Friday, January 11, 2013

“Sword of Caledor” by William King (Black Library)


The story of Tyrion & Teclis continues, as their enemies and Chaos gather

Tyrion – Unparalleled swordsman and tactician. Teclis – Greatest natural sorcerer of the age, his power rivaling that of fabled Caledor.

Together these twins are the greatest high elf heroes to still walk the earth. Tyrion and Teclis venture into the deadly jungles of Lustria on a desperate hunt for the lost sword of Caledor Dragontamer, the fabled Sunfang. While they search for this ancient artefact, the dark elves continue their assault on Ulthuan, sending the deadly assassin Urian Poisonblade to kill the Everqueen. And in the Realm of Chaos, the Witch King Malekith makes a pact with another enemy of Tyrion and Teclis – the sinister greater daemon N’Kari.

In this second installment of King’s High Elf trilogy, we start 100 years after the end of Blood of Aenarion. The High Elf twins have progressed in their respective fields – Tyrion has grown in stature and success, while Teclis’s studies into the arcane are starting to mark him as destined for greatness. Sword of Caledor moves the brothers’ story forwards, as a great evil finally executes its plan to dominate first the elves, and then the world. This is a great, classic-style Warhammer fantasy novel. One that is equally focused on action as it is the characters and society in which they operate.

Sword of Caledor is a novel that exceeded my high expectations. As someone who has frequently re-read the background and history sections in the older, longer High Elf and Dark Elf Warhammer Armies books, I am very familiar and fond of a number of these characters – specifically Tyrion, Teclis and Malekith. King has not disappointed, and managed to flesh-out these heroes and villains better than I could have hoped. They are three-dimensional people, neither overly virtuous, nor caricatured evil.

In the prologue, King brings Morathi and Malekith to gruesome, violent and degenerate life on the page, setting the scene for future appearances, as we learn of their various opposing and conflicting schemes. There’s a cruel irony that the king of the Dark Elves, descendant of the founder of the Cult of Pleasure is completely unfeeling, with his senses deadened by his ordeal in the Flame of Asuryan. He’s a really interesting juxtaposition to both the High Elves and his own subjects. Malekith in particular is fleshed out more in this novel (Morathi less so, which is a pity – I like their strange, twisted dynamic).

Unfortunately, I can’t speak to how King’s Malekith compares or conforms to Gav Thorpe’s portrayal in the character in his Time of Legends novel. (It’s one of the series I really wish I’d been able to keep up with and find the time to read before now.) Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the way King has written him: Malekith stands apart from his subjects in some really interesting ways. He is immune to the hedonistic pursuits and narcotics beloved of the druchii. He is at once the embodiment of their cruelty, yet also removed from a hedonistic core of what makes them who they are as a society. Naturally, he heaps scorn on his subordinates for giving in too easily to their debauched and depraved desires. [How’s that for alliteration?]

He could see the local farmers his warriors had captured and crucified for entertainment.

He shook his head at the stupidity of it. What a waste! Those elves could have been sold as slaves or made servants, or even simply put to death if they had committed some crime against Malekith’s laws. It was not the way with the druchii though; they had to outdo themselves in proclaiming their decadence and cruelty. He blamed the influence of his mother and the cults she had introduced so long ago for that. The time would soon be here when he would bring them to heel.

A good portion of the novel deals with the High Elf character, and their arrogance and natural superiority over… well, everyone else. While this has been covered in other fiction and texts, I enjoyed the way King has woven it into the narrative – as a way to set the scene and also make Tyrion and Teclis stand out; to highlight how unlike and yet also alike they are to their fellow elves. They appear to struggle with this trait. For example, early in the novel, during an adventure to the jungles of Lustria in search of Aenarion’s sword, the Elf twins and their human companions are attacked by the shambling undead. Teclis assesses the situation:

“He could save himself and Tyrion. The others were only humans. He had no reason to care whether they lived or died. By elven standards they were going to die soon anyway, so what difference would a few more years make? Chances were they would be carried off by disease or disaster within months if they made it back to their homelands anyway.”

And yet, despite this cold elven consideration for humans, Teclis and Tyrion do care, and even come to feel responsible for the humans. Teclis, in particular, breaks from the elfish norm, and has a sympathy for humans that most other elves lack. After all, given his youth and physical maladies, most other elves wouldn’t have allowed him to live. Only the love of his father and support of his brother saved Teclis in his youth. As it turns out, the elves of Ulthuan will be very happy with this mercy in the future.

