Review: Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell
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Traveler, Cleric, Witch.

The villagers in the sleepy hamlet of Lychford are divided. A supermarket wants to build a major branch on their border. Some welcome the employment opportunities, while some object to the modernization of the local environment.
Judith Mawson (local crank) knows the truth -- that Lychford lies on the boundary between two worlds, and that the destruction of the border will open wide the gateways to malevolent beings beyond imagination.
But if she is to have her voice heard, she's going to need the assistance of some unlikely allies...
This is another novella from Tor I discovered during my novella-binge earlier in the year. I read it a couple of weeks ago, but as I am currently reading the sequel, I figured now's the time for the review.

The Story:
"Traveler, Cleric, Witch.
The villagers in the sleepy hamlet of Lychford are divided. A supermarket wants to build a major branch on their border. Some welcome the employment opportunities, while some object to the modernization of the local environment.
Judith Mawson (local crank) knows the truth -- that Lychford lies on the boundary between two worlds, and that the destruction of the border will open wide the gateways to malevolent beings beyond imagination.
But if she is to have her voice heard, she's going to need the assistance of some unlikely allies..."

Disclaimer
I did not receive an ARC for this book, but I did for the sequel, The Lost Child of Lychford, which prompted me to read this novella. Also, I am a little disappointed at the author's use of blocklists on Twitter. Those may both be factors that influenced this review, so keep those in mind.

The Review:
Witches of Lychford entered my field of vision back in January when I was on my novella binge and checked Tor's various offerings. When I found an eARC of the sequel, The Lost Child of Lychford, in my mailbox, I figured I should give it a go - and found something genuinely amusing and exciting.

The story kicks off with the old, witchy Judith walking the town of Lychford. She enters the stage leaving no doubt of her eccentricity; she swears, she professes her dislike for people, and she finds that something very bad is going on in the town she watches over - besides a giant corporation trying to build a new supermarket and ruffling feathers left and right, literally splitting the town's population in half over the issue.
Judith, with all her sharp edges and odd manners, is a joy to read. She has her way, and has long since stopped giving a damn about what others think of her. Of course, that sees her shunned by the other residents, which makes her attempts to prevent Lychford's doom a little difficult.

Following on, Cornell introduces the second "Witch" of Lychford, Reverend Lizzie Blackmore, who just recently returned to the small town to become the new vicar of Lychford's church. Her troubles are immediately apparent. Throughout the book, she has a bit of an identity problem, related to her faith. While she finally got her dream job, she is wavering, and struggles to get back in touch with her old friend, Autumn.

Autumn, Lizzie comes to learn, opened a witchcraft store in town, despite her strong atheistic tendencies. She, too, has a troubled past, though of an entirely different kind than Lizzie. And yes, she is the third Witch of the book, rounding off the trio.

I was less interested in Autumn here, due to her (past) romance plotline and her being more of a social butterfly. She was written well, but Lizzie's trauma and Judith's situation back at home and her standing in the community appealed to me more. Still, all three of them had their parts to play (albeit that Lizzie's was less active than that of the other two, something she herself remarks upon later), and complemented one another exceptionally well.
Autumn tended to bring a more rational, semi-scientific angle to the table whereas Lizzie tried to use faith instead, half to convince herself of it than to find a solution. Both had to confront their own biases more than once, and accept that there is more between heaven and hell than they'd have previously thought.
Judith meanwhile fulfills the role of old wise woman who has seen it all and knows what's up but has never gotten around to having an apprentice - so of course she'd recruit these two.

With the trio being written so lively and genuinely funny, with Judith mocking the others all over and the other two's various reactions or attitudes, I was happy to spend time with them, and would like more stories to be written about them and Lychford. Thankfully, there's already one sequel coming up.

The conflict within the story mostly arises from Lychford's spiritual borders weakening and the town tearing itself apart over the supermarket situation. The witches have to find a solution to both problems, with clever tricks and magic and all you'd expect. The antagonist comes in the form of the big corporation and how streamlined systems like store chains disrupt the calm of tradition and community life in favor of profits and convenience. I liked that. While the sentiment may be as old as modern capitalism, meshing it with a world of magic and eccentricity worked well and provided a good basis for the narrative.

Witches of Lychford was a great read. It offered capable, quirky protagonists, a well-developed dilemma and a lot of mystery and subtle magic. It made me laugh and had me read it almost in one go. It has a few themes that could have been explored a little more, but overall was satisfying and relaxing, despite the doom and gloom. The witches feel like good people, and certainly are good company for the reader.

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Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
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Buried beneath the layers of a traveler's guide is a hidden history: two kingdoms, powerful gems, and the even more powerful Lapidarys who bind them. Lin and Sima, caught in a web of intrigue and deceit, must find a way to escape the traps set by the past and save their kingdom.
An epic fantasy, in miniature.
The tagline "An epic fantasy, in miniature" is true in a way, but also worked to the story's detriment in my opinion. I had to go over it twice, and both times similar things annoyed me about it. Here's my review.

The Story:
"Buried beneath the layers of a traveler's guide is a hidden history: two kingdoms, powerful gems, and the even more powerful Lapidarys who bind them. Lin and Sima, caught in a web of intrigue and deceit, must find a way to escape the traps set by the past and save their kingdom.
An epic fantasy, in miniature."


The Review:
The Jewel and Her Lapidary is a very brief story. Now, I don't have anything against that in principle, but in this case I don't think that the author handled the limitations of the format well. Ms. Wilde certainly has some great ideas that I'd like to see explored, or would've liked to see explored here, but they fell noticeably short as a result of the story's short length and odd priorities.

In a nutshell, the plot is about the noble "Jewel" Lin and her "Lapidary" servant Sima, who are captured while the King's Lapidary is overthrowing his master to hand the magic jewels of the kingdom to an invading force. With Lin and Sima being the daughters of both king and betrayer respectively, there is quite a bit of emotional dilemma right off the bat. Throughout the story we are told of the strong bond between Jewels and their Lapidaries, and Sima struggles all throughout with maintaining her oaths to Lin without betraying or forsaking her - which leads to quite a conundrum when Lin orders her to leave her behind and wrapped in magically-weird chain garment that'd somehow prevent Lin from being married off to the invading general's son.

That part I found intriguing and enjoyable as a concept. But then we also have the magic gems which apparently speak to Lapidaries, and without training this drives those skilled individuals mad - which, despite experience and training, apparently happened to Sima's father. Sadly, this isn't explored nearly as well as it needed to be. The powers of the Star Cabochon, Opaque Sapphire and the other, less powerful jewels in Sima's care, weren't well developed. A lot more could have been done with them - but then I also accept that the story was more about the mistress/servant/friend/sister relationship between Lin and Sima than the actual magic of the setting. It served the plot in places but took the backseat to the characters' distress.

I wouldn't have had too much of a problem with that if, throughout the story, snippets from a tourguide book (written far in the future) didn't hint at a much wider, more interesting setting than the book focused on. Almost the entire story takes place in the King Jewel's palace, or in captivity (with three different instances of being caught, no less). There were so many hints at a greater whole of which we only see a tiny fraction that I got frustrated.

On top of that, I struggled with the repetitive nature of various phrases and terminology. Calling the royalty Jewels and their bonded servants with mystical powers Lapidaries is a cool idea, but when you get actual magic jewels, gems and lapidaries, things get quickly out of hand. Having Sima constantly think "A lapidary must/musn't do X or Y", over and over and over, made me sick of reading the same words over and over and I have to wonder just how much of the word count was taken up by the same concepts. Sure, it hammers the inner turmoil of the servant home, but at some point the reader understands that and wants it to be expressed differently.

Then there was a glimmer of romance between Lin and Sima, which was dropped almost as soon as it arose. While I can easily put it down to the stress of the overall situation, being in captivity together and not having anybody else to rely on or support, it felt like a missed opportunity. The moment could have broken the master/servant relationship, for example, or shaken up the ending in some fashion.

The ending twist at least I thought to be quite imaginative if cruel and grim. It was exciting, if very abrupt in terms of pacing. Something was missing there, but thinking about it, it brings Sima's dilemma to a satisfying conclusion. However, there were a bunch of things that were left open, or abandoned, that left me wondering. It did not feel like a complete story in a sense; it deserved more room to maneuver and develop its unique ideas. Epic fantasy in miniature indeed, and that makes me a little sad.

