Originally published in the form of weekly episodes, the twenty-eighth book in the hugely successful Horus Heresy series turns the focus on the WhiteOriginally published in the form of weekly episodes, the twenty-eighth book in the hugely successful Horus Heresy series turns the focus on the White Scars legion of Space Marines. Until this book, the White Scars have been the forgotten legion, with less screen-time in the series than any of the other Marine forces. That oversight is redressed in Scars where they are cast front and centre.
One of the strengths of the series is how the same events can be told from several different viewpoints and yet still seem fresh each time. With Scars, Chris has exploited the rules of the universe to maximise this effect. The White Scars have been on campaign on the planet Chondax, far removed from their brother legions and cut off from interstellar communication by a warp anomaly. As the Heresy unfolds elsewhere, eventually they will have to learn the truth behind what’s happening and decide whose side they’re on.
The scope of the book is pretty big, portraying the White Scars both from within and without. This necessitates a wide variety of viewpoints, each of which is well realised and has a distinctive tone.
From outside the legion we see them mused upon by the key players on the side of the Emperor on Terra – Rogal Dorn, Malcador and Constantin Valdor – and by the beleaguered Space Wolves fleet who are calling on them for aid. A slightly-removed view is provided by the White Scar Stormseer, Yesugei, as he tries to re-establish contact with his brothers in the Scars’ fleet from their homeworld, Chogoris. His scenes early on tend to be more reflective, giving the reader a grounding in the legion’s past without indulging in too much exposition.
The internal viewpoints though are the most rewarding. The prologue introduces us to Shiban and Torghun as they are elevated into the legion’s ranks. By the time of the novel proper they have risen to become Khans of their respective warrior brotherhoods and provide a window on how the White Scars operate, and their own history shapes the dramatic tension of their story threads.
A human view is provided by Ilya Ravallion, a logistical officer assigned to the White Scars fleet, in both her attempts to understand the legion and in her discourse with the upper echelons of the legion including their Primarch, Jagatai Khan, who is the lifeblood of the novel, and whose story this really is.
The characterisation is strong throughout and for a story with a sizable cast list that’s no mean feat. Jagatai, though, really stands out and watching him deal with revelation after revelation and myriad truths is a delight. He is certainly a protagonist deserving of the reader’s sympathy.
As a first proper look at the White Scars, Scars does a great job of fleshing out the legion. Their Mongol influences are clear, but they are delivered so assuredly that it doesn’t feel forced. Clearly a lot of research has been done, and the author’s passion for the subject shines through. Chris also plays on the fact that they’ve been neglected before now by turning it into an elusiveness which is both integral to how the legion operates and affects the way they’re seen in-universe, which is a really nice touch.
Structurally the story is an interesting one, due in no small part to its initial episodic publication. In the early chapters there seems to be some redundant exposition, possibly there to serve as a recap of previous events, but in the joined-up novel format it feels unnecessary. Similarly at the end it seems that things are being wrapped up rather too quickly, which perhaps would have been done in a more measured way if not restrained by the original format.
One thing that jarred a little was that the Space Wolves narrative is only followed for the first half of the book. It’s so well done, and the characters are suitably enjoyable, that I wanted to know what happened to them afterwards. One for a future book perhaps?
However, to say these are major issues would be to do the rest of the book a disservice. The pacing is excellent and the cliff-hangers and revelations at the end of each chapter make it very hard to put down. Chris’s prose is very easy to read and just flows off the page without getting bogged down in jargon and laboured description.
His action scenes in particular are a joy. There are several scenes of ship-to-ship void war which are beautifully described, giving a cinematic sense of scale and manoeuvre. There’s an economy of language that really lets the imagination fill in the blanks.
It does occasionally fall into the realms of cliché, however. More than once do we see a decisive nick-of-time intervention, particularly in the final act, and the story is helped along by a convenient all-knowing character. Again, these are minor issues as the rest of the story is so strong, and despite an element of predictability, there are enough surprises to keep it interesting.
