My long-standing policy for the prequel novels for World of Warcraft expansions has been to not read them. We’ve gotten these things for a long while, with Cataclysm being the first to get a novel that was really supposed to “set up” the next expansion, and if that’s not an inauspicious start I don’t know what is. Nevertheless, that’s not why my policy has generally been to not read them; rather, it’s been the simple reality that if the elements required for setting up an expansion aren’t in the game, something has gone wrong with the storytelling. You shouldn’t need homework to be ready for these expansions, even if that homework is fun and enjoyable.
Yet here I am, with Madeleine Roux’s Shadows Rising in my hand courtesy of Blizzard itself, and I have actually read it. I’d complain about losing my cred if this were an actual thing to anyone beyond myself.
Lest the headline sound unnecessary harsh, let me just put the closest thing to a pull quote I’m going to say right here: Roux has taken the premise and shown herself as a talented writer, crafting a narrative with a great deal of heart and affection as it weaves through the events of the plot. All of the problems that plot actually has are more or less problems around it rather than problems with it, and those problems start and stop with the fact that we already know the relevant parts of how this story ends.
This is the Shadowlands trailer. It’s eight months old now. If you cared about the next expansion, you already saw it, probably when the expansion was first revealed. And therein lies the heart of the problem. Even as the plot starts with both the Horde and the Alliance hunting Sylvanas, you already know that they fail because otherwise Shadowlands doesn’t happen. For that matter, we already know that cinematic can’t be something that happens as a result of the hunt because Sylvanas supposedly already had this planned all along.
And this is where I feel Roux’s writing – which is crisp, clean, and enjoyable – is being hedged in on either side by plots she doesn’t really get to dictate or even influence. She has to create a plot that feels consequential and moving, but she also has to tie it in with a plot that’s already resolved and one that literally can’t be resolved until the expansion launches.
She also, I suspect, had a list of characters who had to be in the story and things she had to touch upon, which explains away a lot of plot issues. Why do Alleria and Turalyon show up a lot in the early parts of the book but basically fade away in importance and don’t show up at all in the conclusion? Why does Tyrande only actually appear in two chapters? For that matter, why is the Alliance stuff actually in this book when so little of the plot actually influences or touches upon the faction?
The answer, of course, is because it has to be – because it’d be really weird for the prequel novel not to feature these characters. And these are things that aren’t going to jump out at you too badly if you’re not trying to analyze the plot with critical eyes. It’s only going to strike you later on that, say, Alleria was set up for some kind of plot development but then it never actually happened, or that Ji Firepaw becomes a character of note only in the last third of the book mostly to fill out the roster.
I realize all this sounds a little bit like an indictment, but again, this is the nature of the book being written. It’s a bridging action that doesn’t altogether need to be there, and so to a certain extent the entire book is just filling time and finding ways to explore some otherwise minor plot points.
So what’s left to be done is to make sure that the characters at least feel like themselves and at least set up potential elements for the future, as well as filling the margins with things that are at least interesting details. You might not be able to resolve all these plots, for example, but you can sure make them interesting even if they remain fixed in place.
The core of the plot is all about Talanji, but rather than making it about her talk of no longer being a part of the Horde (since you know right away that’s not going to happen), Roux has focused on her relationship to being the Queen of the Zandalari and to Bwonsamdi as she navigates a plot to overthrow her altogether. Meanwhile, the Alliance is working to track down Sylvanas, a plot that… well, basically goes nowhere, although it leads to at least understanding what happened between the fight against N’Zoth and the start of Shadowlands.
What makes the book at least read crisply and keep moving are the aforementioned bits in the margins. The hints of romance between Flynn Fairwind and Mathias Shaw are welcome and well-paced, giving you a reason to care about these characters even as they don’t do a hell of a lot to really affect the plot. Zekhan pulls together as an unexpected pinch-hitter, with an in-novel acknowledgement of his fan nickname of “zappy boy” even as he gets an excellent characterization. (He’s really not that special beyond being observant and having an eye for wedging himself into the right conversations… and that’s enough.)
One thing that I do find interesting is how normal the book makes a point of keeping same-sex romance. It’s only a plot point with the aforementioned Flynn and Mathias shipping, which manages to be really cute and fit in naturally, but the book opens with a man mourning his lost husband, and there’s a later point when Talanji ensures that a young woman can marry her girlfriend. Much like the recently concluded She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the book makes a point of this by not making a point of it; this is just a normal part of life in Azeroth, and no one bats an eye about it.
Part of me wonders about how much of that came from the top. Sure, I have a hard time imagining Blizzard including a mandate to make the story as gay as possible, but then, the romantic overtures between Flynn and Mathias in particular aren’t subtext. So all of that was in the drafts and was seen as perfectly fine. It stuck out to me in a good way.
Again, I really don’t want to come across as particularly critical or negative because I actually did enjoy the book. Ms. Roux has a good eye for character dialogue, scenes and chapters flow well and keep things punchy, and the whole thing manages to flow despite having to keep a lot of balls in the air. For a 284-page book, the cast list is enormous, but it manages to introduce its characters and give you a sense of who they are even without any prior knowledge of their identities – and the characters that are there just for the book work just as well.
What does make it stumble is just the reality that it has to essentially hold itself in place. It’s a testament to the skill of the writer that it does stay entertaining and energized, and if you enjoy WoW novels this one is a good book to pick up and read. But if you don’t generally care about them… well, this one is still a fun book to read, but it’s not likely to change your mind about how consequential they are.
(Personally, I intend to look up some of her other novels.)