Wednesday, 3 February 2010

‘Death & Dishonour’ – Edited by Alex Davis, Nick Kyme and Lindsey Priestley (Black Library)

I’ll freely admit to throwing myself headlong into the universe of ‘Warhammer 40,000’ at the expense of its fantasy counterpart. I’m a fan of both the setting and the story arcs that I can see slowly coming out of it; the ‘Warhammer’ (fantasy) world just hasn’t caught my eye in the same way... yet (although I have read a few of the books). Fantasy fiction has always been my first love so it was inevitable that I’d be getting into ‘Warhammer’ sooner rather than later.

I thought I’d give the ‘Death & Dishonour’ collection a go as it’s format seemed like a good way to get into the ‘Warhammer’ swing of things. No coming in halfway through a series or having to deal with loads of background history; ‘Death & Dishonour’ is a series of snapshots from the ‘Warhammer’ world that combine well to give the first time reader a clear picture of what this world is all about. The clue is definitely in the title; life is brutal, cheap and very often short if these stories are anything to go by. Honour is sought but very often proves to be just out of reach; in a land where damnation is all to easy to fall into, would you go out fighting or surrender to the insidious lure of chaos...?

‘Death & Dishonour’ is also an introduction to several of the Warhammer world’s most notable characters. If you’ve ever wondered who Gotrek and Felix, Florin and Lorenzo or Brunner the Bounty Hunter are then this is the book to answer that question. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for Florin and Lorenzo if ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is anything to go by (actually, I have one of the books on my shelf...). These stories in particular are not connected to other series and this makes them ideal points to find out about the characters themselves without getting bogged down in detail that only a long term fan would appreciate.

Not all of the stories worked for me and I’ll go into that more a little later. What I would say though is that ‘Death & Dishonour’ achieves what it sets out to do which is to provide an accessible entry point into a dark and dangerous fantasy world...

‘Red Snow’ – Nathan Long
If you’re going to kick off a collection of Warhammer fantasy stories then it has to be with a short story featuring two of the world’s greatest heroes, the trollslayer Gotrek and his reluctant scribe Felix. This adventure sees the pair working as caravan guards in the Mountains of Morn where they will come up against a beast that holds an entire village in thrall. Gotrek seeks a heroic death so if you’ve read any of the other books then you’ll know that he won’t be doing anything new here. He doesn’t do anything new really but what the reader does get is a tense and taut tale leading up to an explosive finale. It’s also interesting to see the conflict between the old ways of the village and the advent of organised religion, going some way to proving that this is a well drawn world that doesn’t just rely on sword fights to drive its plots.

‘The Assassin’s Dilemma’ – David Earle
What do you do when you take on two jobs that you can’t refuse only to find out that completion of either will mean the failure of the latter...? David Earle answers this question in style with a gripping tale that had me reading right to the end. Some things just shouldn’t work out but they do, Sneeq’s tale is well worth the read.

‘Rest Eternal’ – Anthony Reynolds
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the chivalrous Bretonnian knights so was looking forward to reading of a questing knight and a wyvern that just won’t stay dead... This was another tale that I enjoyed but couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t as self contained as the others in the collection. ‘Rest Eternal’ felt like it wanted to be a part of something much larger and the resulting feeling of disassociation stopped me getting into it as much as I could have done.

‘The Miracle at Berlau’ – Darius Hinks
Redemption can come at the most unlikely of times to the most unlikely of people. A priest with a dark secret finds himself with a chance to make amends in the middle of a war... The ending was a bit of a foregone conclusion but on the whole I thought Hinks’ tale was excellent. Not only did he tap excellently into a tortured psyche but his fight sequences rock! The moment of revelation, that turns the story, was also handled brilliantly.

‘Noblesse Oblige’ – Robert Earl
I have a ‘Florin & Lorenzo’ collection sitting on my shelf waiting to be read; if this short story is anything to go by then you can count on my finally getting round to picking it up. Our erstwhile heroes find themselves in the middle of a town under siege by Skaven (rat men) with a ruling class that’s more interested in grabbing power. Florin and Lorenzo are great fun to spend time with, they have a fine line in witty banter that can cut to ferocious violence in a second. The intrigue that surrounds these two chancers is also worth the price of admission.

‘The Last Ride of Heiner Rothstein’ – Ross O’Brien
Here’s a weird tale that won’t be quite what you expect... and that’s what ultimately soured it for me. Returning home with your dead father, and leading his men, is hard enough on it’s own but something else doesn’t feel right and everyone knows it...
O’Brien paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of war and the effect that is has on the weary mind; where things went wrong though is the change in perspective and the realisation that the story is about something completely different. The dreamlike quality of the last few pages was good in terms of atmosphere but also lent a vagueness to the piece which had me questioning how things reached the point that they did. I’ll have to reread this one and see if it makes any more sense second time round.

‘Broken Blood’ – Paul Kearney
This was perhaps the story that I was looking forward to reading the most. I loved Kearney’s ‘The Ten Thousand’ and was looking forward to seeing how he tackled the ‘Warhammer’ world. As it turned out, I wasn’t disappointed. This tale of two brothers fighting on different sides (and the demands that honour places upon one of them) is the ideal showcase for Kearney’s ability to draw a battle so vivid that you could almost be there. His raw uncompromising style makes it look as if he’s been writing in this setting forever, hopefully we’ll see more from him.

‘The Judgement of Crows’ – Chris Wraight
I’ve always preferred the crash of sword against shield to the use of magic (unless it’s Bakker or Erikson behind the wheel, they write great magic scenes!) and I think it’s this preference that meant I didn’t enjoy ‘The Judgement of Crows’ as much as I should have done. A wizard is hired to protect a village from the ravening undead but will find that the root of the problem might be more than she can handle... A suitably atmospheric beginning (zombies staggering out of the swamp...) promises good things but it soon degenerates into a ‘whose magic is the best?’ competition that doesn’t do much else than paint pretty patterns on the page. There are a couple of twists that give the story fresh impetus but not enough for this reader...

‘Wolfshead’ – C.L. Werner
C.L. Werner’s ‘Warhammer’ fantasy work hasn’t really done it for me so far and, as a result, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Brunner. What I got was a tale of intrigue, and full on monster fighting, with one of the most vicious underhanded characters that I’ve ever met! Needless to say, I had a lot of fun with this one although I could see the twist coming from a way off. I reckon I’ll have to find more books with Brunner in them...

I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology where all the stories have hit the spot and ‘Death & Dishonour’ hasn’t bucked the trend. If you’re looking to get into ‘Warhammer’ fantasy fiction however, you could do a lot worse than give this one a look...

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

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