Swords of the Emperor by Chris Wraight – Omnibus Review [Lord of the Night]
Lord of the Night reviews the Warhammer Heroes: Swords of the Emperor Omnibus, containing the novels Sword of Justice and Sword of Vengeance, both by Chris Wraight.
“An excellent duology that tell a story of honour in battle, jealousy between brothers, ancient evils rising to blight the realms of man, and about the heroism that can be found in humanity at it’s finest. A must-read for any fan of Warhammer!” – The Founding Fields
Sword of Justice
Sword of Justice was not a novel that I thought about at first. I’m not an Empire fan and often i’ve found the Empire to be dull and uninteresting, especially when you’ve got the Dark Elves and Skaven and Warriors of Chaos in the same world. But Sword of Justice quickly proved that I was being foolish as the further I got through it, the harder I found it to stop reading until I was finally finished and immediately moved onto the next novel.
The Empire faces a grim issue in the backdrop behind the endless war against the enemies of man. The province of Averland, once the fief of the Mad Count Marius Leitdorf, has long been without an Elector Count ever since Mad Marius fell in battle against the Orcs. With multiple candidates pressing for the throne and the Empire’s armies stretched across too many battlefields, the Emperor sends the one man to deal with this problem that nobody expected. Ludwig Schwarzhelm, the Emperor’s Champion and the Sword of Justice. But can Schwarzhelm achieve this task that is so far outside his normal purview? And all the while, somebody is pulling strings in this campaign for a goal that will forever alter the face of the Empire.
The story that SoJ tells is obviously a two-parter. But the first half of the story is very well told, setting up the crisis in Averland while at the same time making it clear that things aren’t as bad as you think. Wraight does the politics of the story well, capturing the bureacracy and the tedium of the entire affair nicely while at the same time making it clear that something is wrong in Averland, and as the story proceeds further the teasing hints and signs grow even more numerous until you cannot be anything but sure that something bad is going to happen any second. And the story ties in nicely with Army Book lore which is just a nice bonus and shows that Wraight can take established lore and run with it to create his own new and unique story.
The characters are nothing short of amazing. Ludwig Schwarzhelm is a nuanced and fascinating character, his knowledge of what he believes is his place, his soldier’s disdain for bureacrats and the whole Averland affair, and his respect for the common man, the latter being extremely rare in the Empire, make him a character that the reader can identify with at time and be surprised by at other times. Schwarzhelm’s men are just as interesting, Captain Markus Bloch was particularly funny and his devotion was impressive as well, Pieter Verstohlen was the real standout of the cast though as a simpler fighter of Chaos, somebody who’ll stand up for the truth and as a character whose truly loyal to Schwarzhelm for reasons beyond the fact he is a good fighter and leader. Wraight does write a good cast of characters from the soldiers to the politicians, both groups being what you’d expect of them and at the same time surprising you with character plot reveals and sometimes just how unexpectedly canny they can be.
The action is very nicely coreographed, especially with regards to the Halbadiers of the Empire whose unglorious but vital style of combat is what often decides the flow of an Imperial battle. The battle environments were described vividly enough that it was not at all hard to imagine the fields of battle in the novel and the variety of enemies that were fought made each scene different from the last. However SoJ does not feature as much action as SoV does, mainly because the first half of the entire story focuses more on setting up the plot and the characters, but the battle scenes that it does have are very nicely done and are as easy to understand as a battle report.
The pacing of the story can feel a little slow at times, mostly on the tedious bureacracy and politics but I think that this is sort of the point. These things are not interesting to most and as such the boredom that Schwarzhelm and his men feel can be understood. But as with most BL novels that start slow, the pacing quickens as the final chapters loom until finally exploding into a fast-paced and exciting conclusion, or cliffhangar in this case, as the first half of the story ends. Wraight keeps the story tense as it progresses, the mystery of what is happening in Averland keeping the reader hooked on every page alongside the characters, wider story and the battles. All the elements of this story mesh nicely and work together to tell the story, and to make the reader want to keep going.
Now for my favourite quote, has to be this one, though not quite a quotation it is the most chilling line of the novel,
“Why are you doing this Ludwig?”
