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With the world starting over, Bellarius gives his opinion on the first novel about the Age of Sigmar, where armies clash about The Gates of Azyr.
“Reasonable action, entertaining ideas, but hardly the best entery point into this new universe.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
There are few things more divisive in this world than massive reboots of beloved franchises. Often they are the source of fan rage and, to be blunt, they’re extraordinarily easy to get wrong. Start copying ideas from the old universe or rely too much upon pop culture nostalgia (hello JJ Abrams) and it’s insulting to devoted fans who stuck with the universe. Don’t change enough and the reboot is seen as unnecessary, adding nothing to the franchise and cutting short countless ongoing interesting stories. Change too much and you alienate fans, anyone interested in the series, and end up betraying the setting.
The first story of a reboot needs to kick it out of the park, needs to sell people on the very idea of the new status quo. It needs to show the potential for new stories, establish the new rules, fully explore the setting’s origins and set the rules, while at the same time showing a glimpse of what could follow. It needs to ultimately serve as a pilot for a future series, and in this regard The Gates of Azyr doesn’t work. Don’t misread this, it’s hardly a bad novella, and there’s plenty of good or interesting concepts in here, but it just doesn’t work as an introduction.
In part the book’s failings are down to the novella’s short length and having to include a full battle, advertise all the shiny new units, and add new characters, but it might also be down to the author. Chris Wraight is a talented man, of that there’s no doubt, but his successes seem to often rely upon audience familiarity with the setting. Battle of the Fang and Wrath of Iron (a novel which, upon re-reading, desperately deserves a re-review to cover its far more prominent strengths) both worked because they followed long established points and ideas in a universe where the rules were already set up. Neither required much introduction from the forces involved, and followed long established story ideas, so they needed no real time to establish the world in of itself. The opening chapters of Gates of Azyr are written in this same way, but the problem is that there’s not enough time spent really establishing the new setting.
We have a brief set up, a few pages long, establishing Sigmar’s new army of Stormcast Eternals, ready to assault the mortal realms and reclaim it. This is delivered via a speech, yet there’s not nearly enough time spent establishing who these people are, enforcing the sheer significance of this event, and no time is spent detailing just what we’ve missed between the fall of the Old World and this one. It’s only later on when we start to get some real information about the Eternals, and while interesting, unfortunately a lot of it leans towards an unfortunate trend. When the models were introduced, many fans just brushed off the designs (pauldrons and all) as being astartes stand-ins for Fantasy. The book sadly only helps to enforce this with every bit of information. Along with being former mortal men, heroes selected to be raised to the ranks of the god of mankind’s crusading armies, remembering little of their prior lives, their ultra-disciplined nature and thoughts reflect space marines more than they do any kind of Fantasy army.
Still, with all of this, it was made clear that the book still had some benefits, so what worked here? First of all, there were some obvious stabs to establish Chaos as a reigning force which did work extraordinarily well. In a short space of time the reader is given a multitude of varied examples of Chaos characters, their realm’s history and what sort of nightmare the place has become. It’s brief but certainly serviceable, acting more like an exaggerated version of Nosrica were it overrun by Khorne’s worst aspects. It’s hardly overt, but the few scenes we do get to focus upon world building are certainly quite interesting, and the warlord Khorgos Khul in particular is given one hell of an introduction.
At the same time, while the astartes point stands,there are points where the Eternals do gain an interesting edge. In particular a moment where half-forgotten memories flood a warrior’s mind, reflecting upon his past life, and their introduction establishes the kind of bombastic speech which really sets the tone for the story. It is glorious, and like the dialogue there’s an odd charm in it’s archaically stilted manner, more akin to something from older editions or early 2000AD tales than anything else. Plus, for the short time we do see them, the Eternals do prove themselves to be an army with a great deal of interesting potential behind them storywise. If they’re given another tale to actually focus upon their society and true character building, I can see them being a fascinating force to read about despite the obvious astartes connections.
Moving away from each side and onto the story itself, the main meat of The Gates of Azyr revolves around the first big conflict between Chaos and the Eternals in generations. It’s extremely streamlined, sticking to a few big objectives and it hits all the right notes as a showpiece. The reader is given opportunities to see the new units in action one at a time, and is given a good impression of just how each army will fight, from the regimented forces of the Eternals to Khorne’s unrelenting fury. We see them unit by unit, and while admittedly a little clunky, it does help to provide some good grounding to see their role on the battlefield without it ever seeming too much like an open attempt to sell miniatures. It’s further helped by how the whole battle really establishes the realms and the gate system, ranging from the importance of holding each one to how they operate to the key signifiers reflecting where they link between.
The actual fighting itself is satisfyingly bloody, brutal and swift. In Wraight’s usual manner it’s more reliant upon the reader building an image in their head from very general descriptions of individual events rather than a broad, sweeping view of the whole conflict. In this case it works to a degree, as while it doesn’t present the battle as being on quite the scale as some might hope, it better reflects the more skirmish style nature of Age of Sigmar and allows for more memorable duels, brawls and fights than trying to cover everything at once.
Again, The Gates of Azyr is hardly bad but it’s definitely not the start this new setting needed. We should have seen a series of short tales in an anthology better exploring the setting as a whole, or a full novel by one of Black Library’s heavy hitting authors, or perhaps even a more atmospheric world-building piece. Unless you’re already familiar with the setting, concepts and ideas behind the new world, this one is a book you should hold off on for the moment. Wait until you get a better idea of how the setting works, then take a gander for some decent if unremarkable bolter sword porn.