Review: Dead Winter by C.L. Werner

Posted by DarkChaplain at 5/01/2012
Having thoroughly enjoyed C.L. Werner's The Red Duke, my anticipation for Dead Winter has been huge. A plague, ratmen, the mighty Empire brought to its knees... What is not to appreciate about that scenario? Being the latest entry to the Time of Legends series, I was sure to pick it up anyway - more Warhammer Fantasy is a good thing in my book.

Now that I finished the book, I need to get in touch with a Plague Doktor. I think I might be contaminated...

The Story:
"More than a thousand years after the Age of Sigmar, the Empire he struggled to create rests on the edge of destruction – the reign of the greedy and incompetent Emperor Boris Goldgather has shaken down the great and prosperous edifice of his erstwhile realm. Without warning, a terrible and deadly plague strikes, wiping out entire villages and leaving towns eerily silent through the long frozen months. As the survivors struggle to maintain order and a worthy military presence, vermin pour up from the sewers and caverns beneath the cities, heralding a new and unspeakable threat – the insidious skaven!"

General Information
Dead Winter is the latest entry to the Time of Legends series, which is trying to explore the origins of the Warhammer world as fans know it. Being blessed with a rich lore, Warhammer is certainly a treasure trove for epic battles, reformations and tragedy beyond measure. From the founding of the Empire of man by Sigmar Heldenhammer over the civil war that tore the race of elves apart to the rise of the undead under the reign of Nagash, the Time of Legends series has seen a fair share of epic events that have only been shortly addressed in armybooks before. The Black Plague trilogy is no different, yet it marks a vital timeframe for the Empire. Cross-referencing to the Sigmar and Nagash trilogies, the novel can stand well on its own, and manages to feel like real history more often than not.

Of course, Dead Winter is founded on actual historic events. Humanity has survived the Plague many centuries ago, and I am sure most of us have learned enough during history lessons to realise that it was a dark time for all involved. Yet that was history, and those history books hardly manage to give us an insight on why we should care. Dead Winter, however, shows the reader a conclusive view on all layers of society and how they cope with their fear of getting afflicted with the Plague. From the lowliest peasant over soldiers, counts, priests and even princes, C.L. Werner makes clear that everybody is involved and in danger once the disease spreads.
Add to that the presence of a greedy, incompetent Emperor, leading his realm into ruin, the forming of resistance against this unjust ruler, and of course a bit of necromancy and plotting ratmen, and you get a very promising, dark and unforgiving story that keeps you on edge.

Structure & Plot
The book follows multiple plot-lines, which switch within chapters, neatly arranged to make for a compelling read. All those plot-lines are based around the novel's leading topic - the Black Plague. As C.L. Werner put it himself, the disease itself is the star of the book, the focus everything comes back to. They are only loosely connected throughout the novel, but are sure to meet in the inevitable sequels. Some of them might even shake more than just the Empire of man.

We see the unjust reign of Emperor Boris Goldgather, his overtaxation of the Empire's provinces and his schemes to enflame the rivalries between his subjects to keep them at bay. After having disbanded the armies of the Empire and removing the exemption of the Dienstleute, men employed by the provinces, towns and cities to secure their lands and defend their people, from taxes, resistance against Boris forms. From protest-marches of the discharged soldiers to the plans of the noblemen to dethrone the tyrant, a conflict ensues that involves all of the Empire's people and demands sacrifices from all of them. There can only be one solution to the Empire's misery - a coup against Emperor Boris!

Earning his living by catching rats in the city of Nuln, Walther Schill lives an easy life, shunned by society for his choice of work. Wishing to be with his love, a tavern maiden of the Black Rose, he quickly acquires plenty of coin due to the surge of rats on the streets of Nuln after the outbreak of the Plague. One day, however, a body is found, and the rat-catcher quickly realises that the man's throat had not been slit with a blade, but gnawed open - by a giant rat! He makes plans to catch the beast and make a good fortune off it, but little does he know what he might attract through his deeds, and what sacrifices his short luck would demand. I particularly liked this plot-line; it had a surprisingly human tone, realistic and comprehensible, sprinkled with hope and joy that presented a nice balance to the depressing reality of the spreading disease. But in the end, nobody is safe, and reality catches up...

