[WFB] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: “Ancient Blood” by Robert Earl, Black Library, 2008

Two things before we begin. Firstly, this is another of those posts where I arguably read too much into mediocre pulp tie-in novels and I’m aware some of you find that irksome. Secondly and not so trivially, it’s difficult if not impossible to discuss this book without using the wordgypsiesat some point, and I’m aware that many if not most actual Romani consider that word a slur. I use the word here when engaging with the context and origins of a fictional construct; if I need to talk about actual people who really exist I’m going to say Romani. And just to defer the inevitable: no, I’m not offended on anyone’s behalf, this is just a courtesy note to people who might be offended on their own behalf, and that’s only fair and polite. That said: let’s get on.

Ancient Blood passed me by originally, coming out in the same sort of timeframe as Steven Savile’s fascinatingly execrable vampire trilogy and somewhat overshadowed by it. Which is a shame, because it’s a quieter, better, arguably more thoughtful book, despite making a few of the same missteps and turning over some awkward ground in the process. I bought it on a whim over the weekend and it’s… intrigued me.

I won’t give much of a plot summary because honestly it’s not that important. There’s a racist nobleman, he’s taken against a minority group for distinctly Freudian reasons because there’s nothing quite like Freud for easy villain motivations, and this book follows what happens to the people he’s persecuting, as well as the kinds of nasty bastards who can be relies upon to deliver racism by proxy. And since the minority group in question are the Strigany, there are vampires. (It’s not a spoiler, you muppet, there’s one on the front of the book.)

Who the balls are the Strigany? (Even casual Warhammer fans may be scratching their heads at this one.) We’ll get back to them in a minute, once we’ve established something important about this book.

There’s a weird atemporality to Ancient Blood, in that the battle depicted resembles a scenario from White Dwarf that came out around this time in which Marius Leitdorf, the Mad Count of Averland, takes offence to the existence of Halflings and hires mercenaries to invade the Moot. They’re similar in terms of location and plotting, and in terms of the mercenary units involved, whose presence sites the book in the Warhammer world’s present day. But the framing device anonymises the Elector Counts involved; they’re just “Stirland” and “Averland”, which Kim Newman used to do for Electors who we weren’t expected to give a toss about but never for an actual character. More than that: the prologue explicitly locates the story in the Time of Three Emperors some two to eight hundred in-universe years earlier. I can’t work out if this is editorial meddling designed to separate a fan favourite special character who actually had a model available from Freudian Fantasy Racism, or if it’s sheer coincidence and nobody bothered about the dates. The Time of the Three Emperors is peak Vampire Counts lore time after all, and Earl’s contemporary Savile quite happily moved Detlef Sierck five hundred years back in time to locate him in the period, so it’s not as if the Black Library was paying its continuity editor a Christmas bonus that year anyway.

I don’t mean to get all frothy about this; guess what, freelance writers hacking out some pulp fantasy don’t attend to the details of the setting like semi-professional fanboys do, i.e. with terminal intensity. That’s fine. I mention it because it may indicate something about the publisher’s and author’s priorities. The Black Library wants the book out and not actively poisoning sales, and Robert Earl is far more interested in the Strigany than their oppressors. (He’s a WFRP writer, not a WFB writer, and I wonder how much of a factor that is here.) He has some fun with some Dogs of War units who’ve clearly caught his eye, but he’s fundamentally on the side of their victims here.

So. Let’s talk about the Strigany. They have their origins in the sixth edition Vampire Counts Army book from 2001-ish, where they appear in the theme list for the Strigoi vampires; a token unit of rank-and-flank living troops among the Ghouls and Skeletons. A throwaway gesture. They represent the last survivors of the ancient kingdom of Strigos, which itself represents the last living outpost of old Nehekhara; driven from their home by the final war against Nagash, they settled down under the guidance of the vampire Ushoran and the Crown of Sorcery. Then they got their bonches punched in by orcs, the chief priest was killed, the Crown taken, and the survivors fled north again, becoming a nomadic race of…

Oh, for fuck’s sake, they’re gypsies. All right? Because Dracula had gyspsy minions so Strahd had gypsy minions so Warhammer vampires have to have them too, because Warhammer is a trope hoover and doesn’t have the best record with regards to ethnosensitivity. BUT:

You have the real-world misnomer – “gypsy” being derived from “Egyptian” because that’s where pig-ignorant Europeans decided the Romani came from– and then you have this fantasy version which takes that misapplied belief and runs it to ground and builds on THAT rather than the real Roma. The Strigany came from Fantasy Expy Egypt but it’s the first nation they built in exile that defines them and there’s something poetic about that.