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Review: Watchers in Death by David Annandale
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Brute force has failed – and drastically so. The assault on the ork home world has ended in disaster and new tactics are needed. But will Koorland's new force – his so-called ""Deathwatch"" be effective?

The attempt to hunt down and kill the orks’ leader has ended in catastrophe. The Imperium is reeling from the loss of so many beloved heroes, and the military forces of mankind have been reduced to tatters. Koorland now knows that brute force is not the answer – but how else can the orks be fought? In a radical move, he creates small, mixed Chapter units of Adeptus Astartes – compact teams that will hit the enemy hard and fast, and with deadly accuracy. With armour painted the black of mourning, the new strike teams become known as the Deathwatch. But will this be enough to tip the balance, or does the Imperium need to discover other new means to defeat the orks?
Nine done, three more books to go. The Beast Arises isn't going to let us go straight to the finish line, however, so here's another curveball flung at followers of the series, courtesy of David Annandale. This is his third and final book in the series, which means a full quarter of it sprung from his keyboard!

The Story:
"Brute force has failed – and drastically so. The assault on the ork home world has ended in disaster and new tactics are needed. But will Koorland's new force – his so-called ""Deathwatch"" be effective?

The attempt to hunt down and kill the orks’ leader has ended in catastrophe. The Imperium is reeling from the loss of so many beloved heroes, and the military forces of mankind have been reduced to tatters. Koorland now knows that brute force is not the answer – but how else can the orks be fought? In a radical move, he creates small, mixed Chapter units of Adeptus Astartes – compact teams that will hit the enemy hard and fast, and with deadly accuracy. With armour painted the black of mourning, the new strike teams become known as the Deathwatch. But will this be enough to tip the balance, or does the Imperium need to discover other new means to defeat the orks?"

The Review:
Watchers in Death was quite enjoyable to me. It suffers from some contrivances of the overall series, but the overall story was a satisfying origin piece for the Deathwatch and their particular style of engagement.

Firstly, though, the cover presents a discrepancy with the book's content. The Deathwatch marine shown is wearing an Inquisition-branded shoulder guard, whereas in the book, the Deathwatch are autonomous. They are allying with Inquisitors Veritus and Wienand, but over the course of the book the two merely discuss the possibilities inherent in the new Space Marine formation, foreshadowing future developments. But at the book's present, the Deathwatch is not a militant chamber of the Inquisition yet, and is under the sole direction of Chapter Master Koorland of the Imperial Fists, with Maximus Thane of the Fists Exemplar as his second.

The whole creation myth of the Watchers in Death was interesting to follow, especially seeing the animosity between Dark Angels and Space Wolves, and how that takes the backseat as the Kill Teams get more invested into their role as new elite strikeforce. In general, I felt that Annandale did a bang-on job depicting how the various Astartes grew into their new identities. It was moving in places, and neat to see how Deathwatch and Chapter origin could coexist.

Deathwatch. The word, the name, the truth was shouted by every warrior in the Monitus. It was the moment of creation. That which had been shattered on Ullanor had taken on a new shape, renewed of purpose.
Deathwatch. It was a blade aimed at the throat of the Beast.

A big woe of mine was that, once more, this was pretty much limited to the usual bunch of Chapters. Imperial Fists/Fists Exemplar in the leaders Koorland and Thane, Space Wolves, Dark Angels, Blood Angels and Ultramarines. We knew the Salamanders took part in the assault on Ullanor, but none of them seemed to join the DW. Neither did the infiltration specialists of the Raven Guard make an appearance, or any of the successor Chapters beyond the Fists Exemplar. It was a meek turnout, and seeing how the diversity of Chapters and their individual tactics are perhaps the biggest strength of the Deathwatch to come, this seemed too vanilla for my taste. It ticked the necessary boxes based on previously involved Chapters, but didn't go beyond, which it well could have.

Either way, the Kill Teams go on to finally deal with the attack moon above Terra, which is a plotline I would have liked to see tackled a few volumes ago. Thankfully, there is some finality here, as the Deathwatch come into their own. Where The Hunt for Vulkan and The Beast Must Die were stuffed with big action setpieces, Watchers in Death focused more on small groups of combatants, which was a needed change of pace and delivered something notably different from the rest of the series with its massive scale.

About half the book deals with another hunt for a legendary leftover force from the Great Crusade and Horus Heresy era: The Sisters of Silence. Like with Vulkan before, it is Veritus who divulges the secret of their continued existence. I thought that too typical. Using Veritus again might make sense considering his position, but it was also a bit of a cheap way to handle it. I keep wondering if much would have changed had Wienand found an old dusty tome instead, while Koorland dealt with the attack moon. If anything, that might have benefitted the book by exploring the Inquisition's customs a bit more, and had been more emergent from the events of TBMD, whereas Veritus just has a "oh, by the way, I know this and that" moment. Doing it the way I suggest here would also have made a stronger case for later events to turn out the way they did, involving the two Inquisitors.

But thankfully, we are back to Terra for half of the book. There are politics to be watched unfold again, from the proposal of the Deathwatch's establishment over power play predictions and the Inquisition's scheming. Mesring's role developed a little further, as did Juskina Tull, and even the uneasy relationship between Koorland and Fabricator General Kubik. Vangorich, too, has a chance to spread his influence directly again, which was welcome. His role has been moving to the back lately, whereas I still consider him the true star of the series, for (soon to be) obvious reasons.

However, the story soon moves on to Thane and his Kill Team searching for the long-lost and forgotten Sisters of Silence, guided by the Inquisitors. This was fascinating in a way, but also a little disjointed and could have benefitted from more pagetime and switching back to Terra once in a while.
I'd like to note though that I do not in theory object to the Sisters only entering the stage now. After all, their relevance was only clear to the reader, not the characters. Or rather, the characters who found out about the threat of the Ork psykers took quite a beating in past volumes and their messages only reached Terra now, after the disaster at Ullanor. So, in a way, while Vulkan hinted at the Sisters coming in handy, nobody knew why he'd say that, or that they still endured.
While yes, this drags the series out, it feels like more natural progression resulting from previous novels' plotlines finally developing further.

The individual Deathwatch missions were enjoyable to follow and had some pretty cool moments, especially involving ork-derived technology. If I have one criticism though, it is how comparatively easy their jobs were. Their success was always a given, seeing how their concept gives birth to a full force in the future, but even then, there was a surprising lack of losses and hard choices involved. That could have been handled better, even though the action scenes and infiltration sections were well executed.

A relatively small part of the novel also returns us to Captain Zerberyn of the Fists Exemplar and Iron Warriors Warsmith Kalkator. I won't spoil this part, because it was incredibly good, and showed the inner turmoil of the loyalist captain, and is foreshadowing some big reckoning. I loved this section.

In the end though, this was a solid entry in the series. I had a good time. Some memorable scenes came from the formation of the Watchers, which I remember fondly. A few tweaks could have made it better, but even without them it holds up and brings us one step close to the series' completion.

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Review: The Purity of Ignorance by John French
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Inquisitor Covenant must hunt down the daemon at the heart of a planetary conspiracy, but how high a price will he and his team pay to defeat the evil, and are they even aware what the cost of success will be?

While the Space Marines and the Imperial Guard fight the myriad alien enemies that seek to overwhelm mankind, the Inquisition pursues a different kind of war. For theirs is a war fought in the dark places of man’s soul – a battle against the corruption of Chaos, a battle for the survival of humanity. Inquisitor Covenant must hunt down the daemon at the heart of a planetary conspiracy, but how high a price will he and his team pay to defeat the evil, and are they even aware what the cost of success will be?
This short story released in this year's Summer of Reading over at Black Library, and made me very happy. It seems they're turning it around with more creative and conceptually clever stories, so I felt the need to review this one quickly. It's quite a short review, I know, but I'd like to recommend this one anyway, without spoiling the fun in it.

The Story:
"Inquisitor Covenant must hunt down the daemon at the heart of a planetary conspiracy, but how high a price will he and his team pay to defeat the evil, and are they even aware what the cost of success will be?

