Age of Legend – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first anthology for the popular Time of Legends meta-series for Warhammer Fantasy, a collection of short stories by new and old authors alike.
“A superb collection that collects together some of Black Library’s finest with an added dose of two new authors to the setting, Age of Legend is a great read.” ~The Founding Fields
As I mentioned in my review of Josh Reynolds’ Knight of the Blazing Sun back in February, I’ve been working on getting back into the fantasy fiction side of Black Library. Warhammer Fantasy is one of the best fantasy universes I’ve come across and the moralistic duality of its heroes and villains and everybody else is one of its biggest draws. Anthologies are a great place to start off reading in such big universes, and is especially true for Black Library fiction in particular, so combined with the fact that I had been waiting for Age of Legend for quite a while now, it was only natural that I was going to pick it up at Black Library Live last month. Mostly I was driven to read the stories by Josh Reynolds, Sarah Cawkwell, C. L. Werner, Gav Thorpe and Nick Kyme, authors I’ve enjoyed reading in the past and look forward to with great anticipation pretty much always.
The first story in the anthology is Paul S. Kemp’s A Small Victory, a tale that is set in the lands near Nehekhara in the time of Nagash’s rise to power. A short, good-paced, and punchy story, this was a good story from Paul, this being his first for Black Library. It gives a nice little teaser into the lives of people beyond just the lands of Nehekhara and is a very personal, moving story of a man trying to protect the woman he lives and his dutiful brother’s attempts to keep him safe in turn.
I enjoyed this quite a bit and would like Paul to write more Warhammer fiction. I’ve interviewed him previously and he has expressed an interest in the setting so that’s great news. Having just recently read his Star Wars novel Deceived, a tie-in novel of sorts to the game Star Wars: The Old Republic, I do like his work. I also have the Erevis Cale Omnibus on my to-read pile, a collection of the first three Erevis Cale novels set in Forgotten Realms setting from Wizards of the Coast. Looking forward to that one and will post my thoughts when I’m done with it.
Second is Sarah’s Bloodraven, a story featuring Khorne’s prime consort and champion Valkia the Bloody. Publication-wise, this is her first Valkia story, as she has a novel coming out in less than two months and did another short story featuring her for the Black Library Live Chapbook and did one of the special occasion eShorts for the 15 years of Black Library celebration, also last month. I have to say that Bloodraven definitely proves why Sarah is such an upcoming star in the ranks of BL’s authors. She makes writing looks so natural and easy that it is impossible not to get lost in the narrative. This is a story that pretty much says Time of Legends on the tin: it is about a dwarf hold near/in the Chaos Wastes. We know how that is gonna end!
A seriously enjoyable story because it is chock full of some serious close combat action scenes, some really callous actions by the Chaos soldiery and in particular the Bloodraven itself. Nothing speaks mind-frakkery better than some Bloodraven, umm, action. I was expecting something quite different with regards to what or who Bloodraven is, but I was still surprised to see the reveal of it. Valkia is certainly solidified as a strong, no-nonsense character because of it and I have to admit that she creeps me the hell out. The only downside to the novel is that there just isn’t enough Valkia in it and the early scenes with her Chaos warriors were a little odd but all good, all good.
The third story is Nick’s City of Dead Jewels, another Dwarf tale for the mix. This is somewhat of a traditional kill-the-monster quest story but frankly speaking, the short story is enjoyable for that very reason. Dwarfs hunting a monster in the depths of their hold? More please! My only previous exposure to Nick and his Dwarfs is the novel Oathbreaker. It was a decent enough story although certainly not something I enjoyed particularly. But this short story is ample motivation to go back and give it a re-read.
A good pace, with a good monster, some nice slayer action, lots of oath and honour talk between the characters, some great heroism, sacrifice and typical Dwarf stubbornness, City of Dead Jewels is a great addition to the anthology. Contrasted with Sarah’s Dwarfs, Nick’s Dwarfs are more traditional in the way they are portrayed but both are equally well-defined and presented. That we get two such different portrayals of the same race back-to-back with each other is a fantastic idea. Loved it. The only place I’d fault the story at is that it didn’t give us enough tension between the characters. There was a good amount of it sure, but for the type of story this is, more would have been great.