I don’t know how much of this was intended (bearing in mind that the architects of Warhammer were trained archaeologists, but also let shit like the Pygmies slide) but I also know a thing or two about the intentional fallacy and whether it was intended or not, there’s room here for a sympathetic retelling of that past and the present it leads to.

Robert Earl makes a credible attempt at taking that sympathetic point of view. I’m not Romani, so I don’t want to stick my neck out and say it’s acceptable or not on the Fantasy Racism front, but the really obvious exoticising and hate is sited in the antagonists, while Earl is much more matter of fact in depicting the Strigany and their life in renewed exile. There is a certain amount of “Strigany sorcery” involved but it’s all things the Strigany do to even the odds against them, and plenty of what they get up to is commonplace tactics and good sense. We do meet three of our characters while they’re thieving, but it’s clear that they do it because they’re young, bored and greedy, not because they’re Strigany. The Strigany do travel from town to town and play to stereotypes to bring the locals in, but it’s made clear this is a performative act in which they’re making a living (and there’s another caravan who do essential battlefield and plague cleanup that the Empire can’t be arsed with, so there’s at least a squint at something broader). Maybe you can’t ever do this sort of thing well enough but I thought it was a fat sight better than, say, the WoD’s Ravnos clan or Ravenloft, which just had… evil tricksy fantasy gypsies who serve vampires because that’s what they do.

Ah, yes. The vampires. The other half of the Strigany diaspora. The ancient and terrible living ancestors who have watched over the Strigany in exile, and who are approached to avenge wrongs like, well, the pogrom in this book. Flick through the Goodreads page for this book and you’ll see reviewers vocally disappointed that this book isn’t about the Strigoi bloodline. The thing is, the Strigoi aren’t that interesting. They’re feral killing machines who’ve forgotten almost everything except their eternal status as whipping boys to the other bloodlines. Everything that makes them interesting in a novelistic sense is also true of the Strigany, and the Strigany are functioning characters who can have conversations and differences of opinion and fall in love and so on.

The one Strigoi we meet here becomes interesting as he regains his sense of self and past, his appreciation for the finer things, and there’s a particularly effective bit where he commissions a macabre memento mori that relates the story of the bloodline without any tedious “as you know, your father the king” fantasy expospeak. In fact, the whole book is pretty light on that; the Strigany and the mercenaries and the vampire do what they do and Earl trusts we’re clever enough to get the gist of it.

Anyway, Earl is also clever enough to pull off the “understanding vampires through the eyes of others” thing Savile was going for, showing us the Strigoi as yes, terrifying monsters, but also inheritors of a shattered kingdom who have never lost their sense of obligation to their people. It’s only boring when his Strigoi turns around, sees a beautiful woman, and comes over all my-bride-in-darkness, and Earl seems to decide that’s a misstep quite quickly and end up abruptly having it not go anywhere.

Personally, I’d have preferred it if the Strigoi had entered into the love triangle subplot, especially since it first appears in the novel as part of the setup to that plot. There’s another weird misstep around that; it’s not teed up very well and later in the book one character refers to another’s vampire-blood-fixed-it-for-you facial scars like they’re still there. I’m not sure how well this one was edited or even redrafted; there are a lot of little elisions and flat character beats, especially with the generically nasty mercenary general, which feel like nobody passed over this thing to tighten it up, and that’s a shame.

I’ve brushed up against this now so let’s have it out: I don’t think this book was finished. Besides the occasional stumble on craft or pacing level, it’s too damn short. The premise is built up, the battle is established and resolved, the Strigoi calls his people home and they look pretty set on going, surrounded by omens, the love triangle is “resolved” in a way that could still turn out fascinatingly adulterous and the mercenaries are still out there and not the kind to give up…

All the pieces are in place for a nice long haul story that shows a side to the Warhammer World we don’t get to see very often, marginalised people and vampire sympathisers and the Dogs of War and going back to Strigos, something which can afford to happen without wrecking the status quo –

And then it just stops. Turns out this was a two act story, even though the tail suggests it could go to four or five. Checking the reviews for his other books suggests Earl does this a lot; clocks off when he hits a page count and the first thing that feels like a finale. Or maybe he was commissioned to write something about a battle, and with the battle done so was the book, and he was just leaving room for another trilogy set in the Border Princes and then down into Strigos. (Earl also seems to be responsible for relocating the ruins of Mourkain further south; I wondered, when they turned up in Total Warhammer II, whose idea that had been.)

Either way, it’s unfortunate. But maybe the whole premise of “Warhammer gypsies and their vampire god” is unfortunate to begin with? I don’t get to say, but I’m sad Earl didn’t get to take this one further; I for one quite like these people, and I want to see where they end up. Although I really don’t need another huge fanfiction idea taking up my brain space right now. But I have one. Thanks, Robert Earl. You swine.