Lair of the Skaven


Lair of the Skaven, a lurid purple covered paperback, represents part of Games Workshop’s ongoing diversification in the books it publishes.

I think people were justifiably sniffy about the idea of a company that makes wargames that shamelessly borrow from scifi and fantasy tropes (and then sue to protect their IP) publishing books. The first wave of authors (in particular Kim Newman and Ian Watson) showed there was quality there, if you didn’t hew too close to the official mythology. There’s also been a lot that is of lower quality (or maybe just not to my tastes) but in general, the output is pretty solid. Tales of posthuman giants with guns firing rockets at space orcs may not be to everyone’s tastes, but as stealthy ways to smuggle existential concepts and the history of the Roman Empire and religious dogma into teenage boys heads go, they are an excellent delivery mechanism.

But that doesn’t cover everyone, so this year they started publishing horror (set in the Warhammer universes) and also books for children, with big name actors from British TV performing the audio book versions. Lair of the Skaven is the second book of one of two parallel trilogies in this new experiment to get the kids while they’re young.

In these stories, rather than enormous post human Space Marines, or fatalistic soldiers, the plot centres on a group of children. Thus there’s less blood and gore and more concentration on sneaking around and avoiding fighting. One assumes this gives readers characters they can better identify with (although can adult readers cope with identifying with seven foot tall augmented killer monks?) as well as stopping livid parents kicking up a stink when Little Johnny reads a book about people being decapitated by exploding .50 calibre rockets. I guess.

But I’m still not sure for whom it’s suitable. Probably not for La Serpiente. She’s within 4 weeks of the target age range. But with a book that starts with a father hitting his son on the backside with a sword and then disowning him may not be that great for her mind, especially as we disrupt her life with a shift away from Singapore.

There’s a few other issues with the book. I believe children deserve sentences every bit as beautiful as those that adults get. That’s a reason I wouldn’t read the Wizard of Oz to the girls. I’m not sure as I’d go as far as Hemingway or Fitzgerald for them (I suppose it would be an interesting experiment if both La Serpiente and I read The Great Gatsby every ten years and then debated what it was about) but there were a few parts in this book that gave me pause:

But the flames had spread too quickly; between them and the door was a wall of fire.

My children are too young for semi-colons when a dash would do better. Now, it’s perhaps harsh to batten on typographical mistakes, but where should the comma be placed?

She unhooked the chain connecting them to the second cart then she put her shoulder against the backboard and pushed, her boots struggling for grip on the smooth steel rails.

If you’re going to have 100-odd pages of workmanlike prose, and not any joyfully baroque metaphors, use of alliteration or just fun phrasing, you need to have your punctuation absolutely nailed down.

What else didn’t I like that much? There’s a railcar chase pretty much shamelessly cribbed from an Indiana Jones movie. There’s some confusing choreography in an opening scene, when it’s unclear whether the children are in a hole, or if there’s a tunnel, or where they’re oriented. I also think five protagonists is one too many, but perhaps I’m just bad at telling them apart.

So it’s not my favourite. Whereas a book like Drachenfels is defensible as literature whether you care for Games Workshop’s output or not, Lair of the Skaven feels to me like a book that lacks artistic value, and is more like some pabulum for the children to read until they’re old enough for the proper stuff. I suppose you wouldn’t give a six year old a bottle of Laphroaig (Prospero Burns) but neither should they be drinking supermarket-brand cola.

Perhaps this is because I’ve not read enough children’s fiction to accurately judge what counts as good or bad. (I read Animal Farm before I was ten, and that’s not a boast about my prodigality but a sign that I’m not sure if I have the right framework to make these judgments.) Perhaps I need to find the supply of tramadol I had from last year and take a few weeks off to have another go at my Blood Bowl novel. Perhaps the kids should just read the same books as adults do. Or perhaps there is a great children’s book that Games Workshop will publish, but I don’t think it’s here yet. Harry Potter with metal spikes and a heavy bolter?


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