Before we begin, in the interest of full disclosure, we will make it clear that Simon and Schuster did forward us free copies of Stormrage for this review. They did not, however, dictate any of the opinions held in this review. In addition, our network has a policy against keeping 'giveaways' sent to us, so our copies of the novel will be given away on our site sometime in the future. With that out of the way, let's get to the review.
The last book we reviewed here on WoW.com was Arthas: Rise of the Lich King. It was written by Christie Golden and was a little over three hundred pages of Prince Arthas Menethil's personal history, from his childhood to his fall to the Scourge. If that's what you're expecting out of Richard A. Knaak's Stormrage, drop those expectations. All of that can be found in the War of the Ancients trilogy. Despite the similar naming scheme, Stormrage is a novel that takes place at the same time as the events going on in Wrath of the Lich King. It's specifically stated that the Wrath Gate incident has already happened by the time the events in this novel begin. This isn't backstory, this is buildup to Cataclysm.
The beginning of the novel doesn't waste much time bringing you into the story. Very little time is spent on exposition pertaining to the main plot. There is some time taken to introduce characters readers may be unfamiliar with such as Broll Bearmantle and Thura, a female orc warrior who happens to be the niece of Broxigar and Varok Saurfang. The plot itself is made quite clear, however: Malfurion Stormrage is lost in the Emerald Nightmare and he is dying.
As you might have gleaned from the Stormrage preview Simon and Schuster released, this story is not exclusively about Malfurion. That's only one part of the story, and I would go as far as to say it's a relatively minor part. The book addresses a number of Night Elven plots and storylines that have been hanging loose for years now. The Emerald Nightmare, the corruption of Teldrassil, Fandral Staghelm's role in Night Elven society and his obsession with Morrowgrain all play prominent roles, and I would say all of that is far more interesting than the intitial journey to save Malfurion. The novel spans far more than just Elven territory, too. The story spans the entire world, bringing in key figures from the Horde and the Alliance. Varian Wrynn is a strong presence in the novel, for example.
One of the complaints often leveled at Richard Knaak's Warcraft novels is that they're rather disconnected from the overall story of Warcraft. His books include important antagonists such as Deathwing and Queen Azshara, he's the one that introduced the various Dragonflights, but you rarely see any of the primary protagonists from the rest of the Warcraft universe standing on their own two feet. Original characters such as Rhonin, Krasus and Kalec steal the stage. While Stormrage is no exception on that front, you might find it promising that Richard Knaak does use a number of somewhat obscure, existing characters to fill out the cast.
Right alongside Broll Bearmantle and Hamuul Runetotem, druids that have made frequent appearances in the expanded universe, Stormrage reintroduces us to lesser known druids like Naralex and Arch Druid Renferal. Even Goldshire's Marshal Dughan makes an appearance. As strange as it may sound, this sequence was actually one of my favorites from the novel by a wide margin. It's light, it's fun, and Marshal Dughan leading a band of soldiers against a mine full of kobolds felt more heroic than many of the more dire battle sequences in the novel. It had the most Warcraft feel to me. There was drama and there was action, but there was also a light, almost humorous tone to break it up and keep it from becoming tedious. That's what I feel Warcraft is, and these cameos nail it.
There are other examples of this throughout the novel. Green dragons from Warcraft past make appearances, and without giving too much away, you'll run into notable NPCs that you probably haven't thought of since you last leveled a character through Ashenvale. These moments are, without a doubt, the most enjoyable sequences in the novel. It's not a matter of nostalgia, but rather embracing the little things that enrich the world. These sequences are done very well. Richard Knaak has the capacity to tap into what makes Warcraft such an enjoyable universe, and this proves that. I get the impression that he sat down and played the actual MMO to get inspiration for these scenes rather than digging through the Warcraft library. It's noticeable and it's appreciated.
However, a majority of the novel is very different from those few cameos. It is, essentially, standard Richard Knaak fare. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is really up to the reader. His original characters for this novel are still bothersome heroes that our standby Warcraft figures couldn't have lived without. Lucan Foxblood, a new character introduced in this novel, is particularly irritating in both concept and execution, background and personality. It made me long for Rhonin, and if you're at all familiar with my writing here on WoW.com, you'll understand that what I am saying is not a compliment. I found it difficult to get through all 400 pages of this novel.
One oddity in particular is the characterizations of Tyrande and Malfurion. In Warcraft III both of these characters were clearly thousands of years old. Their speech, their presence, their resolve -- it was always very clear that they were strong leaders that have been around for a very long time. Tyrande in particular was a very determined woman, going as far as to cut down many of her own people for what she saw as the greater good. These things are not present in Richard A. Knaak's version of the character. Tyrande and Malfurion strike me as people that have not grown at all since the War of the Ancients trilogy, where they were little more than teenagers.
It's easy to say Richard Knaak didn't pay enough attention to the source material, but at this point he's had control of Tyrande Whisperwind more than Blizzard themselves have. So which is the valid interpretation of the character? The strong, outspoken version of her that Blizzard created or the calmer, quieter version Knaak uses? Blizzard's Tyrande is someone comfortable with their power and willing to lead when leading needs to be done. Richard Knaak's Tyrande is someone that strikes me as uncomfortable with who she is, someone that feels they need to keep secrets lest they be looked at funny. Either way, the character in Stormrage is not the Tyrande we saw in Warcraft III. Take that as you will.
If you liked Richard Knaak's previous work, you will love Stormrage. If you didn't like Richard Knaak's previous work, this won't change your mind about it. It's the same as ever. Same strengths, same flaws. Should you buy it? I can't tell you yes or no, that's your decision. While I enjoyed parts of it, I didn't particularly enjoy the overall story. It was dry, I found it hard to care about what most of the main characters were saying or doing due to their lack of compelling characterization, and the language Richard Knaak uses, archaic and overwrought, often strikes me as trying too hard. He tries to be poetic, but it actually comes across quite silly. Reading about druids shapeshifting into flight form in full detail every few pages for the first half of the novel was particularly grating. The heroes are absurd, and the villains might as well be twisting their mustaches. It is not very complex.
Despite all of that, I do recommend reading it eventually. A lot of the events in this novel will be reflected in Cataclysm and other future World of Warcraft content. Those that never read the World of Warcraft comics were dumbfounded when Varian Wrynn made his return to Stormwind in-game without much fanfare. How did he get there? What happened? Stormrage will make that look like small potatoes. Read it, but if you've never read any of Richard Knaak's Warcraft novels (especially War of the Ancients) before, keep Wowwiki handy. You'll need it.