This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
The Reading Canary: A Reminder
Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.
Jack Yeovil: Haunting the Old World
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of early Warhammer tie-in novels, many of the first series produced by Games Workshop Books were written by fairly successful SF, fantasy and horror authors under pseudonyms. Kim Newman comes from a horror background, and is known for novels such as Anno Dracula, a peerfic of Dracula depicting a world where Van Helsing’s posse failed to drive Dracula out of England, and the Count ends up ruling the country. It’s not surprising, then, that the stories he wrote for Games Workshop under his Jack Yeovil pseudonym emphasise the more horrific aspects of the Warhammer world, as evidenced by the presence of Genevieve Dieudonne, a centuries-old vampire who does her utmost to resist the baser instincts of her kind and appears in many of the Yeovil tales – enough that Games Workshop and the Black Library have consistently presented her as the main protagonist of the Yeovil stories, even though that’s really not the case. But while the stories that she’s the mascot for are widely-praised by those who follow Warhammer tie-ins, can Genevieve offer anything to outsiders?
The spoiler-free answer is “Yes, but only about half the time”; for the detailed answer, read on.
The prologue of Drachenfels could be the climactic chapter of a million other fantasy novels: a rag-tag party of misfits makes its way through the trap-laden fortress of Drachenfels, the Great Enchanter, a possibly-undead sorcerer who has terrorised the Old World for centuries. Told from the point of view of Genevieve, we hear how each party member is killed, knocked out, incapacitated or otherwise rendered incapable of helping, until in the final confrontation the party’s plucky young leader, Crown Prince Oswald, must confront Drachenfels alone.
Having started the narrative with a bang, Yeovil proceeds to jump forward twenty years and introduce us to the actual protagonist of the book: Detlef Sierck, visionary playwright, who we meet whilst he is languishing in a wonderfully grimy debtor’s prison due to the collapse of a ridiculously over-the-top project. Detlef is soon retrieved from jail by Crown Prince Oswald, now in the prime of his life and due to inherit his ailing father’s position as one of the Electors of the Empire, who wishes to commission a play based on his heroic defeat of Drachenfels. Naturally, all the survivors of the expedition are going to be invited along to help Detlef research the play, and naturally the play will be staged in Castle Drachenfels itself…
It’s therefore completely unsurprising to us readers when it transpires that the evil of Drachenfels is not quite as dead and buried as everyone thinks it is, and when people start getting horribly murdered. What is surprising is how much characterisation, adventure, horror and dread Yeovil manages to pack into this slim volume. Despite the story being told from multiple viewpoints – Detlef, Genevieve, various members of the adventuring party that slew Drachenfels, and a couple of other people – this is the only Warhammer tie-in novel that I have read to date that lacks anything you could describe as filler; each scene is tightly composed, advances the action, and illuminates the characters involved. Many of Genevieve’s and Oswald’s former companions only appear in the prologue, a short sequence from their own point of view, and a couple of other brief cameos before they are butchered, and yet they seem just as three-dimensional and well-realised as Detlef and Genevieve themselves. Aside from Oswald, who seems to be in his mid-thirties, and Genevieve, who naturally is an unaging vampire, the other party members are old, worn-out, and in a few cases utterly broken after their experiences in Castle Drachenfels; the whole “world-weary adventurers who are mere shadows of their former selves” deal has been explored thorough in fantasy by David Gemmell, and yet Yeovil attains in 200 pages deeper characterisation than Gemmell commonly manages in twice that.
Thanks to Yeovil-Newman’s horror background, of course, this is one of the darker Warhammer tie-in stories, and the horror sequences are suitably chilling; that said, it’s not as monotonous or grinding as, say, the Konrad Saga, with plenty of well-delivered comic relief to lighten the mood. The tone is occasionally reminiscent of mid-1990s Discworld novels, which is pretty impressive when you consider that it was written in 1989; I think this might be in part due to the Warhammer setting’s nature – like the Discworld, it’s an exaggerated and distorted version of our own world, with the time period veering nebulously between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, so like the better Discworld books the more comedic portions take advantage of the slightly unstuck-in-time nature of the setting to make satirical comments about the modern world. The balancing act Yeovil indulges in is truly impressive – at no point is the comedy allowed to defuse or trivialise the horrific elements of the plotline, and by the climax the comedic elements have been shed entirely to ensure that the power of the final scene is not undermined.
