Book Review: Lawrence Watt-Evans’ The Unwilling Warlord
An easy, yet effective way to develop a character is to make them somehow contradictory. A nerd who’s really a superhero. A boringly normal man who’s really a serial killer. A hero who’s really a coward (or vice versa). That last one is a favorite of mine, given my appreciation for Fraser’s Flashman series, or Mitchell’s Ciaphas Cain books.
With this in mind, the premise of The Unwilling Warlord sounded right up my alley. The book centers on a profilgate gambler named Sterren, who learns he’s the long lost hereditary warlord to a small fantasy kingdom. Thing is, said kingdom needs a warlord, so they send some large, heavily armed men to drag him far away from his home. Naturally, there’s war brewing with a pair of larger, richer, and generally better-off kingdoms, and it’s up to the untrained Sterren to save the day. It’s a great setup for a rollicking, whacky adventure.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I got.
The edition of The Unwilling Warlord I picked up was released in 2008- but the book was originally published in 1989. I wish I’d known that going in. Heck, look at the difference between the covers.
The 2008 edition, on the left, is straightforward, but effective. Makes me think it’s going to be a more modern, genre-aware fantasy book. Wheras the 1989 edition is just another 80’s Fantasy Novel Oil Painting. It’s fitting, as The Unwilling Warlord is just another dull 80’s Fantasy novel.
The biggest problem with The Unwilling Warlord is that there’s never a real sense of urgency. Everything just sort of … happens. The most telling example is Sterren himself. You’d think a fantasy gambler would be a generally charming scoundrel. Sterren … isn’t. For one, his success as a gambler doesn’t come from any with or cleverness on his part. Rather, he once was a warlock’s apprentice, so he basically uses unconscious telekinesis to make the dice fall the way he needs them to. That’s it. It’s a completely passive ability on his part.
Or, later in the novel, when Sterren finds out the kingdom he’s been dragged to is going to be invaded, his plan is to go back to the big fantasy city he was born in, where he’ll hire some wizards to help defend the kingdom. Kind of a dull plan, but it could work. Watt-Evans then spends something like four chapters in which Sterren waffles between deserting or not, while recruiting a handful of magic users to help the war effort. These aren’t fun, plot-advancing character intros, either. It’s literally four chapters of Sterren talking to people in wizard bars and posting want ads on Ye Olden Bulletin Board. All the excitement of Hogwarts’ H.R. Department! Bluh.
The problem is, Watt-Evans has made up several different kinds of magic: witchery, sorcery, demonology, wizardy, warlockry, theurgy, alchemy, and probably a few more that I don’t really care about. And naturally, Sterren recruits a couple of different types of magic people … who make little to no contribution to the plot. Just a bunch of flat characters defined by what kind of funny hat they wear. Watt-Evans is one of those wannabe Tolkien fantasy writers in that he’s hammered out an intricate setting, full of weirdly named kingdoms and various flavors of spellcasting … but he’s so focused on these niggling details that he forgets to include little things like “characters you want to read about,” or “an interesting plot.”
I almost thought things would get interesting after Sterren hired on his magic posse. See, by the time they get back, the invading armies have already surrounded Ye Olde Fantasy Castle, so there was potential there for madcap adventures. I mean, ‘a handful of oddballs vs. a whole army’ is a great premise- I think it was the second or third of Robert Aspirin’s Myth series that had a heck of a time with it. But again, instead, we get … more explanations of magic. Oh sure, Watt-Evans thinks of some clever ways to use what seem like low-level spells, but there’s no real sense of urgency. It’s just “oh, we put Exploding Seal on some random officer’s scroll case.”
The book switches gears again, when the Warlock Sterren hired finds a new source of uber-magic powers, and summarily routes the armies and decides to set up shop as an omnipotent emperor. As you do. Things just sort of putter along after that, however, with the Warlock matter-of-factly conquering a few neighboring Kingdoms offscreen. Sterren mostly just hangs around. And, again, highlighting his passive nature, the insane conquering Warlock’s downfall isn’t brought about by anything Sterren actually does. He figures out that using ridiculous amounts of power will drive the Warlock insane, but … doesn’t say anything about it. And then the Warlock goes insane, and Sterren is left in charge. The end. Oh, and spoiler alert, I guess. Not that I’d recommend reading the book, honestly.
Really, the plot of The Unwilling Warlord is about as deep and nuanced of that of a lesser Terry Pratchett novel. The thing is, Pratchett’s books are full of clever jokes, witty wordplay, and occasional commentary on the human condition. Watt-Evans just goobs for entirely too long about how magic works in his intricately thought out fantasy setting. Honestly, it’s pretty much the fantasy writer’s equivalent of a nerd cornering you and saying “Let Me Tell You About My Character.” (Which, incidentally, I may do in a post or two, but I digress).
All and all, The Unwilling Warlord isn’t bad or offensive, it’s just … dull. It’s one of those books you read and say, “y’know what? I can do better than that.” So, uh, at least it’s inspirational? Then again, Watt-Evans has more (read: any) books published, whereas I don’t. Yet. I should probably get on that.