I have to say I was a little leery, to say the very least, about picking up the latest in the Warcraft class manga series from TOKYOPOP, largely because their last offering was a pretty lackluster affair. However, I am really, really glad I picked this one up, because Warcraft: Shaman is an excellent piece of work. The book marks the return of artist Rocio Zucchi, whose artwork graced the Warcraft: Death Knight manga. Penning the story for this volume is Paul Benjamin, whose other works include the StarCraft: Frontline series as well as work on Marvel Adventures. So right away, we've got an artist whose work I like and an author who knows the ins and outs of writing comics. Good combination from the start!
The story follows the shaman group the Earthen Ring as they try to come to terms with the elements' sudden refusal to cooperate and the appearance of a shaman thought lost to them over 250 years before who has some surprising things to say -- and new shamanistic techniques that border on heresy to the ages-old organization. Warcraft: Shaman covers what exactly it is to be a shaman, what it's like to work with the elements, and what happens when one is torn between the old ways and the new.
Please note: This review may contain some small spoilers for The Shattering as well as the upcoming Cataclysm expansion. If you'd like to remain unspoiled, turn back now!
Rocio Zucchi makes a truly stunning return to the class series. Her work in Death Knight was excellent, and she's only improved in impressive amounts between the two books. The most shocking thing about her work on the book is her admission in the small interview in the back -- she's never really drawn tauren before. You cannot tell by reading this book; she illustrates the tauren race just as easily as she does any other. I also have to say I really like the way she draws trolls -- they look just as effortless as the tauren do.
Not only is Zucchi excellent at character work, the entire manga is filled with rich, full backgrounds, spell effects and other small details that make the artwork almost seem to burst from the page. Each panel is filled to the brim with art. Death Knight featured quite a few battle scenes, but it was nothing on scale with what is seen in Shaman. Fiery explosions, tornados and natural elements in disarray -- none of it feels like the art has been shorted in any fashion.
And what a difference experienced writing makes. Paul Benjamin managed to craft a story that had me hooked from beginning to end. Much like Christie Golden, Benjamin is excellent at creating characters that you care about and conveying a sense of urgency without losing the audience in whatever it is his characters are trying to convey. Benjamin has worked on comics before, and it shows -- every word is important, yet none of the words are wasted. There is no real narration save for the prologue, which is exactly what a comic should be.
While novels have to take great care with regard to detail and explanation, with a comic or a manga, that's the artist's job -- to illustrate all those moments that in a book or novel would be written out in detail. Benjamin and Zucchi do a terrific job in presenting a manga with a plot that is complex in nature, yet easily understood by anyone picking up the book, and doing so stylishly with a flair that is absolutely Warcraft to the core.
Warcraft: Shaman gives us a few characters we'll be seeing in Cataclysm, including Muln Earthfury, leader of the Earthen Ring. Muln is first seen in the Maelstrom in Cataclysm, helping Thrall keep the Maelstrom from ripping Azeroth apart. While Muln's father is briefly seen in the prologue of the book, the majority of the manga revolves around Muln and the other members of the Earthen Ring as they struggle with the sudden disobedience of the elements. Muln is a shaman of tradition. He holds deep respect for the old ways of the shaman and an even deeper respect for the elements that aid him.
Also present in the book are Drek'Thar and Thrall. Drek'Thar is the leader of the Frostwolf Clan, and in The Shattering, Drek'Thar has a heavy role. The war in Northrend had a hard impact on the Frostwolf leader, who is no longer the leader he used to be. Frail, old and somewhat senile, Drek'Thar is plagued with visions in both The Shattering and Warcraft: Shaman and plays an important part in Muln's discoveries in the book. Thrall makes a very brief appearance, but his personality in Warcraft: Shaman seems to echo the same personality we're presented with in The Shattering -- a somewhat uncertain leader who is incredibly unsure of what the right path is for the Horde, for the shaman of the world, and most of all, for himself.
The main theme presented in Warcraft: Shaman is tradition: the old ways in which shaman have been practicing their magic and working with the spirits, and the question of whether those old ways are really the right approach to take with the elements after all this time. The prologue to the story is a flashback to the War of Three Hammers, in which the Dark Iron fought viciously against the united might of the Wildhammer and Bronzebeard clans. When the Dark Iron were defeated, they decided the best revenge would be to summon the elemental lord Ragnaros from the fiery depths, in order to unleash him on the other two unwitting dwarf clans. But as we've seen in World of Warcraft, that tactic didn't really turn out as planned, and the Dark Iron serve Ragnaros, instead of the other way around.
The summoning of Ragnaros, however, had another far greater impact on the world, one that was felt all the way in Kalimdor, where the nomadic tauren shaman of the Earthen Ring made their home. Suddenly, the elements weren't responding as they once had; they were angry and unwilling to listen to the shamans' requests. The leader of the Earthen Ring at the time, Oreg Earthfury, had to handle both the mess with the elements and the anger of one of the youngest members of the Earthen Ring, who insisted this was a sign that the elements needed to be handled a different way. In yet another elemental uprising, the youngest member fell to his presumed death while trying to save his apprentice, and the shaman of the Earthen Ring continued using the old ways that had been passed down for generations to commune with the elements.
