It’s been close a to a year since the last World of Warcraft novel was released. This Tuesday we’ll be getting another with World of Warcraft: Illidan, by William King, a newcomer to the Blizzard novelizations scene. Have you ever wondered exactly what was going on during The Burning Crusade‘s convoluted story? Pondered what its like to become and live as a demon hunter? If Illidan really is “the Betrayer” everyone makes him out to be? Want to know how William King stands against previous Warcraft novel authors? If you answered yes to any of these, read on!
NOTE: This review contains MINOR SPOILERS for the novel. You have been warned.
I enjoyed World of Warcraft: Illidan a great deal. It made me nostalgic for Outland and sad that we’ll not get to see groups like the Broken and Illidari (the original Outland version, not just the demon hunters and remnants we’ll be seeing in Legion) given the depth and characterization that races and cultures from later expansions have received. However, I can see the novel being very divisive among potential readers. Your personal opinion on Illidan as a character, and how you like your “grim and grittiness” will be the main influences on how much you’ll enjoy Illidan. Now that my general opinion is out of the way, let’s look in-depth on various aspects of the book.
This is the first novel William King has written in the Warcraft setting and he holds up well compared to his predecessors. King is excellent at getting into character’s minds and delivering unsettling content. Much like the last new author to dive into WoW novels, Michael A. Stackpole, King has written a much darker tale than those of Richard Knaak or Christie Golden. Illidan is probably the darkest World of Warcraft novel yet released, though Vol’jin: Shadows of the Horde comes in a close second. Violence is described in more lurid detail than other WoW novel (alongside the aforementioned Shadows of the Horde). Demons heads are torn open so their brains can fall out, a child is disemboweled and eaten by a felhunter, a demon hunger gouging his eyes out is described in graphic detail, Maiev is forced to eat food that her Broken captors have urinated in. In short, think more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings.
Illidan is told through the third-person subjective point of view of three alternating characters: Maiev, a demon hunter initiate named Vandel, and Illidan himself. Some chapters focus on Akama, but not to the degree of the main three. For those wondering about potential ‘whitewashing’ of Illidan’s villainous actions, while he is portrayed as a much better person than The Burning Crusade would have you believe, no one comes out of the plot a strictly “heroic” figure. Even the player characters are treated at best as fools who have been tricked into doing the Legion’s bidding. While Illidan’s actions in Outland are explained and given context to make him more understandable and likable, he still commits several atrocities which can’t be easily forgiven. Maiev is closer to her crazy, future raid boss personality from World of Warcraft: Wolfheart, and nearly becomes the final boss of the Black Temple. Akama is incompetent and indirectly and unknowingly stops Illidan from potentially dealing a crippling blow to the Legion. Even the naaru, Scryers, and Aldor are portrayed as hypocrites who end up “betraying” both Maiev and Illidan.
As an entirely new character, I feel Vandel deserves a paragraph to himself. A night elf who comes to Outland to train as a demon hunter, Vandel is for all intents and purposes a stand in for player demon hunters in Legion. Vandel’s chapters tell the reader exactly how one becomes a demon hunter, what it feels like to live as one post-transformation, how the demon hunters see Illidan, how they handle their literal “inner demon”… in other words, if you plan to RP a demon hunter in Legion, this is required reading. However from a story standpoint, Vandel has some issues that depend on what happens to the character. As I said, he feels like a stand-in for the player, which also includes his importance to the narrative, serving as Illidan’s closest confidant. By the end of Illidan, Vandel is set up for a very important role in Legion. However it follows many other original novel characters and he doesn’t shown up in-game, then his existence will feel rather pointless and self-insert-like. It’s also a little weird that none of the demon hunter characters from Legion appear with Vandel. Given his personality and relationship to Illidan, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vandel was originally planned to be Illidari second-in-command Kayn Sunfury.
While the cover art uses the Legion design for the World of Warcraft logo, this book really doesn’t have much to do with the expansion. Yes Illidan is in it and it explains where all the playable demon hunters came from, but for the most part this is a novelization of The Burning Crusade. As the expansion with the hardest to follow plot, as even Chris Metzen has acknowledged, this is a welcome choice. Why did the Legion re-open the Dark Portal? What exactly were they doing on Outland? Why were we fighting Illidan with seemingly no provocation? What was Illidan even doing? All of these questions are answered and The Burning Crusade (up until Illidan’s death) is clarified as a story about misunderstanding and manipulation on all sides.
Illidan also gives some tantalizing glimpses into the inner workings of the Burning Legion. The “only one Legion across all realities” concept is discussed, and we get to see two of the Legion homeworlds, Nathreza and Argus. Argus in particular is described in such detail that I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up visiting it for a raid or daily area in Legion.
Perhaps my favorite part of Illidan, however, is the raid on the Black Temple. King adapts the in-game events to text in a way that is extremely fun to read. All of Illidan’s dialogue is transcribed, and each phase of his boss fight is lovingly replicated. The player characters are written in a simple yet effective way, referred to just as “the warlock” or “a paladin.” It is difficult to get across without directly transcribing the scene, but at least in my opinion it far succeeds Jaina Proudmoore: Tides of War‘s attempt to bring the player characters into the narrative.
As The Red Shirt Guy, I feel it necessary to point out that there are some minor factual errors. Maiev reminisces about Darnassus often, despite the fact that most scenes in which she mentions the city take place before Darnassus even existed. Those which take place after the creation of Teldrassil and Darnassus aren’t any better, as Maiev has been on Outland the entire time and still should be unaware of them. Second, there is no explanation for where all of Illidan’s demon hunter initiates came from. He began training them before the Dark Portal re-opened, and while the blood elf demon hunters were part of Kael’thas’ forces, the many night elf demon hunters are given no explanation for how they got to Outland. Vandel simply mentions that they traveled from all corners of Azeroth to join Illidan. Some even came from Eversong Woods, Vandel notes. Unless this is a reference to the night elf spies in Eversong, or just a strangely worded reference to some blood elf demon hunters, I’m not sure what nigh elves from Eversong he’s talking about.
On a final note, I shall try to discuss, without spoilers, a portion of the ending which has already sparked huge debate in the fanbase. A certain event near the end of the novel, shortly before the raid on the Black Temple, has a lore bombshell with long-standing implications for the future of the Warcraft setting and Illidan as a character. I personally am neutral on it, I’d need to see how the information is handled in execution, but for readers its going to be a very “love it or hate it” moment. It’s only a small portion of the book however, and the rest is a solid character study of Illidan, Maiev, Akama, and Vandel, as well as an excellent novelization of what actually happened during our adventures in Outland.
World of Warcraft: Illidan by William King is in stores and available online now!