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Mordenheim by Chet Williamson
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Feb 24, 09

Read in January, 2009

Much like the iconic Ravenloft character Strahd von Zarovich is a play on Stoker's Dracula, and Sir Tristen Hiregaard and his alter-ego Malken were takes on Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the vile Dr. Mordenheim and his monstrous creation, Adam, were quite clearly the setting's answer to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Mordenheim's author Chet Williamson has indeed borrowed a few pieces of plot and characterization from Shelley's novel, in addition to a few (sometimes literal) flashes of imagery from the Hollywood vision of the book and mixed that all together with a sprinkling of the Dungeons & Dragons swordplay and magic to create a work that is, probably against the odds, anything but a run-of-the-mill pastiche.

The story begins with a pair of romantically involved fledging necromancers, Hilda and Friedrich, who receive an offer of employment from the reclusive, yet greatly feared, Dr. Victor Mordenheim. With their master recently deceased and little coin to spare, Hilda and Friedrich accept Mordenheim's generous offer, traveling to the scientist's derelict abode against the advice of spooked locals. Once in the company of Dr. Mordenheim and his disfigured, embittered manservant Horg, the young couple discover exactly what it is Mordenheim wishes of them: to bring his comatose wife, kept in a constant artificial state of unlife with aid from the scientist's gruesome contraptions, back from the brink of death by using their black magicks.

However, a wrench is thrown into these plans by Adam, Dr. Mordenheim's 'son', who appears to be locked in an everlasting conflict with his creator. Adam kidnaps Hilda and retreats to his icy domain on the Isle of Agony. Desperate to recover Hilda, Mordenheim and Friedrich turn to the only man who could possibly stand a chance against the monster in battle, the hot-tempered, flame haired warrior Ivan Dragonov, who recently acquired a dark secret of his own, one that could make him even more of a monster than Adam is...

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Mordenheim, aside from the cultured prose that only helps emphasize the gothic atmosphere, is the manner in which Williamson juggles so many different players in his cast. Dr. Mordenheim, Adam, Hilda and Friedrich, Dragonov, and Horg all have their time in the spotlight, each with their own subplot, and not once did I wish the action would hasten and move on to another character, because they are all interesting in their own right. Doubly true with Dr. Mordenheim, who despite his status as the villain of the tale, generates a great amount of pathos with his haunting backstory and his sad, hopeless obsession of defeating death which resulted in the curse of Adam, who in turn stole the vitality from his beloved wife. If there is one complaint to be made about a character, it is with Hilda, one of the necromancers. As the only female character with any serious amount of time dedicated to her, it seems the author was keen to avoid making Hilda come across as the stereotypical damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Williamson seems to have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction, making her unrealistically 'tough' at times, so much so that if I didn't know the author was a man, I would swear the Hilda character was Mary Sue (I mean, she even fancies herself as a poet and would-be novelist for crying out loud!). That said, I do appreciate the very different take Williamson has on necromancers in general - the two youngsters are anything but the black-clad, mustache-twirling silent movie villains that have come to typify the class in the D&D game.

A word of warning - Mordenheim is a deceptively grisly novel, so it is not one for the faint of heart. The borderline clockpunk medical instruments designed by the good doctor to create Adam and sustain his wife on the brink of life and death are sometimes rather nasty, not to mention a few references to Mordenheim and Horg bodysnatching and salvaging body parts from corpses before too much decay sets in. This novel also features what I believe to be the most amazingly creative, ghastly, and horrid death scene I have ever read. It's the type of scene that, while it could be replicated on film (much to the delight of the gorehounds out there, no doubt), would never be as good as what's written on the page, because it delves so deeply into the thoughts of the character during his final moments. Masterful writing.

Overall, Mordenheim is another satisfying, fright-filled trek through the gloomy mires of the Ravenloft setting. Strongly recommended for fans of gothic fantasy.

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12/17/2008 page 107
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