As promised, here is a short review of Wolfheart, the latest chapter in the World of Warcraft saga by Richard Knaak. In addition to being an avid player of WoW, I am also a general lover of sci-fi and fantasy books. In spite of its WoW-centred premise, I believe that Wolfheart is a fine example of many of the genre’s best qualities: a multi-tiered plot, interesting characters, and a generous dose of magic and whimsy.
The novel is written entirely in the third person and features a broad cast of characters. For those of you unfamiliar with Knaak as an author, he is frequently criticized for including too many extraneous characters who have no real bearing on the plot. Wolfheart, conversely, is relatively concise in its character description. The book focuses heavily on the Alliance side of the game, meaning that humans, night elves, dwarves, gnomes, and draenei (freakishly tall humanoids with hooves as feet) are centrally featured. This is a nice departure from the Horde-heavy lore of the current WoW patches.
In my opinion, the truly successful fantasy books are those which also employ universal themes and language. Particularly in its use of vocabulary, Knaak does has a tendency to come off as aloof and inaccessible to the casual reader: the verb ‘behoove’ is noticeably overused in his prose, for example. This aloofness is also particularly evident in his characterization of the night elf characters.
Knaak’s previous retelling of night elf lore, in 2010’s Stormrage, contained so many detailed references to points of lore that I needed to consult an online encyclopedia in order to get through the book. Ironically, while I play a night elf myself, I had a hard time connecting to the night elves Malfurion and Tyrande, two characters whose moral superiority and benevolence are so grand, that they are virtually caricatures. In Wolfheart, the dwarf, gnome and human characters have enough intrigue that they balance out this aloofness. The dialogue is also much more humorous, which is more in line with the actual atmosphere of the game.
Another typical criticism of Knaak– his disturbingly stereotypical of female characters– is also addressed directly in Wolfheart. Especially after the release of the short story on High Priestess Tyrande, which you can read here, fans berated WoW writers for making her overly emotional and weepy– not at all the strong, independent night elf she appeared to be in Warcraft 3. In my opinion, this problematic female characterization is rectified in Wolfheart, particularly with the inclusion of Maiev Shadowsong and Shandris Feathermoon, both warrior-esque night elf females. While she is conspicuously absent in this book, the promise of an upcoming novel on Jaina Proudmoore, a powerful human mage who is sorely under-used in the game, makes me believe that the gender issue in WoW might be on its way to a satisfying resolution.
On the whole, Wolfheart does not devolve into being overly sentimental. Its depiction of universal struggles—those between father and son, and between husband and wife—are detailed, and yet generic enough that most lovers of the fantasy genre, even those who do not play WoW in real life, should enjoy reading the book. At 352 pages, it’s also considerably shorter than many other fantasy novels, making it an excellent weekend read.