The ending is shocking, revealing much of the deception that has been going on through the novel and setting up the stage for part two of the story, Sword of Vengeance. The story pulls a complete reversal, changing everything that you expected and turning it on it’s head. I particularly enjoyed the point that Wraight chose to leave off on, enough of a cliffhangar that I was absolutely dying to read the next part of the story, but satisfying enough that I did feel cheated by a short or lacklustre ending.
For a great start to the story, memorable characters and some very nicely coreographed battles I give Sword of Justice a score of 7.5/10. This novel is a good start and definitely made me revise my opinion of the Empire, though on it’s own it did not manage to make me an Empire fan. But more on that below. I would recommend Sword of Justice to any Empire fan, and indeed combned with the rest of the omnibus I would recommend it to any fan of Fantasy in general.
Sword of Vengeance
Sword of Vengeance immediately followed SoJ for me and though SoJ was good, SoV was excellent. It blew the first part of the story out of the water, made me into a definite Empire fan and got me interested in future Empire based books, and has one of the best battle scenes i’ve ever read. That is twice that Wraight has converted me into a fan of something I wasn’t before, his Battle of the Fang novel made me respect the Space Wolves though even he couldn’t lessen my hate for them. It took ADB to do that. But back on topic.
The Empire is in chaos. Averland finally has an Elector, who is acting very strangely and constructing something, the purpose of which nobody is quite sure. The Emperor’s Champion and The Emperor’s Marshal have met on the field of battle, and only one has walked away. The Witch Hunters are gearing up for war against the enemy that lurks within their midst. And a small band of knights is fighting to stay alive in Averland as the enemy who has long hidden in the shadows finally reveals itself, but to stop this ancient threat will take more than knights or armies. It will take the Swords of Justice and Venegance, striking together as one.
The story that started in SoJ continues and finishes in SoV, which is where all of the major events bar a few take place. Wraight ups the ante right from the start, using the reveals in the end of SoJ to avoid rehashing what has already happened, and starting immediately after that end so as not to waste time with timeskips and to keep the reader invested in the current situation by not skipping ahead and then using flashbacks to tell what happened in the interlude. SoV is a much more epic story than SoJ, the multiple plot lines of many characters coming together to clash in the final battle. Wraight does a hell of a job telling so many character stories at the same time, and it pays off as the novel keeps you invested with so many different stories that are all linked in some way. I particularly enjoyed the continued use of Army Book lore, some of which received a rather surprising twist in the novel that makes you realise just how long the antagonist has waited for all this to happen.
The characters, as in SoJ, continue to be exceptional. Kurt Helborg is in the spotlight this time and we see that he is Schwarzhelm’s opposite in many ways. He’s the guy who believes in nobility, who understands the importance of ceremony and of bloodlines, and who does intrinsically believe that a noble man is better than a common man. And yet he isn’t detestable, for he tries to bring these things out in people rather than blindly believe them of those who are clearly pathetic, but one or two of his lines did make me think less of him. Returning characters include Markus Bloch, Pieter Verstohlen, Ludwig Schwarzhelm of course, Heinz-Mark Grosslich and the mysterious Natassja. But a few new characters are introduced, chief among them Volkmar the Grim who very quickly shows how he got his name, and that him tearing himself free of the chains that bound him to Be’lakor’s throne was not a fluke.
The action is breathtaking, at first the fights are just like SoJ’s, nicely written and coreographed but beyond their impressive detail nothing to shout about. But the final battle is epic in every sense of the word, the scene is set so vividly that you could picture yourself right in the middle of it all, the armies clashing are loaded with powerful forces that really make the battlefield shake, and the characters all get their moment in the battle where some die, some live and all become heroes. But it’s the fact that the battle is almost three different stages, the battle at the gates, the battle in the city and the battle in the tower that really make it brilliant. Each of these battles is immense and gripping, I particularly loved the gauntlet through the streets as the Imperial fighters try to make it to the tower and have to fight through some pretty tough opposition, and that each character got a scene or scenes to themselves in the final battle showing their exploits in it. The final battle in SoV is without a doubt one of the best battle scenes i’ve ever read.
