Classic Review: Trollslayer
Licensed fiction is the genre fiction that even genre fiction fans tend to look down their nose at. It is so reviled that many good authors choose to use pseudonyms to hide their involvement in it and the implication that he wrote Star Wars books was enough to launch famed curmudgeon Harlan Ellis into an ongoing vendetta against the creators of the web-comic Penny Arcade. Yes, really.
There is an undercurrent of opinion among those who turn up their nose at licensed fiction that the act of creating it is somehow less pure because the author doesn’t have full control over the entire world in which their story is set. Speaking as someone who has both created universes and played in other people’s sandboxes, I have to say that it requires a lot more thought and technical skill to create licensed fiction. If I make a mistake in my own universe, then that was the way that it always was. If I make a mistake in a shared universe, then I am in serious trouble. This extends beyond mere facts into the tone and attitude of a story too. If someone writes a Star Wars book that doesn’t feel like Star Wars then the very vocal fandom will tear it to shreds.
All of which leads us to Trollslayer by William King, one of the first licensed fiction books in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. A book that needs to be judged not only for its own quality as a humorous take on dark fantasy in a high fantasy setting, but also measured against the setting as a whole. I don’t have enough time here to discuss the full breadth of the semi-satirical, vaguely historical, overblown dramatics of Warhammer. I don’t have time to talk about its roots in the underground comics of the 80s or the pulp magazines of the 70s or the bizarre leaps of logic that were required to create a medieval Europe with the inclusion of magic and Aztec lizard men. I don’t even have time to discuss the ways in which many of the franchise’ fans fail to notice the solid core of humour that the setting and characters are built around. All that I have time to discuss is the book itself, standing alone.
Trollslayer is an excellent, buddy-cop style pulp fantasy adventure with a pair of memorable heroes, who barely scrape into the “hero” category, and villains that alternate between being pitiable and unwittingly hilarious in their own sections to being genuinely threatening when viewed from the outside. Character is the name of the game when it comes to these tightly focused fantasy stories and it oozes out of every page of Trollslayer. Not just the personalities of the characters, which are abundant and rich, but also the character of the setting.
For a book set in an entire universe that most readers would know nothing about, it is a testament to the quality of the writing that it is so easy to become immersed. Like all good pulp there is a sense of urgency to this book, a “no time for questions” mentality that drags you through all of the necessary weirdness for the story to work without ever pausing its pace long enough for you to question anything. You will accept the fantastical elements and the off-beat humour and the chaos because you are being carried along by your new best friends Gortek and Felix - a comedic duo that could put Fafhrd and Grey Mouser on their back foot.
Trollslayer is the perfect version of what it is trying to achieve, an archetypal book of its narrow focus, which is what makes it a book that would benefit anyone who read it.