's got such a long record of lost battles that, this time, he is determined to win.

The location of the story is well-chosen, since it allows Love to introduce many concepts from the two best described areas in the game supplements about Glorantha. One is the southern limit of the kingdom of Sartar and the other the chaparral of Prax. As such, the local culture is a mix of those two areas: Orlanthi farmers and Praxian nomads, so the local pantheon of gods includes deities from both. Thus, although the goddess Ernalda is worshipped in Sartar because she blesses the fields, a goddess as important in Prax as Eiritha is also worshipped here because she blesses the livestock. And Stormbull, a god present in both cultures, is logically as important here as Orlanth, god of Wind and Storm. As Penelope Love herself admits, she was told about Glorantha by enthusiastic friends playing a RuneQuest campaign. She also used classic RuneQuest books like Cults of Prax, Cults of Terror and Gods of Glorantha as source material. And this classic and well-documented flavour permeates the whole novel.

All the action takes place in a small mountain valley somewhere between Dragonrise and Old Wind. Copyright by Chaosium.


Creative freedom

Nonetheless, the author does not only pour into the novel all the facts about the setting, she rather fills up all the thousands of small holes that can never be explained in sourcebooks. She extrapolates details about the Gloranthan daily life, about the houses, the decorations, and above all, the magic holy rituals. It is in these details where the world of Glorantha really comes alive.

But there is more. Penelope Love fearlessly ignores what the sourcebooks say at some points in order to weave the story she wants to tell. This kind of freedom can seem jarring to some Glorantha grognards, but it is actually very necessary (more on this topic here). Even Greg Stafford himself is known for encouraging his players to create parts of the world in his games. The motto "Your Glorantha Will Vary" or YGWV has been used for as long as I can remember. Therefore, I love noticing how some details difer from canon and from how the rulebooks say the world is, as much as the cool ideas the author has included in the novel to make Glorantha fit her story, not the other way around.


Characters

In this tale about two conflicting sides, the third-person narrative mode alternates chapters on each of them to offer the reader two different points of view. This generates a certain impartiality and promotes the idea that no side is intrinsically good nor bad, they just have opposed goals. This is a feature of Glorantha and I love that it is included in the novel. It is a way of narrating a conflict that has recently become much more fashionable since A Song of Ice and Fire. And as G.R.R. Martin claims, the cruel enemy of one faction, can be the laureated hero of their neighbours. Having said this, there are still some characters whose acts are loathsome no matter which side the reader chooses to support.

However, I feel it is easier to root for the Orlanthi because they are the ones fighting for the valley's freedom and they have way less resources than their enemies. In fact, it is only thanks to Talloran's and Arqua's stubborness, the former an Orlanthi paladin and the latter an initiate of Humakt, god of Death, both veteran warriors at their gods' service, what allows the valley to face the invader with any guarantee of success. And even so, when the tale focuses on the Lunar side, the author manages to make the reader sympathise with the "enemy", or at the very least, with an "enemy" character: Darlath-Lar, a cavalry officer, runelord of Yanafal Tarnils, honourable warrior, husband and father.


Women

There are many female characters central to the story in both sides, but the Orlanthi side stands out particularly. Warrior women like Arqua, Reha, Terlech and Crimson Griffin. But also peaceful women such as Aoael, Heal-All and Shisanna who act as a counterweight to the war main theme. Even the "widow" of the title refers to one of these characters (I apologise for the small spoiler!), which goes to show how important she is for the novel, or rather, for the author, even though she is basically a herder, a priestess of the goddess of livestock.

In spite of that, the great diversity of characters makes none of them get any real depth, either female or male. It might be that Love sacrificed depth in order to include more different characters and in this way show more of Glorantha. Despite this, the personality of the main characters is well described so that, by the end of the novel, you know them so well you can predict how they are goint to behave in certain situations.


It's very Bronze Age

Actually there are iron weapons and armour as well, but these are items of great value only given to the main warriors of a cult after having shown great courage and experience. Aside from that, the style of the novel imitates epics such as The Illiad or The Odissey. This is clearly visible when Love uses homeric epithets, that is, short descripions following the names of important characters that are repeated all along the narration. For instance, "black-haired Moran",  "the Lunars in bright bronze" or "such was the way of Gared, that he always had to be the first to advance and the last to fall back". She also uses whole sentences in a similar fashion, repeated as if to emulate lines in a heroic poem. These details only show up from time to time, in special scenes, but when they do, they alone make the narration acquire a rhythm with echoes of Antiquity.

Indeed, the author admits in the acknowledgements section that she found inspiration for certain elements in ancient texts. The Saga of Grettir the Strong or the descriptions of fabulous beasts by Julius Solinus, for example, among other varied sources.

Small excerpt of the novel. Click to enlarge!


It's very RuneQuesty

Because combat is gritty and blood almost splashes the reader, mounts die impaled by spears and everyone uses magic to improve their chances, to help their friends, to set traps, to trick people, to fight better or, of course, to bless the fields.