While the Space Marines and the Imperial Guard fight the myriad alien enemies that seek to overwhelm mankind, the Inquisition pursues a different kind of war. For theirs is a war fought in the dark places of man’s soul – a battle against the corruption of Chaos, a battle for the survival of humanity. Inquisitor Covenant must hunt down the daemon at the heart of a planetary conspiracy, but how high a price will he and his team pay to defeat the evil, and are they even aware what the cost of success will be? "


The Review:
The Purity of Ignorance's subtitle as "A story of the Horusian Wars" is a misnomer in my eyes. There really is nothing about the Horusians here, or even inter-factional conflict within the Inquisition. I am a bit disappointed with that, since this seemed like a start to a new trilogy, or even series, focusing on Inquisitors. However, I am still pleased with how the story itself turned out, besides the cover's marketing.

This is the first story of hopefully many to feature Inquisitor Covenant, an old character from the Inquisitor specialist game. It doesn't exactly put him into the spotlight, but it is an impressive introduction to the man and his retainers. There's a preacher, a warrior-woman with ties to the Adepta Sororitas, and an array of stormtroopers in service of the big man. The squad leader, lieutenant Ianthe, is the primary focus here. She is being recruited for her first job with the Inquisition, and initially interrogated, before we get to see her and her squad in action. From this basic premise arises a very cool story that is conceptually great and well executed.

The antagonists are well written too, and while fans of the IP will know the twist right from the start, it is well handled and shows the core of corruption in an exciting way. Nobody plays the villain in their own mind, and French plays well with that idea here.

More than anything though, this type of story with all its twists and clever ideas is what I have been missing from Black Library in recent years. If this is the stuff we can expect more of going forward, then I am all in again. Let John write more about Covenant and co, because this was a highly promising start to something that grow into Eisenhorn/Ravenor-levels of Inquisitorial goodness.

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Review: The Dragon Engine by Andy Remic
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Five noble war heroes of Vagandrak get drunk one night and sign a contract – to journey to the Karamakkos in search of the Five Havens where, it is written, there is untold, abandoned wealth and, more importantly, the three Dragon Heads – jewels claimed to give unspeakable power and everlasting life to those who wield them.

But the Dragon Heads aren’t what they think, and the world has not encountered their like in generations!
This one is a highly divisive novel, which I didn't realize going in. Not for the faint-hearted or prude, that's for sure. However, I quite enjoyed it.

The Story:
"Five noble war heroes of Vagandrak get drunk one night and sign a contract – to journey to the Karamakkos in search of the Five Havens where, it is written, there is untold, abandoned wealth and, more importantly, the three Dragon Heads – jewels claimed to give unspeakable power and everlasting life to those who wield them.

But the Dragon Heads aren’t what they think, and the world has not encountered their like in generations!"


The Review:
The Dragon Engine is a controversial novel - and for good reason. It is full of adult humor (or juvenile humor, depending on who you're asking), and explicit, sexual content (both in the positive and negative sense).
So if you are uncomfortable with that, do not even think of picking this book up, or you'll regret the money spent. If you're unsure, get the sample, which should include the start of the chapter "Skalg", which tackles the reader with some very explicit scenes right off the bat.

If you can get over those explicit contents, you'll find a novel that very much resembles a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The protagonists are a diverse bunch, three men, three women, including a bisexual archer, a supposedly-pacifist witch/healer who is also vegetarian, a ginger, one-eyed, stubborn axeman and so on. It really covers a bunch of the tropes and character classes you'd find in most pen & paper roleplaying games, with the added bonus of all of these six characters being veterans of a previous war (which seems to be covered in Remic's other books). As a result you have them wax nostalgically about the good old days and past glories, and decide to go on one last adventure together.

This adventure sees them going on a treasure hunt, searching for the lost dwarven cities under the mountain Karamakkos. Things don't go as planned (at all), even from the outset, and the group of heroes just tumbles from one problem to the next.
I actually found that really entertaining, as it resulted in a lot of comedic problem solving - until about halfway through the book, when they actually enter the dwarven realm and things take a massive turn for the worst.

Spoiler, highlight to read!
The group gets captured and put to slave labor in the mines of the thought-extinct race. But since they weren't compliant enough, they go through a very long chapter of torture, which sent each and every one of them through hell. This involves mutilation, threat of castration and ball-crushing, psycho-terror, rape and more.
It really wasn't pretty and, again, if you're faint-hearted, move on.

However, it did provide some very neat insights into the characters. For the most part the book focuses on Beetrax the axeman, and his past love with Lillith. We get the biggest chunks of background on them, whereas the others are less obvious in their background details. During their rough time in the Five Havens, all of them are confronted with their own fears and insecurities, and became more interesting to me. But then, I also hated those scenes for making me worry so much, and being utterly relentless. They were some of the moments where I genuinely wanted the antagonists to die in hell.

The antagonists themselves are well-established and actually evil, especially Cardinal Skalg of the Church of Hate, who is a despicable prick of the highest degree. There isn't really much I want to say about his role here, as it has a bunch of twists I don't want to spoil. But you will hate him. There is nothing redeemable about him, and there doesn't need to be. But then, few, if any, of the dwarves can be said good things about. They're an isolated race of awful people, selfish, brutal, hateful. Just the kind of mess you wouldn't want to run into.

And then we have the Dragon Engine itself, a machine utilizing enslaved metal dragons to power the dwarven cities. There isn't as much about this in the book as I was expecting, but when it hits, it is with a sledgehammer and turns the book upside down, with a gigantic cliffhanger for Twilight of the Dragons. I'm very excited to dig into that sequel, with how this story (hasn't) wrapped up here.

The Dragon Engine really is a mixed bag that will divide readers (and already has). There is sexually explicit content here in bucket loads, some relatively tasteful, other parts excessively detailed to the point where I was cringing, thinking that a curtain call would have fitted the scene better. Little is left ambiguous, and characters are foul-mouthed (especially Beetrax and the antagonists) throughout the whole book. But then, there are genuinely well-written human relationships here too, with the group of six splitting into three couples of different stages. There is plenty of humor here to balance the grim, though it takes second fiddle once things get darker in the mines. While some may react with eyerolls at Beetrax in particular, I thought him to be a well-presented character with more depth than immediately obvious, and often quite funny.

More than anything though, this book has made me want to play DnD. Getting a group together and just start a silly adventure with characters who poke fun at one another all the time, but also stick up for one another when it counts. If you told me this was originally based off of one long campaign Remic had with friends, I could well believe it, and it maintains the lighthearted tone of such sessions, despite the grim parts.

As such, I quite enjoyed my time with The Dragon Engine, though I cannot make a clear-cut recommendation for it. It really comes down to your own sensibilities and tastes, and state of mind. You might praise it for its unashamed style, or hate it for its crudeness. I can only recommend trying the sample to see if you can stomach it.

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Review: Call of Archaon by Various
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Three champions of Chaos are roused from the ongoing war against Sigmar's servants and compelled to journey into the heart of darkness. Their goal? To serve at the side of the Everchosen himself, Archaon, as one of his Varanguard. But the trials before them are many, and not all will survive...

Of the many champions of Chaos, none are as great or as feared as mighty Archaon. He is the Everchosen, Exalted Grand Marshal of the Apocalypse and Ender of Worlds, and it is a worthy warrior indeed who can fight by his side. Such Knights of Ruin are known as the Varanguard. Only by answering the call of Archaon can a warrior of Chaos ascend to their ranks, and acceptance is never guaranteed, for their mettle must first be proven. In this dark tale, three fell champions of the Chaos Gods all heed the call of the Everchosen. Each desires the ultimate prize: to become part of the Varanguard. But where one is chosen, others will fail, for Archaon’s will is cruel and his trials exacting...
Call of Archaon is the fourth book in the Age of Sigmar: The Realmgate Wars series. It is yet another anthology, and a mixed bag. I wrote the individual reviews over the course of months as I could be bothered to squeeze the stories into my schedule. As a result, length and depth of the individual sections will vary.

The Story:
"Three champions of Chaos are roused from the ongoing war against Sigmar's servants and compelled to journey into the heart of darkness. Their goal? To serve at the side of the Everchosen himself, Archaon, as one of his Varanguard. But the trials before them are many, and not all will survive...

