Friday 26 January 2024

Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz, by Joe Dever | review by Rafe McGregor

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, November 2022, ISBN 9781915586056

I’ve been delaying my review of the most recently published collector’s edition because I was hoping to be able to report that Holmgard Press had achieved at least one of its goals: that either the whole cycle of thirty-two Lone Wolf gamebooks had been published or that a large proportion of the cycle was back in print. Unfortunately, both goals remain in development at the time of writing. Regarding availability, there are now three editions circulating: original (paperback and secondhand only), collector’s (hardback and secondhand only), and definitive (which can be purchased from Holmgard Press, Amazon, and no doubt other online bookstores). The only definitive editions in print at the time of writing are books 1 to 12, 1 to 5 (the Kai series) in hardback and paperback and 6 to 12 (the Magnakai series) in hardback. Books 13 to 20 (the Grand Master series) are relatively easy to find on the secondhand market (and usually not extortionate, for the original editions anyway), but books 21 to 31 (the New Order series) less so. People seem to be hanging on to the Holmgard Press Collector’s Editions pretty tightly and I’ve not seen any copies of books 28 to 31 available for a while now. The original edition of Lone Wolf 28: The Hunger of Sejanoz (which was published by Red Fox in 1998) reached a peak price of £1894 on the secondhand market in February 2022, but both original and collector’s editions are now completely unavailable fourteen months after the publication of the latter. Regarding the completion of the series, Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai is going to be released in two parts, which Holmgard aims to publish in October 2024 and October 2025 respectively. I have to ask why. Two parts mean that Joe Dever’s original conception of a thirty-book cycle has been changed to thirty-three, but the press’s stated intention is the posthumous realisation of his vision (Dever sadly passed away in 2016). I am also concerned that the perceived need to publish the final book in two parts is evidence of an exacerbation of the source of my criticism of Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night, which I reviewed in TQF69. Finally, 2024 is the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Lone Wolf 1: Flight from the Dark (yes, that does make me feel old) and it would have been great to have the cycle completed in such an auspicious year.

As regular readers of TQF will know, I have reviewed all of the New Order books so far, but I’ll provide a brief recap here for newcomers. The four series into which the Lone Wolf cycle is divided have taken three different forms: a single campaign across both the Kai and Magnakai series, followed by a series of standalone adventures in the Grand Master series, all with the same player character, Lone Wolf; and the introduction of a new player character in the New Order series, who is the second most powerful Kai Grand Master (mine has the randomly generated and rather wimpy name of “True Friend”), whose adventures alternate between campaigns and standalones. Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone and Lone Wolf 22: The Buccaneers of Shadaki are a two-part campaign, the aim of which is to return the Moonstone to the Isle of Lorn in southern Magnamund. The next four books are all standalone adventures: defeating the robber-knight Baron Sadanzo in Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero and the warmongering wizard Lord Vandyan in Lone Wolf 24: Rune War; rescuing Lone Wolf himself in Lone Wolf 25: Trail of the Wolf; and assisting the Dwarves of Bor in the defence of their Throne Chamber in Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain. Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium initiates a new campaign that will be completed in The Hunger of Sejanoz, revisited in Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai, and possibly continue through to the end of the cycle (the nature of its narrative closure is not quite clear to me and that may well be Holmgard Press’s intention). True Friend’s mission in Vampirium was to prevent the Autarch Sejanoz of Bhanar from acquiring the Claw of Naar from the ruin of Naaros. True Friend was, of course, successful but Sejanoz went ahead with the invasion of Chai sans Claw and True Friend’s next mission is to escort Khea-khan Xo-lin and his entourage, which includes Princess Mitzu and her son, Prince Kamada, from the imperial seat of Pensei, across the Great Lissan Plain, to the safety of the city of Tazhan. The caravan is under the charge of Guard Captain Chan, who has a troop of elite Imperial Cavalry to protect the imperial family from bandits, Agarashi, tomb robbers, nahba worms (one of which is featured on the cover), and the Bhanarian army.

The Hunger of Sejanoz was originally published in 1998, when the gamebook phenomenon was in decline and Red Fox had lost confidence in the series, in consequence of which Dever was forced to reduce the gameplay sections from the standard 350 to 300, cutting the adventure short. As further evidence of Red Fox’s lack of interest, the wrong map was published, a duplicate of the map of Vampirium. (I feel for Dever – the only thing worse than a lacklustre publisher is one that fails to correct errors and Red Fox were guilty of both flaws.) The collector’s edition includes 50 new sections written by Vincent Lazarri and Ben Devere, extending the adventure to its intended length, and an original map drawn by Francesco Mattioli. Although I did own an original edition briefly, I never played the game so I can’t comment on the difference made by the additional sections, aside from them obviously being very welcome. I have no recollection of the artwork in the original edition either, although I should have because Brian Williams really outdid himself in his final outing for the cycle (the illustrations inside the collector’s edition are all identical and the cover is by Alberto dal Lago, a striking reimagining of the original). Very roughly, the game is divided into four parts, measured by the caravan’s progress to first Javai, then Rakholi, then Zanaza, and finally Fort Vlau, which is where the Autarch catches up with the Khea-khan. Compared to the other adventures in the New Order series I would class this as intermediate in difficulty, neither overly easy nor impossible to complete. In addition to the standard perils and thrills of what is basically a wilderness adventure in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons terminology, it soon emerges that there is a traitor in the imperial entourage and the element of mystery racks up the suspense a few notches, which is a satisfying touch. The Grand Master discipline of Kai-alchemy is particularly useful, with Kai-surge, Astrology, and Assimilance also assisting play. My only criticism of the game is that if one has acquired the Arrow of Atonement, then the final confrontation with the Autarch is a little anticlimactic. I could perhaps extend that comment to the game as a whole in that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Vampirium. Given the complexity and carnage of The Storms of Chai to come, however, The Hunger of Sejanoz fits very neatly into the late cycle trilogy, a relative calm before the storm, and the trilogy as a whole is one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire cycle. (The only other part that can compare for me is the first three adventures in the Magnakai series.) Overall, this is an excellent gamebook, even if you haven’t played Lone Wolf before (though I would recommend playing this after Vampirium, whether or not you start there, at the beginning of the New Order, or at the beginning of the whole cycle).

In keeping with previous Collector’s Editions, The Hunger of Sejanoz includes a bonus adventure. “The Edge of Night” is written by August Hahn, illustrated by Koa, and has 150 sections of gameplay. “You are Altan, an unwilling member of the Vampirium and a blood-slave of Autarch Sejanoz, the tyrant of Bhanar” and your mission is to use your newfound freedom to give your enslaved son a second chance at life. The adventure meets both of my criteria for a bonus game: the plot dovetails neatly with the main adventure (beginning with the death of Sejanoz) and provides a contrast of player character – the vampiric Altan reminded me of a monk whereas True Friend is clearly a ranger (to revert to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons terminology). Like most of the bonus adventures, “The Edge of Night” is original, interesting, and well worth playing. In closing, I must admit some disappointment at not popping up on Holmgard Press’s radar by now. Courtesy of Stephen Theaker’s forbearance this is my thirteenth review of a Lone Wolf gamebook (the New Order series plus two of Martin Charbonneau’s discontinued Autumn Snow series, a total of approximately 17,000 words), with each averaging a thousand reads on the TQF blog. My hope is that they have introduced at least a few new players to Dever's wonderful world of Magnamund. Never mind... all being well, my next review will be published this Christmas or early in 2025. Rafe McGregor

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