Bloodsworn by Nathan Long – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the final novel of the Ulrika the Vampire trilogy for Warhammer Fantasy Battles, one of the best series to come from Black Library in recent years.
“Bloodsworn is a stunning conclusion to an epic series and is full to the brim with no-holds barred Vampire badassery, political intrigue, introspection, betrayal and heroism as only a true Warhammer novel can be.” ~The Founding Fields
You know that feeling when you’ve been following the stories of a particular character or characters for a while, and then one da you hold what is ostensibly the last novel in the series? You feel a bit sad, a bit exhilarated, a bit tense, a bit excited. All because the series is coming to an end and all those little plots are coming together and the big promised showdown is right around the corner; but also because this will be the last you see these characters. That’s exactly how I felt when Bloodsworn arrived in the mail a few weeks back and when I finally got around to reading it earlier this month. With Nathan being one of my favourite writers and Ulrika being one of my favourite fantasy characters, reading Bloodsworn was like a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
When Bloodforged ended with Ulrika deciding to return back to Countess Gabriella in Nuln, and her just-concluded encounter with one of the villains who had led her on a merry chase through Kislev, my expectations for Bloodsworn were quite high. There had been ample build-up of an event on the horizon, one that could really change the balance of power for the various Vampire bloodlines between themselves and with respect to where they stood with the Empire. Ulrika was also, quite frankly, fairly ticked off at having been endlessly manipulated by her enemies. So I was quite ready for Ulrika to come back to her mistresses and start kicking some Vampire posteriors.
And what can I say, Nathan pretty much upped the ante to eleven and gave me a novel that was everything I expected and wanted of it, and then some.
The story this time has to do with the enemies of the Lahmian vampires plotting to kill Emperor Karl Franz himself and implicating the sisterhood in his assassination. A bold and ambitious plan that is most definitely going to rock the Empire’s foundations and bring civil war to the lands at least. And being Warhammer Fantasy, things don’t end just there, for the assassination itself is a cover for bigger, more momentous events.
One of the defining aspects of the trilogy is Nathan’s strong characterisation. Whether its the minor characters or the major ones, they all behave true to their nature and to their purpose in the narrative.
In that respect, Ulrika was a true surprise for me. She has so far been quite a rebellious Lahmian in the previous two novels since she was born to a warrior household, and served as a soldier before she was turned against her will. That particular facet of her personality still holds true when she returns to Nuln and finds that the Lahmians are engaged in self-defeating politicking rather than actively combating the threat to their bloodline, which serves to frustrate her to no end. Bloodsworn is where Ulrika comes into her own, and really shows her badass (excuse the word) vampire side in a way that’s only possible in Warhammer Fantasy. She sticks to her decisions, no matter how misguided they may be, but she also shows a certain deftness for politicking on her own. She is a product of two Vampiric bloodlines, the war-like von Carstein and the scheming, deceptive Lahmians. Nathan explores both sides of her inherent nature and that was fantastic. About time if you ask me because in the previous novels we only get teasers of this.
The other main character in the novel is the mysterious lord of the von Carstein vampires who has been stirring unrest against the Lahmians all over the Empire. His entry into the novel isn’t exactly much of a surprise if you know what signs to look for. Still, when he does reveal himself to Ulrika, it is still a chilling moment because this guy is a classic vampire in the vein of Dracula and the vampires from Matt Forbeck’s Carpathia. To really get that reference, beyond the general badassery of his character, you have to read the novel to understand what I mean. Suffice to say, it was a good moment. That aside, he is a strong character in the novel in his own right. His motivations are real and he is not too much of the shadowy, manipulative type either. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and I like that in a villain. It makes them more real and more enjoyable to read about. My only gripe with him is that he isn’t as clever as he is made out to be, in the end. Adversity has a negative effect on him a little too much. Still, a character I can appreciate and even root for to a degree.
There are a variety of other characters in the novels too, who are quite prominent to one degree or another. These include Karl Franz himself, his champion Ludwig Schwarzhelm, Countess Gabriella, Lady Hermione and her “daughter” Famke, and a host of other Sylvanians (by which I mean von Carstein vampires) and Lahmians alike, as well as various mortal soldiers of the Sylvanians. I enjoyed reading about all of them. I expected some to become fairly major characters in terms of how they affect both Ulrika and the narrative but sadly that wasn’t meant to be. Slightly disappointing since one of them in particular, introduced early on in the novel when Ulrika returns to the city of Nuln, I was really looking forward to. Ah well, we still got the awesomeness that was Schwarzhelm and Franz. These two didn’t get much page-time but when they did, they were quite impressive. Gabriella was a surprise as well because just as Gabriella showed her loyalty towards her mistress at the end of Bloodforged, so does Gabriella ultimately stay true to her as well. It was an interesting dynamic. Even without giving her much page-time, Nathan insured that she still played a crucial part in Ulrika’s character development and was strong herself. Brownie points to the man.
The pacing of the novel was just right. The high-octane action scenes, whether close combat vampire-vampire duels, or the no-less-than-three set piece pitched battles were balanced well against scenes in which Nathan explores the natures of both the Lahmian and Sylvanians and gives us some real insight into the two bloodlines through his protagonist. There is an interesting, appreciable dichotomy in their natures and they are sufficiently distinct from each other to come across as fully realised factions in their own right. The balance between that exploration of vampire history and keeping the narrative moving at a good pace so that the reader doesn’t get bored is a very tight one in Bloodsworn. Certainly couldn’t have been easy for Nathan to write it. Bloodsworn is a real page-turner that is going to keep you hooked from the beginning and all the way to the end.
The world-building, as I’ve alluded to at times in my comments above, is nicely done as well. We learn more about the Lahmians and the Sylvanians alike. We learn a bit more about the progenitors of the two bloodlines, especially the former, which was a really nice touch. We also explore what a vampire army on the march and in combat is really like since Nathan uses a wide range of options from the armybook: ghouls, Blood Knights, skeletons and sorceresses, all alongside some mortal soldiery as well. It was nice to see that depth to the character of the Sylvanians. In the end, it really felt like I was reading a distinctive Warhammer Fantasy novel about vampires and not something generic.
Before the closing, one thing I really wanted to talk about here is the cover of Bloodsworn. The artwork has been done by Winona Nelson, who did the artwork for the other two Ulrika novels, as well as for the Thanquol novels by C. L. Werner and has done art for Conan and Magic: The Gathering as well. If you pick up Bloodsworn just for its cover (or because you like the covers for the other two novels), then you’ll get exactly what it shows there on the tin. Trust me. Winona has captured Ulrika’s badass moment quite well in that cover. Here’s an excerpt from an artwork roundup piece I did for the Bolthole blog, the Bloghole:
Not as intimidating as Valkia but Ulrika does look like she is having a bad day and when this Lahmian vampire is having a bad day, things aren’t going to go well for the bad guys. The previous covers for the Ulrika novels have been excellent as well and this one just raises the bar that much higher for quality artwork from Black Library.
So in the end, I got exactly what I wanted out of Bloodsworn and then some. I’m really sad to see that the series has come to an end and that so far, there hasn’t been a fourth novel announced. Still, Nathan has done a great job with the trilogy nevertheless and given us one of the best characters in Warhammer fiction, as well as a strong female protagonist who can really stand well on her own. Jane Carver, another of Nathan’s creations, and Ulrika would make a good team I’m sure.
All of this means that you should really get this novel and the previous two as well. I highly recommend them all.