Last year, we asked Brian Oliu (SO YOU KNOW IT’S ME, LEAVE LUCK TO HEAVEN, I/O) and Michael Rudin (CALL OF DUTY: DEVIL'S BREATH, CALL OF DUTY: RIGHTFUL KING) to pen a literary prequel to our mobile game, WAR DRAGONS. The game poses a lot of unanswered questions (Who is the game’s antagonist, Gustav? Why is he always attacking you? Why can you talk to dragons?) and we trusted that Brian and Michael could flesh out the world more. When we got back the first draft we were blown away. Not only by how great it meshed with the WAR DRAGONS universe, but also by how brutal it is.
When a book is titled WAR DRAGONS: All Things Burn, you don’t expect it to be full of tender heart-warming moments. As nice as it is to imagine delightful dragons working together to discover the true meaning of friendship, it’s just not that kind of book.
WAR DRAGONS: All Things Burn documents Gustav’s bloody rise to power through his own eyes, as well as through the viewpoint of Ash, a commander in Gustav's Blackblood Army who after years of doing Gustav's bidding is orchestrating a revolution to take back her homeland. Featuring six actual teams from the game, this book has plenty of moments that even a dragon would consider ruthless.
WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
Gustav’s Path to Immortality
The book kicks off with a pretty gruesome scene that immediately establishes Gustav as a ruthless warlord who will do anything to gain power. Beyond inflicting harm and ruin to others, Gustav is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to become more powerful.
Upon hearing a legend that anything which dies on Topan Island is resurrected with the gift of immortality, Gustav sees that at the perfect opportunity to disembowel himself. Not only that, he brings his entire army and legion of dragons to come watch the fun.
This gutsy act ends up working out for the mighty Gustav, but such a deed is more than most people could…stomach.
“Most of the Blackbloods had never seen Gustav bleed, let alone have his intestines strewn out in front of him like thick, red vines. He was holding what was left of his organs in his hands, as if trying to slide them back into the gaping wound that he himself created— an efficient, practiced slice across his own stomach that caused his insides to spill out onto the island floor as his Blackbloods looked on in shock.”
Gustav’s Family Cooking
Gustav’s childhood left a lot to be desired.
As the impoverished son of a lowly herdsman, he spent most of his youth helping his father hunt elk for a ruthless baroness. Even when the fruits of the hunt weren’t needed, the baroness had them kill all animals in the area so that she could be the sole provider of food to the people. Anyone who was caught hunting for personal gain was punished severely.
During one particularly brutal Winter, Gustav’s dad saved some elk hooves to make a stew for his starving family. The baroness caught wind and was pretty unhappy. As punishment, she ordered Gustav’s dad to be cooked into a stew which… well, you get the picture.
Not only is this one of the most brutal villain origins stories we had ever read, it explains a lot about why Gustav is such an irritable guy who wants to watch the world reduced to cinder.
“As the fat from my father’s organs digested in my stomach, I vowed to always remember this bitter taste. It lingers on my tongue even now. It stays on my palate along with the rage from that day, the promise I made to myself that I wouldn’t just kill all of them if I had the chance: I would leave my home a sea of carcasses, their chests split open, souls left to dry out in the sun.”
If that last section left a bad taste in your mouth, don’t worry. Gustav does eventually pay the baroness back for her heavy-handed punishment.
As Gustav grows from a soldier to a leader in the army of Atlaua, he takes charge of a group of “Peacekeepers” who attack all possible outside threats to the kingdom. This eventually takes him back to his homeland of Mictlan where he crosses paths with the baroness, who is now decrepit and utterly alone. She was so alone because she had killed and eaten the few surviving villagers.
Gustav doesn’t handle the situation with much grace or dignity, eventually killing her in a way that really shouldn’t surprise you at this point. We’ll let you read the details for yourself in the book.
“It was then I realized why she was alone. It was then I realized why her portly appearance in my youth had now been reduced to a shriveled up shell of a woman. Long ago, she’d run out of elk. Then food. Then peasants to feed on. She’d packed the last of her rations in blocks of salt for longer keeping… I held her face in my hands as she looked up at me. It would’ve been so easy to put her out of her misery. I could have snapped her neck between the palms of my hands easily—three satisfying pops before that final, larger crack.”
As Gustav continues his rise to power, many fall under his wrath: enemies, allies and pretty much anyone who gets in the way. Gustav eventually transforms Atlaua into a war-torn wasteland, much like the one he grew up in. However, there is one group that is noticeably shielded by Gustav: orphans.
Anyone who is under the age of eight is sent to an orphanage where they are protected from the outside world and spoiled by “Uncle Gustav.”
As an orphan himself, you might think this is due to some lingering humanity. Some deep-hidden sweet spot in an otherwise black heart. This thought is quickly dispelled when you hear about what happens once they turn eight.
Gustav has them swim across the ocean to the island of Topan, where they are trained for mysterious purposes in Gustav’s army. This is shown to be even more ruthless when you learn that many of the children who attempt the daunting swim, don’t make it to shore.
“On a child’s eighth birthday, the child must leave the orphanage and swim out to Topan, where Gustav has established his home base. It is a treacherous journey—many of the children perish on the waves before they even make it to the shore, as it is a difficult task, even for a skilled swimmer. It is there they have a private meeting with Uncle Gustav. No one knows what happens behind those doors— not even me or my fellow Blackbloods.”
The Final Parade
Who doesn’t love a parade? Gustav, that’s who.
In his final master stroke to take power over the kingdom of Atlaua, Gustav does the inevitable and brutal act of assassinating the current leaders, Grandmaster Juan and Grandmistress Ninetta.
Ever the villain, Gustav is not satisfied with simply killing Juan and Ninetta, he has to make their demise known very publicly so everyone understands who the new boss is. To accomplish this, Gustav displays their bodies hanging from ropes to the kingdom during a city-wide parade.
Gustav effectively turns the parade from a celebratory event to a twisted marionette of corpses.
“It was the last parade anyone would ever attend, and the last thing Grandmaster Juan and Grandmistress Ninetta would ever witness. I saw their distinguished robes, seated in throne chairs flanking either side of Gustav, who was encouraging the crowd to continue their cheering and clapping, despite a stunned silence beginning to ripple out from the royal balcony. Suddenly, Gustav had two Black- bloods pull on ropes and the royals, hanging now upside-down by their ankles by crude pulleys, arms dangling like wind-chimes, seemed to be reaching downward for their subjects. Their robes fell back behind them like capes as Gustav whooped and hollered, mocking the horrified crowd.”