Alone of the Warhammer books I have reviewed thus far, I would argue that Drachenfels actually has potent literary value well beyond its humble origins. The points that Yeovil makes about how people try to justify and immortalise themselves through the stories they tell about themselves worth examining, and the timeless nature of the Old World means that the book is as fresh today as it was when it was first published. I recommend it without reservation.
Beasts In Velvet
I’m going to review this one here, because whilst strictly speaking it was published after Genevieve Undead it is transparently obvious to me that it was supposed to come earlier than that in the series, both in terms of the internal chronology and as far as the publishing order goes.
I’ll explain what I mean by that now, so as to get the nastiness out of the way before I praise the book’s many finer qualities. Beasts In Velvet cannot honestly be described as a “Vampire Genevieve” novel, even though it is written by Jack Yeovil and Genevieve appears in it. She appears in it precisely twice, in two scenes that go absolutely nowhere and serve no purpose except to foreshadow the first novella in Genevieve Undead. Frankly, this is baffling, especially since aside from these two segments Beasts In Velvet is just as tightly written as Drachenfels. It is also notable that, aside from this, Beasts In Velvet makes no reference to Genevieve Undead (and, indeed, only passing reference to Drachenfels), although it does regularly reference (and follows up on the odd loose end from) the various short stories that Jack Yeovil wrote for various Games Workshop short story anthologies after Drachenfels.
What I believe (but, damn it all, can’t prove) is this: back in the day, Games Workshop Books wanted to market as many books as being parts of series as they possibly could (with the exception of their multi-author short story anthologies), and they wanted to market each series around a striking central character. So, David Ferring cranked out the Konrad Saga, Brian Craig wrote the Orfeo series, and William King got to work on Gotrek and Felix, although they wouldn’t get a book to themselves until the Black Library era of Games Workshop tie-in publishing.
But drat it all, Jack Yeovil just wasn’t co-operating. It was bad enough that the main protagonist of Drachenfels was a chubby playwright – hardly a heroic or exciting figure – but now he’d gone and written this Beasts In Velvet thing and, yes, of course it was good, but how to market it?
Here, I believe, an executive decision was made: the authorities at Games Workshop Books picked out Genevieve, who really has only a supporting role in Drachenfels, as the protagonist of the series, because she is a sexy female vampire and that shit sells. Beasts In Velvet was shot back to Yeovil with a request that he add some Genevieve scenes. And Genevieve Undead was rolled out early, half-formed and half-finished, to meet the need for exciting new Genevieve material (and to get across the point that the Yeovil books are about Genevieve).
This is pretty much the only way the scenes with Detlef and Genevieve in Beasts In Velvet make sense – they certainly add nothing to the novel – but despite this sour note there’s a lot to love about this volume. Setting the action in the Imperial capital of Altdorf in a time of increasing social unrest, Yeovil takes his inspiration from real life, as a serial killer whose crimes bear a close resemblance to Jack the Ripper’s stalks the city and circumstantial evidence suggests that the villain is a member of the hated aristocracy.
A note on this real-world inspiration, by the way: it’s at around this point in Jack Yeovil’s writing that he starts playfully incorporating heavily modified versions of real-world people and events, and characters from other fictional works, into his Warhammer stories. On one hand, considering that the Warhammer world is essentially a twisted reflection of our own at any point in history ranging from the Dark Ages to the Victorian era, this approach makes a certain amount of sense. But when you’re confronted by characters with names like Filthy Harald, Dickon of the Dock Watch, and Mikael Hasselstein, it begins to get a little jarring, as if you’re reading a subpar Pratchett imitator or something. Interestingly, Yeovil indulges this playful punning tendency of his mainly in the earlier part of the book, and it’s a testament to his skill that he almost convinced me to forget the real-world analogues in the second half, but it’s still a case of him setting up a completely needless hurdle for himself to clear.