Cold reality also holds Graf Gunthar of Middenheim in its grips. The ruler of Middenland has to face hard decisions that would earn him the disrespect of his son, prince Mandred. Having to decide between accepting refugees of the surrounding lands or barring Middenheim's gates to everyone, Graf Gunthar decides to protect his subjects from outside influence by shutting them in. Being forced to watch the refugees in front of the city-state die from their diseases and by the claws of beastmen, his son decides to help smugglers to get refugees into the city, against all reason. Courage and a good heart lead the young prince from one foolishness to the next, but even he will have to face the sad truth sooner or later...

While Middenheim is still looking at the bright side of things, the town of Bylorhof has already lost the battle against the Black Plague. Priest of Morr, god of the dead, Frederick van Hal struggles to keep his people sane and pious while they descend into the depths of human despair and return to the worship of old idols. When his own family is in grave danger, Frederick has to make decisions that will change his life forever. He steps into a realm of powers he should never have learned about - the vile art of necromancy. When the charlatan Plague Doktor Bruno Havemann damns his family at last, van Hal is struggling to keep even his own desires for vengeance in check...

All the while, deep below the surface, the Skaven are busy trying to betray each other, with Puskab Foulfur, Poxmaster of Clan Pestilens being the leading character on his way to claim a seat at the Council of Thirteen. Betrayal and counter-betrayal with a following counter-counter-betrayal are the most essential part of this plotline. Despite being so obviously skaven in nature, I found it quite difficult to make out which rat was actually double-crossing which other rat or clan. It really draws you deep into the abyss of skaven malice and makes you appreciate just how mean and evil this vile race truly is - and how it is possible that they haven't overrun the surface already. However, that might yet come to pass, thanks to Puskab's own creation - the Black Plague.

Final Words & Verdict
If you read this to make up your mind whether or not you should buy this novel, let me answer the question straight away: Hell yes, you should. Why haven't you already? This novel is bloody awesome, it is just that simple. It is dark, it is bloody, it evokes the whole spectrum of emotions, from fear and courage over hope to despair and love and hate. It is exciting, addictive and makes me craving for the sequel already. History is being written in Dead Winter, so close yet so different from our real history, it makes you wonder 'what if?' from beginning to the bitter end. The book lays the founding for two further installments to The Black Plague, and let me tell you, you'll want to read them after finishing Dead Winter. From one who knows quite a bit about the Warhammer lore, let me tell you that this is just the start to epic events yet to come. Some scenes and characters really made my fanboy-heart squeal in anticipation.

The only negative aspect to the book, if you ask me, would be the way the Skaven-plot was handled. Of course, they're the ones behind the Plague and use it to decimate mankind before engaging them in force, but I felt like their side of the story was, while excellent and exciting, a bit too detached from the events on the surface. Admittedly, though, they simply don't care about the human-meat as long as they don't have to face it at full strength. While the Skaven did have a paw in the events around the Revolution, the plot-line's lead character, Puskab Foulfur, followed his own path. It is also regrettable that the Grey Seers did not really appear in the novel apart from the opening chapters.
Without a doubt, the skaven-side of the story will be much more prominent in the sequels, but their presence in Dead Winter felt a bit lacking, which isn't a fault of the book, as it presented them quite fitting- and satisfyingly, but an issue you'd find in almost any series. Some parts of the story simply had to get sown before they can be reaped in a later installment, and there's nothing wrong with that. It just makes me wish I already had the sequel in my paws...

That being said, the book is amazing, vivid, moving and at times infuriating when confronted with blatant human failure. It gets you as close to the Black Plague as you can possibly get without getting afflicted, and makes you glad you are just watching the events unfold. Once again, C.L. Werner managed to capture me with his grasp on the grim darkness of Warhammer Fantasy and the depths of the human mind. I am itching to squeeze Wulfrik into my reading list already, and am browsing various stores for a copy of the Mathias Thulmann Omnibus. There are plenty of books written by Clint which I haven't yet have the pleasure to read, but if The Red Duke and Dead Winter are anything to go by, I cannot wait for his next contribution.

For the time being, however, I'll have to be content with Blood Reaver's imminent arrival and C.L. Werner's Black Plague tie-in story featured in Age of Legend - fittingly, said story is called Plague Doktor...

Dead Winter 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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