Monday, January 16, 2012

“Age of Legends” edited by Christian Dunn (Black Library)


A collection of dark fantasy fiction

The dark origins of the Warhammer World are soaked in blood. Epic wars between kindred races reshaped continents, vast civilisations rose and fell, the dead walked the earth in legions. This is an age of mighty heroes whose like will never be seen again, such as the mangod Sigmar and Caledor, the Phoenix King of the elves. It is also an era of dread villains like the Witch-King Malekith and Nagash, the Lord of the undead. In these troubled times, dragons still flock the skies and magic exists that can doom or save the world.

It used to be that all Warhammer fiction came in the form of short stories, so it’s nice that Black Library are maintaining output of shorter slices of Warhammer (and WH40k) action and adventure. In Age of Legends, we have ten stories from a number of established masters of the world, as well as some new blood. Overall, this is another great anthology of dark, engaging fantasy fiction, with some particularly enjoyable contributions from newer authors.

“A Small Victory” by Paul S. Kemp

The great temple-cities of Nehekhara are in turmoil. As the undead forces of Nagash the Usurper sweep across the deserts, the armies of the priest-kings fall before them, every death a double loss as another soldier is added to the Usurper’s unliving horde. Refugees flee the city of Bhagar, among them the betrothed of the merchant Masud. Determined to find and protect his love, Masud escapes from the city and takes to the desert, but Nagash’s reach is long, and no one is safe from the curse of unlife...

This is a solid start to the anthology. Kemp has a gift for evoking the horrific aspects of the Warhammer world. Masud’s fight against the undead is nicely done – it’s tense and atmospheric, and the enemy is grotesque and creepy. Kemp also manages to give the story a tragic ending, which was very well written. His prose style is tight and well-paced. The only problem is that it was maybe too short for Kemp to really show us what he’s capable of. A very good start – this also bodes very well for his next fantasy novel, The Hammer and the Blade (coming soon from Angry Robot Books).

“Bloodraven” by Sarah Cawkwell

For many long years, the remote dwarf hold of Karak Ghulg has stood against the attacks of Chaos-touched human marauders. But now the last assault is coming. With the women and children sent to safety, King Skaldi Ironjaw and his stalwart warriors prepare to sell their lives dearly to stop the crazed killers, led by the greatest of Khorne’s champions, Valkia the Bloody.

This is another great story, and just goes to show why Cawkwell is one of the more popular of Black Library’s new authors. She has a real gift for writing Chaotic characters and battle scenes. In this story, though, I also really liked the way she wrote the dwarfs – evoking their doughty pride and stubbornness very well. I’d certainly be interested in reading a Dwarf-centric novel from her in the future. But, of course, we’re reading for the Chaos side of the story, and here, Cawkwell is very good. She manages to keep the Chaos host realistic (relatively speaking, of course) and brutal, without making them too over-the-top or turning them into cartoon monsters. Valkia is an excellently conceived daemon princess, and her otherness is horrific and frightening to behold (or imagine, really), so I’m very glad she’ll feature in a full-length novel (to be published in July 2012).

I do have one issue with the story, though, and that it Cawkwell’s tendency to over-describe. Not by much, just adding occasional, extraneous adverbs or adjectives that aren’t necessary. This leads me to privately nitpick about some descriptive inconsistencies. If Cawkwell can reign in this tendency, then she will definitely deserve to be considered one of BL’s best authors.

Also on CR: “Influences & Inspirations” Guest Post

“City of Dead Jewels” by Nick Kyme

The dwarf hold of Karak Azgal, once the glittering City of Jewels, is now a dead city, a warren of tunnels and ruins infested by foul creatures. Hidden in the depths is a powerful beast of an unknown nature, the killer of King Durik’s son. A band of dwarfs form an uneasy alliance to seek it out, revenge in their hearts, but the creature is more powerful than they can imagine...

This story has a bit of a slow start, but when the combat kicks off things really start to get going. Kyme has a great prose style (with only a couple of florid sentences), and this story has a great pace. Kyme, who has written novels focusing on the Dwarfs, has a great way of writing them, and manages to make all the characters individuals as well. This story is, basically, a very nicely put-together dungeon quest: we have a beast-slaying goal, a great beastie to slay, tragedy along the road, and a weary victory. I really enjoyed this.

