Book Review: A W:tA Tribe Novel!

Vampires get all the publicity.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to slap some fangs (and maybe a little bit of scary looking prosthetic makeup) on someone than it is to make a decent looking werewolf movie. And it’s a lot easier to play up the “sexy monster” angle with a vampire instead of a werewolf, too.

But, iconoclast I am, I find werewolves a lot cooler.

A bit of background, here. White Wolf, a gaming company, did a lot to change tabletop gaming with their flagship game, Vampire: the Masquerade. You might have heard of it. Hot on the heels of Vampire: The Masquerade, White Wolf started making games about other various monsters, which led to their second World of Darkness game, Werewolf: The Apocalypse.

Werewolf Rulebook

Here’s the fancy-pantsy 20th anniversary edition I got via kickstarter. And yes, those are claw cutouts on the cover. It’s an important part of the game, you know. 

Werewolf: The Apocalypse holds a special place in my heart, as it was my introduction to ‘modern’ tabletop gaming. Back when I was in middle school (a long, loooong time ago), I had a gift card to Borders (again, dating myself here) which I used to pick up a Werewolf: The Apocalypse book. And now, years and years later, nostalgia prompted me to pick up: Tribe Novels: Shadow Lords & Get of Fenris (mouthful of a title, that) out of the dollar bin at the used bookstore.

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So yeah. Werewolf: The Apocalypse is a very 90’s kind of role playing game. There’s a complex cosmology behind it, which I won’t delve into too much. The long and short of it is, in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, you play, well, a werewolf, or Garou, as they call themselves. The Garou are supposed to be Earth’s protectors, fighting a losing battle against spreading industrialism and corruption. There’s a definite 90’s style conservationist theme underpinning the whole game. Kind of like Captain Planet, only if Captain Planet could turn into a nine foot tall furry killing machine and ripped dudes’ heads off.

One of White Wolf’s main schticks is how each character belongs to a certain ‘splat.’ With Vampire: The Masquerade, they broke vampires down into clans, each one based on its own archetype. So you had the sexy Anne Rice vampires, the ugly Count Orlock vampires, the punky Lost Boys vampires, and so on. This was a great move marketing-wise, as in turn White Wolf could churn out specific ‘splatbooks’ for each clan. Werewolf: The Apocalypse did the same, only they called the splats ‘tribes.’ Which brings us, finally, to Tribe Novels: Shadow Lords & Get of Fenris.

Since werewolves don’t have quite the cultural cachet vampires do, White Wolf went a little farther in cooking up character types for the tribes of Werewolf: The Apocalypse. I won’t go into the full breakdown of all the various tribes, but the basic thing is that the Shadow Lords are sneaky dudes from central Europe, and the Get of Fenris are super-fighty viking werewolves.

I’m giving you all this background because Tribe Novels: Shadow Lords & Get of Fenris is a terrible introduction to Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It pretty much launches straight into things, assuming the reader is familiar enough with the game to know the definition of some game-specific terms, and even who a lot of the major characters are. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, if you’re marketing to your existing fanbase, it makes sense not to bore them with introductions to stuff they already know. On the other hand, this pretty much reduces the appeal of the book to anyone NOT already in your market. I mean, theoretically, someone might track down a copy of the Werewolf: The Apocalypse rulebook to figure out WTF’s going on, but I kind of doubt it.

So yeah. As you probably figured out form the title, this book is split into two parts. The first centers around the Shadow Lords, as a couple of them plot and scheme against each other in some isolated stretch of Central Europe. There’s some business about an assassination plot, and a couple of antagonist werewolves make some shady deals with a bunch of evil corrupted body-horror monster guys.

The second half is a little more interesting, because it focuses on the Get of Fenris, a bunch of beserker viking werewolf dudes. The events of the first half lead into the events of the second half. In turn, the viking werewolf part of the book serves as a lot of set up for the next tribe novel. There’s lots of oaths and politicking and other stuff– it mostly comes off like Game of Thrones, only with less incest and dwarfs, and more lycanthropy.

The problem is, Griffin’s book isn’t structured very well. The first half takes place in some isolated stretch of Central European forest, and the next primarily takes place in some isolated viking fjord. By isolating the action of the novel this way, it’s easy to forget that Werewolf: The Apocalypse is an urban fantasy game. Honestly, if you weren’t familiar with the setting, it’d be easy to assume this book is just another generic fantasy novel.

Another strike against the book is that it’s never clear who the main character is supposed to be. The first half centers on a young Shadow Lord by the name of Oksana. She’s an interesting enough character, though she honestly doesn’t do much besides pass select bits of information on as part of various schemes. The Get of Fenris half supposedly centers around a Valkyrie-like leader of the Get, but it loses focus as a bunch of various characters drop in and out to deliver various cryptic prophecies or schemes or whatever. Like, there’s even a bit where one of the major characters from the core rulebook’s fiction shows up unexpectedly.

So yeah. The setting’s odd, there are too many characters, and finally, the plot itself is a bit lackluster. For example, in the Shadow Lord half, some werewolves stumble across a giant worm-monster and fight it. Cool. And then one of the werewolves shows his potential corruption by commanding it to stand still. Also cool. But then, after the survivors run away, there’s no epic final confrontation with the thing. We’re just told ‘oh yeah, our war party went to go check it out, only to find everything was gone.’ Likewise, the Get of Fenris half focuses more on the inter-tribal politics rather than ultraviolent wolf-viking adventures. There are a couple of duels, and towards the end a bunch of bad-guy werewolves show up for no apparent reason (and get summarily, messily killed). Even still, the plot lacks rhythm, and what’s supposed to be the big characterful climax moment just kind of comes off as … meh.

Honestly, Griffin isn’t a terrible writer. There weren’t any cringe-inducing turns of phrase or characterizations. The biggest problem with Tribe Novels: Shadow Lords & Get of Fenris is that it just tries to cram too much into too few pages. On top of that, it’s the first in a seven book series, so it takes a lot of time setting up later conflicts and stuff rather than cool viking werewolf adventures. Ah well.

If I’d picked this book up when it first came out, (or even off of Amazon, where it seems to be going for ten bucks), I’d be disappointed. And if I wasn’t already a Werewolf: The Apocalypse fan, I’d be confused. But, for 99 cents, I can’t complain too much about this little exercise in nostalgia.

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