Of the many champions of Chaos, none are as great or as feared as mighty Archaon. He is the Everchosen, Exalted Grand Marshal of the Apocalypse and Ender of Worlds, and it is a worthy warrior indeed who can fight by his side. Such Knights of Ruin are known as the Varanguard. Only by answering the call of Archaon can a warrior of Chaos ascend to their ranks, and acceptance is never guaranteed, for their mettle must first be proven. In this dark tale, three fell champions of the Chaos Gods all heed the call of the Everchosen. Each desires the ultimate prize: to become part of the Varanguard. But where one is chosen, others will fail, for Archaon’s will is cruel and his trials exacting..."

The Review:
Call of Archaon was originally released over the course of many months via 8 short stories by various authors. It isn't a novel as the publisher advertises, and more of an anthology.

Since I reviewed the short stories individually as I read them, I will just paste them here, and then add a full verdict down below. That seems the best way to do it to me.

Beneath the Black Thumb by David Guymer
Beneath the Black Thumb is another Age of Sigmar story that is almost completely dedicated to one single battle, with a tiny bit of plague-gardening in the first and last parts. The "Black Thumb" Copsys Bule's gardening efforts, stringing corpses up and digging the soil to spread Nurgle's rot, was a nice theme that I appreciated.

However, the battle felt disjointed, more confusing than it should have been.
At some point it is said that Bule's hordes numbered at around 100,000, with over half of them elsewhere at the time of battle. Still, even at 10,000 I'd have to wonder how losing a dozen of Blightkings here and there to meteorite magic would put any kind of dent into them.

Bule commanded the souls of a hundred thousand, and although more than half were scattered wide over the Corpse Marshes and beyond, what remained was a mighty host indeed.

Seeing how the Rotbringers were decimated during the battle with the Lizardmen (now called "Seraphon"), even though their numbers didn't seem to come even close to those of Bule's (their scout detachment of chameleonskinks numbed in the hundred, for example), made me shake my head as a result.
Not that I'd disagree that Lizardmen are mighty indeed - they are my favorite faction in WHFB and Blood Bowl, and got me into the hobby in the first place - but that was a bit much.
Adding to that the concept that the "Seraphon" now house starlight inside them (it is said to be shimmering between their scales, and breaking free upon death), I barely recognized my favorite faction. But then, the focus wasn't on them anyway.

But indeed, I would call this story "disjointed". There were many things not elaborated on that would have made me care more about the characters, but it also seemed unfocused and confusing. There were many hints and hooks pointing to more things possibly explored elsewhere, but for me those fell flat for the time being. Maybe future releases will clear things up.

On the positive side, I still think David has a solid grip on Skavendom. The characters here lacked the depth of characters like Queek and his rivals in the novel Headtaker, but they were amusing and readily apparent as skaven. Bule also felt like an intriguing character with a lot of potential, though the battle for his Realmgate distracted from more significant character development, and the closing of the story left me wondering.

At least this story had a certain amount of humor and atmosphere, which The Gates of Azyr lacked.
I would like to see Copsys Bule and his lieutenant Fistula back in another story. Hopefully that one won't be focusing as much on messy battlescenes, although that seems to be the core of every Age of Sigmar story I have flipped through so far. Battle for battle's sake, with negligible stakes and characters who feel powerful but not exactly relatable.

As it stands, I feel that Age of Sigmar, and the direction Games Workshop and Black Library are taking with it, doesn't play to their authors' strengths well, and indeed makes me think that they get hamstrung by the battle requirements when their talents lie in character development, dialogue and world building.

Eye of the Storm by Rob Sanders
Eye of the Storm is the first Age of Sigmar story I have finished to date that I would describe as good and enjoyable.
This is mostly due to the comparatively few and short battles in the short story, but also because it used them as a means to an end, rather than coming up with contrived reasons to get to the fighting. Featuring the Stormcast Eternals as targets to be slain did help, too, I admit.

Eye of the Storm tells of a Champion of Tzeentch, Zuvias, Prince of Embers, and his quest to be judged worthy by Archaon, Everchosen of Chaos, and join his ranks.
No, the being depicted on the cover of the book is not him, but the Many-Eyed, a servant of Archaon. Despite its incredibly creative name and very brief appearance at the start, it was intriguing. It seems to be a connecting factor in the Call of Archaon stories so far, which I like.

Getting back to Zuvias, our protagonist: I like him. He is treacherous, clever, twisted and has an actual silver tongue, a gift of his patron god. He proves that he knows to use it, too - by lying and cheating a Champion of Khorne (with a horde large enough to wipe the floor with him and his own retinue) into believing it is he who Archaon calls for to join him, rather than the Tzeentchian himself.
This leads to a curious chain of manipulations and half-truths, just how I've come to expect it from the followers of the Changer of Ways. The whole plot culminates in a confrontation between the followers of Chaos and Sigmar's Stormcasts, which would have been impossible to beat without the Khornates - delivering a direct payoff for the Prince of Embers' schemes.

Zuvias himself comes with a good look at his origin, and the root of his corruption. It comes in the form of the bird-like creature called Mallofax, who whispers Tzeentch's promises to the young prince's ears. Their dynamic throughout the story was a bit simple, especially taking into account that Mallofax showed no ill towards the Prince - something unusual for Tzeentch. Still, their relationship allowed for Zuvius to open up a little more by having a confidant outside of his warband of mutated knights and blind sorcerers.

The Khornates were... well, berserkers. Not too bright, easily manipulated despite their suspicions - you just don't turn down the Everchosen. Following a lie is far less risky than refusing Archaon's offers. The big bad, Skargan Fell-of-Heart (who was obviously a direct stand-in for the Exalted Deathbringer miniature), was enjoyable enough to read, despite his credulity.

The few battles in the short story were mostly brief (thankfully), although the final confrontation stretched a little longer. Still, it was handled well, and I found the length appropriate for its purpose and the story's pace. It did not detract from the story Sanders wanted to tell. He even explored the mortal realms in the Age of Sigmar setting a bit further, even though the world still feels barren and lifeless like the Chaos wastes in the Old World of WHFB.

Like with Beneath the Black Thumb's Copsys Bule, I would definitely like to see Orphaeo Zuvias and Mallofax in another story. They made for an entertaining read and showed that Rob Sanders does well with Chaos even if the protagonist isn't Archaon himself.
Although at the end of the day, I'd say that this is a story that did not really need Age of Sigmar to work. It could have been easily told as a Warhammer Fantasy story set in the Chaos wastes, with some minor adjustments and the exclusion of Stormcasts.

Either way, I enjoyed this read and would recommend it as one of the current top stories in this new franchise.

The Solace of Rage by Guy Haley
The Solace of Rage was a welcome surprise to me. I outwardly groaned about the repetitive use of Khorne characters in Age of Sigmar so far, but in the end, this was an... unusual tale about the bloody berserkers of the blood god. And I enjoyed it as a result.

In true Age of Sigmar fashion, this story has a high percentage of battle scenes. Unusually, it also features Khorne champions debating who should take up leadership of their tribe, after their previous warlord was slain in battle. When I say debating, I mean exactly that: Discussing, arguing with words, not blades. Well, they certainly do that, too, and plenty of it, but it feels much less mindless for the two rival Deathbringers than it usually does with anything related to the blood god.

The story continues the theme of having the Many-Eyed, servant of Archaon, searching the realms for worthy champions for his master. His gaze falls upon the Realm of Beasts and the spat between the deathbringers Mathror and Ushkar Mir, the two candidates for leadership which haven't already taken up a different position in the upper echelon of the Bloodslaves warband. Pretty much all the special character classes from the Khorne Bloodbound faction are in this story, with all their silly names - that's just the way it has to be now, I suppose.

Mathror and Mir are very different from one another. Where the former seems to be fighting for glory in Khorne's name, is ambitious and wears heavy plate armor, Mir, our protagonist, is a defiant, mute and blinded berserker wielding twin daemon axes. He hates what he has become, though he joined the Khornates willingly - for revenge against Khorne himself. The Chaos God struck him with muteness for his insolence, yet enjoys his defiance. It makes for an interesting character, and reflects Archaon himself in a way - a point that the Many-Eyed observer finds amusing himself.

