Sláine: The Exile by Steven Savile
Published by Black Flame (BL Publishing) in 2006
ISBN: 1844163873 / 9781844163878
Review by Justin Thorne (Juzzza)
I'm not a fan of media tie-ins.
That's not the opening statement Steven was probably hoping for, but then I do not dislike them either; I've just never been inspired to read many, despite being a huge genre fan. (The exceptions are Matthew Stover's Star Wars novelisations, but I read them mainly because I wanted to see if Matt could hold to his convictions and write gritty, entertaining novels with depth, in someone else's universe - he did and he can.)
So why would I spend my money on Sláine and Steven Savile?
Well, there's two reasons, right there. Back in the days of my youth, Sláine was the main reason I kept my subscription to 2000A.D. running, and I remember it with fondness, the Simon Bisley drawn era in particular. Plus, I've known Steven for some time (as well as one can, based solely on bits and bytes) and much like my experiment with Matt Stover and Star Wars, I was really keen to see how Steven would translate a very visual medium into novel-form. I would have read Sláine eventually, whoever had written it but when I realized that Steven was attached to the project, I bumped it up my 'to-read' list.
Steven has written three original novels, one novella, a graphic novel, has already dabbled with media tie-ins in the Doctor Who and Warhammer universes, has released two short story collections and edited numerous anthologies; he was runner-up for the British Fantasy Award in 2000 and winner of the Writers of the Future Award in 2002. What's more, this very novel, Sláine: The Exile, has been nominated for the best novel award at the inaugural Scribe Awards, dedicated to the media tie-in. Credentials? I should say so.
Media tie-ins are often seen as genre literature's poor cousin, especially amongst the literati and yet they (media tie-ins) regularly out-sell many a highly regarded, literary fantasy or science fiction novel. One of the Halo novels recently made the New York Times bestseller list! I don't subscribe to the snobbery, although I do recognize that sales have little to do with quality, but that is in no way limited to media tie-ins. However, this context did add a touch of spice to the thought of writing a review.
Sláine: The Exile is billed as 'the lay of Sláine Mac Roth, book one' and is an attempt to pull together a collection of disjointed graphic novels. No easy task, as often the adventures of Sláine in the comics seem totally unrelated and were rarely released in a linear, sequential timeline. Plus, (and with no disrespect to the original writers,) the strip was all about the artwork, and the warp-spasms! Often the stories were simply a device to put the main character in situations that allowed him to rip limbs from his adversaries (or give his associate a well-placed kick up the arse.) But the universe of Sláine was richly realised and called upon both Celtic and Norse mythology; Sláine himself is based upon the warp-spasming or berserker-prone, Irish hero, Cú Chulainn.
The book is essentially a coming-of-age tale and begins with a study of the Sessair and their devotion to Danu, the Earth Goddess. Steven's adventure commences with Sláine as a boy as he struggles to comprehend the often brutal, Pagan rituals and the very belief-system of his people. The first act deals with a group of young boys who compete for the attention of their new King and his fearsome band of warriors, the Red Branch. Sláine is singled out as a prospect early on and we follow the Celt through young-adulthood as he forms both allies and enemies amongst his own tribe.
It's one such childhood nemesis, who induces the first of Sláine's body-mutating warp spasms and this is one of three key elements I was looking forward to getting my teeth into as a fanboy (along with Brain Biter, Sláine's trusty axe, and Ukko, his sidekick.)
In a graphic novel, it is very easy to depict (by simply drawing it) the swelling and bulging muscles as Sláine's body literally turns inside out; as the energy of the Earth Goddess pulses through his veins. In his rage, the berserker monster fails to distinguish between friend and foe and I was looking forward to discovering how Steven would handle this aspect of the story. After all, in comic book form, we are watching from the outside and in a novel, the author is giving us a direct link into the POV of the lead character. I was delighted with Savile's depiction of this raw energy as there must have been the temptation to simply dive into a Bruce Banner/Hulk-like transformation but what we get is a very believable, almost organic insight into the phenomenon and by this stage of the story, I was hooked.
The book then follows Sláine's induction into the mysterious Red Branch and his deepening relationship with his tribesmen and more interestingly, with the three incarnations of Danu, the Earth Goddess. Steven manages to add a fairy-tale feel and magical quality to these interactions and really brings the Celtic mythology to life through his characterization.
As the title of the book implies, the plot-arc follows Sláine as he allows his lust to rule his young head only to find himself banished from the land of the Sessair to begin a new life of adventuring on the road with Brain Biter. We follow the young warrior as he attempts to evade the Red Branch, who are now doggedly hunting him for his act of treason until he is eventually captured and thrown into a cell with a horrible little dwarf called Ukko. An unlikely partnership ensues and this is one of Steven's interpretations, which I really enjoyed. In the comics, Ukko was a slapstick supporting role and found himself on the receiving end of one of Sláine's Laconian one-liners, or worse, that previously mentioned kick up the arse, on a regular basis. Steven could have easily taken this option, it would have been far easier but instead he manages to create a genuine personality in Ukko and even more surprisingly; realistically builds a touching friendship between the two unlikely companions. I think I actually grew to like the little scumbag!
To complete the set-up of the Sláine universe, we need the bad guys and Savile introduces us to the Drune Lords and their dastardly head honcho, the Lord Weird. The Drunes are the anti-thesis of the Sessair and whereas Sláine's tribe worship nature and the Earth Goddess, the Drunes quite literally suck the energy from the land in adoration of their Dark God, Crom Cruach. The Sessair have the Red Branch and the Drune elite are known as the Skull Swords.
Sláine and Ukko are lost in the Sourlands, far from the realm of Danu and the earth energies needed for Sláine to successfully achieve a warp spasm. Together, the pair, now thick as thieves, manage to uncover a plot that will impact upon Sláine's homeland and his very tribe and despite his exile and threat of execution should he return, in order to save his people from the Drunes - return he must.
Savile rarely takes the easy option with a beloved universe, and I am interested in what other 2000A.D. survivors make of this excellent author's interpretation. He builds-up the Celtic mythology without letting it overwhelm the story and makes the more unbelievable elements seem absolutely natural in this world.
Another element of the comic, which could have gone horribly wrong in the novel, is the abundance of one-liners; usually spewing from a drooling Sláine in the middle of a bone crunching warp spasm. Savile displays a mastery of dialogue and although there are undoubtedly laugh-out-loud moments, it never gets over the top.
I have a couple of gripes with the book but they are nothing to do with the author. Firstly, the number of errors in the book is really quite high and a little jarring; this does little for the perception of the quality of media tie-ins - the first error can be found on the very first page! Secondly, Sláine's minor adventures are a little repetitive; ie: Sláine gets into trouble, is about to warp spasm; but gets clobbered and knocked unconscious before the warp can take him. I found that a little frustrating. But these are very minor and they do not detract from the quality that is directly under the control of the author.
Steven Savile has enhanced the franchise, which I guess is the whole point of media tie-in novels in the first place and I will absolutely buy the sequel, Sláine: The Defiler to get my next fix of this wonderfully Celtic barbarian and his ugly little dwarf companion.
Do you have to be a Sláine or 2000A.D. fan to enjoy this novel? Absolutely not: if you enjoy entertaining, adult fantasy, and aren't afraid of a little magic or a brain-biting axe, you will enjoy this novel a great deal.
Damn! I guess Matt and Steven have just made me a media tie-in fan. B*stards!
(EXTRA: Steve talks more about Slaine, as well as his other writing, in his interview with SFFWorld: LINK HERE.)
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