After their quest to recover the Sword from the Lustrian jungles, the twins hear of the death of the Everqueen – the spiritual leader of the High Elves of Ulthuan. This present Tyrion with a dilemma. With each new Everqueen, there must be a new champion. The Emeraldsea family, our heroes’ family on their mother’s side, has requested Tyrion put his name forward for the tournament. Those familiar with the Warhammer lore will know the ultimate result of this tournament, but maybe not how it came to be. The problem is, that Tyrion is a very ambitious elf, and a lifetime as the Everqueen’s champion could be as much a curse as a blessing: he has set his sights higher, even going so far as to consider running for the Phoenix Throne of Ulthuan (his ancestor Aenarion was the first Phoenix King). He discusses this with Teclis at one point, and it struck me how similar elven politics are to real-life politics:

“I never said I wanted to be Phoenix King.”

“You have the qualifications. You have the looks, the charisma, the intelligence, the reputation...”

“The gold? The political support? … I do not know whether I want to be Phoenix King, or whether I have what it takes to be one. I do know that in order to become Phoenix King, you need a lot of powerful political allies and a lot of money. A good deal of horse-trading goes into the making of our ruler. If I wanted to be Phoenix King, I would need the support of Emeraldsea, and a great deal more.”

The second half of the novel is focused on the tournament to become the new Everqueen’s champion. Tyrion doesn’t think he wants it, for the above-noted reason that he may have ambitions that aim far higher. Nevertheless, when he arrives in Avelorn, he starts to see the type of power and fame the position would award him. Not the blunt, obvious political power he craved, but something more subtle.

The winner in the next few days would be remembered for as long as there elves in the world.

He realised that this was important to him. Glory was important to him. More than wealth, he craved renown. He wanted to prove himself worthy. The question was – was he willing to pay the price?

As with Blood of Aenarion, it’s refreshing to see these two heroes still getting to grips with their growing stature and abilities. They are not yet the masters of battle and magic Warhammer gamers will be familiar with. King has humanised them (to an extent – they are, as already stressed in this review, very elven). Tyrion is still self-conscious and restless, while Teclis is still learning to marshal his magical abilities and resentful of elven society’s vilification of the less-than-perfect, and the way it makes many of his people treat him.

There’s a particularly good moment after the twins acquire the Sword of Caledor, and Teclis attempts to access its magical qualities.

The enchantments designed to make it easy to wield were only part of the complex web of magic pinned in place by the names on the blade. There were other spells present, fascinatingly complex ones which hinted at great power… he extended his thoughts and activated one. A jet of flame blasted from the point of the blade. Only Tyrion’s lightning reflexes kept him out of the way. He sprang to one side and the flame hit the porthole setting it to glowing. Panicked, Teclis sought to bring it under control. The jet of flame set the bedding alight before he managed to douse the fire blazing from the point of the blade.

In many ways, Sword of Caledor is good, old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery, complete with all the trappings one would expect from such a novel. It’s just written so well and faithfully to the source-material that any fan of Warhammer should really enjoy this. I couldn’t help but also wonder just how much of a coincidence it was, given the sub-genre, that Tyrion & Teclis’s group of adventurers in Lustria included a “Fritz” and a “Leiber”...

Once again, it is a pleasure to be reading Warhammer fiction from King. He is the author who ignited my interest in the setting way back in the early 1990s with his first Gotrek & Felix short stories, and I have read all of his fantasy work for BL since. Indeed, I think every new Warhammer novel is compared, in some way to how those early novels made me feel. I do think he’s better at Warhammer than WH40k, so I do like this series a lot more than his other ongoing trilogy focused on the Imperial hero Macharius (which started with Angel of Fire).

Bringing these two characters to life was always going to be a tricky proposition: they are so central to the overall Warhammer canon, not to mention dear to fans’ hearts, that it could have been a disaster. Thankfully, King has absolutely done these characters justice – he has enhanced them, making them real and more nuanced and three-dimensional.

This is a great series, and any fan of Warhammer should read it. Sword of Caledor does have the feel of a middle volume, as Malekith maneuvers his pawns and warriors into position for a long-planned strike at the heart of Ulthuan – some of which unfolds in the final chapters of the novel. Nevertheless, I found myself hooked from the start, and happily read this into the night on a couple of occasions. There are hints of things to come, and the scene is set for what I think promises to be a pretty explosive, action-packed finale.

I can’t wait for the next and final book, Bane of Malekith (which, sadly, is a year away...). Highly recommended for fans of Warhammer, and especially long-time fans.


The full Sword of Caledor art (by Raymond Swanland)


The full Bane of Malekith art (by Raymond Swanland)


  1. I really liked Gav's Malekith. Quite unconventional if I do say so. Definitely one of the best WHF novels for quite some time. The sequel, Shadow King I'm a bit iffy about, because the story was psychologically quite dark and the protagonist Alith Anar is a really self-absorbed and moody guy. Not a very comfortable read.

    1. I really wanted to read Malekith, but I think I was distracted by something else at the time, and it just slipped by the way-side. Pity. I'll go back to it. Just so many books still to get through... o.O