Review: The Red Duke by C.L. Werner

Posted by DarkChaplain at 3/21/2012
Welcome to the Reading Lamp. Know that this site was born because of the very book I am reviewing in this post.
The Red Duke certainly left an impression on me. I just had to write a review about it, and when I was done writing, my own blog did not seem entirely appropriate - thus, I sat down and created the Reading Lamp.

Take a look at the short text in the sidebar:
There are certain books out there,
often overlooked by the crowd,
that are almost ridiculously awesome!

The Red Duke, to me, certainly is one of those. What the novel is about and why I think this way shall thus be addressed in this review.

The Story:
"Once a valorous and honourable knight of the realm, the Red Duke was betrayed and stricken down in battle but rose again before death could truly claim him. As a bloodthirsty vampire lord he undertook a long campaign of butchery and terror before being defeated once more, and entombed for all time so that he could never again menace the Old World. But centuries later the witch Jacquetta resurrects this ancient evil, and the Red Duke stalks the night again – a new reign of terror plagues the lands of Bretonnia!"

General Information
The Red Duke is a Warhammer Fantasy novel. That means that it is founded on a rich world that's been in the making for several decades. Pre-existent knowledge on the Warhammer universe would be preferable, but is not exactly necessary to enjoy The Red Duke. The setting is mundane enough to be easily understood by your general fantasy fan and while there are ties to the rest of Warhammer Fantasy, you won't get punished for not knowing about them. In fact, the country the novel is set in has been not quite as well explored as the rest of the Warhammer world.
If you enjoy stories set in a world of knights setting out on epic quests to find the Holy Grail and be acknowledged by the Lady, while peasants and commoners are being looked down on, a world of courage, honour and hubris, you'll feel right at home.

If I had to state it plane and simply, The Red Duke might just as well be described as Round Table meets Mad Dracula - but of course, C.L. Werner has given us much more than such a stereotypical story...
Structure & (Hi)story
The Red Duke tells more than just one single, linear story - although it is quite obviously a story build up around the title-giving Duke of Aquitaine - but rather a tale that spans centuries and the fates of many. We're not given a straightforward telling of how the Red Duke got set free from his tomb and is spreading new terror throughout the dukedom that was once rightfully his, but also relive his past: from a noble knight at the side of King Louis the Righteous to his inevitable fall to the curse of vampirism, and even beyond to his first reign of terror.

The book does a fantastic job giving us essential information on the Duke, who is never named differently than by his titles, which also includes 'El Syf ash-Shml', a name given to him by the people of Araby during the Bretonnian's crusades against Sultan Jaffar, which means 'the North Sword', shortened to 'El Syf' throughout the novel. By using this replacement name, Werner was able to create a more personal bond with the main character while also making his expertise clear. The vampire appears impressive, yet still distant enough in his nobility.
Now, we never get a full, chronological timeline of the events before the Duke's return. Instead the novel delivers pieces to a puzzle at the beginning (and sometimes throughout) each chapter that slowly, but surely reveals the image of a nobleman who fell from grace, and begin to understand his past and present actions, his motivations and the undeniable tragic of his undead life. Despite how well this puzzle comes together during the final chapters, we never get put in a spot where the Red Duke does not appear as a villain to be stopped at all cost - this fact alone shows how well the character was handled by the author.

But the Duke of Aquitaine does not stand alone in this story, for there are two sides in this conflict - let's be honest, it would not be much entertaining reading about El Syf commanding his undead hordes without some resistance we can relate to and root for. And how should it be different, it is out of the inner conflict of the mortals that the Duke gets set loose again after centuries of confinement.
The feud between the families of the d'Elbiq and du Maisne, which was first born at the deathbed of the Duke, still is taking its toll. Neither side would give in to the other, carrying their grudges with them through centuries.
It is when Sir Armand du Maisne, said to be the strongest swordsman of Aquitaine, strikes down the last remaining son of Earl Gaubert d'Elbiq in a duel, that the Earl, himself struck by grief, dares to venture from the path of honour and instead consults the witch Jacquetta for a way to take revenge for his lost sons at the blade of the du Maisnes. Breaking the magic seals surrounding the Duke's tomb, they don't just evoke the spirit of the vampire, but free him from his prison.