Magic and deities, as I have already mentioned, are based foremost on the second edition. However, the novel was published during the Hero Wars period, when the greatest gods had dozens of subcults like the Thunder Brothers in the case of Orlanth. That is what made some fans consider it not 100% Gloranthan. But everything changes. And the latest edition of HeroQuest, heir to Hero Wars, focuses again on the simpler version of cults as presented in The Widow's Tale. And not only that, but the forthcoming RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha also includes this vision, shared by RQ2 and RQ3. Funny how this element in the novel is "right" again according to the current canon.


It's very Gloranthan

I especially enjoyed how the followers of each deity are described, along with their relationship with them. The beliefs they live up to every day. For example, I think it is great how some of the rituals are described. Also, how the initiates of a cult behave according to the precepts of that god, emulating his actions before Time. They even react to initiates of other gods as if they really were those gods. At some points the difference between followers and the deity they follow is blurred. So characters often call each other by the names of their gods instead of their own proper names, as if they were emanations of the gods and goddesses. For instance, Shisanna, who follows the goddess Eiritha, daughter of Ernalda, often refers to Aoael as "Mother" because Aoael is a priestess of Ernalda.

On the other hand, Love seldom describes magic just like "she cast a spell" on him. Rather the opposite. Magic is the gift of the gods and spirits, and its use makes the relationship of the follower and god really stand out. For example, when a character casts war magic on his scimitar, you can read: "Darlath-Lar let Death go into his scimitar". Obviously, runes are very present in the novel as well; characters identify themselves with them and use them as a magic source.

Finally, myths are important. The feats of the deities force characters to act in accordance to them. They tell myths of their gods and these even start conflicts between characters. The most obvious example is a very interesting scene in which many of the characters are forced to share a very small space for a long time and tensions soon blow up. These are caused by mundane reasons, but the mythical reasons are also there to be seen.


In short


I just knew I was going to like this novel, since I love the world of Glorantha. It is really well-written, actually. It has thrilling scenes and some surprises. While I was reading it, some scenes grabbed me with such force that at times I ended up reading while walking along the street, because I just couldn't stop reading after getting off the bus. If I had read this book sooner, I would no doubt have been hooked to Glorantha much earlier.

Besides, reading Penelope Love's descriptions, any games master running RuneQuest or HeroQuest games will get lots of ideas for her scenarios. Whatsmore, ways of describing facets of Glorantha in a way that really makes its best parts shine. 100% recommendable.


You will like it if...
  • You fancy visiting a unique fantasy world, with inner coherence, Bronze Age flavour and very likeable characters
  • You want to read, at last, a novel set in the mythic world of Glorantha
  • You are a fan of roleplaying games like RuneQuest or HeroQuest
  • You like epic fantasy in any shape

You probably won't like it if...
  • You only like fantasy worlds based on the Middle Ages
  • You don't have the time for fantasy stories

The sad side about The Widow's Tale is its current limited availability. The deal The Chaos Society made with Greg Stafford was as follows: since The Chaos Society was a fan association, Stafford generously allowed them to do one printrun of 400 copies without the obligation to pay anything to him, as he understood it was something by fans for fans. At the beginning it could be purchased on the Tradetalk webpage, but those copies ran out, so nowadays it is only available in some online stores or Ebay. There is also no ebook version either. Being as it is an easy entry point to the world of Glorantha, this novel ought to have a new edition. Maybe even translated into other languages. Especially now with the new edition RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Don't you think?

Small trivia fact: the 16th issue of the Tradetalk magazine includes an article about The Widow's Tale with the game data for HeroQuest of all characters: Talloran, Arqua, Gared, Aeoel, Reha, Darlath-Lar and even Tien-Son, among others.

Fragment of the cover art by Dario Corallo for Tradetalk #16, with Talloran and other main characters.


Lastly, there are other novels and short stories set in Glorantha that I hope I will review soon, some of them even in other languages! For example, Penelope Love also wrote another Gloranthan novel: Eurhol's Vale. This one is made up of four short stories, two of those are the prequel and sequel to The Widow's Tale! But I'll leave that for a future post. For the moment being, I hope you liked reading this modest review. Please leave a comment below and tell me your opinion about it. Even more so if you have already read The Widow's Tale.

6 comentarios:

  1. a nice review i have read most of this book and liked it.I agree it should have a wider audience.

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    Respuestas
    1. Thanks for your comment, grey wolf. 😊. Your nickname reminds me of an orlanthi clan in a HeroQuest game I played!

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  2. Respuestas
    1. Hi Clint,
      As I mention in the post, the novel is sold out. So now it can only be found in some online stores or most likely Ebay. I think now it would be the perfect time for Chaosium (or someone else) to do a new edition!

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    2. Hi Clint,
      both books (Eurhol´s Vale & Other Tales) by Penelope Love still seem available in Germany http://www.tradetalk.de/english/
      Don't be discouraged by the look of the page, don't use the form there. Write to editor@tradetalk.de and ask for availability and international delivery.
      Hardy

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    3. Hi Hardy, and thanks for your comment. :)
      You're right, the editor of both books told me on Facebook that Eurhol's Vale is still available on tradetalk.de.
      Also, a reader told me on Google+ that he had been able to purchase The Widow's Tale on Ebay two days after reading my review (for a very affordable price).

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