Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde is Michael A. Stackpole's first World of Warcraft book, and it doesn't disappoint. In the far off land of Pandaria, an outcast troll, a Pandaren brewmaster, and a deadly human archer join together to stop a ruthless invasion. Yet the story dives far deeper than simple warfare. Against long odds, the characters must fight battles within themselves as they struggle with identity and balance. Alongside bloody battle scenes and amazing feats of combat, there's a rich exploration of the characters. If fan's of World of Warcraft have been waiting for a book that would do Vol'jin justice, then the wait is over.
The premise of the story revolves around Vol'jin and his examination of just who he is and where he should be heading. For those new to setting, Vol'jin is the leader of the Darkspears, an elite tribe of trolls allied with the Horde. The current leader of the Horde is an orc named Garrosh. Unfortunately Garrosh and Vol'jin don't see eye to eye, and the orc tries to assassinate the troll. But Vol'jin is no ordinary troll. He's a shadow hunter. Think of him as a mystical figure head for his people, a role model they look to for wisdom and guidance. He has a strong relationship with the troll spirits and in turn, he's a rather powerful figure. His near death experience, however, causes him to reevaluate his life. Why is he wasting his time serving a group that tried to kill him? What reason is there in following the will of his bloodthirsty gods? Who is he really? These questions and more are thoroughly explored through the novel. Stackpole does a great job of diving into the character's head and providing insight on Vol'jin's reasons and questions. But Vol'jin is not alone in this novel.
Alongside the mighty troll is a human named Tyrathan. Like Vol'jin, Tyrathan is seriously injured at the beginning of the story and forced to recuperate. During that rehabilitation, he too questions his purpose in life. Stranded in Pandaria, both characters have the opportunity to start over, to remake themselves as new people. In his past life, Tyrathan was a skilled archer for the Alliance. Yet he is haunted by his apt skill on the battlefield. When it comes to killing, he has a true knack for it. But that talent has driven a wedge between him and his family.
Then there is Chen. Chen is a Pandaren, a brewmaster and an adventurer. As his people like to say, he has chased the turtle, for the world rides on the turtle's back, and he has traveled across it to see what else is out there. Still, he has found himself back in Pandaria, and now he's thinking about making a home and settling down. With the arrival of Vol'jin, Tyrathan and unforeseen threats, Chen's plans get sidetracked. His serene conflict between adventure and taking roots is supplanted by a new dilemma: maintaining one's soul in the carnage of warfare.
Throughout the entire book, all three characters struggle through self-discovery and maintaining balance. Those themes often touch on philosophy. Early on, two concepts are introduced in the story. First there is the philosophical way of the Huojin, people who are quick to action, practical and adventurous. Then there is the Tushui, a practice of contemplation and measuring acts against ideals of justice and morality. For the Pandaren, they strive to find a balance between the two. For each of the three main characters, they have their Huojin and Tushui traits, and they must strive to find a balance if they wish to persevere.
For readers who aren't so concerned about rich character explorations or philosophical puzzles, there's plenty of intense action in the later chapters of the book. Ancient enemies invade Pandaria, and it's up to Vol'jin, Chen and Tyrathan to stop them. But for readers who like a bit more meat to their stories, you'll find plenty to dine upon in this one. Stackpole shows that there is plenty of storytelling potential left in the World of Warcraft franchise, and I dare say he breathes new life into it. Readers should be prepared to have some new favorite characters after reading this story. For exceeding my expectations and raising the bar for what a World of Warcraft novel can do, I give Vol'jin: Shadows of the Horde a five out of five.