I really don’t know why I haven’t read any of Kyme’s novels. I’ll remedy that this year for sure (probably starting with Salamander).

Also on CR: Author Interview

“The Last Charge” by Andy Hoare

The city of Brionne, the jewel of Bretonnia, is under siege, the latest victim of the rapacious dark elf warlord Rakarth, the Beastmaster. As the dark elves and their monstrous hordes surround the city, the defenders turn to Duke Corentin for leadership. Rallying his troops to meet the attack, Corentin prepares to defend the city, even as he knows that in this place, at this time, he and his knights will make their last charge.

Be careful what you wish for – that is the message of this story. Hoare has a great writing style, and a great eye for description. Despite this, though, the story feels a little thin. One of the shortest in the anthology, the first half of the story seems to be deal with deployment and a bit of posturing on the part of the Dark Elves. It feels a little more like a roll-call of Druchii regiments and rare units. A pity, as Hoare is a great writer. Maybe if he’d had a larger wordcount to play with? Still, it’s well written and there are some good combat scenes.

“The Ninth Book” by Gav Thorpe

Norse mercenaries, heading south to fight in the civil war that divides the Empire, take shelter from a storm in an ancient Kislev fortress. Drawing the attention of nearby enemies, they find themselves under siege. But the greater threat may come from within. Deep in the bowels of the fort, the mercenaries find a tomb with the name ‘Von Carstein’ engraved upon it. And it is empty...

This story is filled with good tension and atmosphere, with a little mystery towards the beginning. A watching nobleman wants something in the tower, something he needs the Norse mercenaries’ help to get. Fortuitously for him, but unluckily for the Norsemen, a Chaos warband lays siege to the tower, and he offers his help in return for the item he covets. Thorpe gives us a mixture of Chaotic and Undead combat. The story is tightly written, and the characters are nicely constructed and portrayed. This is one of the strongest stories in the collection, and Thorpe continues to impress with his writing.

The story has an interesting ending, and offers a perspective we don’t often read from a Warhammer vampire, but one that should make perfect sense: the idea that an apocalypse or widespread Chaos taint is not good for a vampire’s food supply. (Which reminded me of Chuck Wendig’s Double Dead.)

Also on CR: Author Interview

“The Gods Demand” by Josh Reynolds

For twenty-two days, the city of Hergig has stood strong against the beastman horde that has laid waste to Hochland. But now the gates have broken, and the beasts have entered the city. Elector Count Mikael Ludendorf leads the defence, his runefang in hand and his stalwart personal guard at his side. As the beasts rampage through the city, the count seeks out his foe, intent on killing the leader of the horde, the Beastlord Gorthor. The result of their combat will decide the fate of Hergig.

This story was probably the biggest surprise of the bunch. It’s awesome. Elector Count Ludendorf’s got some giant-sized brass balls, which is a polite way of saying he’s nuts. He is ruthless, and slightly unhinged from reality, unable to back down in the face of overwhelming odds. It is his eventual undoing, but he is not alone. There’s also an interesting parallel to be drawn between the human and beastmen forces. Where Ludendorf ignores his advisors’ call for caution, Gorthor ignores his own sense of caution to placate his near-mutinous horde of bloodthirsty beasts. I liked that Reynold’s characters, as well as being very well written, also broke the mould of what you might expect from them.

The author has a superb writing style, that pulled me through the tale, and I was engrossed. I bought his latest – Knight of the Blazing Sun – based solely on the strength of this story (and I’ll review it pretty soon, hopefully).

The battle scenes are no-holds-barred, intense and ferocious. The final confrontation between Ludendorf and Gorthor is brutal and gripping. This was excellent..

“Plague Doktor” by C.L. Werner

As the black death sweeps across the Empire, indiscriminately killing rich and poor alike, the people cling to any hope of deliverance. When a ragged group of scavengers, on the run from Imperial authorities, enter the town of Amorbach, one of them is mistaken for a plague doktor – a sinister figure, but one who brings hope. Can he maintain the deception long enough to escape from the town, or will the truth be discovered?

