Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the new Black Plague trilogy, part of the ongoing Time of Legends series for Warhammer Fantasy Battles.
“A sweeping saga of how the Empire is about to be plunged into one of its darkest moments, Dead Winter is not a novel to be missed.” ~The Founding Fields
Back when it was first announced, I wasn’t really all that interested in the Black Plague trilogy. Not much of a fan of Skaven, and the story itself didn’t strike me as being exciting or anything. I enjoyed the first Sigmar novel, Heldenhammer, and I’ve enjoyed the first two Sundering novels, Malekith and Shadow King, but Nagash the Sorceror just didn’t work for me. It was unexciting, bland and dragged on far too much in too many places. So my reaction to the overarcing Time of Legends series was a bit lukewarm. There were only two points of interest that motivated me to read Dead Winter: the first was that it was C. L. Werner writing the novel, an author I’ve enjoyed in the past and been fairly impressed by; second was that I really enjoyed his tie-in shorts Plague Priest and Plague Doktor, both of which I’ve reviewed before here and here respectively. My curiosity had been quite piqued after reading those two excellent stories and I wanted to see just what was so special about Dead Winter.
To begin with, Dead Winter is a break from departure in terms of the narrative style. It is very similar to Kevin J. Anderson’s Terra Incognita novels, which I recently reviewed for the site. There are five main stories being told in the novel which, while they are loosely connected with each other, really give a true feel for how much the Black Plague is devastating the Empire and how widespread the effects and the fallout are as this is a disaster that does not care about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, an Emperor or a simple, struggling rat-catcher. What makes them all really work is that each story has a credible sense of danger attached to it and they are told with excellent pacing, ample reveals, great twists and some really evocative prose.
The tale of Frederick Van Hal, the lone surviving priest of Morr in the distant Sylvanian town of Bylerhof, was for me the most emotional of the four that Herr Werner tells in the novel. He is portrayed as a man struggling against some great odds, odds that serve to impress on the reader that Warhammer Fantasy Battles is not a setting where there are happy endings. Its all about the grimdarkness of the Old World. By the end of this narrative, I was really invested in Van Hal’s character and his circumstances and Herr Werner has really set his story up to be a powerhouse in the sequel when it comes out next year.
The “quiet” revolt of the nobles against the economical tyranny of Emperor Boris Goldgather was also a moving story but with this one, it was more about the narrative being akin to that of a dark political thriller rather than one where you can emotionally sympathise with the characters as much as you do with Van Hal. I hesitate to use the word beautiful when describing this story but I really can’t think of a better word. This was a perfect story.
The characters, all the various lords of the Empire, the Emperor himself, his new right-hand man Adolph Kreyssig, various knights of the Empire Knightly Orders and all of them are just fantastic. They are credible characters who truly live and breathe the story. My favourites would definitely be Prince Sigdan of Altdorf and Captain Erich von Kranzbeuhler of the Reiksknecht Knights. These two really stood out for me, caught between a rock and a hard place for most of their narrative and sticking to their ideals and being good, proper heroes.
On the flip side, Adolph Kreyssig is a character I absolutely loathed throughout the novel. I’ve read some great minor villains (at least they appear to be so initially) over the years but this guy really stands out above the rest of them. I’m really hoping that Herr Werner gives him the most atrociously torturous death in the next novel. This bastard of a peasant who is wreaking absolute havoc in the Emperor’s council deserves it.
All in all, this part of the novel was truly magnificent, a real political thriller like I said, one that starts to delve ever so inexorably into the theme of “separation of religion and the state”. Some great cameos from various characters and great, poignant moments of sacrifice that really make this an exceptional novel.
Then we have Walther Schill, a no-name rat catcher in the city of Nuln. At first, I was pretty bored with this narrative because it took a while to get going, but when it did, it really did get going! This was akin to a fairly traditional quest story with Walther having to hunt the plague-ravaged city and find evidence of this giant rat monster that’s been doing the rounds, killing people and generally causing a mess. The fact that he is motivated by wealth and fame is quite secondary I assure you! Well, maybe not as secondary as you might think. This was a fun narrative and Walther’s tale doesn’t end all that well either, just like Van Hal’s, but by the end of it, you’ll still wish that it hadn’t ended.
The fourth interwoven narrative is that of Graf Gunthar, the ruler of the Empire city of Middenheim, and his son Mandred as the two work to bring some relief to their own plague-ravaged city. This was a much more sobering tale than Walther’s, and about as dark as that of Van Hal’s but not as great as the one that plays out in Altdorf. The Graf takes some hard measures to keep his people from succumbing to the plague but Mandred, a young and idealistic fool, often works at crosspurposes. Seeing how Mandred has to accept the negatives of being a ruler and the hard choices that his father has to make made for a rather compelling story. It won’t wow you or anything, but you will certainly be sympathetic to Mandred and even his father, who Mandred sees as some kind of an uncompromising and uncaring tyrant. The way the narrative ends, it is very bittersweet and there is certainly the promise that dark clouds are on the horizon and that Middenheim is about to be torn apart from within.
And finally, underlining and connecting all these different narratives is the tale of the Skaven themselves, particularly those of Clan Pestilens, the geniuses behind the Black Plague. Puskab Foulfur takes the centerstage as the Skaven who actually invented the Black Plague. Being a Skaven narrative, it is a given that there will be lots of backstabbing, scheming, politicking and delusions of grandeur. Herr Werner certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard. It was really nice to get this counter -POV to all the other narratives, mostly because it put it all into perspective. Its nice to just what the Skaven are upto in their under-Empire while the lands above are ravaged and are beginning to fall to barbarism, suspicion, panic, despair and all that. Good job there.
Overall, Dead Winter is a fantastic novel. It has a great pace because all the different narratives are spread out nicely and move along concurrently. The highs and lows are pretty much staggered so there aren’t many scenes together which are slow or fast and so there is a good balance to thing. With the main combined narrative staggered as it is, it really offers a unique reading experience as far as Warhammer novels are concerned. Dan Abnett did a similar thing in his latest novel, Horus Heresy: Know No Fear, but all the narratives were connected more loosely than they are in Dead Winter and there were too many separate scenes that didn’t jive with the overall novel. In Dead Winter, we get five distinct narratives, each focusing on a different set of characters and taking place in five different locations.
Like I said, it really gives the feel of a saga to the novel. It is an approach that I’d like to see more of in Black Library novels, but they shouldn’t be overused either. A novel or two now and then is fine because then the style remains unique and something of a novelty.
Characterisation-wise, everything was downright perfect for me. I was really immersed with the world-building as we see it through all the different characters, each of which had different (mostly) name styles and so it was easy to distinguish which part of the Empire we were reading about at that particular time. All the characters, whether it is the greedy Boris Goldgather, the rat-catcher Walther Schill, the priest of Morr Frederick Van Hal or the plague-priest Puskab Foulfur, were credible and their motivations for what they were doing were all realistic and believable. In short, everyone acted and performed as they should in the setting.
The novel ends on a really dark and desperate note. Thanks to the Black Plague, the Empire is disunited, its armies are discontented, the nobles are fighting each other, and the commoners are close to revolting, among other things. So the stage is set for the Skaven to put their next phase in motion: the invasion of the Empire. In that, Dead Winter ends on a high note. There are cliffhangers aplenty, especially where Erich and Frederick are concerned and things look promising for the sequel.
As it stands, I can’t wait to read the sequel, damn this year-long wait!
So yeah, Dead Winter comes HIGHLY recommended. Don’t miss out on this because this is a true-to-the-setting novel and because it truly is a Time of Legends novel.