Privateer Press, 2013, 80 pages
His blind fury is infamous, his strength without rival, but the legend of the man known as the Butcher of Khardov was forged in a crucible of pain...
The legacy of the massacre near Boarsgate at the hand of the warcaster Orsus Zoktavir has followed him his whole life—but it is another memory that fuels both his rage and his will to live. Before he was one of Khador’s most potent weapons he was simply a young man striving to make a life for himself, and for his beloved, free of the violence that came so easily to him. Her gentle presence helps him quell his simmering temper, but fate changes everything, sweeping him up in events that would lead to grief and madness.
Learn the tragic history of Orsus Zoktavir and plumb the depths of his rage in The Butcher of Khardov.
Apparently Dan Wells writes tie-in fiction. That is not so surprising, but it is surprising to see a tie-in novel for a Warhammer ripoff on the Hugo list.
Despite my general bias against tie-in fiction, I tried to read The Butcher of Khardov with an open mind. Although the hulking steroidal beast on the cover already biased me — as much as I like a good shoot'em up manly-man adventure, I've always found the gonzo testosterone-ramped-up-to-eleventy aesthetic of Warhammer/Space Marines to be just too over-the-top silly to appeal to me.
However, knowing nothing about the game or its setting, I dove in as if it were just another work of fantasy. The wargaming source material shows itself evident pretty quickly, with frequent mentions of different models of "'jacks," which are basically steam-powered war robots that certain individuals can magically control with their minds.
Orsus Zoktavir, whose hard-knocks upbringing is established at age ten, when raiding
"It’s just an axe!" shouted another farmer. "For Menoth’s sake!" The man put a hand on Lola's arm, yanking her away, and Orsus watched as her dress tore, her arm ripped, her chest blossomed with blood.
The world turned red with blood and fire, the air filled with ash and snow and screams. "Where were you?" she pleaded. "Why weren't you here to protect me?"
The farmer in his hand gave a choked scream as Orsus hammered him into the man on Lola's arm. Both men went down with a crunch of bone, and the room swarmed him. There were seventeen men still standing, small knives and cudgels appearing in their hands, seemingly from nowhere. They were not farmers but warriors, thieves, brigands, and murderers.
So yeah, Orsus loses everyone he ever loved and becomes more and more of a maddened killing machine, until eventually he's leading armies, having discovered that besides being as strong as an "ogrun" and able to keep fighting after being shot and stabbed multiple times, he's also one of those "warcasters" who can mentally control steamjacks.
The story goes back and forth in time, telling us Orsus's entire life story until we reach the present, where he's considered the most dangerous man in the empire, on trial for massacring a village.
The author did do a good job developing a complete character out of relatively scant material. Instead of just being a berserk monster who kills people because his lady got whacked, boo hoo, he's actually a likable guy, at first, resisting his natural inclinations towards violence until fate deals him one too many bad hands.
Wells is a passably good writer, but not good enough to elevate this material above what it is, gaming tie-in fiction. The Butcher of Khardov is full of obvious tropes, and while the hour or so spent reading this novella was not a waste of time, it didn't make me want to seek out more fiction set in this world, or buy Warmachine miniatures.
Verdict: Dan Wells has written more original stuff than this, so why a novella set in a tabletop wargaming universe was nominated for a Hugo mystifies me. The Butcher of Khardov is not bad — it's enjoyable enough if you're in the mood for macho bloodbaths and a bit of pathos. But it's not special enough for a Hugo.
Also by Dan Wells: My review of I Am Not A Serial Killer.
My complete list of book reviews.