Review: The Gates of Azyr by Chris Wraight

Posted by DarkChaplain at 3/07/2016
The war is over, and the Mortal Realms have all but fallen to Chaos... Khorgos Khul rampages across the fiery Realm of Aqshy, hunting down mortal kind to slaughter or subjugate to Khorne. His Goretide have crushed all resistance... until the storm. From the heavens hurtle paladins clad in gold. Sent by Sigmar, the Stormcast Eternals have come to liberate all the realms from the yoke of Chaos.

It’s your first chance to enter the mortal realms and see Sigmar’s chosen warriors in action – heroes of heavenly magic in god-forged armour who ride the storm and bring death to the servants of Chaos, in this case the dreaded Goretide. The perfect place to start exploring the Age of Sigmar.
The Gates of Azyr kicked off the Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop's reboot of their Warhammer Fantasy range. Officially, it is a setting succeeding the Old World of WHFB, while thematically and in terms of design, it is an entirely new universe.

The Story:
"The war is over, and the Mortal Realms have all but fallen to Chaos... Khorgos Khul rampages across the fiery Realm of Aqshy, hunting down mortal kind to slaughter or subjugate to Khorne. His Goretide have crushed all resistance... until the storm. From the heavens hurtle paladins clad in gold. Sent by Sigmar, the Stormcast Eternals have come to liberate all the realms from the yoke of Chaos.

It’s your first chance to enter the mortal realms and see Sigmar’s chosen warriors in action – heroes of heavenly magic in god-forged armour who ride the storm and bring death to the servants of Chaos, in this case the dreaded Goretide. The perfect place to start exploring the Age of Sigmar."

The Review
This is it, then. The Age of Sigmar has come... and left me cold, bored, frustrated and unsatisfied.

There is very little to this novella. In fact, I am confused as to how there could be this little substance to this book. At 128 pages, I expected a lot more of... everything. Everything except mindless action, of course, since that is all you really get in this story.

Especially when compared to other novellas Black Library has published, this one is bleak. Even Space Marine Battles stories like Blood and Fire, The Eternal Crusader or the Warhammer 40,000 starter set novella, Dark Vengeance, the various Gotrek & Felix novellas... they all offer more than this book did. A lot more.

For one, they don't spend about 66% of the book with immortal, hammer-wielding, angelic supermen fighting enraged chaos-worshipping buffoons. Well, they often do have that, but not in one go. There are various scenes and characters involved to shake up the monotony of combat. This is not the case here.

Once battle is joined (barely a third into the novella), it does not stop to even consider the mortal humans it introduced as early as chapter two, went into hiding in chapter three and did not reappear, act or become in any way useful until chapter 8, mere pages before the book's end.

There didn't appear to be any point to these mortals apart from showing off the cruelty of the bloodreavers in chapters two and three, and to give protagonist Vandus Hammerhand, Lord-Celestant of the Stormcast Eternals, an opportunity to prattle about how he and his fellows are the bringers salvation.

I did not like Vandus Hammerhand. In fact, I think I could have liked him, had he not been introduced as a wonderful, perfect "Sigmarine" (as people have taken to calling the Sigmar-serving Stormcast Eternals, due to their resemblance to Space Marines), first of the host and overall swell dude.
The Eternals are mind-scrubbed. They got snatched away by the God-King Sigmar, mind-wiped and reforged into immortal warriors living pretty much only for war in Sigmar's name.

Vandus Hammerhand didn't seem to have received that particular memo, since the moment he enters the realm of Aqshy, to reconquer the land and defeat Chaos Lord Korghos Khul, that his memories start returning. His name, his moments before being spirited away, memories of the realm he once defended... it all comes back to him. And it turns out that Khul and him have unfinished business to settle.

Neither the return of his memories nor his emotions regarding them felt in any way satisfying to read about. The impact on Vandus was at the same time mind-numbing (for him) and yawn-inducing (for me). For being the first of the host, though, Vandus sure took a lot of taunting from his former enemy, Khul, to get a grip and unleash Sigmar's power. When the main character wonders why the heck he is still holding back against the guy who burned his village to the ground and is bathing the realm in Chaos (literally), you cannot help but ask yourself why a fool like that was picked to lead the glorious heroes tasked with cleansing the realms.

In fact, I wanted Korghos Khul to win. At least he had some interesting ambitions (collecting the final skull to offer to his god Khorne, to top off his skull-pyramid and ascend to apparent daemonhood and lay waste to all the realms with his "Goretide"), humor and actual interaction with his lieutenants (all of which had silly names, like "Skullbrand the Bloodsecrator").
Where Khul showed actual excitement about fighting Vandus, the latter seemed to cower on top of his "Dracoth" (think He-Man sitting on his Battlecat Gringer, just that its a wingless dragon beast instead). I almost laughed when Vandus finally started to get serious and told his nemesis that "nothing remained" of his old self - just after he got paralyzed because of his memories, and before he encounters the surviving mortals.

Even Ionus Cryptborn, the "Lord Relictor" of the Stormhost, would have made for a more compelling character. Let me quote a passage:

Ionus smiled beneath his deathmask. If things had been different, he might have been pleased to recount the tale. He would have told of the debt he owed the God-King, and the ancient curse that his choice had made him subject to. He would have told of Nagash, the deity who slumbered still but would be sure to come for him when the toll of years was complete. He might have said that, yes, he was different, and that he was the Lord-Relictor of the Stormhost, privy to secrets that not even the Hammerhand had been made a party to, and that every road ahead of him was dark and filled with pain whatever the outcome of this battle.

That is about as much as the reader gets to learn about Ionus Cryptborn, and all I could think of when reading it was that the Cryptborn's debt to Sigmar, the curse and his fallout with Nagash would've made for an exceedingly more compelling narrative than this one.

The stakes of it all are very esoteric and intangible in this story. The realm is a broken wasteland, humanity is almost wiped out (in fact, Vandus is surprised to learn about the survivors after winning the battle), and the biggest motivation for the Stormhost seems to be that they do not wish to disappoint almighty, all-knowing Sigmar.

I can't even fault Chris Wraight for this - that's simply how Games Workshop designed the lore for the Age of Sigmar tabletop game. Dull and uninspired, without any of the charme you'd find in Warhammer Fantasy stories before it. None of the humor, sense of wonder or adventure. It seems that in the grim darkness of the replacement of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, there is only war.

In a nutshell, The Gates of Azyr is the story of two armies clashing for around 4-5 chapters before an anticlimactic end to the story. But as Vandus Hammerhand tells us that "truly, [the wars] are only just beginning". Maybe Vandus and Khul will even meet again, who can tell.
As of now, I am even less eager to follow those...

The Gates of Azyr on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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