The writing style feels somewhat top-down, like it is being told to the reader by a third party, describing monumental events, rather than making the reader an integral part of the action. The narrative voice is strong as a result, but people who prefer the more hands-on approach might need some getting used to it first. I personally enjoyed this style very much - especially since it reinforced the point of the Many-Eyed being our eyes on the events, rather than us being directly involved in the action. It fits the theme of the collection so far quite well.

The Many-Eyed himself received more attention and page time than in the previous two Call of Archaon stories so far, which I appreciate. David Guymer's Beneath the Black Thumb did very little with him, introducing him as a shadowy messenger, while Rob Sanders' Eye of the Storm gave him an identity. The Solace of Rage gives him a stronger purpose and the inklings of a character arc I am interested in following further.

True to form, the Many-Eyed also provides this third champion of Chaos with a challenge, not unlike Bule's or the Prince of Embers. This time it isn't Lizardmen/"Seraphon" or Stormcast Eternals, however. Instead we get to see our first slice of "Ogor" (Ogre) action in Age of Sigmar. There are some curious implications about the nature of the Great Maw, too, which I liked.

One point I was a little underwhelmed by was the Realm of Beasts. This, of course, has a lot to do with the way Age of Sigmar was designed. Unlike Haley's descriptions of the Realm of Metal, this one doesn't have too much going on yet. It is described as a realm of wide steppes, and while I liked the idea of the Bloodbloom Fields the story takes place on, and the initial setting of the stage had me wondering what could be done with this environment, the wider story didn't much interact with the world. Had this taken place in the Realm of Fire, it would have been quite the same regardless.

Overall, though, I'd very much like to recommend this as one of the top stories in the Age of Sigmar setting to date. It gave the usually-bland Khorne characters a great amount of depth and much-needed structure, while creating a compelling anti-hero in Ushkar Mir. There is a lot of promise in this character and his spokesman Skull, even though, yes, this was still a Khorne story at the core.

This story supposedly introduced the third and final of the champions the Call of Archaon series focuses on, and all in all, I like this trio of villains. Seeing that David Annandale's Knight of Corruption returns to Copsys Bule, I am confident that we will be seeing Ushkar Mir and Skull again soon. I welcome the reunion.

Knight of Corruption by David Annandale
Knight of Corruption takes the Call of Archaon series back to its first champion of Chaos: Plaguelord Copsys Bule. It leads on from shortly after David Guymer's Beneath the Black Thumb, so I'd suggest reading that first.

After escaping the Lizardmen/"Seraphon" through a Realmgate in the previous story, Bule and his warband arrive in an unknown realm (which I suspect to be the Realm of Life, as it is heavily corrupted by Nurgle).
Their lieutenant, Fistula, is unhappy about their flight from battle, yet Bule is convinced of a higher power calling for him.

Of course, we as the reader know that it is the Many-Eyed beckoning him through a cloud of flies, and issuing the Call of Archaon, but the plaguelord is oblivious to the true nature of it all. In this, he stands out from the other two champions in the series, who got rather clear ideas of who or what is expecting them.
In theory I quite like the different approach, yet somehow it also makes Bule appear a little bit... dense. I don't think that either of the two authors tackling his plotline is to fault for that, though - it just comes down to the contrast to the other two.
Thankfully, the Many-Eyed comments on this too, and even communicates with Archaon himself about it.

However, the true strength of this story is down to the featured human characters, although I was hoping for more of them than I got in the end. Through them, David Annandale got to introduce a very cool theme into the story: Faith, or rather the contrasting faiths in a savior god banishing the plagues of Nurgle, and Bule's own devotion to the Grandfather.

Now, religious themes and spirituality are a common theme in many, if not most of David's stories, whether it be for Black Library or others. His story in Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters, for example, features a giant monster inspired by the bible, for example. The Death of Antagonis meanwhile tackles of the subject of divine retribution in a different way, and his Yarrick: Imperial Creed again plays with themes of spirituality, organized religion and has Yarrick become the living symbol of the God-Emperor's will.
Seeing this theme continue in Knight of Corruption didn't feel like a surprise to me, then, but I welcomed it nonetheless.

The story itself is at its best and most enjoyable early on, up until about the halfway mark. Up until that point, it plays with these themes more strongly, and puts the Chaos warband in direct opposition of the normal humans. These free people have come together after the Stormcast Eternals had scoured parts of the region from the blight of Nurgle, and build a temple to them, believing them to be demigods.
Bule and co, meanwhile, think the men and women easy prey - which, in a direct confrontation, they clearly would be. Things aren't quite as simple, however, as they lock themselves into their temple and pour pure, unblighted water onto Bule and friends. This, again, makes for an interesting contrast between Nurgle's and Sigmar's blessings.

But, just in time, the Stormcasts themselves arrive to lend the humans a hand before they'd be overwhelmed by corruption. I say lending a hand, but actually, it felt more like they sidelined the other characters for more of the typical combat we already had in spades.
However, at least it was Bule's first encounter with the, up to that point, mythical beings he believed to be a mere fancy. Both sides call upon their patrons' blessings throughout the melee, too.

While Copsys Bule is prepared to fight to the death, the Call of Archaon resonates more strongly as the battle progresses, and beckons him towards his unknown destination: An innate Realmgate. Once again Bule quits the field, abandoning the better part of his warband in favor of a higher calling.

Overall, I enjoyed this entry to the series. It had some shortcomings, though mostly down to my own ever-growing boredom with Stormcast Eternals being everywhere, when a different faction would have been far more interesting to read about. Where the human faithful in this story offered creative, if ultimately futile ways of combating Nurgle's servants, the Stormcasts just feel generic at this point.

There is bound to be at least one more, possibly two stories that will be featuring Bule and Fistula, so I am curious where the character will be taken next, now that revelation finally appeared to him...

The Trial of the Chosen by Guy Haley
The Trial of the Chosen carries on the Call of Archaon plotline centered on Ushkar Mir and his quest to join Archaon's ranks. This storyline was started in The Solace of Rage, which I enjoyed for its unusual take on Khorne warbands. This story continues with a pretty neat roulette of trials for Mir, one for each of the gods of Chaos.

Haley has thought up clever trials for the champion, which reflect the specific gods' area of expertise and make sense for the Everchosen's lieutenants to go through. It forces them to step out of their patron god's shadow and embrace Chaos Undivided.

The battles here are relatively light, which is good in my opinion. They are best used when they serve a purpose beyond trying to hold the reader's attention in the absence of something substantial as far as plot and character developments go. Ironically, they tend to lose me that way. Here, every battle has a point and is part of the Bloodslaves' journey to Archaon.

I think this was the most enjoyable story so far, at least as far as the three champions' individual tests go. It did well all around without overdoing the things that make Age of Sigmar fiction a chore in a lot of cases.

In the Lands of the Blind by Rob Sanders
In the Lands of the Blind was a surprising letdown after Sanders' previous Zuvius story in Call of Archaon, Eye of the Storm. It consists almost entirely of battle scenes and carnage, with little of the devious, tzeentchian spirit that made the former tale great.

The combat is visceral and involves all manner of Chaos champions and warbands, as well as daemon-entities, but then it just drowns the story with its need for violence and death. There is little opportunity for Zuvius to shine, like he did with his deceptions in Eye.

The twist at the very end almost makes it worth putting up with, however. It is a grim end, utterly fitting of the Everchosen of Chaos and his servants. This short story needed more of that, and less of murder, kill, awesome.

Blood and Plague by David David Annandale
Blood and Plague is, once more, a battle-focused story. Almost the entire thing is set in an arena for the Everchosen's amusement, with two of the three champions from the rest of the series meeting in battle at last. Unlike the previous story, it actually has some decent character development for Copsys Bule and Ushkar Mir as well as their warbands.

For the first time, Archaon actually appears in front of one of the champions - and two at once.

‘Champions,’ Archaon said, ‘I welcome you to the Ossuar Arena. You have fought well. Now you are at the end of a journey. One will be found worthy to join my Varanguard. One.’ Archaon paused. His great horned helm tilted downward. He was gazing at the two warbands.
‘You will exact your own judgement,’ he said.

