This is something I probably never would have read had it not been nominated for a Hugo Award. I generally eschew tie-in fiction—I have enough fiction set in original worlds to read. The Butcher of Khardov is set in the world of Warmachine, which Wikipedia reliably informs me is a “tabletop steampunk wargame.” So, Dungeons & Dragons on steroids.
The cover art and illustrations scattered throughout the story reinforce this perception. Orsus Zoktavir is a big—really big—and strong—really strong—man—a manly man!—with a serious psychological scar after losing the love of his life in the village of his childhood. Dan Wells tells Orsus’ story thematically, out of chronological order, as Orsus wrestles with the concept of loyalty at various points in his life. From witnessing the death of his parents at the hands of the cannibalistic Tharn raiders to working as the muscle for a logging baron, Orsus sees his fair share of death and fighting. And he proves to be really, really good at it. But the woman he loves declares herself unable to be with a killer. So what is a dude to do?
The story culminates through two parallel climaxes. Although it becomes apparent early on that Orsus loses his way after he loses Lola, we have to wait until the very end to witness the actual event. Years later, having joined the Khadoran Army and formalized his talents as a warcaster and controller of warmachines known as “steamjacks,” Orsus loses control and butchers an entire village for “treason” (hence the name of the novella). This earns him a tense, heavily-fortified conversation with the Queen of Khador, in which she questions Orsus’ motivations and he has a chance to explain how fucked up his ideas about loyalty, morality, and just action have become since losing his parents, girlfriend, and basically any sense of normal human empathy.
I will give it this: The Butcher of Khardov inspired me to consider why we give fantasy warriors so much of our love and allegiance despite the fact that they are essentially sociopaths with big swords. The only sane character in this story is Lola, who is 100% correct when she points out that killing people is, you know, wrong. But we write big fat blank cheques when fantasy warriors do it, far more than we are willing to do for characters in any other setting. Somewhere along the way, the narrative of the fantasy warrior shifted from the hulking image of self-absorbed Conan to the noble, smokey-eyed Aragorn or Legolas; the antihero became just a straight-up hero.
In a way, Wells is stripping away all of this pretty packaging and getting back to basics: Orsus likes to kill, and he is good at it. He admits this freely. He just so happens to also want to remain loyal to a cause bigger than himself. These ingredients are the perfect recipe for an effective warrior, but that first one—liking to kill—is one we tend to ignore. We like to pretend that our nobler, almost Disney-fied warriors of these modern days are somehow reluctant killers. They kill “in self-defense” or “to protect” their loved ones. And we can debate the ethical justification for killing, for any reason, as much as we like. I’m just wondering why we are so willing to label as heroic such killers….
So, that’s the thought-provoking aspect of The Butcher of Khardov, and I will give it that. Everything else about it is just ridiculous, though. Over-the-top hulking brutes who need six steam-powered soldiers guarding them? And the ending, with the Queen essentially letting Orsus go free because “Oh, well, you did it to show your loyalty to me!” is repugnant. (Then again, I guess if you are the ruler of a country at war, you need to do repugnant things once in a while, and she recognizes Orsus as a valuable weapon, albeit one that is likely going to come at the cost of a few more villages here and there.) This is a brutal, almost grisly story—perfect as a companion to a brutal and grisly tabletop wargame. But my projection of my philosophical hang-ups about hypermasculine warrior worship in fantasy literature onto it aside, I’m not sure what else this story has going for it.