Tuesday, 22 May 2012

‘Dead Winter’ – C.L. Werner (Black Library)

I’m never a hundred percent sure what to think about C.L. Werner’s work overall. When he’s on top of his game Werner is a man on fire but for every one of these books there’s another book that makes me go ‘meh…’ I couldn’t get into the ‘Brunner’ books and it even got to the point where I didn’t pick up ‘The Red Duke’ for fear of being disappointed (which isn’t the best reason not to read a book but that’s the way it goes every now and then).
The thing is though… I love the ‘Time of Legends’ books though and am slowly working my way through the lot (very slowly it has to be said…) just to get a feel for the background of the Old World. With the publication of ‘Dead Winter’ then, it was inevitable that I was going to come face to face with Werner once more and this time I wouldn’t be backing away…

On the face of it, the blurb suggested that ‘Dead of Winter’ would have pretty much everything in it that I like about the Warhammer setting but would Werner be up to the task of bundling all that lot together into a good story? As it turned out, yes he was. I can’t wait for the next instalment and I might even have to go back and give ‘The Red Duke’ a go after all.

The Age of Sigmar (read the books, they’re very good as well) is long gone and the Empire he built has been brought to the edge of ruin by the avaricious rule of Boris Goldgather. This grasping Emperor fills his own coffers whilst setting his nobles against each other and bleeding the Empire dry. Civil War is brewing then but a far more insidious threat is looming.
Plague strikes the countryside, wiping out entire villages and setting families against one another, no-one is safe from its grasp. Even this deadly plague though is only a forerunner of an evil even more dangerous. A race long thought to be the stuff of nightmare is stirring in the sewers and caverns underneath the great cities of Man. The rat-like Skaven are finally ready to take to the surface and reclaim what is theirs…

The ‘Time of Legends’ books have long made for some welcome reading in my house with their epic tales of world defining moments in the Old World. They’ve proven to be a worthy retort to the myth of tie-in fiction (how it’s all a bit crap and so on) and now ‘Dead Winter’ joins their ranks in some style. I’ve enjoyed all the books I’ve read here but this is the only time I’ve been really excited about the prospect of a sequel. ‘Dead Winter’ is that good.

Any newcomer to the Old World will quickly realise that it’s all about the warfare; absolutely no-one gets on with each other and all arguments are ultimately resolved in a battle to the death. Werner makes this very clear with wave after wave of skirmishes and full on warfare that all either stir the blood or chill it (more on that in a bit). The beauty here though is that none of this is fighting just for the sake of it. Werner underpins these moments of combat with a story that justifies each and every swing of a sword. It all happens for a reason and that all lends more impact to those pitched battles.

There’s an Emperor who has to be stopped although I did question his motivations a little. Boris does push his moneymaking schemes a little too hard to be truly believable and verges on being a cartoonish pantomime villain as a result. The true villain of the piece, in my opinion, is Kreyssig; head of the secret police and a man whose sights are firmly fixed on gaining power. He’s a real nasty piece of work but also someone you can’t help but follow even if it is just to see if and when he gets his comeuppance.
These two characters together provide some real impetus for the plot and are full of evil machinations that send events down pathways that you should see coming but never do. I couldn’t help but root for the heroes but, not so secretly, I was also rooting for these guys just to see what they would come up with next.

If this tale of treachery and civil war wasn’t enough for you there is also the Skaven to contend with…

Imagine a ‘Watership Down’ where the rabbits want to wipe out the humans, using biological warfare, but are not averse to using those same methods on each other. A ‘Watership Down’ where even the most harmless rabbit is brimming over with paranoia and psychosis; always ready to get their betrayal in first. That is Werner’s Under Empire, a place where lethal betrayal is an everyday fact of life and where Werner’s ability to weave a tight plot, full of very nasty surprises, really comes to the fore. You know that there’s a back-stabbing just around every corner but there are a million and one ways to die, if you’re a Skaven, so Werner always has a surprise in store. Especially where the Plague Monks are concerned…

I wasn’t too sure about the fact that the Skaven are supposed to be such a big secret though, although it did make for a nice side plot about the one man who discovered their existence. I mean, don’t the Dwarves live underground as well? And aren’t the Dwarves at least on speaking terms with mankind? And didn’t the Dwarves sort out all the sewers for the big cities of humanity (like little bearded plumbers with big axes, the fantasy version of Super Mario…)? Amidst all of this they somehow forgot to mention their ‘rat-man neighbours’ who want to kill everything… I’m not buying it but I’m prepared to let it slide, this time, because the rest of the story worked so well for me.

‘Dead Winter’ looks very much like it could be the start of something a little bit special; a gripping read that promises good things for the future. Required reading for all Warhammer fans and well worth a look if you like fantasy in general.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten


Grimaldus said...

The justification for the skaven being so secret is that those in power suppress any information to provent panic, but I agree, it's poorly done.

big_cheddars said...

It's bloody annoying for any skaven or Empire writer who wants to put the skaven in his stories (me), cause you have to think of a reason why the character would know they exist, or have a dull and stupid sequence of shock at their existence/world turned upside down et cterea. I think they should change the lore slightly :L