It’s no secret that generally I’d much rather pick up a 40k novel than a Fantasy one when it comes to the Black Library, I have recently rediscovered my love for the Horus Heresy Series, as you may have read from previous reviews and there always seems to be something else on the list to read to do with the Warp and Boltguns. However from time to time ill immerse myself in tales of Skaven and Dwarves and the like and it was with such a mindset that I delved into Headtaker by David Guymer.
My only previous exposure to this Authors work was a series of short stories in the Hammer and Bolter series that were of mixed quality to say the least, so it would be interesting to see how he would fare with the extended narrative of a novel. The Skaven also make for quite easy writing with much of the groundwork having already been laid by Authors such as Bill King in his Gotrek and Felix Books and I was looking forward to seeing how Guymer would portray Queek Headtaker without the character devolving to a shallow caricature.
In this at least I was not disappointed. The authors ability for characterization is excellent. Queek is savage, cunning and malicious just like a Skaven should be, but above all else he is batshit crazy. His insanity fairly blazes off the pages and it is to the authors credit that he does not come off as some lunatic toon instead being conveyed with a startling amount of depth. There is a palpable danger to Queek and it is very evident, he’s not just another mad rat (though he does enjoy a good natter with his trophies) Definitely a very memorable character and the lynchpin of the book, though obviously there are a number of supporting rats vying for supremacy.
These too are well written, just the right side of sneaky and cowardly without being two dimensional. They are also refreshingly different, without becoming clones of each other or generic. I would go as far as to say that this is probably the best outing for the Skaven I have ever read, musk of fear, doublespeak, scurrying and backstabbing pervade the pages yet without the comedic aspect that can often feature and diminish the Ratmen. Guymer if nothing else should be applauded for giving the Skaven a real edge here and portraying them with menace. They are a credible threat throughout, Queek in particular, the difference of course being that Queek is capable of feats on his own that other Skaven rely on numbers to perform.
The Dwarf characters in the book also fare well, doughty and stubborn where needed yet portrayed with a refreshing amount of depth. Of course drinking, grudges and honour all feature prominently but there are some backstories and character developments that really enhance the readers enjoyment, including a great passage on how a Dwarf becomes a Slayer. Although the King Kazador is given short shrift in the characterization department the supporting (no not his Shieldbearers) cast is excellent with some good variety. From Beardlings to the most Venerable Longbeards the diminutive warriors are given a good account. There is also a small supporting cast of Humans and Orcs and Goblins but these feature relatively little in the story and certainly don’t hold up to the main protagonists.
Which makes it a shame that the plot is so throwaway, im not sure if it is the way it was written or if it is just a weak story in general but it certainly didn’t grab me, there are a few sections here and there that were memorable but the overall narrative arc left me very nonplussed. Its not like it’s the twists or inevitable Skaven betrayals that cause problems, and I don’t think that there are too many subplots and threads or ‘Spiderman 3 Syndrome’ its just not very gripping. Even Lee, who lent me the book in the first place couldn’t recall the plot when we were discussing it. It’s a real shame and the characters in the book deserved much more. Overall I would describe Headtaker as a novel with outstanding vivid characters that are the highpoint of an otherwise unmemorable book. Not a complete write off by any means but it’ll not live long in the memory and hasnt convinced me to abandon the 41st Millennium anytime soon.
3 Scheming ratmen out of 5.