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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Dwarves by Markus Heitz

Let me start this post with a disclaimer:

Anyone who can finish a novel, and get it published has my utmost respect.  And more, they are in at least this one way far superior to me: they've the will to see it through.

Criticisms of this book might also be inappropriate for this reason:  The Dwarves is one of those few fantasy novels that bridged the language gap.  Every single other fantasy book I've ever read, and I've read many, were in English.  Translating from German is hard, and my philosophy professors always assured me, particularly the Germans, that a great deal is lost in even the best translation.  One of my central criticisms of this book is that the prose is simple to the point of being for a much younger audience, twelve to thirteen.  I suggest that this is the publisher's fault.  German is an exceedingly colorful language, and each word is dense with meaning.  This was not a book to go Hemmingway on.  But Americans are thought by editors at large to be fairly simplistic in their reading level, and so perhaps there is a sensible reason for this fault.  Compare the prose of The Dwarves to the prose of Erikson's from The Malazan Book of the Fallen and you'll see what I mean.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  There's enough going for it, that I'd consider reading the sequel.  As usual, I'd seen this title in the bookstore and admired its fine cover.  Not only that, but I was intrigued.  Dwarves are usually in the model of Gimli from LOTR, amusing sidekicks, or Flint from the Dragonlance Saga.  The implication, and truth of the title, is that this might be one of the first such fantasy novels where the hero is a dwarf.  The book had an interesting, relatively swift moving plot, some gruesome details, and an exciting conclusion.

Very well, let's get to the five.

1.  Character:  This is perhaps my primary complaint about the story.  The characters are very naive.  Naivety is only bearable when it proves a point, is a statement about the character, not the writer.  Rand Al'Thor starts out the Wheel of Time very naive.  But Jordan does this intentionally, to show that he's an eighteen year old boy from a farming village.  Every single character, except maybe one, the Maga Andokai are naive to the point of iritation.  And they say the lamest things to one another!  The main character Tungdil is the worst for this, but even the main vilain, the Nudin the Knowledge-Lusty (For real! Really, a better translation wasn't available?  Maybe Google translate did their translation) was exceptionally naive.  He ravages his own homeland, convinced that he's acting on the greater good.  This would be an interesting character development except that it's not really talked about much, save for one of the the story's modes: the play within the play.  And he has a good excuse, he's inhabited by a demon spirit.  Madness is intriguing, ethical decision making is intriguing, devil possession is passing the buck.  In this case, passing it to the sequel I imagine.

The other reason The Dwarves fell flat, is that the Dwarves themselves were remarkably bland.  There is an interesting mythology presented, five clans of dwarves, separated by their God, Vraccas. (*I was dismayed by the name Vraccas, in one of my own unfinished works of 2002, I'd chosen this exact name to be an evil god.)  The dwarven mythos is essential to the story, and is one of the most enjoyable elements.  But even so, detail regarding the lives of regular dwarves was incredibly sparse.  Worse, Heitz had an excellent vehicle for doing so, and since the main character is a foundling, every sentence between two dwarves would have added color.  It's like a six year old's coloring book, full of poorly colored shapes, many pages left entirely blank.  Worser:  There's millions of helpful dwarven cliches in other fantasy novels that could provide further description without dragging down the plot.  This is why cliche's are useful, they speak volumes.

2)  Let's talk about Cliche:  Heitz had two options here.  Use the old dwarven cliches laid down by Tolkien, and many since, or bust a nut and create something new.  Either would have worked well for me.  However, by using a familiar race, beloved of fantasy readers everywhere, Heitz had already consigned himself to a certain amount of necessary cliche.  Let's see here:  Dwarves are short: check.  Dwarves prefer underground mountainous lairs: check.  Dwarves hate magic: check.  Dwarves are long lived: check.  Dwarves prefer axes: check.  Dwarves are smiths: check.  Dwarves love gold: check.  Heitz had a subtle spin on the dwarven love of gold, he made it genetic.  By which I mean, Dwarves have the love of gold and gems intrinsically.  Men love gold too, but its generally admitted that we love it for the things, including sex and status, that it can get for us.  Dwarves just like how it looks, sort of like human women.  Heitz also used the dwarven cliche of using names that involve all of the above.  I enjoy this particular cliche quite a bit, so no problems here.  In fact, these standard fantasy cliche's held true for all of the races.  Let's coin a term, "LOTR Race Cliche" shall mean that Dwarves are short and bulbous, Elves are tall and fair, humans are enh, orcs are evil.

