Demonsbane Review, by Flux
Demonsbane is an action-packed novella set in the Diablo world, with the events taking place around 800 years before the time of Diablo I, during the Sin War. In that era the forces of Hell were running amok in the mortal realm, encountering sporadic resistance from mostly bewildered humans who sometimes received assistance from the forces of Heaven in these battles.
First, a little Diablo-world history:
Though the realms of “Hell” and “Heaven” are at least somewhat inspired by names and places in the Bible, there is no dualism in the Diablo world. That is to say there is no head God or Devil in charge of their forces. To quote from the Afterword of Demonsbane, speaking about the overall struggle in the Diablo mythology:
“It is a deeply religious mythology, based on the war between Satan and God in the Anglo-Saxon book of Genesis.”
Hell boasts a number of greater evils, and while the hierarchy of the Forces of the High Heavens have never been clearly explained, there are powerful Archangels, of which Tyrael is the most familiar and most prominent. He presented the Soulstones to the mages who captured Diablo, Baal, and Mephisto in them, though we now know (from the plot of Diablo II) that this was part of the plan of the Prime Evils, to use the power of the Soulstones to amplify their own magical powers.
The legions of the Burning Hells are evil and bent on murdering or enslaving all human kind. Why? Well, mostly because they enjoy that sort of thing (and who doesn’t?), but also because they seek to render the Mortal Realm an outpost of Hell, from which the demons could then assault the Heavens. However, just because the demons are the enemy of humanity, that doesn’t mean that the Angels are our allies. The Angels’ goal is to protect themselves from the demons, and whether humans live or die serving that end isn’t of great concern to many of them. Few of the Archangels involve themselves directly in events where mortal eyes may spy them, so Tyrael is unusual in his direct actions and concern for human well-being.
On to the story:
The events in Demonsbane tell the tale of Siggard, a warrior who awakes lost and confused on the “Night of Souls” the equivalent of Halloween, a night when spirits may rise and roam the misty woods and fields. Siggard’s last memories are of a tremendous battle against teeming forces of Hell, monsters that correspond to Fallen, Hidden, Goatmen, and others familiar to anyone who played Diablo I. Siggard doesn’t remember how he escaped the battle alive, or how he got to the dark woods he now finds himself in. He yearns to return to the scene of the battle and see what happened there, but more he yearns to return home to his wife and new child.
Siggard soon encounters and is befriended by a sorcerer, Sarnakyle of Kehjistan, one of the Vizjerei Mages. The remainder of the novella recounts their travels over about a week’s time, as they trail the forces of hell, seek out Siggard’s home village, and eventually spearhead the larger battle against the demons.
Through the story we encounter numerous names we should be familiar with from the two games, including Tyrael, Arkaine, Bartuc, and others. It is nice to hear about familiar figures, and their actions in the Sin War, long before anything directly seen in the Diablo games.
The action in the novella is the best feature, and there is no shortage of it. Battle scenes are frequent, fast and violent, with graphic gore and blood. While there isn’t any sexual content, the story is definitely not for the squeamish, as innocents are slaughtered, heads are severed and seen stacked into pyramids, bellies are disemboweled, and demons and humans die by the score. There are large scale battles, including a siege, as well as massive magical effects, enchanted blades (one of the best scenes in the book involves Siggard discovering his magical sword) with undead guardians, and much more. Another good bit is some history about the mage clans, and how disastrous events turned them from Summoning back to their roots of elemental magics.
The plot isn’t forgotten though; there is a reason for the action and it’s never just mindless carnage. Siggard is on a mission of revenge, and though achieving it seems impossible, given the odds stacked against him.
While I enjoyed the novella, I’m honor-bound to offer some critical words. I would have liked to have read more about the characters, and had more conversation about things other than battle. Also, most of the lesser characters were not very developed; there were just a lot of soldiers and guards who fought and died, and we never learned anything about them as individuals. I would also have enjoyed seeing some female characters. With a mage and warrior, corresponding to the characters of the same class in Diablo I, I was anticipating a rogue or some female archers to turn up at some point. None did, though the restrictive length requirements of a novella might have had something to do with that.
The action in the novel is intense and interesting, but it’s very low-tech, so to speak. The combat mode is based on Diablo, not Diablo II, and it’s realistic and gritty, with slashing and hacking and close quarters. You won’t see teleportation or Whirlwinds or healing potions here.
Over all it is a good read, and isn’t going to take you all weekend. My print out version of the novella came in at 117 pages, around 25,000 words. Short and sweet. I was involved in the story, and cared about the action and the outcome, which was in doubt until the very end. There is even a twist at the conclusion, and though I sort of saw it coming, it still moved me. Demonsbane doesn’t have the simple ending you might expect from a hack and slash sort of story, and the ending is very appropriate for the “Victory, but at what cost?” theme of Diablo I, and introduces Siggard as an archetypal, long-suffering character who wouldn’t be at all out of place as an NPC in Diablo II.
Review by Flux
Thanks to Marco Palmieri, the editor of Demonsbane at Simon and Schuster, for providing me an advance copy to review.