In Thunder Forged: Iron Kingdoms Chronicles (The Fall of Llael: Book One)
By Ari Marmell
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Can tie-in novels associated with role playing games be considered literature? It’s a valid question. Too often denigrated as shameless marketing gimmicks or lazy fan service, I tend to take the opposite approach. Case in point: Ari Marmell’s exciting entry in this very specific subgenre, In Thunder Forged: Iron Kingdoms Chronicles (The Fall of Llael: Book One). As a huge fan of the Warhammer 40K tie-in novels and its ever-expanding dystopian universe, I found In Thunder Forged a lot of fun. The novel is a tie-in to the Iron Kingdoms Chronicles, a role playing game put out by Privateer Press. (The novel’s appendix gives a thumbnail history of several kingdoms and the unique calendar system for the different cultures.)
The novel revolves around two strong female protagonists. The first, Garland, is a undercover agent for Cygnar. The second is Sergeant Benwynne Bracewell and her units in the Unorthodox Engagement division of the military. (Akin to the US Special Forces or the British SAS.) Her crew has commandos, mechaniks, warjacks (think steampunk plus mecha), and gunmages (think Gandalf meets Wyatt Earp). My geekiness went into high gear when I read about the warjacks and the gunmages. Plenty of explosions and set-piece battles to go around.
The convoluted plot revolves around Garland and Benwynne securing stolen information from a powerful alchemist. I don’t want to explain it further because unraveling this twisty tale is half the fun. There’s even a playwright and secret agent modeled after Christopher Marlowe, the English dramatist. Beyond the coolness of gunmages and steam-powered mecha, what is it that makes this novel so good? When I’ve read clunkers in the Warhammer 40K franchise, I can almost hear the dice rolling across the board. Marmell brings his characters alive and puts them in a world that seems plausible as a world, not just as a game setting.
An advantage that role playing games have over literary novels is that RPGs are by their very nature participatory, collaborative, and large-scale. Not only do players have to believe your world, they also use things like characters and settings to create their own narratives. The sandbox has to be big. The only disadvantage with the Iron Kingdoms Chronicles is the bad guys seem a tad simplistic. The enemies of Cygnar is Khador, a northern wasteland. The enemy agent going up against Garland sounds like Natasha Badenov and the Cygnar soldiers call the Khadors “Reds.” Even though that makes sense, since they paint their warjacks red, it still seems a bit cheesy and obvious. But I’ll give Marmell a pass on that one. Marmell, a veteran writer of RPG novels, still makes the Khador secret agent a compelling character.
In terms of expectations, In Thunder Forged brought the requisite levels of intrigue, action, and emotional punch. While my standards are just as high as any other novel I read, I see this first book as the first season of a TV show. It’s still an introduction and exposition is needed to explain how this world operates. While the novel lists many Iron Kingdoms in the appendix, only two or three are really explained in detail. We see the Khador-Cygnar war and Ord’s alleged neutrality. These are all kingdoms dominated by the humans. In this game setting, there is a dwarf kingdom and Cryx, peopled with “blighted trollkin, twisted men, and various half-breeds.” Toruk the Dragonfather rules the undead land. Needless to say, I can’t wait for these elements to get thrown into the melee.
For those looking for a fun read and an exciting fantasy world to dive into, In Thunder Forged is a great place to start. One doesn’t even have to be a RPG player to enjoy it.
Out of 10/8.9