I’d like to spend this week talking about one of my favorite books: Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil AKA Kim Newman. It was originally published by Games Workshop in 1993 to promote their Warhammer Fantasy Battles line of minature wargaming products.
The story begins with the legendary battle of a band of lesser-known heroes against the mighty enchanter, Constant Drachenfels. Drachenfels is evil incarnate, and has been a plague on the world for hundreds of years. He has been quiet lately, which led to rumors of his potential demise, but more sensible folk doubt such rumors. The band invades his castle to do battle with this monster, only to fall, one by one, to the Enchanter’s wicked traps and vile servants. Only three reach the end of the quest: the throne room of Drachenfels!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Cut to twenty-five years later, when Prince Oswald von Konigswald, the young noble who led the expedition to vanquish Drachenfels, and reportedly the one who struck the killing blow, is gathering his old comrades together to celebrate their glorious victory. The celebration will consist of a re-enactment via play, written by one of the leading lights of the stage, playwright Detlef Sierck.
Sierck is currently rotting in debtor’s prison after a former patron abandoned him, refusing to pay the bills for the playwright’s previous, lavish production. Prince Oswald rescues him with the understanding that Sierck will write the play commemorating his heroic deeds of yore. Sierck sets to work crafting the production that will seal the glorious legend of Prince Oswald and his band of adventurers. No expense is to be spared – Prince Oswald has even had the evil Enchanter’s old castle cleared to re-enact the play under the most accurate conditions possible.
As the story proceeds, complications arise. Ghosts – rumored to be the victims of Drachenfels – begin to haunt the company. Prince Oswald’s father, one of the current Electors of the Empire and Grand Prince of Ostland, dies, leaving Oswald to take up these new responsibilities, and for some strange reason, there is sometimes a mysterious extra wagon in the train of props, players and scenery traveling to the castle for final rehearsals.
Drachenfels uses the classic “play-within-a-story” theme used to great effect by Shakespeare, among many others. This is a complicated story – which is not at all a criticism. In fact, I’ve found that over the course of nearly two decades I’ve re-read this book almost once a year and am always discovering something I missed.
It also benefits from the richly-detailed world of Warhammer, now thirty years in the making and with a lush background and history. Yeovil/Newman’s storytelling talents really shine here as well, as we are drawn into the world of Detlef Sierck, unlikely hero.
To say that the story has a twist to it is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a little wet. It twists and turns like an earthworm, but the rewards are well worth following the complex trail. The characters – and by extension the reader – don’t truly know until the very end what is really happening. People begin dying off in truly horrible ways once the company reaches the deserted castle, and it takes a heroic effort to avoid total calamity from befalling not only the assembled company, but the entire Empire itself.
Well worth you time to read, Drachenfels is, for me, one of the experiences that made me want to be a writer. I highly recommend it for any fan of high fantasy and/or mystery.