This raised the excitement quite high, as not only does it mean that either Mir or Bule would have to die, but also that their entire leftover warbands would need to be culled from potential rivals. Tensions from previous parts in their respective plotlines flare up, and both champions are forced to find suitable ways of disposing of their rivals, while also keeping up with the opposing force and wrenches thrown at them by the Everchosen and his servants.
The ways the champions achieved the purge were amusing and proved good thinking on their parts, and are some of the highlights of the story.

I didn't know who to expect winning this battle. I liked both characters, and they are markedly different types. Bule is more laid back and trusting in his patron god, whereas Mir hates Khorne with a passion and is using his position as a way of getting revenge at him. Their attitudes are both enjoyable, and I wanted to see both of them succeed in their ambitions. Mir would have seemed like a better fit for the Varanguard, however, as Copsys is a gardener at heart, while Mir's defiance of his god meshes well with Archaon's own refusal to bow to any one Chaos entity.

In the end, though, I was surprised and a little bit disappointed. The twist was good, but the outcome felt odd to me, especially after how In the Lands of the Blind turned out. In parts, I felt it a little too dismissive, too quick and stereotypical, while the final scene was very satisfying and unexpected.
Had it been up to me, I would have chosen all three champions for the Varanguard. They all contribute their own strengths to the mix, and seeing how many of them drop dead in the final story of Call of Archaon, the numbers might be needed.

See No Evil by Rob Sanders
See No Evil is the final story of the Call of Archaon series. I'd be lying if I was saying I wasn't glad about that - the constant battles pushing character development and interactions aside are wearisome to me. But hey, this is another big battle - who would have thought?

This story returns to Orphaeo Zuvius, the Prince of Embers. As per the end of Blood and Plague, both other champion-candidates are dead and SURPRISE! Archaon had picked Zuvius all along anyway. So Zuvius is now Varanguard, and joining his brothers in arms for his first big battle under the Everchosen.

The story starts out showing Archaon and the Many-Eyed Servantin conversation: Sigmar's Stormcast Eternals have taken Cape Desolation, and the big bad does not like that one bit. He musters his armies to take it back and send the golden boys home crying. Thankfully, this marks the first time in the series that Archaon himself is taking to the field, and it is about time that he does.

‘Send word to my warlords, my champions and the fell kings of the surrounding regions. Summon my unholy Varanguard. I shall lead the Knights of Ruin myself in a counter invasion. Those bastions shall be mine again. The God-King’s light shall be banished and his warriors shall flee for the skies. I want Sigmar to know that he will find no purchase in lands forever dedicated to the Chaos gods.’

Following on from that, the short story reintroduces the changed Zuvius and the company he is in. It is a diverse bunch from all aspects of Chaos, minus Skaven, and they are bound for the cape. Archaon is leading a fleet of dreadships, riding his steed Dhorgar (which looks hideous now, thanks to Age of Sigmar redesigns...), and spearheading the assault. This sparks a lot of excitement for his Varanguard, and Zuvius is eager to make a name for himself.

This early part is probably the coolest of the story. The crash-landing of the Varanguard's dreadship was awesome, and Zuvius really is showing off, with the rest of the group close behind. However, none of the characters beyond the Prince of Embers actually get much spotlight, and usually just to die. The death count of Archaon's elite seems to go through the roof here, which makes me even more disappointed that he didn't recruit all three candidates.

Which also brings me to my next complaint: With so many new, blank slate characters introduced to accompany Zuvius into battle, it would have been preferable to see the Mir and Bule with him instead. That way readers would have had more familiar characters and found a greater payoff, while allowing for more character interactions that Zuvius never had access to - his journey was entirely isolated from those of the other two.
As a result of the overarching plot, however, this story suffers from having a cast that, while reasonably large, is pretty unrelatable and irrelevant.

Another disappointment to me was that Archaon himself is only seen fighting in passing, and in the distance. There is no PoV section for him, and usually it comes down to Orphaeo admiring the Everchosen. It might be a good idea to keep Archaon more aloof and enigmatic, but it also made for a lackluster climax for a series/novel called Call of Archaon.

The Stormcast Eternals were business as usual, with some kickass scenes involving Zuvius and the leaders of the golden boys. However, at this point, that too is business as usual. To me, the Stormcasts need some serious updates to their lore and plot to excite again. Been there, done that, and the likes.

At the end of See No Evil, I saw a lot of flaws, some cool scenes, but a noticeable let-down. While the action was competent, I was hoping for more. I was hoping for a bigger audience with the Everchosen, to see him being tackled hands-on - he's on the cover of the print collection! Instead, it was yet another massive battle piece of epic proportions. It had variety, yes, but the overall finale felt like more of the same rather than something unique and impressive. A shame.

To Sum It All Up

The book suffers from many problems. One of them is that it wasn't written as a novel, or even a trilogy of novellas with a cherry on top.
The serialized format is a killer to pacing and balance I find, and CoA proves that. The incessant need to provide bombastic battles takes away from the quiet time you could set aside for a longer story, something that is needed to provide character growth and let the reader anticipate the next big development. Instead this quiet time is relegated to the first few pages of a story, if even that.

Battles drown out things that could have been, had it not been written piecemeal. While there are some parts that were pretty good and creative, as well as well delivered, the pacing seems nightmarish to me. I read the stories over the course of many months with breaks between most installments, but even then reading this 8 part story felt exhausting. Especially the final three parts seemed to be hitting me around the head with murder-kill-death scenes. Even the clever and interesting ideas the authors put into the mix seemed hamstrung by the format restrictions.

I have been observing similar with Black Library's other serializations, including Legends of the Dark Millennium: Space Wolves or the other Age of Sigmar series. As a proponent of the first stand-alone serialization BL did with Scars, I am honestly disappointed that it turned out this way. Scars wasn't afraid of giving the reader time to contemplate and to build up the plot and characters, but then again, that serialization was always intended to be read as one novel, not as individual "Quick Reads" you could dive into out of order. Issues also released on a weekly basis rather than once a month, if subscribers were lucky.

Another big problem I found with this book was the lack of Archaon for 95% of the whole thing. He appeared in passing to the Many-Eyed Servant, and in person in the final two parts, but it still felt like too little, too late. While we have been told about the Call of Archaon sounding to the champions, it was all the Many-Eyed Servant's doing, at Archaon's command. He himself didn't seem to lift the finger until the very end. He lacked presence, and I am afraid dominating the cover artwork won't make up for it.

On top of that, the Lord of the End Times felt diminished. Stereotypical Dark Lord material. He was so much more than that in Archaon: Everchosen, Archaon: Lord of Chaos and The Lord of the End Times. There was more to him than a dominating presence and flying a three-headed dragon-daemon thingy into battle and laughing about his subordinates slaughtering one another for his amusement. I was really disappointed that Rob Sanders of all people didn't give him more attention in the finale, seeing how much I loved his depiction of the character's origin story.

Call of Archaon isn't the worst Age of Sigmar book I have read. Not by a long shot. It is even great at times. But it is so bogged down by more or less generic battle scenes and format-specific problems, that I felt exhausted and bummed out after being done with it. It turns out that if you hear the Call of Archaon, you're better off picking up the WHFB novels about him than this collection.

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Review: Tallarn: Ironclad by John French
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The Battle of Tallarn grinds on to its climactic end, but what secret purpose drives the Iron Warriors to commit such mindless atrocities? The answer lies buried deep beneath the planet’s surface...

The battle for Tallarn rages between the traitor Iron Warriors and the Imperial Army. A carpet of armour covers the surface of the toxic planet: Dreadnoughts versus tanks versus Titans. But what secret purpose drives the Iron Warriors onwards to war?

This is the biggest armoured conflict in galactic history – there’s a million tanks! However, no one can leave the safety of their claustrophobic war machines for fear of melting into a toxic puddle. While this story supplies plenty of action, what brings the entire might of the Iron Warriors to battle is much more intriguing.
The book is advertised as being about the "biggest armoured conflict in galactic history", but when it comes down to it, it isn't that at all. I was hugely disappointed with this book. Be warned, this review contains a few SPOILERS!

The Story:
"The Battle of Tallarn grinds on to its climactic end, but what secret purpose drives the Iron Warriors to commit such mindless atrocities? The answer lies buried deep beneath the planet’s surface...