The pacing is quicker than SoJ, because this novel is primarily concerned not with setting up the story and characters, but with advancing towards the end. This is the second half of the entire story and it does feel like things are more important, more dangerous and more tense than SoJ’s events because they are. I said that Wraight ups the ante and it shows in each aspect of the book, the plot is bigger and more epic, the characters are delved into much more in-depth and the battles become wars in their own right. What I enjoyed most was the immersiveness of the final few chapters, it was so gripping that I could picture those final chapters perfectly and I tore through them in record time.
Now for my favourite quote, many jump to mind but this one is the most epic at least for me,
“Pain is fleeting. Damnation is eternal. Let me show you the difference.”
The ending of the story, the entire story, is impressive, enjoyable and the epilogue was surprising. Some things have changed and some have not, after all Army Book lore is ironclad until it’s updated, but the story itself is resolved as is each and every character’s story, some as you might have guessed and some rather surprisingly. The epilogue itself was the most shocking, though in truth it reminds me of Void Stalker’s final epilogue in that it is a story that will never be told but rather be left to the imaginations of the readers, which is always a good way to end a story and especially so if it’s as cool as this story’s.
For concluding a brilliant story, epic battles and for being cool enough to make me a fan of the Empire I give Sword of Vengeance a score of 9.0/10. This is a story that any fan of Warhammer Fantasy can enjoy, but it hinges on you having read SoJ beforehand. The two stories go together and cannot be fully appreciated unless read together, back-to-back if possible. But together I would recommend them to any and all fans of fantasy in general, so this is definitely a book to read. Empire fans will love every page, and those like me who were iffy about the Empire might just change their minds.
Feast of Horrors
The omnibus edition includes two extra short stories, one a reprint and one brand new. The reprint of Feast of Horrors: A Ludwig Schwarzhelm Story, was the next thing I read after finishing SoV, and I was not disappointed with an extra but unconnected Schwarzhelm story.
The Emperor’s Justice has arrived! On the outskirts of the Empire in a small little manor Ludwig Schwarzhelm has arrived to dispense the Emperor’s justice, but first he must survive the feasts and praises of the nobles and their leader the Baron Helvon Drakenmeister. But as the feast continues it becomes apparant that something is wrong, something in the manse is watching with hungry eyes as Schwarzhelm and his squire prepare to stay and see this task to it’s end. To survive the feast of horrors, the two of them will have to abide by one rule. Do not touch the food.
The story in Feast of Horrors is not at all connected to SoJ and SoV, rather it is a self-contained story featuring Ludwig Schwarzhelm and is more about exploring his character and telling an interesting short story than it is about adding to the epic duology story. I enjoyed the twist in the Feast and the actions that Schwarzhelm had to take at the end, but other then the story was enjoyable and well-written there is not a great deal else to say about it. It’s a good story, but not a stand-out story like some others.
Schwarzhelm himself is the only real character in FoH, aside from his squire Helmut and the Baron Drakenmeister who play smaller roles, Schwarzhelm’s character is examined a little and some of him that you saw in SoJ and SoV is continued here. His disdain for nobility that have not proved themselves, for the niceties of polite society and other such foolishness make him an easy character to identify with, he just wants to cut through the crap and get right to business. I liked that Schwarzhelm was shown so well, but admittedly the story could have revealed a bit more about him other than his dislike for nobles and his ability to inspire fervent loyalty. But the would have needed to be longer for that.
The action is small scale, only Schwarzhelm really does any fighting but he does it well. Wraight’s easily pictured coreography and well-described battles, albeit on a much more personal level, are once again present and make even the smallest fights as enjoyable as the largest battles when they are done correctly. But this is primarily a horror story and relies on shocking reveals and gruesome scenes rather than battle scenes to make the story.
The pacing is nicely done. The story is shorter than average but Wraight tells a good story that is not let down by it’s length. I enjoyed the atmosphere of mystery that was used in the early part of the story, and then the horror tbat was present as the truth behind the manse and the feast were revealed, and the ending’s sadness was nicely done as well.
My favourite quote, has to be this brief exchange,
“The Emperor’s worried about this one.”
“Is he behind on his taxes?”
“On the contrary, he’s paid them all.”