This is another solid contribution from Werner. His characters have suitably questionable morals and worldviews, particularly Grau. He is offset by his idealistic former-knight companion and guard, Kahlenberg, who provides disapproving commentary on Grau’s broken moral compass and attempts – successful and not – to maintain a level of honesty that his employer does not appreciate. Grau, posing as the plague doktor, gleefully takes advantage of desperate townspeople’s need for hope and salvation, any potential cure for the plague is welcomed, regardless of how ridiculous it might seem. Kahlenberg resists only as much as necessity will allow. As they stay longer in Amorbach, they slowly come to realise that this plague may not be natural at all, and come face-to-face with some deadly, scuttling fiends…

Deliciously sinister and cynical, this is a great, short and dark story that sets things up nicely for Werner’s upcoming novel, Dead Winter (to be published in May 2012).

“The City is Theirs” by Philip Athans

The army of Gorbad Ironclaw is at the gates of Nuln. The defence is over, the walls are about to fall and all hope is lost. Count Brutus Leitdorf oversees the evacuation of the city’s remaining citizens when an advisor comes to him with an audacious – and dangerous – plan that might just help them survive – if they can find someone desperate enough to carry out the suicidal endeavour.

This is the first time I’ve heard of Philip Athans, and I must say this is a very promising first read. Despite a slow start, the story builds to a well-executed, tragic ending. His characters are interesting and well-drawn, as well as diverse; Athans avoids cliché and looks beyond the more predictable cast of characters. Dr. Isaak Meitler is a delightful curmudgeon, an alchemist utterly incapable of observing social niceties when in the presence of the ruler of Nuln. The characters are all good, and I found myself zipping through the story. It’s one of the longer ones in the anthology, but it didn’t feel like it.

Great writing, an original story, and fun. I look forward to reading more by Athans in the future, and would certainly be very interested to see what Athans can do with something novel-length.

“The Second Sun” by Ben Counter

In the bowels of the Bright College in Altdorf, Associate Comprehender Mohr investigates an ancient and mysterious artefact that tells the story of a long-dead wizard and his search for a spell of incalculable power – the Second Sun. As he reads the tale, Mohr finds himself drawn into a dark mystery that threatens to claim his soul as it did that of the wizard Malofex many hundreds of years before.

This is a pretty interesting story. It focuses on the Bright Wizards of the Empire, whose aesthetic and power are both linked to fire. We get a lot of interesting and detailed insight into their College, and some of their secrets and methods. There remains an unsolved mystery at the end, which makes me wonder if there’s either something I missed (not knowing much about them prior to reading this), or if this is the start of something bigger – a novel or more short stories yet unpublished, perhaps?

It’s well-written, with a confident and relatively clipped prose style. I think it could have been longer, though, as I didn’t feel like I’d got the whole story, and would have liked a little more closure.

“Aenarion” by Gav Thorpe

The Sword of Khaine resides upon the Blighted Isle, veiled in mystery and guarded by forces both living and dead. Despite the warnings, Aenarion rides out upon his dragon Indraugnir to seek the prize in order to save his homeland of Ulthuan. The journey is fraught with danger, and Aenarion must confront daemons, spirits and the elemental forces of nature itself if he is to succeed. But in drawing the blade from the Black Anvil, he will unleash the ancient and malevolent force that will tear the elven race apart…

This story was originally released as an audiobook of the same name, and it’s an interesting way to close off the anthology. Focused on one of the greatest Warhammer heroes ever, it is an account of the first Phoenix King of the High Elves’ battle against the hordes of Chaos. It’s presented in an interesting style – almost like a saga, or grand historical re-telling of the age. At times, this makes some of the language a little too arch, perhaps. Compared to Thorpe’s other story in the anthology, this is not as strong. It’s still good, enjoyable and well-written, it just provides a bit of a flat ending to this otherwise very strong anthology.

If you’d like to read more High Elf fiction, I’d recommend Gav Thorpe’s The Sundering series (Malekith, Shadow King, and Caledor), Will King’s superb Blood of Aenarion and Graham McNeill’s Defenders of Ulthuan and Sons of Ellyrion.

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