The Coming of Age cliche was also used to some degree, though somewhat inexplicalbly.  Tungdil is 60 years old when the story starts.  This is really only about a third of a dwarf's life.  But I'm at a third through my life, and I don't act like a twenty year old, so what's this guy's excuse?  Tungdil isn't immature, he's just completely innocent.  Naive, as stated above.  And it bugged the hell out of me.  At 60 years old, you've learned a lot about life, particularly when you've spent the entire time living among humans.  That's at least two generations of medieval humans he would have lived through.  Still there are some good reasons, he's never met a female of his race.  God knows, women give you gray hairs.  And he's never met a male of his race, so when he meets the story's comic relief, the warrior twins Boindil and Boendil, acting a bit childlike would be understandable.  This leads to a third cliche: Self-Actualization.

Coming of Age cliche's often become self-actualization cliches.  In the Eye of the World, Rand al'Thor becomes a man.  But through the remainder of the series, he continues to grow and change, leaving behind the Coming of Age cliche of the first book.  Tungdil has a problem: he knows nothing about his race, other than what he's read in books.  Fortunately for him, everything he ever learned in his books about dwarves was completely accurate.  This bothered me, again I felt like this book was aimed at thirteen year olds.  That would be fine, but good fantasy is aimed at a much broader audience, thirteen year olds included.  I don't need you to tell me that books are good, thank you very much. 

3.  Scope:  The scope of the novel was perfect.  The realm is called Girdlegard (again, an awful translation choice--literally, the land is wearing a girdle that guards it from evil.)  Still Girdlegard is small, with delineated borders, and the reader is not in any way made curious about what lies beyond those borders.  A common fantasy trope is to name off lands far distant without providing a purpose for these lands.  Such a trope is merely to show that that the story takes place in a larger land, not in space.  Personally, I prefer bounded lands because, well frankly, its easy to make up funny names and toss in a sentence about far away lands.  It's a bad writers trick (I know, I use it)  Heitz doesn't indulge.  That said, there are just too many lands for a fairly simple story.  Were six human kingdoms really necessary?  No.  Only two are relevant.  In contrast, the five dwarven realms are completely relevant, and tantalizingly explained.  I mentioned in my last post how difficult it is to indicate scope without falling into such tropes, but Heitz sidesteps the issue very nicely.

To the Blight (The Eye of the World, Book 2)4.  Magic:  The story starts out with there being six main Magi, male and female.  And they save the realm from another cliche, The Perished Land. Not unlike Jordan's Blight.  Nothing grows in the Perished Land, and anyone who dies in it is forced to walk the land as a revenant, enslaved to the will of some gaseous form of evil that is only hinted at.  Magic isn't really explained, and Heitz falls back on more cliches, spell books, runes, jars of ingredients, eye of newt, you know the deal.  One thing for sure about magic.  You can eat other Magi's magical power.  Guess how.  It's an important plot point, but Heitz doesn't bother to explain it.  And maybe he's right--Dwarves hate magic.  And if nothing else, The Dwarves, is about Dwarves.  One fairly interesting and enjoyable part of the story is that, much of the book is taken up with quests searching for magical artifacts.  This is something fairly rare in fantasy of the past twenty years which is primarily character driven.  I don't want to spoil the novel, but it becomes clear in the first fifty pages, that the big bad can't be killed with the usual assortment of weaponry.  Magical weapons are cool, and anyone who ever played a fantasy board game, videogame or the beknighted Dungeons and Dragons knows it.

5.  Theme:  It's hard to get a handle on the overall theme of The Dwarves.  It might be too basic.  If the prose were more detailed, or better translated, I could make a better stab.  The Perished Land isn't particularly dark or frightening, and the revenants can talk, and in some cases, even be completely normal.  So darkness as a theme is out.  I guess if I had to peg it, I'd say, unity.  There's a weird scene in the end, after the big bad is beat, where a minor character makes a speech about unity between the races.  Given the happy-go-lucky nature of the characters, this theme seems to be the most prevalent.  I can't complain, go Unity.  Go Peace.  But...again, I'm not thirteen.

If the cover weren't so groovy, I'd tell you to borrow a copy.  Want mine? 


  1. Your review is spot on. Since very early exposure to Dungeons and Dragons (1979), I've always been fascinated with the race of Dwarves... I feel I can identify with many of their ideals. I read anything I can find about them, and yes I still play D&D and usually play Dwarves. I enjoyed this book, but by far the one point that annoyed me so much that I just gave up and gave away the book is that the twins, especially the more belligerant, almost insane one, keeps doing and saying the same things, over and over, regardless of the situation. He's got no depth of character whatsoever. Thank you for your review!

  2. what is the setting on the book

  3. Glad you liked it Tim, and thanks for your review! The book did inspire me to write a dwarf related story of my own, so it's wasn't without purpose!