The ending was rather sad, and showed how personal Schwarzhelm takes it when men under his command meet harsh ends. The kind of loyalty he inspires is a double-edged sword, it can make men better than they ever could have been alone, but will almost certainly get them killed much earlier than they normally would have been. Wraight wraps up the story nicely providing a solid conclusion, but without linking it to the main story which would have made it that little bit better.
For a good story and a rather interesting WHF dinner party I give Feast of Horrors a score of 6.7/10. This isn’t a story to shout out about but it’s solid and a nice way, along with the second short, to finish off the SotE omnibus. Fans of the novels can enjoy this story as a brief adventure, and the separation from the main story means it can be your introductory point to Schwarzhelm.
Duty and Honour
The last story in the omnibus is a new short story featuring Kurt Helborg, and without a doubt this one is my favourite of the two. This short explores Helborg far more than FoH did for Schwarzhelm and reveals a very important element of Helborg, and perhaps of the Empire at large.
The Empire clashes once again, this time with their sometime allies the Bretonnians. Kurt Helborg leads the Empire against the knights of the Lady in retaliation for the raiding of Imperial settlements across the border, but both are stymied by the tactics and skill of their foe with both armies grinding to a halt in the swampy marshes of the borderlands. In order to break the stalemate Helborg receives a rather unusual challenge, the outcome of which will determine the fate of the entire campaign. But what will prevail in this battle, the pursuit of honor or the chains of duty?
The story in DaH is not only a character study of Kurt Helborg but one of the Empire and it’s neighbour Bretonnia. The Empire’s values of duty are very clear, duty to the Emperor and duty to Sigmar come above all else. But the Bretonnians praise honour above all else, for it is their duty and their religious calling. Wraight shows the dynamic between these two very well, and how at the very least Kurt Helborg views honour in battle and the mindset of the Bretonnians. I really enjoyed the look into Helborg’s battle-psyche and I was surprised by his actions near the end, I did not expect such a thing of him.
Helborg is the main attraction in DaH and the story is chiefly about his character. Helborg in battle is a very interesting man, his perceptions of honour and duty not being quite what you’d expect of the Reiksmarshal or of a knight. But you can understand his mindset, being Imperial he has different views to the Bretonnians who do not have to deal with the myriad of enemies that the Empire does, which undoubtedly has shaped Helborg’s mindset in battle and is what allows him to do what he does in the story without feeling any guilt.
The action is rather enjoyable. This is a larger scale story than FoH and we have the Empire and Bretonnia clashing against each other, the guns of the Empire against the cavalry charges of Bretonnia. Bretonnia accounts for itself nicely and I think Wraight does a good job of showing that just because the Empire has guns doesn’t mean that armies like Bretonnia cannot fight against them, they just add another dimension to the battle but are hardly game-breaking. And the power of a Bretonnian Knight cavalry charge is depicted very satisfyingly, and the personal duel between Helborg and the Viscount was nicely coreographed as Wraight has done throughout the entire omnibus.
The pacing is enjoyable. This story feels longer than FoH, no doubt due to it’s larger scale and, at least for me, more enjoyable subject material. Wraight does a very good job of telling such an enjoyable story in so few pages, DaH has been better than some dedicated anthology short stories that i’ve read recently despite their longer length.
Now for my favourite quote, has to be this one for how cool it is and that it made me laugh,
“Honour’s for pig-herders and virgins. This is war.”
The ending is a grim reminder of how Helborg, and likely the Empire at large, views warfare and of the necessity of pragmatism in the world of Warhammer Fantasy. Wraight tells a story with a rather interesting moral, one that is definitely the anti-thesis of every story of knights, monsters and princesses out there. Needless to say I really enjoyed it because of that.
For it’s interesting story, grimly amusing resolution and an in-depth look into the mind of Kurt Helborg in battle I give Duty and Honour a score of 7.2/10. This is my favourite of the two short stories and was a damn fine way to end the Swords of the Emperor omnibus, one of my favourite fantasy duologies and a story that no WHF fan should miss.
That’s it for this mega-review. I hope you all enjoyed it. My next review will likely be for Gav Thorpe’s Angels of Darkness, so until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!