The battle for Tallarn rages between the traitor Iron Warriors and the Imperial Army. A carpet of armour covers the surface of the toxic planet: Dreadnoughts versus tanks versus Titans. But what secret purpose drives the Iron Warriors onwards to war?

This is the biggest armoured conflict in galactic history – there’s a million tanks! However, no one can leave the safety of their claustrophobic war machines for fear of melting into a toxic puddle. While this story supplies plenty of action, what brings the entire might of the Iron Warriors to battle is much more intriguing."


The Review:
After loving Tallarn: Executioner, I am thoroughly disappointed with Ironclad. The way it wrapped up is simply not enough.

Maybe it is down to the format, being a good 100+ pages shorter than the usual Horus Heresy novel, but there were so many things left open or forgotten, that I was left thinking "so this is all there is to Tallarn?" by the end of it. The big, decisive battles are only told of through interludes, which in general I enjoyed. Problem is, these are very short, and deliver a topdown view, with historical context, which, while I enjoyed these aspects, also isolate them from the rest of the story. This is especially obvious due to the minimal amount of crossover between interludes and main narrative.

Sure, the Battle of Khedive is going on towards the climax of the novel, but is only covered twice in interludes, which had no effect on the overall plot. It is said to be the decisive battle between loyalists and Iron Warriors, but we only see the opening bit, the chaos of arriving tanks, and at the very end the end result, "Imperium victor". That's it. And following the main chapter between, it doesn't seem like it was relevant at all. Perturabo isn't shown interacting with his forces on the ground. The loyalist characters from the main plot had no stake in Khedive.

Almost every single one of these interludes and the decisive battles and actions they describe only serve as a sideshow for the Iron Warriors' secret hunt for an old artifact Perturabo believes he needs to use as a weapon behind Horus' back, and a loyalist tank commander's obsession with finding out the real reason for Tallarn's destruction. Had these been two different stories, I don't think it would have mattered.

It is a shame, as the interludes hinted at some spectacular bits of warfare, which would be well-deserving of some closer looks via short stories.
To be frank, I very much enjoyed seeing the various pieces of Tallarn stories come together. From Executioner over Siren to Witness and even the audio dramas The Eagle' Talon and Iron Corpses, all of these contribute to the overall conflict and fleshing out some key events. In comparison, Ironclad feels disconnected from the rest, too concerned with its own conspiracy/counter-conspiracy shenanigans to pay attention to the surface war that was advertised as massive, featuring one million tanks or more.

What I enjoyed were the tank crew chapters. They weren't as good as in Executioner, but Kord and his peers were playing off one another and the situation reasonably well. I also liked Hrend the dreadnought Iron Warrior leading the search for Perturabo's artifact. His mental state and bodily condition, and the flashbacks to his "death" on Isstvan V, were well executed and provided a good character arc.

Disappointingly, the presence of Slaanesh daemons (which were even featured on the limited edition hardcover release's jacket) was basically nonexistent. There are some tiny glimpses at the very end, but people hoping for a big daemonic element to the story will be disappointed. While it does foreshadow the artifact's purpose and identity (as it featured long ago in an Imperial Guard Codex), it does very little for the story. And even being aware of what the thing does via said Codex, it isn't really explained just how Perturabo would use it as a weapon. If anything, recovering it in the first place seems to defeat the point.

On the other hand, the Alpha Legion's involvement is fairly ridiculous here. They are playing both sides, on the surface supporting the Iron Warriors while sabotaging their efforts. There are various implications tying them into the internal schism of the Alpha Legion, but even then, they're eating their own tail. I guess that is the point, in a way, but that also made their role frustrating to follow. Certain revelations around them also came out of the blue, like the Vanus assassin's sudden knowledge about an AL operative who had it out for her. A reveal just afterwards also felt like thrown in randomly.

The emissary of the warmaster plotline also had me wonder. There were many things that weren't explained, resulting in a lack of context in certain situations or conversations. It added more intrigue to the plot, something I feel was not required, and could have been handled way quicker, and wouldn't have needed to stretch through the whole short novel. To me, it took away more than it really added. Thankfully it ended with a big entrance from Horus, post-Molech, presumably, so at least there was some payoff.

Ironclad felt bogged down by conspiracies and intrigue and a constant desire to surprise the reader. A lot of twists were easy to anticipate, while others just seemed added to convolute the plot further. On the other side it almost forgot it was a novel about Tallarn, paying very little attention to the key events of the war. Large parts play in the loneliness of the surface deserts, with relatively minor engagements in the grand scheme of things.

It could have been so much more. Given the full, numbered HH novel treatment and a change of pacing and condensing of certain plotlines, instead connecting the events more closely to the war, it could have been the defining book about Tallarn. The way it is, however, there was more of the dead world's soul and character in Executioner than there is here.

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Review: Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan
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Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between men and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now, only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer, Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom, and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over; the time of rebellion has begun.
This series had me excited since it was announced, years ago. Back then, the titles and covers were still very much placeholders, but I still feel fond of the original title of the novel: Rhune. Having read the book now, the title is more fitting than ever, but certain concessions have to be made for the sake of clearer marketing, I guess. Either way, the novel met my expectations and I am looking forward to the coming years' releases.

The Story:
"Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between men and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now, only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer, Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom, and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over; the time of rebellion has begun."


The Review:
Age of Myth is a wonderful novel. I had long anticipated its release, and I was not disappointed by anything but the fact that there are five more novels in the series to go, most likely to be released annualy. While I love that this turned into six whole books while Sullivan was writing it (as he tends to finish a series before putting the first book out there), this means that it will likely take til 2020 for me to finish it. On the flipside, it also means a great summer read every year to come.

Stylistically, Age of Myth is a typical Sullivan novel. It is family friendly, avoiding grimdark slaughter killing for its own sake (though it is not afraid to depict killing and maiming if it serves the plot and characters!), it doesn't descend into vile language, and the characters are all easily relatable. There is also a sense of humor about the dialogue and exposition, many quotable scenes, and a good dose of hope even in the darkest hours of the story. Like with Riyria, both Revelations and Chronicles, it is easy to recommend this novel to fans of fantasy epics, and might even be a good choice for a young teen's first fantasy novel. It is approachable, endearing and something you can put down with a good feeling.

While the Legends of the First Empire series shares its setting with Riyria, it is set thousands of years earlier in the timeline. It sets out to tell us of the real events that led to the formation of the First Empire of Novron, since, while there were many hints and revelations spread out through the Riyria Revelations, history is written by the winners, and much is lost over the millennia. This series is going to set the record straight, and in doing so give a new perspective to old readers, while having no entry barriers for newcomers. It is a great recipe for a series like this, offering almost a blank slate for the author to build upon myths, and in turn avoiding heavy spoilers across series.

The story of Age of Myth primarily follows five characters: Raithe the "Godkiller", Malcolm the ex-slave, Persephone, the old village chief's wife, Suri, a young mystic whose friend is a wolf, Minna, and Fhrey magician Arion, tutor to the prince. While initially completely unrelated to one another, the four come together throughout the story and it is a marvel to see their relationships grow, both between them and with the other inhabitants of the Dahl Rhen village.

It all kicks off with Raithe and his father crossing the border into Fhrey territory, upsetting an elven noble. He slays Raithe's dad and in turn ends up getting knocked out by his slave, Malcolm, and consecutively killed by Raithe. This earns him the reputation as "Godkiller", but as word of his deed spreads and people start questioning the Fhrey's godly and immortal nature, the elves take vengeance on the tribes of men.
Young mystic Suri gets wind of impending doom for humanity, the Rhune, as the species is called by their elven overlords, and goes to warn Dahl Rhen's chieftain of it all. Persephone welcomes her, but has to take things into her own hands as with the death of her husband, leadership passes on to an incompetent and selfish fool. She ventures out with Suri to ask the ancient oak Magda (seen on the cover) for advice in preventing her people's extinction.
Beset by brigands, the two women are saved by Raithe and Malcolm, and thus the core group is formed.

Arion, meanwhile, is sent out by the Fane, ruler of the elves, to bring back the wayward Fhrey Nyphron, who has turned his back on his peers after his father was humiliated by the Fane in what should have been an honourable duel. Through her, we see the misconceptions of her people when it comes to the outside world and the Rhune in particular. She is a very sympathetic character who is hard to dislike, and values wisdom over raw power, which puts her into stark contrast with one of the book's antagonists, First Minister Gryndal.