These old ways worked for the shaman of Azeroth for hundreds of years, but suddenly, just as in years of old, the spirits are no longer cooperating. They're angry, restless and they simply don't want to listen to anything the shaman have to say. Enter Shotoa, the once-youngest member of the Earthen Ring who was thought dead for 250 years. Shotoa disagreed with Oreg about the "correct" way to be a shaman and interact with the spirits, and he makes a sudden reappearance when Muln and the rest of the Earthen Ring are at their most uncertain.
His aim? To offer the Earthen Ring a new kind of shamanism, a kind in which shaman take from the elements and order them around rather than simply asking and being respectful of the elements wishes. This irritates Muln considerably, but the situation with the elements' rebellion does little to help Muln's cause. The elements obviously aren't happy with the old ways, and many shaman of the Earthen Ring argue that perhaps Shotoa is right, that this means it's time for a different way of doing things, much to Muln's disgust.
The book does an excellent job of conveying exactly what it means to be a shaman and how the shaman class works from a lore standpoint. The contrast between old-world thinking and new is starkly presented, and the conflict between Muln and Shotoa is not only interesting but raises a few good points. If the spirits are acting up so badly, then it isn't unreasonable to assume that new ways should be put to the test, is it?
Also featured in the book are the tauren's old enemies, the centaur, as well as the Grimtotem tribe. The centaur are acting up, taking advantage of the elemental disturbances to further their own vendetta against the tauren. Meanwhile, the Grimtotem are once again shown to be the villains they are in World of Warcraft, fighting against their tauren brethern under the assumption that they are the superior race of tauren and Kalimdor should belong to them rather than being shared with the Horde.
Caught in between all of this is Kettara, a young orc shaman who was found by Muln and taken under his wing to be a member of the Earthen Ring. Kettara is torn between the new and fascinating lessons that Shotoa has to offer and the comfort of the old ways that Muln has already taught her. Kettara presents a good character for the reader to identify with, as she struggles with which side to choose and which path to follow. All in all, the book has a wide variety of characters, and all of them are written extremely well. That said, let's get to the nitpicking.
You know what I love? Timelines. Good, solid dates that I can set my watch (and my lore) to. But what Warcraft: Shaman is missing is dates -- specifically, the date in which everything in the book is supposed to be happening. Or rather, the book gives us a good, solid date, but that date is completely wrong. The prologue of the book takes place during the War of the Three Hammers, which is about year 230ish, according to the unofficial Warcraft timeline on Wowpedia. The events portrayed in the book occur 257 years later, in the year 27.
The math adds up, but at this point in time according to the unofficial timeline, Arthas had just begun his climb to the Frozen Throne and Thrall had just led his people to Kalimdor. The Third War had just been completed and Archimonde destroyed. World of Warcraft as we know it hadn't even come to be yet. Yet in this book it talks about Drek'thar being old and frail and the elements being disturbed, and it includes a draenei shaman as a member of the Earthen Ring -- events that lead me to believe that this book takes place some time during the novel The Shattering ... in other words, present day.
This is the problem with having solid, set-in-stone dates in books and texts; sometimes you get the dates completely wrong. For those wondering why I use the "unofficial" timeline rather than Warcraft's official one, it's because the "official" timeline is tremendously out of date and contradicts dates and lengths of events that have been detailed in the novels, manga and other sources. This books should be set in year 31 at the very least, but more likely in year 32 or 33 by the timeline, because the Earthen Ring is a very select society and it takes time for them to accept new shaman -- particularly shaman of a completely alien race like the draenei.
The unofficial timeline takes into account every moment in every book that dates are specifically mentioned. So if, for example, a book starts in year 20 according to the official timeline, and during the course of that book it's mentioned that three years have passed, it's logical that the timeline has advanced three years. That's what the unofficial timeline is keeping track of. Unfortunately, the official timeline that's been adjusted here and there doesn't do this. However, it does indeed state the current year is year 27, even though the novels, manga and other official lore conflict with that.
You know what I hate? Timelines.
Other than that, there is really nothing left to be criticized about the book -- and really, the timeline issues aren't the fault of the writer or the artist, it's simply that Warcraft timelines are convoluted, largely undefined and messy things.
With a compelling story that ties directly into what we're seeing in-game right now, Warcraft: Shaman is a must-read for those who are fans of comics and manga. Honestly, I'd recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about what exactly is going on right now in Azeroth and how everyone is being affected by it. You definitely don't have to play a shaman to appreciate this story -- but after reading it, I kind of want to roll one again. And that's what the class manga series really ought to be. Go pick this one up. If you're anything like me, you'll end up crossing your fingers that Benjamin and Zucchi cover the next book as well.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.