Road of Skulls by Josh Reynolds – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the latest Gotrek & Felix novel.
“Quite possibly one of the best Gotrek & Felix novels to date, this also cements Josh Reynolds’ place as a solid writer for both the Gotrek & Felix franchise and the Warhammer Fantasy setting.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve been a fan of the Gotrek & Felix series ever since I read Bill King’s Trollslayer in the first omnibus. A collection of short stories, the novel really immersed me in an incredibly rich fantasy world from the point of view of two of the most unlikely heroes ever. Since those early days, around 2007, I’ve always had a great fascination with the series because of how the books approached the source material. Each book focuses on a particular monster or villain, and is themed to show how the unlikely duo of the Dwarf Slayer Gotrek and the warrior-poet Felix win the day, whether it be dragons or daemons or skaven or vampires or any other creatures of darkness.
The series is also notable for the fact that it is the only Black Library series (that I can recall) which has spun-off into two separate book series, the Thanquol & Boneripper novels by C. L. Werner, and the Ulrika the Vampire trilogy by Nathan Long, who took over Gotrek & Felix after the departure of King from the publisher. In my estimation, barring Herr Werner, the series could not have been in better hands than it was in Nathan Long’s. He’s delivered some fantastic stories and reading his work has been a great joy.
But then news filtered down last year, when Gotrek & Felix: An Anthology was released, that Nathan too would be stepping down and that the third Ulrika novel, Bloodsworn, would be his last for Black Library for a while. This created quite a void in the ranks of WHF authors since other than Herr Werner and Chris Wraight, who were both already busy with several projects, there didn’t appear to be any other author who could step up to take the reins, given that Dan Abnett was already heavily invested in Warhammer 40,000 along with Gav Thorpe, and Nick Kyme was similarly busy with other projects in addition to his editorial duties. And that’s where Josh Reynolds, a newcomer to the publisher, stepped in with his novella Charnel Congress last year and the first Gotrek & Felix novel in several years: Road of Skulls.
The question was always going to be whether Josh could have written a novel to match what Bill King created and what Nathan Long helped keep alive. As far as I am concerned, based on Josh’s story in the anthology and this novel, the series is in very capable hands and the future looks rather bright. Josh’s first book for Black Library was Knight of the Blazing Sun, and while a good book, it wasn’t all that interesting, overall, and had a fair few flaws. Since then however, and a little bit before then, he’s written several pieces of short fiction for WHF and what little I’ve read, I’ve been impressed with. I went into Road of Skulls with high expectations, tempered with my experience from Knight of the Blazing Sun, and I’m quite happy to say that Josh has surpassed my expectations. Not only did he deliver a story that feels very true to the original vision from Bill King, but he also explores the setting itself in depth, and leaves his own stamp on the series.
Road of Skulls is quite possibly the first Gotrek & Felix novel that is told like an epic. Not epic in the sense that this is Lord of the Rings kind of epic, or with some of that formality of prose, far from it. It is epic in the sense that unfolding events hint at much larger events on the horizon. Gotrek’s oft-fated doom is at the nexus of all the bad mojo that is going on here, with the Slayer Hold, Karak Kadrin, itself in great danger. While we never actually see things from Gotrek’s own perspective, which would have been utterly fantastic by the way, we do see it all through Felix’s eyes. He is almost like an outside observer, and the way Josh teases out the past and present of the Slayer Hold through his eyes is just great. One thing was always front and center in mind while reading the novel that this was a far better story than I had expected.
Both the main characters act and feel as they are supposed to be. Felix is always grumbling and reluctant while also always ready to jump into danger to protect Gotrek even if the Slayer has no need of his help. Gotrek is always brash and direct, with the hint of manic (almost berserker) courage that defines him and every Slayer. It’s built into their mindset since a Slayer is always looking for his doom and is thus always willing to take on the most impossible of odds, fully intending to die a glorious death. As characters in their right, the leading pair of the novel no less, there is a lot to like about both, and a lot to NOT like as well. Felix’s reluctance to things can sometimes get a little overbearing, and so does Gotrek’s permanent Slayer-mania. It’s not much, but it does make its presence felt at (irregular) intervals.
Josh spends quite a bit of time developing the unequal partnership between the two of them, and it in these scenes where both characters really get to shine. Their relationship is at the heart of all Gotrek & Felix stories, and it is just as well that Josh gives it so much importance in Road of Skulls. They are both very much foils for each other, and this comes across quite often, either when Felix has to head off Gotrek from a particularly rash decision (or reluctantly support him in it as the case may be), or whenever the two of them get down and dirty in combat with their enemies. This also comes up in the second half of the novel when events are very much against the duo and they need to make a call on whether they are going weather it all out, or whether they will disobey the Slayer King.