Luckily, he clears it with ease. Just as tightly plotted as Drachenfels, Beasts In Velvet repeats its predecessor’s trick of convincing you that there’s far more material stuffed into its 260 pages than there actually is. Although it regularly references other Jack Yeovil stories, it does so in a way which necessitates no prior knowledge of them, rather using them to pepper the main story with subplots – one of the characters on the trail of the Beast is motivated by his concern that his Chaos-tainted brother might be the villain, whilst a clique of Chaos cultists conspire to use the social instability provoked by the murders to their advantage in a beautifully Machiavellian (and yet refreshingly half-believable) manner. As far as the main plot goes, Yeovil’s skilled misdirection had me guessing until the very end, and the final revelation of the murderer was suitably striking; however, I have to take issue with the Beast’s backstory, and specificially the fact that Yeovil felt the need to provide one. To me, the sort of pat pop-psychology explanation for why serial killers in fiction do what they do always, always, always falls flat (this is at least one reason why Hannibal Lecter upstages the actual antagonists in the novels of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs), and the one provided for the Beast is especially weak, so much so that I wonder whether it wasn’t another instance of editorial meddling. (Also, the ending somewhat undermines what appeared to be one of the more interesting aspects of the series, that being its willingness to directly address the topic of sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular – pretty much uniquely in Warhammer tie-in fiction, at least at the time.)
Next to Drachenfels, Beasts In Velvet can’t help but come second place, simply because its predecessor lacked editorial meddling and a really weak ending and slightly unnecessary references to other Warhammer novels and short stories by Yeovil and others. It’s still excellent reading, but I don’t think it transcends the limits of its origins in the way that Drachenfels did – if anything, it’s stifled by them.
Not so much a novel as a collection of three novellas, each connected by the presence of Genevieve and a few recurring themes and supporting characters, Genevieve Undead is somewhat less ambitious in scope than Drachenfels and Beasts In Velvet; each story both illuminates part of Genevieve’s continuing saga, tells an interesting tale in its own right, and pays tribute to great horror fiction of the past, with a far higher reliance on real-world and fictional references than Beasts In Velvet.
Stage Blood, the first story, most obviously pays tribute to The Phantom of the Opera, and to a lesser extent Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Having survived the events of Drachenfels, Detlef and Genevieve have returned to Altdorf, the capital of the Empire, where Detlef becomes the genius-in-residence of a prestigious and aged theatre, which comes complete with its own ghost (who, naturally, is coaching one of the actresses in order to develop her talent). However, unable to forget the harrowing events of Drachenfels, Detlef has found his state of mind becoming increasingly morbid, depressed, and nihilistic, and his output is matching; his latest play brings out the best in his actors onstage but the worst offstage, and is being targeted for closure by the authorities. And Drachenfels’ final revenge, a cursed mask bent on the destruction of the Great Enchanter’s killers and which hides underneath the flesh of those who wear it, is making its way to Altdorf for a final confrontation.
To be honest, I find the whole “Drachenfels’ final revenge” angle to be the most difficult element of the story to deal with. Don’t get me wrong: the evil mask is scary and cool, and its slow and inexorable progress towards Altdorf ramps up the tension nicely. The problem is the Drachenfels connection: it just seems a bit unimaginative, especially since neither of the other stories in this collection feel the need to dredge the old bastard up again. The mask could, in fact, have been given a connection to the sinister play that Detlef is staging instead, and then it would fulfil exactly the same role but this time Stage Blood would have been spared of being Drachenfels, Part II, which it really didn’t need to be.
That said, I also wonder whether the introduction of an outside element to the little theatre community that Yeovil portrays in order to spark off the action isn’t just a little unnecessary. Come on: you’ve got a play the authorities are nervous about, a fucked-up mutant playwright lurking underneath the theatre, a young rising talent provoking the jealousy of a younger actress whose star is fading, you’ve got Detlef slowly losing his mind to a gloomy acceptance that the world is a shitheap of evil and there’s no point not embracing the evil in yourself, and you’ve got Genevieve wondering whether her regular feeding off of Detlef might have something to do with him becoming a total gothy gothy goth-goth with murder fantasies. By my reckoning, you’ve got all the moving parts needed to have a story running like a well-oiled engine without throwing an evil mask into the works, and I suspect if Yeovil had spent a little more time polishing the story he’d have found a way to do so. Aside from feeling a little cluttered and a little redundant (seriously, the whole premise of Drachenfels was “aha! you thought the Great Enchanter was gone but his evil remains!”, do we really need to go over the same territory twice?), Stage Blood still manages to be highly effective in its portrayal of a small circle of friends and colleagues shattered by forces which bring out the worst in them.
