The Wake – Book Review

After trying out the Age of Sigmar books and deciding they weren’t really for me, I have been trying to find books that are more evocative of the type of fantasy I want to read, or that get my imagination going. The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is a work of historical fiction set in England in 1066 (another historical apocalypse of sorts, at least for the English), but it is also great reading for those interested in fantasy. The Wake is the sort of story I wanted to read with the launch of Age of Sigmar: what do you do when your Realm (England) is conquered by Chaos (the French) and your god has abandoned you and your heroes are dead?

At first glance The Wake may seem more suitable as inspiration for historical wargamers, but it is a great source of inspiration for fantasy too, particularly if you are looking for stories about something more humble than Stormcast Eternals. The characters – having lived isolated and simple lives – see the foreigners burning their lands as demons and are in awe of the ominous hairy star (or comet, as we call them these days, although I might start using hairy star, it has a nice ring to it). There are lots of mentions too of the aelfs and other creatures that live in the older parts of the land, along with other superstitions and folklore. When the demon foreigner William the Bastard conquers England, they join the resistance – the Green Men, and go back to the old ways. They may not specifically mention Sigmar by name, but it doesn’t take much of a mental leap, after all, Sigmar is all about hairy stars.

The most striking thing about The Wake is that it is written in an invented hybrid language, a mix of Old and modern English, with some Saxon words. The aim is to make something that sounds authentic but is still readable: at first I wasn’t sure if it was actually readable, but by the end I was reading it as quickly as any other book. Here is the first paragraph:

the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still
when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness
none will loc but the wind will cum. the wind cares not for the hopes of men
the times after will be for them who seen the cuman
the times after will be for the waecend

After a while you get used to the new grammar rules, like how a ‘c’ can be either a ‘k’ or a ‘ch’ sound, and pick up on new words like gleoman (a wandering storyteller).

The problem with fantasy novels is that they are generally either somewhat anachronistic in their use of language (including modern words, or a wider vocabulary than is plausible) or are subtly anachronistic in the attitudes and motivations of their characters. If you have a character that speaks and acts in a way that is more plausible for his time you probably end up with one that no reader can relate to: uneducated and superstitious, and probably just generally concerned with a smaller part of the world than we are used to in our heroes. Even Tolkien, a philologist, never tried to give his characters an authentic lack of vocabulary or perspicacity.

In this regard The Wake is remarkable, but occasionally quite hard going. The protagonist is no hero at all really: a small minded, self-important man that beats his wife. If you are used to traditional heroes it can be a bit frustrating, but if you are bored of the millionth story about a simple peasant boy with a magical destiny, it is a breath of fresh air. Fantasy is a romanticised and sentimental genre as a whole – the shit and disease of history is swept under the rug and simplistic concepts like good and evil and heroes and villains are the status quo. The Wake is different and unusual and provides some authenticity that is missing in fantasy otherwise. It could easily be a book about remote human survivors on the Nine Realms, lost and confused, superstitious and disorganised in the wake of a Chaos invasion.

4 Comments on “The Wake – Book Review

  1. I really like your book reviews, and I like even more your ideas about the Age of Sigmar. I am also reading all BL publications up to now and find myself incredibly disappointed by what they are doing to bring this new setting alive. All I read is underwhelming and frankly boring, with no plot twists, no insight and no energy whatsoever. If anything I feel reassured that people like you are trying to give an interesting, well thought perspective of AoS as I feel the setting would have a lot of potential if they just blurred a bit more the line between “good” and “evil”, like in the old wh… Why there is no stormcast feeling imprisoned in his constant cycle of battle without even death as a relief? Why don’t we get to see the point of view of the people of the realms (apart in few, very poorly rendered episodes) and watch Sigmar’s chosens through their eyes? What will Sigmar think when all his realmgates will be opened and thousands of desperate refugees will invade his realm? These are the things I ‘d like to read about, not how badass these new sigmarines look when they storm spiky-chaotic barricades…
    Sorry for the rant… my point is, you are doing a really nice job and I would love gw being inspired by the work of people like you as we used to be by them.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m hoping that this is just phase one of Age of Sigmar. The ‘Realmgate Wars’ will feature Stormcast front and center, in an attempt to evoke the same sort of heroic imagery and ideas that Space Marines get (not entirely sure it is succeeding) and then other story arcs will be introduced later. Actually I think the Realmgate Wars seems like a prologue, or a trailer, and although it’s not quite how I would have done things I still really like some aspects of it – such as the eccentricities of the realms like the wyrm that heats the crucible, that sort of thing. The fiction is frustrating though, particularly as it often just retells the stories from the game books but with expanded battle scenes.

      But yeah, I am really interested in the post-apocalypse side of things. The idea that the realms were abandoned by Sigmar and have just been left to rack and ruin is great. I’m not so interested in the liberation and the re-instigation of some sort of status quo which seems inevitable, but in the meanwhile there are some cool stories to tell I hope. Your project looks excellent, I’ll keep an eye on it.

  2. Hey Jake , another interesting review mate.. the language aspects of the book chime with Ridley walker and the book of Dave ,

    This is the sort of book i Know i would enjoy reading cheers.. Xmas present to myself along with some J.G ballard i think.

    thanks for the heads up ..

    • Hi Neil, I was going to message you about this book as I thought it would be up your street.

      I haven’t read Ridley Walker (and I’m not a fan of Will Self) but I do like books with unusual language – Clockwork Orange springs to mind, or Feersum Endjin.

      I think The Wake is quite unique in that it is more like a translation of Old English, or a pidgin Old English. It’s like a sort-of modernised Chaucer. Not only are there new words and new ways of pronouncing things, but it is very much of the time – the limited vocabulary and names for things, no words of French of Latin origin, less education, etc.

      As an example, nearly all birds are just called fugols, something I am in favour of. And the aforementioned hairy star, which is such a great way to describe a comet, it’s like how you might try to describe a comet using half-remembered high school French.

      Plus I love the way he calls everyone fuccan esols

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