Then we have Andy Hoare’s The Last Charge, a tale of the Bretonnian city of Brionne being besieged by the armies of Urien Rakarth, a Dark Elf beastmaster. Andy is a Games Workshop Design Studio veteran and has written a fair bit of stories for Black Library, some of it quite intriguing (such as his Rogue Trader novels) and some that is, to be honest, bland (like The Hunt for Voldorius). The Last Charge had some potential in it but it didn’t really work at all for me. The story was entirely too predictable from the get go and lacked any excitement that would keep me hooked.
I only really finished it because I wanted to finish it, not because the story wanted me to keep turning the pages. That was disappointing, considering that I’d enjoyed the three stories leading up to this one. Duke Corentin made for a decent enough protagonist but he appeared to be too cliched in his manner and his dialogue to be of any real interest to the reader. Definitely not one of Andy’s best. In fact, overall speaking I’d say that The Hunt for Voldorius is a far more enjoyable read than this.
Next up is Gav Thorpe’s first of two entries for the anthology, The Ninth Book. This I’d say is pretty typical Gav Thorpe stuff: it is dark, it is moody, it is subtle, it is complex. A great addition to the collection for sure. The pace is a little slow but moves relentlessly throughout and Gav delivers on the theme and title of the anthology – Age of Legend – very well. Ostensibly this is a vampire novel, one that features a certain infamous Von Carstein vampire lord. Told as much from the perspective of a band of Norse mercenaries as a shadowy, mysterious stranger, The Ninth Book is a story that titillates the reader with a lot of promises and hints and what not.
While I enjoyed the story by itself, I did end up with some questions about it. Mostly, they had to do with who that mysterious stranger really is. I have some theories about it but given my lack of fantasy lore knowledge about the various vampire lords in Warhammer, I may be way off base. The story just prompts me to go get the Vampire Wars : The von Carstein Trilogy. That is definitely on the cards now. I like Warhammer’s Vampires; they are the good old fashioned bloodsuckers and raging beasts at the worse of times with the added uniqueness (as far I am concerned) of being divided into a multitude of bloodlines and are all the product of some of the darkest necromancy in the setting.
Then we have Josh Reynolds’ The Gods Demand, a story of an Imperial Elector Count and a Beastman warlord. As far as the grim and non-grim humour of the setting itself is concerned, this is hands down the best short story in the anthology. Mikael Ludendorf and Gorthor are excellent characters in their own right, and they are both immensely fun to read about. Have to say, Josh is quickly becoming one of my favourite fantasy authors ever. The man definitely knows how to write a great story that is as entertaining as it is thoughtful.
The Gods Demand is pretty much a perfect story, one that leaves you wanting more by the end of it. It has some great minor characters that perfectly complement Mikael and Gorthor, a downright bonus. He definitely writes some very memorable characters. It also has some nice one-on-one combat between the two lead characters, and this is where Josh really excels at. You can visualise his action scenes very easily and they are all the more enjoyable because of it.
Next up is C. L. Werner with a short story about the Black Plague that ties in to his upcoming novel Dead Winter, part of the Black Plague series for the Time of Legends brand. Herr Werner writes excellent stuff for Warhammer, whether it is in fantasy or in the far future. In many ways I’m quite the fan and so my expectations of his work are always high. Plague Doktor definitely did not disappoint. Set at a time when the disease itself is running rampant through the Empire, rather than the origin story as he did with Plague Priest in the Games Day Anthology from last year.