The Cold Stark House takes the tribute/parody strand and cranks it up to 11. The house of the title is the estate of the extended family of ancient aristocrat Melmoth Udolpho, and if you’ve spotted that he’s named after two old-timey Gothic novels (Melmoth the Wanderer and The Mysteries of Udolpho) then you’re in for a treat here. The Udolpho household labours under a curse that centres around the eternal squabbling over Melmoth’s will and the lost treasure of the Black Cygnet; time and again the denizens of the Udolpho estate grapple with murder, deformity, ghosts, madness, and all the other hallmarks of melodramatic gothic fiction in order to win Melmoth’s favour. A vampire or two will fit right in, and we find Genevieve trapped in the vortex of gloom that is the Udolpho mansion at the beginning of the story – but when a Prince of the Empire turned revolutionary agitator and two of his fellow-travellers blunder into the scene, she has a chance to escape. Easily the most comic of the stories in this collection, The Cold Stark House is pretty dang hilarious if you’ve even vaguely familiar with the sort of stories it parodies, but might fall a bit flat otherwise.
The final story is Unicorn Ivory, both the least comedic and the most restrained of the stories in Genevieve Undead. As a result of delicate machinations in Altdorf, Genevieve has been reluctantly slipped into the hunting party of Graf Rudiger, a high-ranking aristocrat. Rudiger is intent on bagging the horn of a unicorn mare before the hunting season is out; Genevieve, meanwhile, is on a mission to assassinate Rudiger, but has doubts as to whether she can actually go through with the deed. When one of the guests ends up sleeping with the host’s current mistress, Rudiger decides to forget about the unicorns and hunt The Most Dangerous Game instead, and by the time the story finishes it transpires that Rudiger is far more of a monster than Genevieve could ever hope to be.
Unicorn Ivory closes with Genevieve drifting away from civilisation having broken her personal taboos and tasted the thrill of hunting human beings that the Truly Dead enjoy, although there are signs that she has managed to pull back from the brink and, indeed, receives a strange sort of forgiveness from an unlikely source. As with each of the other stories in Genevieve Undead, it’s an exercise in trying to do something a little different in the Warhammer background. To be fair, Yeovil also tries out this sort of experiment with the other books in the series, except in Genevieve Undead he appears to be going further. This, and the preponderance of references to real-world fiction and people, makes me feel less as though I am reading a book of finished, polished Vampire Genevieve stories and more digging through Yeovil’s rough notes, watching him try out ideas and play around with his characters to see what works and what doesn’t. It all fits in uncomfortably well with my suspicions about editorial meddling in Beasts In Velvet and unwarranted pressure on Yeovil to deliver more Genevieve. Genevieve Undead is easily the weakest of the three pre-Black Library volumes in the series, although if you’re in the mood for above-average dark fantasy with an occasional comedic edge written by a guy with a deep understanding of the history of the horror genre and a willingness to play with its conventions you could do a lot worse.
Like Genevieve Undead, Silver Nails is an example of Games Workshop/Black Library’s maddening habit of referring to collections of short stories as “novels” simply because all the stories happened to be written by the same author. Unfortunately, the stories therein aren’t especially worth the effort. If the three original Jack Yeovil volumes comprise an album on CD, Silver Nails consists of the bonus tracks: the bulk of the book consists of three long stories that Newman/Yeovil rattled off for various Games Workshop multi-author compilations, and there’s a couple of new (or at least not previously published) stories that seem to have been slipped in to round off the series. Not all of the stories concern Genevieve – there’s a nice solo outing for Filthy Harald and his clairvoyant squeeze, two of the more interesting protagonists from Beasts In Velvet – and completists will doubtlessly want this volume to fill in the cracks in the Jack Yeovil canon, especially since elements of the earlier stories in the collection pop up in Beasts In Velvet.
