Death’s Angels by William King – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first in a series of self-published novels by the acclaimed (traditionally published) William King, author of the Space Wolf novels and the Gotrek & Felix series for Black Library.
“This is a series that turns a whole host of fantasy standards on their collective heads and then takes them for a rip-roaring ride through an extremely unique world full of tyrannical elves and muskets.” ~The Founding Fields
William King, the man who got me hooked into Black Library fiction with the third Space Wolf novel, Grey Hunter, all those years ago and instilled in me an appreciation for all things Space Wolves. I’ve read a variety of his work, for both Warhammer settings, and his work is among the ones I really like. If I had to make a call on the top 5 authors for Black Library, his name would definitely be on that shortlist. His long break from writing more Warhammer stories was something I was never really aware of and it was a little disheartening to find out that was the case a couple years back. Mostly because it meant that Ragnar Blackmane, the protagonist of his Space Wolf novels, would never become a Wolf Lord and that it’d forever be a mystery. And then Bill came back to writing more Warhammer, starting with the fantastic (so I’ve heard) Blood of Aenarion for Warhammer Fantasy, a novel that was recently shortlisted for the David Gemmell Legend awards! Talk about arriving in style.
That was roughly the time when I also found out about his self-published novels, of which he has put out quite a few in recent years and even sold his 10,000th eBook very recently! Success all around for him. The premise for the Terrarch Chronicles novels didn’t really appeal to me initially, which contributed to my lack of interest, but then I finally picked up the novel last month and after a rather brief chat with Bill, decided that I’d better read it as soon as I could.
As I mentioned in the blurb up above, this is a novel that takes a lot of fantasy standards, mixes them all together, and then gives the reader something that is an entirely unique experience. As such, this was perfect reading material for me this year, since I’m on the lookout for “unique experiences” as part of my 200-Reading Challenge.
To start off, the world of Gaeia is not the kind of worlds you find in most traditional epic fantasy settings; this is a world where a nation of Elves from another realm dominate the lands of Men under the rule of their Queen. Pretty unique as far as I’m concerned! Then there’s the fact that this features gunpowder and muskets and regiments of Men lorded over by Elven officers. This is also comparatively unique although Warhammer has something similar as well. It has the makings of a really evocative setting however, and you are never disappointed with how the narrative unfolds.
Characterisation has always been one of his strengths, whether it is Ragnar Blackmane or the adventuring duo of Gotrek & Felix or the various villains they all encounter at one time or another. Death’s Angels is full of a such characters, each with his or her own backstory, quirks, mannerisms, attitudes, motivations, beliefs and so on. The chief protagonist is Rik, a halfblood who serves in the Death’s Angels regiment as a common trooper and is often picked on by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Sardec. I’d like to say that Rik was a really enjoyable, complex character but in all honesty, it is Sardec who I really liked. Don’t get me wrong, Rik is a really enjoyable and complex character but I felt that Sardec was much more well-rounded in that he was intensely driven by a need to prove himself to everybody around him, whether it is his Terrarch peers and betters, or the dregs of his regiment. As such, I really felt that Sardec should have been given much more exposure than he already gets. His frustrations and his attitudes really added a whole another layer of three-dimensionality to all the characters he interacts with, particularly Rik himself. Together, these two are definitely characters to watch out for and I have lots of high hopes about these two in the sequels.
The other men of the regiments, such as the Barbarian, Sergeant Hef, and Weasel most of all. All of them quite colourful characters that are worth reading about. There is a lot of mirthful camaraderie between these characters and while they are not friends per se, you do get the feeling at times that these guys are all something much more. Don’t count on them being heroes and saviours right out of the history books but these guys will get a job done all the same no matter what it takes, as a collective. And if they become heroes, all the better.
The world-building is the real gem in the novel. The world of Gaiea and all its idiosyncracies are unveiled through the eyes of the characters, whether its the good guys or the bad guys, the Men or the Terrarchs. There is plenty of serious magic in the novel, alongside war-dragons, dark sorcery, profane rituals and what I can only refer to as monsters spawned from the mind of Cthulhu himself. To put it another way, Death’s Angels can fit right in as a World of WarCraft novel set during the Wrath of The Lich King expansion timeline with only a few minor changes. The monsters were very reminiscent of the WarCraft Old Ones and their servants and given that I’m a big fan of the setting, speaks highly of Death’s Angels. The social stratification within the Terrarchs is another captivating aspect of the novel because I have yet to come across something similar. It all adds a realistic feel to Sadrec’s dealings with his people, whether it be his fellow regimental officers or Lady Asea, who is one of the First, the Terrarchs who have lived and fought on their lost homeland in another dimension.
Death’s Angels is a very pacey novel. The action moves along briskly and mostly goes hand-in-hand with the character development and the brilliantly done world-building. My one negative call-out however would be that sometimes the action takes too much of a back-seat and we deal overmuch with some of the domestic aspects of the setting that really could have been skipped or condensed further. Certain scenes also have an over-quick resolution and I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing. Not to mention that some character decisions are telegraph too clearly. You are still kept guessing till the end about how things play out and how the climax ends, but it wasn’t as thrilling as I was expecting it to be.
The dialogue was mostly on the money here. Lots of internal monologues by Sadrec and Rik and some of the other characters kept things fresh and interesting. Most of the characters have a gift for witty comebacks, even the usually stilted Barbarian who was great for some really great humour moments. The characterisation of the cast factors in big time with the dialogue and if you take away all the identifiers, I’m fairly certain that I can tell who is saying what. The voices of the characters are quite easy to identify with and remember.
Overall, this was a really fun novel to read. Different to the mainstream in quite a lot of ways and still as much a part of that mainstream as anything. The norm these days certainly seems to be on “how to take the standard stuff and turn it into something unique”. That’s great!
Death’s Angels, as my first taste of self-published reading, is a very positive example as well. It is no worse than a lot of other traditionally published novels I’ve read over the years and it is quite better than a big majority of them too. This is a novel that gives me the confidence to try out more of Bill’s Terrarch series in particular and self-published work in general.
And in light of that, I’d certainly recommend the novel. If you like Bill’s Warhammer work then this novel won’t be too far out of your way and if you like fantasy in general then this is definitely one that you should try out.