In addition, the addition of characters like Oleg Axeson (a priest of Grimnir), and Kemma Ironfist (wife of Ungrim and therefore mother to Garagrim) to the Gotrek & Felix lore makes for some really touching moments in Road of Skulls. What I really enjoyed was seeing things from their perspectives (through Felix that is). It’s not every day that an epic fantasy novel, especially in the Warhammer Fantasy Battles setting, has quite a major female Dwarf character. Off the top of my head, I think there was one such character in one of the Weis/Hickman Dragonlance novels, but not sure. Kemma also made for a greatly sympathetic character, caught between the trio of Ungrim, Garagrim and Gotrek. I really wish we could have seen more of her. With Oleg, it was really interesting because of his conflicted attitude towards Gotrek. He appears to have some big grudge against the Slayer, and he vacillates between outright hostility and… leniency towards him. There is a lot of mystery concerning his back-story (within the framework of the novel) here, and it’s all like a pirate treasure hunt. Intensely rewarding to say the least, especially once I talked to a couple friends who had also read it by the time I did and had some great theories about him.
Given the continuity-free nature of the novel, in that the only prior Gotrek & Felix fiction you need to have read is Bill King’s own Trollslayer (more on that here), there is a lot of room for Josh to develop his characters, and that is exactly what he does. Felix learns how to respect Gotrek more, and accept his utter manic craziness. He comes to accept more and more of the Dwarf way of thinking, even though he may or may not agree with it. And since he is also a vehicle to explore his friend’s nature, and that of his people, we see the Slayer Hold and its peoples in great depth. Whether it is the Slayer King himself, Ungrim Ironfist, or his son Garagrim who is also the War-Mourner of Karak Kadrin (basically he can decide when a Slayer is to meet his doom and none can gainsay him), or the various Slayers and other Dwarfs who call Karak Kadrin home, Road of Skulls is absolutely rich in Dwarf lore. And that’s far more than I expected of it, and am consequently delighted by it.
The villains in the book also deserve a mention, at least Canto Unsworn and the big bad Chaos Lord Garmr the Gorewolf do. As a good friend put it, Canto is very much the new Thanquol. Josh has written the character brilliantly and there are definitely shades of everybody’s favourite Skaven Grey Seer in him. But he’s also very much his own, quite literally in fact. Canto’s scenes in the novel are a delight. He is the reluctant follower who hesitates to put his full faith in the Chaos Gods and therefore lingers at the edge of greatness, forever denied unless he can take the big step. His (often) dry with and his goading of his fellow captains among the Gorewolf’s horde make him really stand-out. I’d even say that he is very much an indulgent character, and it’s great because he breaks the monotony of the often dry characterisation of most Chaos characters in Warhammer fiction. Garmr is the typical big-bad, but the circumstances that he finds himself in, the circumstances that he creates, and that ultimately prove his undoing, making him out as much more than any trope-ridden description. After Sarah Cawkwell’s Valkia, Garmr is quite possibly one of my favourite Chaos characters in Warhammer fiction. Which is doubly fitting since Valkia cameos quite a bit in the novel, given that Garmr is a fervent devotee of the Blood God’s Consort. It’s a neat thread to together Road of Skulls and Valkia the Bloody.
The action in the novel is often at breakneck pace and is quite thrilling to watch. It also the runs the gamut from free-for-all bruise-fights to sieges to one-on-one personal combat to entire units of Slayers wreaking havoc among the Chaos horde, as well as the titular pair also fighting against a particular monster in the novel. Short and brutal is another phrase I would use to describe Josh’s action scenes. All in all, very, very good.
So the question at the end is, would I buy more Gotrek & Felix written by Josh Reynolds? My answer is, unreservedly so. As I’ve already said, his short story last year in the anthology, featuring Snorri Nosebiter, was quite a good one. Road of Skulls itself is a top-class novel, one that I very happily will claim to be one of the best Black Library releases of 2013. Josh has also written a novella about the pair, Charnel Congress, which I haven’t read despite owning it for almost a year. Time to change that I think.
If you’ve been waiting like me for a great novel-length Gotrek & Felix adventure since Nathan’s last book in the series, then Road of Skulls should definitely be on your radar. It is well worth the time.