Gotrek and Felix: City of the Damned by David Guymer – Book Review [Bellarius]
Finally getting around to looking into Warhammer Fantasy’s flagship series, Bellarius sees what David Guymer has to offer readers with City of the Damned.
“An adventurous tale of enjoyable combat which unfortunately does not realise its full potential.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Breaking away from the main ongoing saga, City of the Damned puts Gotrek and Felix in a very different place than usual. Traversing through Ostermark, the duo soon find themselves a new enemy for Gotrek to fight and a quest which pits them against the faith-bound inhabitants of the land. However, this familiar territory soon gives way to something much more sinister. Even without butting heads against the local fanatics, someone is desperate to ensure an old memory remains forgotten and the Empire’s old wars are far from truly dead and buried. Something very old and infinitely malevolent lurks among the land, and it may take more than Gotrek’s axe to thwart its ambitions…
As you might have guessed, this is a very atypical tale for the Gotrek and Felix series. While the series’ semi-formulaic structure has never been detrimental to its originality or strength of story, this one seems to be breaking away to try something truly different.
The lack of real continuity or following on from the main novels may count despite Road of Skulls, but the real way it proves to be interesting is in just how it uses continuity. While it proves to be largely free to follow its own story, the book proves to be heavily connected with many established events which have otherwise been left ignored in history. The very title of the book alludes to one element found here, finally completely tying up the fate of one very interesting setting, and mentions are made of others. Classic ideas and locations which will mean much to older fans but won’t get in the way of this story being enjoyed by new ones.
Furthermore, prior to truly going into some very strange and surprising territory we have only truly seen once before in this series, it plays itself out more or less like a traditional tale. What makes it most effective is that this allows the book to play with the readers expectations, while crafting and building the narrative towards some very interesting later events. Yes, saying this may sound like a spoiler but a good ninety percent of the time you’ll not know exactly what is going to be twisted into something else. More often than not you’ll be expecting the twist to come from certain other figures within the book.
Speaking of the figures involved, the novel has an especially wide assortment this time. From early encounters among the small hovels to the fanatics who occupy and guard the city, there are quite a large number to keep track of. This does help to give the sense that the book is taking place within a large settlement a little more than some others of their kind, and it also helps to hide just which characters may become important later on. As with many things you are kept guessing and that proves to be a major strength here. The same goes with the villains, but to a much lesser degree as you know who is in control, who is in power and the like but one threat fades away to reveal another is pulling the strings.
As is a requirement in all such tales the combat itself is solidly written. While not quite having King’s distinctive flare for the dramatic or Nathan Long’s ability to present sweeping scenes of combat, Guymer does have an obvious talent when it comes to sticking to blunt fact. You are constantly kept aware of the positions of the characters involved and the battle can easily shift from one individual dual to the next without destroying the pacing or utterly crippling the drama, while at the same time retains good descriptive strength where it matters.
Unfortunately however, City of the Damned is also hardly without its failings. Foremost among these is the fact that it feels as if the third act crumbles as it is introduced. Rather than proving to be the book’s climax and retaining the satisfyingly bloody conflicts the series is beloved for, far too much of it is broken up with new elements introduced or scenes of occasional exposition. While some are certainly acceptable, others feel as if they could have been dealt with much sooner and the book would have only had a stronger focus because of that.
Furthermore, the problem which runs with so many characters is that more than once they begin to feel repetitive and indistinct. Having seemingly abandoned much of the series’ humourous elements as Nathan Long did before him, many characters lack certain elements to them. They certainly have distinct concepts behind them, but all too often it feels that they are driven by that single idea. The flagellant’s personality only goes so far as his preaching for the End Times, the Chaos Champion has little beyond his personal ambition and similar problems plague certain figures. While the series has seen such characters before, there has usually been a way to present them which givens them an added dimension. Lacking that, all too often many seem too dour or one note to be truly notable.
Finally, while the combat descriptions and handling of certain quiet scenes, especially a certain one in a pub, work fine the descriptions are lacking at many points. All too often the environments themselves feel far too nebulous and indistinct. This works at first given the nature of the area the heroes initially find themselves in, but the city itself and the extremely unique environment they eventually stumble into are just not conveyed that well. More paragraphs and brief sentences should have been put into building up environments and setting the scene rather than pressing ahead with the characters as the book kept doing here.
Is the story bad as a result? Hardly. It still works for the most part, but City of the Damned honestly feels as if it will only work for certain groups of fans. With another re-write or helping shape up certain elements, it could have presented its genuinely great ideas far better than what is found here. It’s not the themes and plot which are the problem so much as some of the methods used to flesh out the book while getting to them.
It’s still as Gotrek and Felix book at the end of the day. If you’ve liked the series thus far then give it a look, but otherwise try another tale featuring the characters before getting to this one.