Review: Heldenhammer by Graham McNeill

Posted by DarkChaplain at 5/10/2012
Quite honestly, I have tried starting Heldenhammer more times than I'd like to admit. There were plenty of reasons to finally get done with it, and, in hindsight, I don't regret the time spent in any way. It is a pity that bad timing always stood between me and the Legend of Sigmar, for the book was truly moving.

Now that I am finally done, let me review the first Sigmar novel in detail. Will I pledge my sword for the Heldenhammer's dream of an united Empire of man?

The Story:
"It is a time of legends. The lands of the old World are wild and untamed, where the primitive tribes of men struggle for survival. In this time of peril, by virtue of his valorous deeds, a young man claims leadership of the Unberogen tribe. His name is Sigmar Heldenhammer, and his actions will change history forever. This is the story of how Sigmar rose to power, culminating in the Battle of Black Fire Pass, where men and dwarfs fought against the vast hordes of orcs in their quest to safeguard the future of the Empire."

Book One of The Legend of Sigmar

General Information
Heldenhammer was the first book in the Time of Legends series to get released. The trilogy is complete by now, with the Omnibus collecting all three parts of the Legend of Sigmar coming up this summer. All Time of Legends contributions aim to unveil essential parts of the fictional history of the franchise, telling the stories of the first undead who ever rose from their graves, or the civil war engulfing the elven dynasty, and many other tales beyond these.
The Legend of Sigmar trilogy follows the life of Sigmar, King of the Unberogen tribe, and shows how he realises his dream of humanity united in purpose. Did you ever wonder what's up with the Warhammer that gives the franchise its venerable name? Sigmar was the first man to wield it in battle, and he was the one who reshaped the scattered, rival tribes of men into what would become humanity's greatest realm in the Warhammer world - the Empire. It is a quest that would eventually see him revered as a God by the men of the Empire for millenia to come.
Heldenhammer is quite a classical story, written in a different, lighter tone than other grimdark Warhammer novels; it is full of hope, good humor and events of cinematic proportions, almost comparable to the epic sagas we have been collecting over the course of human history. It is a story which lays the foundation for the franchise, so even if you've never heard or read of Warhammer before, you might easily enjoy it.

Structure & Plot
The book starts the night before Sigmar sets out with an army of his tribe to battle the Orcs invading the lands of their allies. Sigmar has ridden into battle before and even earned himself the gratitude of the dwarfen High King Kurgan Ironbeard, but this time he will earn his shield and progress into manhood, leading hundreds of Unberogen warriors against the enemies of mankind. Swinging the legendary hammer Ghal-maraz, the gift of King Kurgan, Sigmar and his men quickly emerge victorious, but one of his Sword-Brothers, Trinovantes, fell to the Orc warlord while holding the assault to give the rest of the army time to resupply.
Returning home to Reikdorf, a shadow lies over Sigmar's triumph, for his fallen friend's twin, Gerreon, blames Sigmar for the death of his brother. Worse even, the woman Sigmar loves was the sister of the twins, and stands between both sides. While Sigmar's father, King Björn of the Unberogen tribe, honours him and the fallen men, Sigmar overcomes his shyness and begins a relationship with his beloved and dreams of a future where all men stand together against the shadows that threaten their race, united and strong as an empire.
Little does he know that Gerreon, feeling betrayed by both Sigmar and his sister, plots against the King's son, and that his apologies aren't to be trusted. Sigmar's naivety would see him stripped of what he loved most andhurt beyond measure, but despite all he would emerge stronger than ever.

After his father's death in battle against the barbaric tribes of the north, the Norsii, Sigmar inherits the title of King of the Unberogen and quickly sets out to realise his dream. While uniting the rivalling tribes turns out to be just as hard a task as expected, Sigmar would not leave the road he has determined for himself, and overcomes all the trials before him. He renewed old swordoaths, forges new bonds with the other kings, slays creatures that would see men destroyed and eventually leads his race to new heights. His goal seems to be near, but mankind's enemies did not sit idle, and soon warnings of a new threat reach the King's ears:
The Orcs march for war. Ten thousands of Orcs seek to invade the lands of men, and only if all tribes work and fight as one will their race be allowed to survive, for alone they are lost. Sigmar leads a massive army of all his allied tribes to stand against the Orc warlord Urgluk Bloodfang - at Black Fire Pass, the fate of humanity will be decided, and an Empire born...

The book spans many years in Sigmar's life, from his mid-teens to late twenties, laying the foundation for the legends surrounding him. Apart from a few scenes, the whole story is written from either his perspective or with focus on his life and surroundings. Heldenhammer really manages to breathe life into Sigmar's character, making him much more than the sum of the legends of his deeds. It is a story full of emotion, hope and great strength that shows expertly just how much potential lies in unity.
Of course, telling of an individuals life in such a way will lead to the feeling that things are going too fast at times, and many details and discoveries ended up as mere notes between events; the introduction of rune-writing, stone roads, better wargear and the quick growth of human settlements all have a place in the story, and a role to play, yet they are never really explored as much as I'd liked them to be. What might seem unnecessary or even boring to others I thought was a great way to build up the world, showing just how essential Sigmar was to humanity's prosperity. While what was written was enough, I surely wouldn't have argued against more of these details along the road.

Final Words & Verdict
Graham McNeill managed to drag me completely into the story. The dialogues were inspiring, emotional and enjoyable. It was incredible how some scenes made me laugh, and how human the characters felt. Even Sigmar, who might be seen as some sort of wonder-boy by some for realising his dreams and smiting even the most brutal beasts on his own, felt human, realistic and deep. It was a real joy to follow his footsteps, from his homeland, his first love and his relationships to his friends to the tasks he'd need to fulfill to forge new alliances.
In a way, these trials almost appeared similar to the Labours of Hercules, and somehow that comparison isn't so far off, for, as Warhammer fans already know all too well, Sigmar would eventually join the Gods in their pantheon - at least that is what the descendents of the Empire believe.

At the end of the day, I really regretted not having read this one much sooner - and I had this one on my shelf since January 2009! If it wasn't for other books on my list, I'd have picked up the sequel, Empire, immediately after finishing Heldenhammer. Alas, this will have to wait for another day.
In my opinion, Graham has pulled the right strings with Heldenhammer. There's been enough foreshadowing and promise for the rest of the trilogy to utilize, and if you trust the David Gemmel Legend Award 2010 McNeill earned with Empire, it is only going to get better from here on.

Next up for me will be Blood Reaver and most likely Atlas Infernal, but I am already looking forward to the rest of the Legend of Sigmar. If I got you interested, keep an eye open for the Omnibus edition coming this August!

Heldenhammer 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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