Other characters join the cast as the story progresses, including a dangerous, man-eating bear, Nyphron's band of outlaws and Persephone's friends at home. The latter are very interesting to me, and will be instrumental in the following installments. The girl Roan, for example, is very shy and withdrawn due to past trauma, but also highly inventive and puts into context just how undeveloped the Rhune truly are, despite their familiar mannerisms. To give an example, she invents a pocket!

“A pock-et. That’s what I call it. You know, like a poke—a little sack? But this is a tiny one. So it’s a pocket. See?” Roan picked up a bit of string from her worktable and slipped it in. Then she let go, leaving it there as if she’d performed a magic trick. “Because it’s open on top, I can put stuff in and take it out with one hand, and it’s always with me.”

Then we have headstrong but alluring Moya, who is adored by almost everyone despite her sharp tongue. Brin, apprentice to Keeper of the Ways Maeve, also prefaces every chapter with a note on characters, environment, and the times they live in. Then there is the old hag Padera, who is snarky and full of life hacks. But I particularly liked poor Gifford the potter, who was born deformed and has a speech impediment. His relationship with Roan is touching in all the right ways, but also sad. The excerpt for book two, Age of Swords, which is added at the back as an extra, mainly concerns these two, making me very excited to see their characters grow in the future - for now, however, they were well-established and are some of my favorites from the book's side characters.

Surprisingly, Nyphron isn't as prominent in the novel as Riyria readers might expect. His role is established firmly, and he has many good scenes, but he is left ambiguous as well. I actually liked that. His time will come, but this book was primarily about Persephone and Suri, with Raithe close by and Malcolm as a strong support yet also left ambiguous in many ways.

From the list of characters I have given, you'll notice that the book is fairly heavy on female characters. While men are involved too, especially on chieftain Konniger's side of things or the Fhrey, I feel that the female cast is particularly strong and all encompassing, with virtues and vices included. Of course, Sullivan has a history of writing compelling, relatable and authentic women; Arista, Gwen, Thrace, Rose and co all spring to mind from Riyria. But here I feel he has crafted a tight-knit group of women who complement one another so well, special praise is in order.
In a way, you could even say that Age of Myth is an emancipation story, heralding a shift in societal norms, all without being preachy or devolving into self-righteousness or being judgemental.

Honestly, I was in love with this book from the start. Sullivan's prose is inviting as ever, marrying familiar tones with a great, unknown world full of new discoveries waiting for its inhabitants. It is a much more magical setting than the "present day" Riyria books present Elan as. There are many hints and ties between the two, which are fun to explore.

But the adventures of the characters here are very different from the outgoing nature of Riyria stories. Where every new novel saw Royce and Hadrian venture out to new locations and perform different tasks, Age of Myth is more concerned with the story of Dahl Rhen and its people, and constructing a fledgling society and putting its patrons and main gears into place. It is something I liked a lot about Graham McNeill's Legend of Sigmar trilogy; it took myths from millenia after the facts got lost, put them into context and explored the origins of what people in the present day take for granted. Age of Myth provides a new, fresh perspective with many original ideas in quite the same way.

Sullivan has a way with telling emotional, mature stories that still know to appeal to younger audiences as well. This book is no exception. It had me curse my Kindle's batteries on many occassions, especially while stuck at the airport for almost a day. Getting to hear the story narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds once again also helped; he truly is the voice of Sullivan's works, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
It is an addictive novel that I had to force myself to put down when my girlfriend got home. It made me smile and laugh and fear and fret. Its dark and grim moments were carefully balanced against the lighter tones and hope for the future, despite looming threats to all Rhune. I had to force myself to walk away from bookshelves on vacation and not to buy a hardcover copy right there and then; I was already pushing the weight limits on my luggage!

Age of Myth is a damn good book, and I am glad that all my excitement of the past few years since announcement paid off. It is one of 2016's greatest hits for sure.

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Review: The Iron Beast by Andy Remic
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A war is being waged in an impossible world.
The Skogsgra and the Naravelle have launched their final offensive, and Private Jones and his companions are caught in the melee.
Tens of thousands will die before the battle is over.
They travel deep underground, to find and release the Iron Beast... the one creature that can end not one world war, but two.
But at what cost . . . ?

The Iron Beast is the high-octane conclusion to Remic’s phenomenal Song For No Man’s Land trilogy.
This is the final book in the A Song for No Man's Land trilogy. I reviewed the others, and finished this one while on vacation in the US.

The Story:
"A war is being waged in an impossible world.
The Skogsgra and the Naravelle have launched their final offensive, and Private Jones and his companions are caught in the melee.
Tens of thousands will die before the battle is over.
They travel deep underground, to find and release the Iron Beast... the one creature that can end not one world war, but two.
But at what cost . . . ?

The Iron Beast is the high-octane conclusion to Remic’s phenomenal Song For No Man’s Land trilogy."


Disclaimer
I received an ARC for this book, like I did with the previous installment, Return of Souls. I originally picked up A Song for No Man's Land myself, so this was a great chance to get through the trilogy months ahead of time!

The Review:
The Iron Beast delivers the final piece in the A Song for No Man's Land trilogy, and offers answers to a lot of questions I had over the course of the previous two novellas. As I said in my previous reviews, I wasn't quite sure about this series. With this book wrapping it up, I feel more confident recommending it as a whole.

This one picks right back up from where Return of Souls left off. Robert Jones and Orana are on the way to her village, where they meet her family, most notably her father Jorian, who takes a prominent role in the rest of the book.

The Tommy quickly finds himself shunned by the villagers and Jorian, and is confronted with his own war-torn appearance. But the village is running out of time, and Jones has to go find the Stoneway to unleash the Iron Beast to end all wars, while Jorian and co are fending off the Naravelle offensive from their trenches.

Jones' journey quickly gets weird, utilizing more fantasy elements and combining both wars into one horror. Hints and prophecies from the first and second book come into play and start to make sense (sort of), with a climax that was both impressive and emotional.

Once again, I really enjoyed the trench warfare and the exploration of Jones' psyche. There was a chapter I mentioned in my review for Return of Souls, which was horrifying and traumatising, and said plotline got a proper follow-up here. This one was similarly traumatising if for different reasons - and I loved it. Likewise, Jones' confrontation with Jorian, which ends up rather badly for the soldier, and his situation within this new village, result in compelling diary entries.

Jones' experiences within the Stoneway, too, were compelling to read about. They provided a big contrast to the action back with Jorian and co, but one that I found satisfying and necessary. It added to the fantastical feeling of the series while making the reader contemplate the great wars in different terms. And by the end, it all came together nicely to provide a message that gives a certain sense of hope.

But then there are also some things and details that didn't quite add up for me. While most of my questions were answered, some new aspects were introduced that might have needed a little more fleshing out. Of course, leaving some mysteries unresolved can be interesting and necessary for a story to have more impact - and this happened here as well - but I still felt that clearer answers might have been nice in places. This includes, for example, the Walriders' fascination with and desire for Jones' eyes, and seeing through them, but also the Skogsgrå, who has been pulling strings ever since the start of the first book.

After all is said and done, The Iron Beast ends on a bittersweet note. Whether Remic will return to the setting again or not is to be seen, but if he does, there should be plenty of hooks to link into. But even without more content, A Song for No Man's Land feels complete and satisfying. There is some real payoff in this final installment that should satisfy everyone who got invested into Robert Jones' life over the past two books.

I don't regret my time with the trilogy. The psychological aspects alone made it worth diving into, and Remic's depictions of WW1 had the ideal tone. The Iron Beasts returns a bit of that feel via the Naravelle offensive, and I appreciated that.
Overall, I wasn't entirely keen on Orana, or rather how easily Jones fell for her. However, it is still plausible that he would, due to his situation being as screwed up as it is. It also felt more real in this final volume, so I don't begrudge it.

It won't be for everyone, but I was satisfied and "happy" with the book. If you enjoy dark, psychological military fantasy, this might be your cup of tea.

The Iron Beast on Goodreads
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