The House of Wrax
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in the first week of December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
Just as with yesterday’s review, Alyson Faye’s excellent crime novella Maggie of My Heart, the subject of today’s review also marks another departure from Demain’s sole focus on short horror fiction. Raven Dane’s novella, The House of Wrax, is actually a striking and memorable combination of the horror and science-fiction genres to produce something distinctly fresh and original. Before getting into the core of the novella itself, however, I’d like to take a moment to discuss that incredible piece of cover art. I rightly commend author and illustrator Adrian Baldwin for his work in establishing a coherent, recognisable and striking brand identity for Demain, but quite frankly he has outdone himself with the cover for The House of Wrax. It’s a stupendously detailed piece of black and white drawing that has more and more features the longer that you look at it, and perfectly embodies the post-apocalyptic, feudal and near-gothic imagery to be found within Dane’s story. This towering, decaying, mass of Old World ruins refashioned into a fortress is the titular House of Wrax, and the crowds of mutated humanoids gathering before it are the Scavengers that threaten to destroy it, and all other ‘pure’ human settlements in the remnants of the world.
Set in the far-flung future of the 29th Century, a series of unspecified but ruinous conflicts devastated the face of the planet and turned huge parts of it radioactive and uninhabitable to anyone who wishes to live unchanged. Centuries later, what remains of humanity has descended to a pseudo-feudal existence, with a scattering of ‘pure-blood’ human settlements surviving in the wastelands. They believe themselves to be the only true descendants of humanity, unsullied by genetic impurities such as those shown by the clans of roaming Nomads that they refuse to have anything to do with, either shunning them or even killing them on sight. Both groups, however, fear the Scavengers – the dominant population of the world, severely-mutated humanoids who possess incredible strength, perseverance and skin that can deflect any arrow or projectile. Until now, they have been disorganised and easily ignored or fended off in isolated excursions. However, as the Lords of Wrax now begin to discover, something or someone has begun to unify the Scavengers with the aim of exterminating non-mutants.
One of the things that most struck me while reading through The House of Wrax is just how much thought, imagination and planning Raven Dane has put into the world-building for this post-apocalyptic universe. On almost every page, there are little things that are mentioned in passing, or brought up by characters as part of a conversation or discussion, that make it very clear that Dane has developed more than just the area surrounding the House of Wrax itself. Not only did this demonstrate to me that this was a labour of love, but it also added a great deal of depth to both the overarching plot, and the characters themselves.
Dane has created a living, breathing and very engaging feudal-era realm that features an intriguing mesh of ‘ancient’ technology that’s only partially understood by its inhabitants, and ‘new’ or rediscovered technology whose adoption varies wildly by group. The conversative, staid House of Wrax have only advanced to the age of horse and sword, eschewing anything more complex, even the point of seeing the use of fire arrows as a barbarous and banned weapon concept. To them, reading and even record-keeping are of tertiary importance, and the concept of the aristocratic warrior caste dominates all elements of their society. However, the ‘Nomad’s’ who roam the irradiated deserts and shattered stumps of towns and cities make greater use of pre-disaster tech, including the fascinating idea of motorbikes being handed down from generation to generation, each repair and substitution slowly diverging more and more from the original design. It’s a brilliant idea, allowing for a number of plot points to organically arise over the conflict between social and cultural views on technology and weaponry, as well as related racial and class biases that have become of primary importance to the feudal households.
That solid world-building really benefits the plot, which has a wonderful fast-paced energy to it – there’s little to no padding, with excellent characterisation and even some brutal, gore-filled action scenes thrown in towards the end of the novella. The core of the plot is really around the concepts of family, loyalty and pride, and how they can have wildly different effects of members of the same family – in this case, the Lords of Wrax. Gideon, a younger Lord of Wrax, is a delightfully odious chap who lurks in the shadows and enjoys the benefits of being a ‘pure-blood’ human who has every whim and need attended to without any consequences. However, the death of several of his brothers starts a chain of events that leads to him being exiled to the wastelands outside the House of Wrax. By comparison his sister Jenna is a far more duty-focused and serious individual who finds new duties thrust onto her unexpectedly, as the Wrax begin to react to the new Scavenger threat. That means meeting new people as well – including Xavir, one of the disdained Nomads who finds himself having a vital role to play in trying to fend off the Scavengers. These plot points and characters might have become overwhelming, but Dane deftly juggles them and instead creates some compelling and engaging interactions between the Scavengers, Nomads and ‘Pure-blood’ humans that show how this strange new world functions.
The House of Wrax really is a fantastic novella that I had a blast reading – I’m tempted to label it as something akin to ‘Mad Max meets Game of Thrones’, but that seems to do Dane a dis-service. Her novella dips into a number of different genres and subgenres and pulls together a number of seemingly disparate concepts, tropes and characterisations – 1980’s Nuclear Armageddon films, feudal dynasties, eugenics, racism, sexism and classism – to create something fresh and vibrant. It’s a fascinating world to see a story develop in, and it would appear that there are plenty more stories to be told in it. I really hope that Dane writes more of them, and that Demain takes the opportunity to publish them – ideally with more of that incredible cover art by Adrian Baldwin.