World of Warcraft will be growing soon with the Battle for Azeroth expansion. The story’s premise marks a return to the faction war after the defeat of the Burning Legion. Horde and Alliance worked cooperatively to bring down Sargeras and his forces in Legion. However, peace is a fragile thing and tensions are mounting between the two for many reasons. After Sargera’s massive sword plunged into the heart of Azeroth itself, each side is rushing to discover what the mysterious substance is bubbling out of the ground and how it can be best put to use…or to be kept out of the hands of their opponent.
Horde and Alliance, at least in theory, will be making tough choices. These may, Ion Hazzikostas said in a recent Q&A, seem morally gray, but will, in the end, be for the greater good.
“Evil is a matter of perspective,” Hazzikostas said in April. “Warcraft is supposed to involve shades of gray.”
It is here that the prequel novel, Before the Storm, begins. Penned by prolific New York Times best-selling author Christie Golden, the novel by design is provided to lay the groundwork for the Battle for Azeroth expansion. How well does it succeed in providing context for both sides of the story? Is each faction shown making “morally gray” choices that may be construed as evil by opponents?
Sylvanas Windrunner, Warchief of the Horde, and her Alliance counterpart, King Anduin Wrynn have discovered a mysterious substance called Azerite. Each is caught off guard by the sheer power of the substance and the potential it has for good or evil in the world. Predictably, and falling along pure Blue or Red lines, the Alliance sees it as a powerfully positive substance – but one that must be kept out of the hands of the Horde. The Horde sees it as something that can and should be weaponized to secure its future on Azeroth.
The book is no less predictable in its portrayal of good and evil as it meanders through its 280 or so pages. Everything, and I honestly and genuinely mean everything that Anduin Wrynn says or does is not just morally good and pure but is also perfectly moral and pure. He is wise beyond his years. Even seasoned generals and longtime racial leaders defer to his wisdom. His choices are all above reproach. On occasion, he feels pangs of guilt, yet even then, he never questions the righteousness of his cause or his belief in the Light.
Anduin is guided by his religious conviction of the purity of the Light, but he’s got even more surety with every decision he makes. In addition to the Light, he also has – and you’ll have to trust me on this one – “magic bones” (see Mists of Pandaria) that ache if he’s doing a bad thing or someone’s lying to him. If he is not in pain, then everything is A-OK.
In this context, the majority of Before the Storm is spent exploring Anduin’s motivations or the effect of his benevolence on those who surround him. Even Genn Greymane, King of Gilneas, leader of the Worgen people and one of the few potentially chaotic characters on the Alliance side, has been neutered (pun intended) by the actions and opinions of a neophyte 18-year-old boy who has taken on the mantle of King of Stormwind and leader of the Alliance.
In juxtaposition to Anduin’s overwhelmingly popular leadership, Sylvanas Windrunner is portrayed as a loner, a Warchief with no friends and no allies among the Horde’s racial leaders. When we read of her, Sylvanas’s inner thoughts are dismissive of others and she is always scheming and plotting against others. You can almost feel her twirling her black handlebar mustache while she does too.
The other Horde leaders do not trust her either, some in open defiance. In fact, we learn that Baine Bloodhoof, leader of the Tauren is consorting with the enemy. The book tells us that Baine has been a pen pal to Anduin Wrynn though not, he snorts, saying anything that might hurt the Horde’s cause. After being caught by Sylvanas, he is ordered to stop writing to Anduin. The Warchief threateningly does not accuse him of treason in front of others. She’ll keep that one in her back pocket tyvm. Baine grudgingly agrees to cut off communication, yet when his next letter is delivered to Anduin, it comes with both a sorrowful farewell and a piece of Baine’s horn as a token of friendship (page 110 in case you don't believe me). We never learn if Anduin returns a lock of hair tied up in Alliance blue. Honestly, this is beyond cheesy.
The stark differences between the two leaders – the All Good and the All Evil -- come to a head during a single day’s “ceasefire”. Without going into detail, the day does not turn out well which ultimately leads Anduin to say, “People can change. But some people will never – never – desire to do so. Sylvanas Windrunner is one of those. I believe that Sylvanas Windrunner is well and truly lost.”
Herein lies the problem: There is too much good. There is too much evil. There is NO nuance, no gray, no in between. Everything in Before the Storm sits firmly on one side or the other. Regardless whether you’re a Horde fan or an Alliance fan, you are left with an unsatisfying story. We want characters we can relate to and understand. We tread in the gray between darkness and light every single day. Because of that, we want to see the book’s characters face morally difficult challenges as we do. This makes them interesting to us and keeps us excitedly turning the pages. Before the Storm, sadly, at least throughout its overarching plot, does not.
It’s as if the game writers gave Golden the basic plot points for the expansion content and said, “Here. Go fill in the details.” Every action or decision Anduin or Sylvanas makes feels like something that Golden was told to write. It’s too bad too. The stories that Golden writes of the “in between”, the small everyday stories of individuals, are beautifully and movingly written.
For example, at one point, Anduin’s manservant, Wyll, is dying. This is a man that has served and raised Anduin and his father Varian – someone he has known his entire life. The scene between the two – the boy who is losing yet another beloved member of his inner circle, and the tired old man who wants to “go home – is heart wrenching. Other scenes of normal people – the ones who are most affected by the actions of their leaders – are Golden’s strength. Would that we had an entire collection of stories about them instead.
Christie Golden has proven herself eminently capable of telling great stories in the Warcraft universe -- some of her books about the early Horde are brilliant. But in Before the Storm, Golden's work seems stifled and driven by the game rather than her being allowed to do what she does best.
So in the end, Before the Storm is a weak effort. It simply fails to inspire fans on either side of the spectrum with its blinding adherence to the themes of good and evil. The world, the “real” one and the pixel one, is not so black and white.
PS And answer me this: When did Genn Greymane grow a tail? (page 210)
This review was written after reading a copy of Before the Storm provided by the publisher.