Thousands of years before the rise of men, the dwarfs and elves are stalwart allies and enjoy a era of unrivalled peace and prosperity. But when dwarf trading caravans are attacked and their merchants slain, the elves are accused of betrayal and the peace begins to fracture..
This is the first instalment in a new six book series under the banner of the Black Library's Time of Legends series (essentially the fantasy equivalent of the record breaking Horus Heresy saga) and delves into the story behind The War of Vengeance, the great conflict that would turn the dwarves and elves against each other. I don't play Warhammer and only have a sketchy idea of the history behind the races, so it seemed a perfect fit to see if this was something that Joe Average could pick up off the shelf and enjoy- more often than not tie-in fiction comes across as having a lot of baggage of the do I need to read all 18 of the previous books to understand it variety.
The novel opens with a huge, 42 page battle scene illustrating what the dwarves and elves had accomplished together, then switches to the story proper as cousins Morgrim and Snorri explore some of the ancient, abandoned tunnels beneath the mountain stronghold they call home. It's a decision that soon leads to Snorri earning his future nickname 'Halfhand' but it also sets them on a path that neither of them could have foreseen. Snorri, a prince amongst his people, burns with the desire to prove himself to his father, to try and match the glory his father earned in the long years of war it took to secure the mountains against the orks and other menaces that had plagued them. But it is a time of peace, and his ambitions are stymied and his frustration manifests itself in impetuous outbursts and biting retorts, all wedges in a widening gulf between him and his father. Morgrim is his steadying influence, a solid and sensible presence and a good foil for Snorri's brash arrogance.
The Elvish homeland at this time is beset by civil war between the High and Dark Elves, and commando- like parties of Dark Elves are loose in the mountains, seeking to stir things up between the dwarves and the High Elves. Their ruthless cunning and cruelty is matched only by their paranoia and one-upmanship, all of which is shown in the thread of the story that follows one such group. Suspicion and xenophobia soon follow in the wake of the rising bodycount in the hills, and much of the novel revolves around the resultant turmoil as the peacemakers on both sides strive to hold back the mounting tide of anger and fear. Snorri, never a friend of the elves and buoyed by the company of belligerent advisors, becomes the figurehead for the rebellion against his father's edicts while Morgrim fights to moderate his cousin's attitude and to pull his people back from a war that increasingly seems inevitable.
There are multiple storylines woven through TGB that Kyme uses to flesh out his world, providing different viewpoints on the events that Snorri and Morgrim are at the forefront of, expanding the scope of the principal thread of the story, hinting at hidden plots and generally keeping it fresh and the reader hungry. The path that the story follows twists and turns, balancing gentle worldbuilding and intrigue with beautifully savage action and this, combined with a cast of well plotted and interesting characters, is what kept me turning the pages. He's managed to seed the novel with sense of the epic scale of the brewing conflict, making it a meaty and most satisfying read right up to the merciless death that brings TGB to a close. If you've never liked or understood Dwarves, either in Warhammer or general fantasy, you'll be wanting to grow a beard and carry an axe by the time you finish this. It approaches their culture with respect, eschewing cheap shots and short cuts, and in doing so, makes it all feel very 'grown up'.
So, could Joe Average pick up and enjoy The Great Betrayal? A resounding yes- and more than that, he should. This is good, solid fantasy writing that deserves a prominent place on any bookshelf.