Friday, 17 June 2011

‘Heldenhammer’ – Graham McNeill (Black Library)

Sometimes you’re just not going to be able to read a series in order, that’s the way it is  (especially if you shop in certain book shops that seem to specialize in selling only the first book and the third book in any given series, naming no names but we know who you are). If you really want to read that series, all you can really do is just dive in at the deep end with what you’ve got and then fill in the gaps later on. This is what happened to me back in March when I found myself with the final instalment of Graham McNeill’s ‘Sigmar’ trilogy and with no idea at all of what had happened in the previous two books. Luckily for me, ‘God King’ stood up very well on it’s own and by the end of my review I found myself saying ‘if the previous two books were anything like this then I’ll have to pick them up very soon’.

Well, the term ‘soon’ means very different things for me these days but I got there in the end (thanks to a very enjoyable book shopping expedition in Plymouth a couple of months ago, must do that again...) It’s taken the two books a little while longer to move their way up the pile but again, we got there in the end. This time round I’ll be doing things in order so ‘Heldenhammer’ is up first. Here we go...

Thousands of years before the current Warhammer setting, the Old World is a very different place indeed. Instead of living in great cities, the tribes of men live in more primitive dwellings and fight to survive against the threats the world throws at them. Divided amongst themselves, the tribes of men are in danger of being overwhelmed by, well... everything really. The orcs of the mountains are the greatest threat but there are plenty of others.
Luckily for the tribes though, one man has a vision of a united nation of humanity that will not only hold back the darkness but extinguish it utterly. Sigmar Heldenhammer, of the Unberogen tribe, will stop at nothing to achieve his dream but he will face not only the machinations of rival kings but the mightiest horde of orcs in recorded history.

‘If the previous two books were anything like this...’ All I can say is that ‘Heldenhammer’ very clearly set the standard that ‘God King’ followed and is a thoroughly entertaining read for adopting this approach. I found it all too easy to breeze through this story and have a great time in the process (apart from some of the more descriptive ‘journey passages’, these dragged a little and interrupted the otherwise very smooth flow of the plot).

Having said all that though... fantasy fiction eh? You’ve got to love it, especially with some of the things that it throws out and appears to expect the reader to blindly accept because, well... its fantasy isn’t it?
I’m talking about the moment where the young (fifteen years old) Sigmar explains his dream of a united empire of man to his father and assorted other kings. Given the fractured nature of humanity at this point, I really was expecting at least one king to be thinking, ‘I don’t like the sound of this, knife in the ribs for that one I reckon’. What I got though were kings saying, ‘that sounds like a very good idea young man’ and that didn’t sit well with me, especially with what we had been given to believe was the lay of the land. This scene felt more than a little shoehorned into a plot that wasn’t quite ready to deal with that kind of thing and came across a little contrived as a result.
In fairness, I can see the reasoning behind this approach. The character of Sigmar is a huge deal in the Warhammer setting and McNeill is essentially working with a character who has been aimed at a certain target and let fly without much room to do anything else. Sigmar will eventually be emperor so you can have him saying stuff like this in the meantime. It’s an approach that works very well over the rest of the book but it didn’t quite hit the mark in this instant. I also had an issue with the way in which the plot had to stop and start over, ‘Sigmar solves one problem, another problem arises, Sigmar solves that problem’ and so on... This was another obstacle to the smooth running of the plot that I wasn’t keen on...

Get past all that though and you’ll find a story full of warfare and high drama, a combination that McNeill handles very well by not letting one element take precedence over the other. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Sigmar himself, a man torn between the demands of what he is trying to build and the effect that this is having on his life and relationships.
McNeill gets the balance spot on and what we get is a fully fleshed out character that may be a little too good to be true (can the man do no wrong?) but is still a character that you want to follow to the bitter end; a man who is both a thinker and a fighter. The same approach is taken with the supporting cast and what you end up with, as a result, is the same kind of thing. Everyone has a story to tell and I wanted to be in on that story.

It wouldn’t be a Warhammer novel without full on warfare (between the stalwart forces of good and the slavering forces of evil) and McNeill delivers this in fine style. Being the first book in a trilogy (and also because of the previously mentioned historical stuff) there’s an air of inevitability that you can’t escape from. Sigmar will win through in this book at least. McNeill makes up for this by basically throwing everything he possibly can into the battle, stirring it up and having Sigmar deal with the results. The results this time round are big, green, extremely vicious and more than up for a fight. Sigmar’s army isn’t green but is still up for the fight, it’s clear how much is at stake here. The resulting Battle of Black Fire Pass is more than worth the price of entry as the irresistible force meets the immovable object, absolutely superb stuff.

‘Heldenhammer’ suffers from its flaws but manages to rise above these to become an entertaining read that more than rewards the persistent reader. Bring on ‘Empire’...

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Christoph Weber said...

Heldenhammer was very very nice, and a very good start. I enjoyed reading it (in order) although the end was a little slow and siappointing compared to the rest.

Also, the author stating that it is so open-ended as to allow more follow-ups really ruins the idea of one trilogy per Warhammer icon of the past.
I really don't need another series I have to follow, considering how swamped my to-read shelf is right now.

Anonymous said...

it was a good book,but way to little about Sigmar,and to much about everyone else.
I liked the two first book's best,as you get to know what Sigmar thinks,does and feels,missed that in the last book,too bad really