Thursday, 27 January 2011

‘Sword of Vengeance’ – Chris Wraight (Black Library)

It’s funny how time can pass and you don’t even realise it’s happening sometimes. I read Chris Wraight’s ‘Sword of Justice’ way back in August last year and had a hell of a time with it. Wraight’s journey into the Old World may not have been perfect but it was almost there. Plenty of politics, battles and a threat growing in the shadows... all at once! I don’t read an awful lot of stuff in the Warhammer fantasy setting but I would go so far as to say that ‘Sword of Justice’ made this world come alive for me while I was reading. If you like fantasy then give this one a go, that’s all there is to it.
All of this had me looking forward to the release of ‘Sword of Vengeance’, probably one of my most anticipated Black Library titles after ‘Prospero Burns’. In situations like these though, you can’t help but wonder whether the new book will meet the high standards set by its predecessor and whether any kinks will be ironed out. Reading ‘Sword of Vengeance’ left me in no doubt that Wraight easily maintains the standards set in ‘Sword of Justice’ but the slight problems that the last book suffered from are still here... (It goes without saying that you might want to skip the next paragraph or two if you haven’t read ‘Sword of Justice’ and want to avoid inevitable spoilers...)

The province of Averland has fallen to the insidious taint of Chaos that Ludwig Schwarzhelm inadvertently helped to thrive in the fractious city of Averheim. An army of cultists arises, headed by a woman with dark plans stretching far beyond the mortal realm. When Chaos threatens, the Empire responds with brutal force and a vast army led by the Grand Theogonist himself marches on Averheim to purge the unclean and restore Imperial rule. Ludwig Schwarzhelm is also on his way back to Averheim with fresh knowledge of the enemy’s plans and full of the desire to redeem himself. What waits for them in Averheim though may be too much for even these two mighty heroes of the Empire to handle by themselves (well, them and the forty thousand soldiers in the army of the Grand Theogonist but you know what I mean...) All hope rests on Kurt Helborg and the secret discovered in the depths of Drakenmoor, that’s if he can survive to make any use of it...

Like I said, I’ve been waiting what feels like a long time for ‘Sword of Vengeance’ to see the light of day so I could find out how this tale ends. That’s the beauty of the Warhammer setting; things are just unrelentingly grim that the outcome is always in some degree of doubt. There was no way I was putting down once I’d started and I even found myself reading ‘Sword of Vengeance’ with the aid of a tiny reading light very late into the night (something I haven’t done with a book for more years than I want to remember). What? I didn’t want to wake the baby up...

Chris Wraight builds on a fantastic opening book and does it all over again here, rounding things off in fine style. ‘Sword of Vengeance’ is another helping of intensive character study, vicious political infighting and fighting very much of the ‘dirty great broadswords and magic’ kind. You find out just how high the stakes are and once you know then you’re in for the duration. You might be wondering here if Wraight is simply repeating what he did in the previous book... The approach is the same (why fix what was never broken in the first place?) but things are kept fresh by it all being applied to different people and situations. The disgraced elector-apparent Rufus Leitdorf, Grand Theogonist Volkmar and Kurt Helborg come to the fore here against a background of Chaos inevitably turning on itself. We get to learn a lot about the inner workings of characters that were either briefly looked at in the last book or were not mentioned at all; Wraight really delves into the depths of these people and lends his fictional characters a real air of humanity that makes the story itself pack more of a punch.

It’s a bit of a shame then that, having worked so hard to establish these characters Wraight sends them into situations that suffer from the same slight failings as before. I’m talking about the battle sequences here… Last time round I mentioned that things could drag out a bit but that you could excuse this to a point seeing as that really is how battles can go sometimes. This time round, the battle for Blackfire Pass seemed to drag and not necessarily in a good way. While you could certainly say that siege warfare involves a lot of impasse it felt like this sense of impasse almost worked too well, slowing the plot right down when it needed to maintain its impetus.
This end result is even more unfortunate when you compare the siege to the climactic battle for Averheim. When you see how well Wraight can write a battle scene (with heroic moments that will appeal to fans of the game as well as fantasy fans in general) you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t do that for all the battles in the book. At the end of the day though you don’t get a bad return for your money at all. When Wraight is well and truly on song then you’re looking at battle scenes that well and truly stir the blood.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is cornering the market in excellent Warhammer 40K fiction and I think that what we’re seeing here is Chris Wraight beginning to do exactly the same thing on the fantasy side. Despite that odd niggle, ‘Sword of Vengeance’ is nothing less than a gripping read and I’m now left eagerly awaiting whatever’s next from this author. Look out for this book, on the shelves, in the next week or so.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Riccardo said...

Graeme - I enjoy your reviews but here's some advice/observation

i) if you subtract 7.5 from all your book scores and then multiple by 4 you would have a far more useful 1-10 scale.

ii) where will you go if you ever review a truly great book? You're suffering from the grade-creep that infects UK exam results.

You may well have had fun with this book, with the last zombies-in-party-hats book etc - they may have been GREAT - I expect I'd enjoy them too. But 9.5/10? 9.75/10? almost every freakin' week?

I've glanced at the 'Sword of Justice' - it looked ok. Some wordy passive omni-viewed description about how pointy the monsters' horns were... but it could well be great game-tie-in pulp fiction.

I'm not slagging it off, but can all these 9.5+ books have been seminal works of fantasy literature that moved you at your core, that made you look at the world with new eyes? Whose characters, plots, dilemas you'll carry with you in weeks, months, years to come? Did you laugh? Did you cry?

So when books like that _do_ come along ... where will you go? You've already doled out the 9.75 and 10 scores to books that may well be good reads but will vanish in the sea of entertainment with fewer ripples than a pebble in the English channel...

You may need some space between 'good fun reads' and 'truly great fantasy books that will stand the test of time and can hold their head up in the company of 'grown-up' literature'...

I don't know what that means for you personally - maybe it's Rothuss' Name of the Wind, or Peake's Gormenghast, or Zelany's Lord of Light or whatever ... but how will we know?

I'm just rambling. I like the site, the reviews, the books. Carry on :)

Graeme Flory said...

Hi Riccardo,

Thanks for the feedback, it's always appreciated here. The whole review scoring thing is something that I'm always thinking about and either trying to improve upon or considering giving up entirely (although I suspect that probably won't happen).

'Grade Creep' is an issue that I'll readily admit to. Real life will always impinge on my reading and I made a conscious choice, at the beginning of the year, to read more of the stuff that I just knew I'd enjoy. Life is far too short these days and while there is certainly something to reading stuff that will stretch you I don't really want to be stretched at the moment, just to escape certain things for a while and enjoy myself. I knew the problems this would throw up on the blog, not sure what to do about that right now but it is on my mind :o)
I suspect that I'll find myself tackling some of the 'greats' before too much longer though.

I think another issue (certainly one that I'm aware of here) I don't want to 'score' a book based on comparisons to another. Just because one book scores a 9.75/10 (or whatever) that shouldn't affect another entirely different book, should it? I've always tried to judge a book on its own merits and (hopefully) based on what it has tried to do. Pulp fiction works may not be 'Gormenghast' or 'Lord of Light' but that works equally as well the other way round. That's why you'll see a lot of high scoring books around here that aren't seminal by any means.

Still, thanks for giving me all of this stuff to think about, especially regarding whether some of these books will stand the test of time. Thinking on those lines, I'd be surprised if most of them do but they do a fine job in the meantime ;o)