Plague Doktor is not as enjoyable as its predecessor but it is pretty much right on the money. A scavenger accompanied by an indebted knight being mistaken for a Plague Doktor? A bit cliched when you think about it but the execution is anything but. Grau and Kahlenberg are an interesting pairing and it shows throughout the narrative. Its one of those stories where desperation makes people believe anything and how unscrupulous the good-bad variety of characters can be when its their lives on the line. The idea of a Plague Doktor, healing men who are generally despised and looked down on but perform an important service, is a nice and promising one, worthy of being explored further. My only gripe with the story is that it takes a little too much setup to kick off then I’m really comfortable with and that the villains of the story don’t have as strong an appearance as I wanted them to have.
We begin winding down the anthology with Phil Athans’ The City is Theirs. Phil is another new addition to the ranks and is from the same pedigree as Paul in that they have both written extensively for Forgotten Realms, with Phil having even served as an editor at Wizards of the Coast. I didn’t really know what to expect from the story initially. It is about the Orc warlord Gorbad Ironclaw’s siege of the city of Nuln, the Empire’s engineering capital , and how Count Brutus Leitdorf attempts to save Nuln. It had a decent enough pace and moves along gently but the narrative itself didn’t really work for me.
Maybe that has to do with the Halfling character that is mixed in and serves as an unlikely and unsought-for ally for the good guys. It felt a little tacked on and filler but that could just be my perceptions of the setting speaking since I’ve never come across Halflings in my reading of Warhammer fiction, although they do definitely exist, albeit on the fringes of the lore. Not to mention the fact that I kept thinking of Tasslehoff Burrfoot from the Dragonlance novels. The comparison certainly didn’t help matters any. Leitdorf himself came across as a rather smart and astute leader, one who is just too caught up in events and bad luck throughout. My Warhammer lore-fu isn’t strong so I couldn’t really tell if this was a story worth including in the anthology but given that Gorbad is one of the more famous greenskin warlords that seems fine.
The second to last story in the anthology is Ben Counter’s Second Sun. Now, I’ve read pretty much all Ben Counter has written for Black Library – his Grey Knights and Soul Drinker series, his Horus Heresy works, various short stories and most recently, his novella Endeavour of Will for the Architect of Fate anthology. Personally I’m quite a fan of his work, although he can be quite uncomfortably quirky with his stuff, as Soul Drinker‘s second half shows or have disappointing characterisation of promising characters, as was the case with some characters in Battle for the Abyss. Overall though, I enjoy his works. When I saw that he had written a story for Warhammer, his first ever Black Library fantasy work, I was quite excited. Its always nice to see Ben doing some different stuff and Second Sun proves that quite ably.
The story is about a wizard of the Bright College investigating an old mystery and some startling and grim revelations. This was definitely one of the best stories in the anthology. Ben Counter is hitting his stride very well in his first Warhammer piece and it shows throughout. Its one of those stories that you can’t put down and have to finish in one go. Which was all fine and good for me. Second Sun is engaging, atmospheric, and suitably grim for the setting. Plus it hits the anthology’s primary theme very well as it features an unexpected character that absolutely screams Time of Legends when you read about him. Overall, fantastic stuff, and I quite look forward to Ben’s first Warhammer novel, Van Horstmann, later in the year.
And finally we have the first prose reprint of Gav Thorpe’s audio drama Aenarion, which tells the story of the first Phoenix King of the Elves and how the doom of the race is set in motion, a doom that culminates in the division of the race into the Dark Elves and the High Elves, as told in The Sundering trilogy, also by Gav. I’d like to do an audio drama review of the story since I bought and listened to it after buying and reading the anthology, so I won’t go into too much detail about.
Suffice to say that this is written very differently to all the other stories in the collection. For me, it strongly evoked the style and atmospheric styles of Tolkien’s work. It has that mythic feel that is helped along with the somewhat ritualised and formal dialogue of the characters. This is truly some of Gav’s best work.
Overall, I really enjoyed the anthology. It has some great stories and, mostly, they all fit in rather nicely with each other. We get a really wide look into the setting through all the different characters and factions and all the stories are as different as they can get. Awesome variety and so a recommended read for sure.
Overall rating: 8.5/10