Unfortunately, said earlier stories seem to have been scribbled down briefly for the sole purpose of paying the bills. Barely halfway through the first of them – Red Thirst – I gave up. Part of it was due to the pacing being just very slightly off – a bit too much time spent on establishing the characters, too much effort explaining Genevieve’s backstory, a few too many heavy-handed attempts to foreshadow the events of Drachenfels (which Red Thirst was written after, but is set before), and not enough attention spent on the actual plot of the story. Incidentally, Red Thirst also opens up a gaping plot hole in Beasts In Velvet: Genevieve learns in Red Thirst that a particular character who is currently kicking up a very loud, city-wide fuss in Beasts In Velvet happens to be a Chaos abomination, so why doesn’t she do anything about it? It’s not problematic, of course, if Genevieve isn’t in Altdorf during the events of Beasts In Velvet, so I choose to consider this as further evidence that the Genevieve scenes in Beasts are editorially-demanded insertions. Lacking the playful real-world allusions of Genevieve Undead, Red Thirst was simply a bore.
Flipping through the rest of the book and dipping in here and there, I saw enough bad portents to put me off tackling the rest. The other early tales seem to be similarly weak; the two new stories seem to be misguided attempts to tie up loose ends that honestly don’t need to be tied up. Warhawk, the Filthy Harald story I mentioned earlier, involves him chasing down a less interesting serial killer than the one in Beasts In Velvet. The ridiculously-named The Ibby the Fish Factor seems to be Yeovil trying to write a happy ending to the series, climaxing with Detlef and Genevieve getting married. Not only does this story entirely invalidate the original conclusion to Genevieve Undead, which struck me as being as decent a way to draw a line under the character as any, it also seems to shine a direct light on an issue with all of the Genevieve stories which, perhaps, should have remained tucked away in the shadows: namely, the treatment of the undead in the Empire.
To be blunt, I feel that Newman is inconsistent throughout the Genevieve stories in his portrayal of how the Empire views vampires and the undead. Yeovil follows Games Workshop canon in terms of the Empire being extremely fearful of non-humans (and ex-humans, such as Chaos-warped mutants and the undead), with halflings and elves and dwarves being notable exceptions; he deviates from it where he depicts Genevieve and other undead individuals being tolerated, if not trusted. This much is fair enough; I don’t demand that tie-in fiction remains consistent with central canon, although I do feel that if an author is trying to write a series of stories set in the same chronology they should be internally consistent.
Here’s my problem. I can totally accept the idea of the Empire being a vampire-hating society in which Genevieve is tolerated as an exception, thanks to her role in the fall of Drachenfels. I can equally grasp the concept of the Empire being a vampire-hating society where there are hidden conclaves of vampires who hide from society and try to overcome their baser instincts. What does not make sense to me is the idea that the Empire is a society that loathes and hates vampires with a fervour comparable to that with which it fears and hates Chaos or orcs, but where taverns full of the undead are allowed to exist in Altdorf, the nation’s capital. It’s like a tribe of orcs visiting the city to do some shopping, or the Chaos cults being allowed to openly build a temple. The very idea is not only incredibly inconsistent with Games Workshop canon, it is also incredibly difficult to reconcile with the social attitudes depicted in Yeovil’s books, and it’s the latter which I object to.
You can imagine, then, that it would hack me off a bit to find that the conclusion to the series not only involves a vampire’s wedding being presided over by a high priest of Sigmar, patron god of the Empire, but also involves extensive scenes set within the very tavern that does such a horrible mischief to my suspension of disbelief.
You should have left her in the woods, Jack.
The Canary Says
Of all of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novels that I have reviewed for Ferretbrain, Drachenfels is the only one where I will argue until I’m blue in the face that it transcends the limitations of its origins and deserves to be considered as a relevant and important work in its own right, and that you really ought to give it a chance even if you otherwise have no interest in Warhammer.
Unfortunately, Yeovil fails to keep up this standard. Beasts In Velvet is excellent, but it’s marred somewhat by the occasional misstep and a slight over-reliance on previous stories. The two short story volumes are utterly forgettable. Seek out Drachenfels wherever it may be found, and by all means track down Beasts In Velvet if you want more, but you can forget about Genevieve Undead and Silver Nails. The one-volume compilation, The Vampire Genevieve, is widely available and contains all four volumes, although given that half of it is dispensable you might want to see if you can get it second-hand.