Scars is an absolute pleasure to read. It’s fast and engaging, and in Jagatai Khan, Chris has enhanced a character I knew very little about and made him absolutely compelling. There are many subtleties to the story too, which many readers will find rewarding. I particularly enjoyed the theme of the game Go which appears both literally in the story, and is reflected in the action. It’s an interesting parallel story to the opening trilogy of the series too, and as such is essential Horus Heresy reading.
I feel I must make a confession, dear reader. Despite many years of reading Warhammer fiction I've never read a Gotrek & Felix story before. The cI feel I must make a confession, dear reader. Despite many years of reading Warhammer fiction I've never read a Gotrek & Felix story before. The closest I've come has been to listen to David Guymer's own audio drama, Curse of the Everliving, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As City of the Damned sits outside the continuity of the main series, it seemed as good a point as any to dive in.
During their travels, Dwarf Slayer, Gotrek Gurnison and his human companion, Felix Jaeger, arrive in a village that's been terrorised by a 'beast'. Seeking his doom, as Slayers are wont to do, Gotrek decides to track the beast to its lair in the ruins of a city. It turns out he's not the only one with that idea...
The first thing I’ll say is that David’s descriptive language is a joy to read. There’s a richness there that fleshes out all his locations and characters distinctly, and the similes are varied and very colourful. The settings capture the medieval flavour of the Warhammer Fantasy world beautifully and he’s filled them with a plethora of interesting sights, sounds, smells and people. The highlight of this is his creation of the titular city itself, which oozes atmosphere through every ruined building and dark shadow. You get the feeling that there’s some unknown danger around every turn and it makes for very compelling reading.
A wonderful setting is, of course, no good without some intriguing characters to populate it, and there’s a fairly large and varied cast, all with their own reasons for being in the city. Gotrek and Felix find themselves in league with a group of half-mad flagellants, a band of mercenaries, and Rudi, the last survivor of a village attacked by the beast. Along with Felix, Rudi is a primary point-of-view character and feels suitably fleshed out. Other than them, only the leaders of the flagellants and mercenaries, Nikolaus Straum and Caul Schlanger, get explored in any real depth which is a little bit of a shame, especially as some of the mercenaries seem to have interesting stories to tell.
Arrayed against them are the many and varied denizens of the city, the Damned, and worse. Like the city itself, they’re full of visual character, and David captures the idea of a gribbly swarm of nastiness beautifully.
As for our heroes, Felix is very much the focal point. We see the world mainly through his eyes and he definitely feels like a character resigned to getting caught up in perilous situations – only to be expected as the companion of a slayer. Of course this rational human viewpoint is a necessity alongside the fairly single-minded Gotrek, who feels a little too much like a functional character. I imagine he’s quite a challenge to write as not only is he seemingly capable of defeating any foe, he’s also girded in impenetrable plot armour. He is, though, the main source of comic relief and his banter with Felix frequently lifts the tone of the story.
The narrative for me was a bit of a mixed bag, though there’s a lot to admire. The tension and atmosphere as we follow our protagonists through the city is excellent – as good as any I’ve read in a Warhammer novel. The city scenes are nicely paced and keep the pages turning quickly. The plot, too, takes what seems to be a fairly straightforward premise and layers it up with several subplots – some of which are very intriguing and elevate the complexity of the plot dramatically.
On the downside, this narrative complexity does add to the challenge of following what’s going on, especially in the beast’s point-of-view passages. This is something a reread might help with though as it’s dealt with in an eventual reveal. There are also a lot of perspective shifts from character to character where it isn’t immediately clear who’s been jumped to which did jar a little..
I also had a couple of issues with the overall pacing of the story. The lead-up to them entering the city felt a little laboured, seeming to take a long time to set up the world and the motivations of the characters. The final act, however, almost felt a bit too rushed. Once everything becomes clear the various narrative threads appear to be tied up in very short order. The tension and drama of the fantastic middle act more than makes up for these though.
