Blood Bowl – the novel

Right now, my world smells and tastes like chalk. I think it’s either a side effect or a direct effect of all the painkillers I’m on – the horse-pill sized paracetamol, the tiny green tramadol, the orange anti-nausea meds, and the other ones I don’t remember the name of. Perhaps because I’m stuffed full of drugs I thought it was a good idea to read a novel about Blood Bowl.

Blood Bowl was Games Workshop’s attempt to capitalise on the wave of interest in American Football that occurred in the late 1980s in the UK (spoiler alert: it didn’t last, because we prefer football if we want violence and cricket if we want to waste all day sitting around watching nothing happen). Games Workshop mashed together their fantasy background (orcs, elves, and everything else they could steal from Tolkien, Moorcock, Robert E Howard, Lovecraft, etc) into this. And before that sounds negative, I’ve always had a soft spot for Blood Bowl – the silliness, the self-awareness, the dreadful puns like turning the NFL into a mysterious god called Nuffle, and the absence of the grimdark that pervades most of Games Workshop’s intellectual property after the early 90s.

(The 2nd edition of Blood Bowl, which I owned as a teenager, was in some sense a fair simulacrum of American Football, insofar as the rules were complex and it could take several hours to play. Modern Blood Bowl has a more efficient ruleset and with a limited number of turns (8 each per half, a maximum of 3 minutes) means at a maximum 1 hour and 36 minutes, and usually games are done in an hour.)

Now, a game of Blood Bowl is more like ice hockey without the rink, in that every so often a game breaks out during a fight. Not much to hang a narrative on, right? Well, I can’t think of many great novels about sport (there’s plenty of non fiction and lots of movies) but Forbeck tries his best with a pretty formulaic plot about a disgraced noble, Dunkel Hoffnung (explaining why most humans in Blood Bowl are comedy Germans is a tale for another day) and his journey to success as the star player of a second -rate team. (There’s one immediate reason why it’s hard to write a compelling novel about a team sport – with 16 players per team, it’s hard for anyone to manage the cast.)

There are some fun ideas here. There’s an interesting discussion of the economic pros-and-cons of killing monsters vs sending them sacrifices (and discouraging worse monsters from taking over) and there’s a fun jab at Rupert Murdoch (Ruprecht Murdark) and the Fox network (the Wolf network). But there are also some big flaws.

Stereotypically, a Blood Bowl fan / gamer is a teenage boy or a fat man with a neck beard, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the female characters are either hyperbolically beautiful (but underdescribed) cheerleaders or lacking in much agency – there’s a female player who serves as love interest for Dunk (but no sex scenes, because the target market’s parents might get cross) but lacks much to do apart from be a bit feisty once or twice.

Dunk has a younger, more successful brother, Dirk, but the editing is so sloppy that sometimes the names get reversed, which makes the book more confusing than necessary. And it wasn’t like anyone forced Forbeck to give two of the principal characters names that were 50% the same. (There’s also a chapter where Dunk and Slick, his agent, have their names swapped around from sentence to sentence.)

Oh, and the fighting/match scenes aren’t very good. I guess these are hard work to manage, but they’re unmemorable here (that may have been the drugs).

Anyway, there are a few plot twists, but as the book goes on it feels less and less like a cohesive narrative and more like a treatment ("wouldn’t it be cool if _____?!") so it didn’t hold my attention that well. But it did well enough to justify three sequels.

But I don’t come to break a butterfly on a wheel. If nothing else, it’s inspired me to write my own Blood Bowl novel, where I’m just going to retool the plot of men’s weepie, Crying Fist, and change it from two Koreans boxing into a washed-up Orc and a Dark Elf Asbo kid fighting in the big leagues. Or write The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Running Back.

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