Mists of Pandaria is the World of WarCraft expansion prior to the current one, Warlords of Draenor, and is one that I’ve played for only a very, very small while. About a year and a half back or so I got some free-time from Blizzard and was allowed to play one level up so that I could be enticed into purchasing the full thing. It proved to be a great experience, but I was unable to go back. But I do remember the first zone being quite a good one, and the quests were indeed great too. I always get this immense sense of nostalgia when I play the game on free-time, knowing that I won’t be able to play it properly at level, but then, that’s why I read the novels, to make up for that.
Vol’jin: Shadows of the Horde is set in the opening stages of Mists of Pandaria and it has Garrosh betray the Troll leader, knocking down one of his many opponents in the Horde. From there on, we see how Vol’jin recovers at the Pandaren Shado-Pan Monastery under the supervision of his friend Chen Stormstout and how he defends this new land against its enemies, enemies which include the returned mogu, ancient enemies and slave-masters of the Pandaren, and also a resurgent Zandalari Troll Empire. It is a fairly good story, but there were definitely some parts where I think the story dragged on and on and dropped down into the tedium of connecting to the larger story of World of WarCraft.
Vol’jin: Shadows of The Horde is the first World of WarCraft novel in a good long while that I didn’t listen to the audio for, just the prose version. While ostensibly the cover shows Vol’jin and Chen Stormstout in an action-pose, much of the novel is spent trying to acclimate the leader of the Darkspear tribe with how things are in Pandaria. It is not a land he is familiar with, and that goes for the local Pandaren as well, who call the continent home, and are the masters of it. Following the cowardly ambush where he was betrayed by one of Garrosh’s fanatically loyal followers, he takes refuge at the Shado-Pan Monastery, the home of the Pandaren martial arts elite. His friend Chen is right alongside him in all things and Michael does an interesting thing with Vol’jin is paired up with a human warrior who is also there under somewhat similar circumstances.
It all ends up creating a very interesting dynamic between the characters, and we get to see some truly fascinating things happen. Vol’jin brings the mentality of his people, his tribe specifically, to the story and that is contrasted against the Pandaren view of life, which is about seeking the balance in all things. The gods of the Pandaren are different from the gods of the trolls and they are all different from the gods of the humans. The lands are different. The racial and cultural histories are different. And all of that clashes in the novel again and again, particularly since Vol’jin has to confront the alien Pandaren viewpoint, but also that of a Zandalari troll who seeks to turn him over to her master’s side, a choice given to but a few since Vol’jin is also a shadow hunter, one of the very, very few trolls of the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor who honor the ancient traditions of the spirits and the loa.
Much of the novel focuses on Vol’jin himself, which is apt since he is the titular hero of the novel, as some of the others have been before him, such as Jaina in Jaina Proudmoore: Tides of War. But by that same token, it is also a very slow since much of the first half is spent with Vol’jin at Shado-Pan as he recovers from his brutal attack and learns the ways of the Pandaren themselves. Michael mixes things up by “partnering” him with a human warrior, Tyrathan Kort, who is in a somewhat similar position, and the personalities of the two of them clash often, being from opposite sides of a conflict that has waged for several years now. Not to mention that there is an instinctive racial hatred between humans and trolls complicating matters, and that is exactly what the monks at Shado-Pan want both of them to fight against.
Like I said, the Pandaren are all about balance, whether in victory or defeat, and for them, a balanced stated between those two extremes is much more highly prized and regarded. A… well-fought stalemate you could say.
It is in the second half that the action really starts to take off and we see how Vol’jin, a troll who has endured much over the years, done much over the years even, comes to redefine himself in the wildlands of Pandaria. This is a pretty important change for the character, and Michael guides him along fairly well for the most part. I loved most Vol’jin’s conversations with the loa themselves, specifically Bwonsamdi, who has taken Vol’jin under his care, so to speak, and who becomes his guiding light during his unlooked-for travels in the lost continent. These scenes do much to inform on who the trolls are as a race and who Vol’in is as an individual. The fact that these scenes often bring in Vol’jin’s father as well, just goes to show how tight a web the author has created around the character, pulling him around in all directions in turn, and laying bare his inner mettle.
As someone who hasn’t been able to play in the expansion at all, the novel provides lots of rich details on the Pandaren and Pandaria itself. The culture, the life, the attitude, the philosophy, the belief, everything can be found here. And the titular character’s staunchest friend, Chen Stormstout, is our guide through these roads. I loved almost every scene with Chen in it. Yep, the Pandaren/Pandaria borrow a lot from old and not-so-old Chinese traditions, which enhanced the overall exoticness of the setting and the people, so there’s that going for the novel as well, and I think that Michael did a great job of exploring the Pandaren duality, all the more important since in the game the race is playable for both the Alliance and the Horde.
In the end, Vol’jin: Shadows of the Horde is a pretty good novel, but it could also have been a lot better if it had been trimmed a little in its first half, and the second half had been bulked up a bit more to show more of the Zandalari trolls and the mogu, and even more of the Pandaren themselves, who were all pretty excellent in the novel.