When the Earl's nephew, Sir Leuthere d’Elbiq, learns of his uncle's vile deed, he is forced to find a way to end the feud, restore his family's honour and find a way to stop the Red Duke fighting alongside the house of du Maisne, while the vampire lord gathers his strength once more, for his second attempt on conquering the dukedom - all would be for naught, if not the Duke himself was not still refighting his past, alongside the present. His containment has driven him mad, struggling to maintain his grip on reality rather than reliving his memories.

But in the end, all ways lead to Ceren Field, where King Louis defeated his once trusted and most favored friend, over four hundred years before -
Will Aquitaine be ready to repeat past victories? What secrets surround the past of El Syf? Will the old feud be set aside for the greater good? Who truly gave birth to the monster that should become not only a dark part of Bretonnian history, but a legend that still makes the people of Aquitaine shiver in fear just by being brought back into memory?

All these questions and more are being answered in The Red Duke by C.L. Werner. There really is quite a lot to the story, nicely packaged in a way that keeps you excited from beginning til the very end, and leaves you longing for more.

Final Words & Verdict
The Red Duke is one of those books that grow more and more on you the further you progress reading them. With every passing chapter, more things clear up about the story, but never too much to rob you of further excitement and curiosity. Every piece of information on the Duke's life is thoughtfully presented, backing up what you already read and giving a solid base to the events coming up in the present timeline of the vampire's return. Unlike many books I have read that swamp you with needless flashbacks rather than employing a proper structure in their telling, C.L. Werner managed not only to gradually build a complex tale, but also keep the novel's excellent flow running from start to finish.
The book feels alive, or at least as alive as a tale about undead lords and hordes could possibly feel. None of the characters feel overly heroic or unbelievable; their own motivations drive them onwards, and at times, these motivations are conflicting with the others. The story really feels consistent and purposeful, while still leaving enough room for mystery and own interpretation.

At the end of the day, my only regret is that the novel wasn't longer; at 413 pages it is well within the Black Library standard, however. Still, I can't shake the feeling that I'd have loved to hear more about the Duke. Nonetheless, the novel ended exactly when it should have, in a way that was both surprising and satisfying - it even left me sitting on my couch with shivers running down my spine at the thought of the tale I had just finished. Even speculations on a few in-lore aspects went out into the web via my twitter-account.

The Red Duke ended up being exactly the type of novel I was expecting to read. It pulled all the right strings for me, invoked the right feelings and thus leads me to recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy stories without any hint of hesitation. It might even be a fantastic novel to use for an in-depth character study.
If you like real vampire stories, chances are excellent that you'll enjoy this book. If you enjoy knightly honour and human flaws set in a gritty world full of dirty realism, you should pick this one up. If you're a fan of Warhammer Fantasy, this book should be mandatory to read anyway.

The only sad thing is that, despite his prowess, El Syf did not actually make it into the latest, 8th edition Armybook of the Vampire Counts for the tabletop game. He is still featured shortly on the timeline, but unlike in the 7th edition book, he did not get (over) a full page of background material, and neither did he return with official rules to represent him on the battlefield. This makes him the first title-giving character of the Warhammer Heroes series that is not present on the tabletop. This, however, is just a minor, personal gripe and does not fault the book.

I personally enjoyed reading The Red Duke and am positive that it won't be any different for you. Give it a try!

I've now moved on to impatiently awaiting Chris Wraight's Luthor Huss, the latest Warhammer Heroes novel, to arrive on my doorstep. Chris Wraight has quickly become one of my absolute favorite Black Library authors with his other two entries to the Heroes series. Expect another review once I'm done with his latest fantasy novel!

The Red Duke on the Black Library Website

About the Author
DarkChaplain is a big nerd who spends too much time reading and thinking about books, organizing them on his ever-growing shelves, and yet increases his backlog by the month. DC is also an avid Gamer and owns more PC games than he'll ever be able to play. He is certainly spoiled for choice!
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain

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