01/10/2009. Contributed by Neale Monkes
pub: Orbit. 736 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-572-9).
check out website: www.orbitbooks.net
While he isn't well known in the English-speaking world, 'The 'Dwarf' series of books by Markus Heitz have been a major success in Germany. There's even work going on to turn the first book into a film. It's taken a few years for the first book, 'The Dwarves', to appear in English, but it has now. Was it worth the wait?
The story is centred around a dwarf called Tungdil, brought up among humans rather than his own kind. Ignorant of the bigger battles going on around him, he has a pleasant enough life in the fortress of a human wizard, Lot-Ionan. He's sent out on an what seems a simple enough errand, but finds himself the hero in a battle between good and evil. Along the way, he makes allies as well as enemies, finds out about his place in Dwarven society and even manages to find love.
It's simple enough stuff really and really nothing more than a new version of the standard hero myth. The background world against which the drama unfolds will be instantly familiar to anyone who reads fantasy novels, what with its dwarves and elves, wizards and demons. That a major part of the great enemy's forces are zombies adds an almost cinematic twist and the evil elves, known as Älfar, throws a bone in the direction of fantasy role-players attached to the Drow. So while the story isn't particularly original, it's handled in such a way the whole thing is fresh and exciting.
As you'd expect from the title, it's the dwarves that take centre stage in virtually every scene. In many ways these are the dwarves of folklore as well as fantasy literature, but Heitz had updated them somewhat, creating an engaging new take on these well-loved humanoids. Their skill as masons and metalworkers is respected, but they're engineers as well, having invented not just furnaces and artillery but even steam engines and an underground railway! The dwarves are also portrayed as first class warriors, perhaps the toughest in the world.
In fact, one of the two main plots is centred around dwarven politics, specifically who'll become High King when the present one dies. Tungdil finds himself being manipulated by one faction into competing against the other claimant and in the process finds out about dwarven culture, history and ultimately his own origins. The conclusion, when it comes, is nicely done, with both the major plots coming to a close while drawing together a bunch of different threads that had been running through the book.
'The Dwarves' was originally published in German in 2003 and was an instant bestseller. The English translation by Sally-Ann Spencer is remarkably good and while the dialogue is sometimes a little dry, it's still easy to read.
Really, only a couple of things standout as annoyances. The first is the use of diacritical marks in proper nouns. Much beloved by Tolkien and emulated throughout fantasy fiction, diacritical marks make names look more exotic, yes, but they only make sense if the adjustment they make to the letter they're attached to is explained. English doesn't use diacritical marks, so by themselves they don't mean anything. Tolkien, of course, was very into languages and the appendices of 'The Lord Of The Rings' and 'The Silmarillion' explain how to pronounce vowels with diacritical marks whenever they appear. Not so in 'The Dwarves' and doubtless most English readers will simply ignore them.
The other annoyance is the use of alternate names for standard units of time, such as 'orbit' for 'day' and 'cycle' for 'year'. Again, this sort of thing is common enough in fantasy literature but in this case, it's redundant. Had the days of the week been given different names that might make sense, since you'd expect different cultures to name their days of the week after different gods or whatever. But simply synonymising one word for another in the way it's done here doesn't really add anything to the book and in fact actually makes things less clear. A day isn't an orbit of anything, it's the time it takes a planet to revolve around it's axis, so if anything, a time interval called an 'orbit' would more properly be either a month (the time it takes for a moon to orbit its planet) or a year (the time it takes for a planet to orbit its sun).
But these minor issues shouldn't distract the potential reader from what is ultimately an excellent book. 'The Dwarves' is exciting, well-paced and sufficiently complex to keep the reader interested right to the very end. Ostensibly, the first of a series of four books, 'The Dwarves' stands alone perfectly well as a great example of action-oriented and unfussy quest literature. Highly recommended.
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