Gotrek & Felix: City of the Damned is a very enjoyable read. It’s full of Warhammer flavour, in both big themes and small details, yet it doesn’t feel forced, which suggests an author who’s very comfortable with the setting. I can’t compare it to any previous Gotrek & Felix novels so I don’t know how well David’s interpretation of the characters will sit with long-standing fans of the series, though as a standalone novel it’s well worth a read.
Drakenfeld is a curious amalgam of fantasy and crime fiction in a world that tastes like ancient Rome. It follows Lucan Drakenfeld, an agent of the SuDrakenfeld is a curious amalgam of fantasy and crime fiction in a world that tastes like ancient Rome. It follows Lucan Drakenfeld, an agent of the Sun Chamber (an organisation tasked with maintaining peace between the various unified nation states – imagine an ancient version of the UN) as he finds his simple homecoming isn’t as straightforward as he expects.
From the very first line, the writing is interesting and very readable. Told in the first-person from Drakenfeld’s point of view, we have a narrator with a wonderful eye for detail and a fairly assured view of the world; though this is nicely tempered by his own physical limitations and a possibly-misplaced faith in both gods and people. The return to his home city after a long time away means the description of the world around him is often based on comparisons with his memories, which helps keep the descriptions natural and it never feels bogged down in exposition.
Further viewpoints are provided by the characters closest to Lucan. Leana, his assistant/bodyguard/confidant, provides an outsider’s view. She’s a strong warrior from outside the Royal Vispasian Union, and with her dark skin an outward sign of difference, she enables a window into the attitudes of Tryum’s elite towards other nations and cultures. She’s also very straight-talking and can more than handle herself in a fight. A wonderful character indeed.
The insider’s view is provided by senator Veron, who is also fun to read. Through him we get to understand the political side of life, and who the movers and shakers of the ruling and military classes are. Being a long-term resident of Tryum, he’s also a useful guide to the more interesting parts of town for Lucan.
Beyond these, the supporting cast is very detailed and believable despite its size. All walks of life seem to be covered from royalty and military leaders down to shopkeepers and street thugs. Each has a distinct voice and the variety of characterisations paints a picture of a well thought out society, and this isn’t all that’s well thought out...
The world building on show is exquisite, and really draws the reader in. The descriptions are full of character and Tryum feels like it could have been lifted straight out of ancient Rome. But even beyond the physical, there’s so much more to it that adds texture. The political system is nicely constructed, right down to its tensions with the military as well as the independence of the Sun Chamber. Religion also plays a major part in life, with a varied pantheon of deities, nicely contrasted with Leana’s more spiritual view of the world. There are even a few hints and whisperings of supernatural happenings and magic, though met with no shortage of scepticism. But none of this is there just for the sake of it. These factors all influence the way various characters behave and interrelate to each other, as well as shaping their attitudes to such things as death and honour.
The plot, the locked room mystery of the King’s sister’s murder, is nicely worked. The intrigue keeps building and building, and is really well paced in the main. The chapters are short and punchy and show the myriad threads that Drakenfeld is trying to follow without getting too heavily ensconced in any of them. I found it very easy to read and a genuine page-turner. It also has that lovely quality of a mystery, that when the reader is sure they’ve got it all worked out, the game changes. This makes for a very compelling read.
My criticisms are few and relatively minor. I did feel that some of the loose ends were tied up a little too quickly and cleanly by the end of the book, though one fantastical thread that really intrigued me was left unresolved, where I would have liked it to be explored a bit further. I fully expect this to play a more prominent part in Drakenfeld’s future excursions though.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Drakenfeld. It’s a cleverly crafted mystery told in a beautiful way. However, what really stood out for me is that beneath this mystery there runs a strong current of engaging human relationships. From Lucan’s relationships with his dead father or with Leana, right up to the King and the people around him, it’s a story very much driven by the emotional ties between its characters. This, in addition to its readability, makes it almost certainly the best book I’ve read this year, and I am looking forward to the next instalment. Highly recommended.