Thursday, February 11, 2016

Swords of the Emperor, by Chris Wraight

This week I'm taking a short foray into the world of Warhammer Fantasy. As my readers are probably aware, I have spent considerable time trekking around in the universe of the younger and more famous brother of the Games Workshop family, Warhammer 40,000. However there was a time when there were no Space Marines, no Imperial Guard, no Traitor Legions, and no foul xenos menace. Instead there was a fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, men, orcs, vampires, and the ruinous powers of Chaos. Although Warhammer Fantasy has been overshadowed considerably by its younger brother, it retains its own following and is even getting its own Total War game. So I decided to pick up one of the many, many omnibuses and see what the fuss was about.

Swords of the Emperor is an omnibus collection of a duology, a story divided into two parts, as well as two short stories. The short stories are both character vignettes of Ludwig Schwarzhelm, the Emperor's Champion, and Kurt Helborg, master of the elite Reiksguard. Personally I would have placed the short stories at the front of the book rather than the end because they provide a little bit of characterization for both, who are major characters in the novels but are just kind of thrown at us without much by the way of introduction.

Plot-wise the province of Averland, one of the major provinces of the Empire (totally not a fantasy Renaissance Holy Roman Empire, we swear) has been without an elector-count for too long. As a result the imperial tithes and levies have been somewhat lacking, especially since Averland is located in the south of the Empire, far from the constant wars in the north. Emperor Karl Franz of Schleswig-Holstein, I mean Holswig-Schlestein, has decided this nonsense has gone on for long enough and is sending his Champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm, to go down and kick the necessary butts until a decision is made. However, as always, there is far more at work than a petty squabble over who gets to sit in the fancy chair and inevitably things get worse.

I will say I felt out of my depth at certain points because I didn't know terribly much about the Warhammer Fantasy universe so I found myself asking why characters are important. Because other characters treat them as important, but at least initially they don't really go into why they're Very Important People. If you're not familiar with the Warhammer Fantasy universe this probably won't be a good book to start with because there are a few things that aren't explained and it's just assumed you're going to know what they are. For example, the Reiksguard feature prominently in both books, and while I knew from my own research that the Reiksguard were elite warriors dedicated to the service of the Emperor alone, they never really explained that in the book. It was just kind of assumed you would know it. Which you can do in a shared universe, but it's confusing and off-putting to a new reader.

My biggest complaint is that I found myself bored with the book at various points, especially during fight scenes. And there are a lot of fight scenes in this book. There were other parts which I enjoyed and found far more interesting, but for whatever reason the fight scenes in this book just started feeling the same and for me it was kind of “Ugh, great, more poking things with halberds.” There are just so many ways you can describe people decapitating greenskins before it starts getting repetitive.

Another weakness of this book was I felt nothing was really at stake. One of the biggest criticisms lobbied at both Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy is that the status quo can never be upset. The forces of Chaos and Order have been fighting for decades now and things still stand pretty much the same as they did when everything began. So on some level I knew that everything would be set to rights at the end. In a way, Warhammer Fantasy has even less room to play around than Warhammer 40,000. At least in 40k the author can create a planet or three in some forgotten corner of the galaxy and sacrifice them to whatever baddie they're writing about. In Fantasy, you've kind of already got all of the borders sketched out and if you start messing with things too much it's going to upset the balance one way or the other. So while some really bad things went down in Averland, I kind of knew it would all get reset by the end which made the in between bits kind of meaningless.

If you're a fan of Warhammer Fantasy and actually know who Emperor's Champion Schwarzhelm, Reikmarshal Helborg, and Grand Theogonist Volkmar are and are invested in their stories, then this book will definitely get your interest. If you're new to this universe you're going to get thrown in the deep end and probably get confused very quickly. Other than the fight scenes which felt painfully repetitive, this book was really interesting. I just felt like it was a lot of wasted effort because everything got reset at the end.

- Kalpar 

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