As my gaming interests have turned more towards Warhammer Fantasy than Warhammer 40k, my reading has followed suit. Worry not, dear reader, I haven’t lost my love of the 40k universe, it’s just that I need some inspiration in order to face having to paint the 130 figures in my new Empire army…
Enter Chris Wraight’s latest book, Sword of Justice. Ironically, the excerpt of his writing that peaked my interest is from a book of his that I’ve yet to read, but this one was the book I picked up. First off, a quick note on the cover art, which I found really atmospheric: it’s a great visual representation of the character and speaks volumes about who he is. Honourable mention must also go to Schwarzhelm’s beard, which any Dwarf–hell, any three Dwarfs–would be proud of and which, I’m almost certain, could comfortably house a badger.
This is the first volume of a set entitled Warhammer Heroes that covers, no surprises here, the stories of well known personalities of the Warhammer fantasy world. In this case we take a very close look at none other than Ludwig Schwarzhelm, the Emperor’s Champion. The novel, the first of a duology, tells the tale of Schwarzhelm’s mission to oversee the selection of Averland’s Elector Count amidst the scheming of both potential candidates and the actions of other ne’er do wells.
This novel is, at its heart, a character study of Schwarzhelm; however, I did not really warm to him as a character until around halfway through the book. For this reason the book sometimes felt a little slow to get started character-wise. I was therefore grateful for the other members of Wraight’s cast, who were quicker to worm their way into my sympathies. But slow as I felt Schwarzhelm’s development to be, when he did finally grab me, he didn’t let go. While he proves to be a very single-minded person, a trait I find troubling (perhaps explaining my early dislike), there is a subtlety to his character that took me a while to grasp. I suspect that more will be revealed to me in a second reading.
What is interesting about Wraight’s choices in this novel is that he has set his title protagonist a task that is alien to his nature. Schwarzhelm is first and foremost a warrior of the highest order, a leader of men without peer. This is made clear in the opening chapters, where we get to see him in his element, fighting the enemies of the Empire. The battle scenes at the beginning are gripping and contain none of those oh-so-annoying references to the game that inspires them. The scene built by the author leaves a clear picture in the mind as to the situation, and the swing of each sword and halberd is made quite visceral, as are the conditions in which the soldiers have to fight.
It’s after this character defining set-up that Schwarzhelm is set the task of overseeing the succession in Averland, from where he originally hails, by the Emperor Karl Franz. That he is set a task of law and diplomacy in the face of his rather more obvious strengths is a really great premise and one that over the course of the book really allows us to get into Schwarzhelm’s head.
It is also in this early stage that we’re introduced to another great character in the book, Verstohlen. His role is kept shrouded in mystery early on, so I’m not going to spoil it, but I have to say the revelation of his role and purpose was quite anticlimactic, though this is remedied as the character’s background is slowly revealed. In the first half of the book he is a far more sympathetic character than Schwarzhelm. This changed for me as the story progressed.
Special mention must also be made of Wraight’s ability to paint a word picture of the Old World and the Empire in particular. It’s not often I’m left with the feeling that I can really see what life is like in any sci-fi or fantasy book, but here the world really makes the leap from page to mind.
There are many other characters of note throughout the book, each of them with a personal story that stands out. They range from Bloch, recruited from the aftermath of the opening battle; to the two very different candidates for the position of Elector Count; to the significant appearance of Kurt Helborg, Grandmarshal of the Reiksguard, whose rivalry with Schwarzhelm is a central theme. The story twists and turns through them all, though at times I found myself somewhat confused by a twist.
However, dear reader, don’t fret, for in the closing chapters of the book, the author goes from the merely gifted to the genius category. I don’t want to give anything away, but the twists and turns I mentioned earlier pale into insignificance in the face of the final revelations. That isn’t genius in itself; what’s genius is how his closing chapter opens out all the subtleties and nuances of the whole book, revealing to me the meanings behind all the minor niggles that had been building in my mind as the story progressed. Suddenly all becomes clear, and the enormity and scope of his story really took my breath away. All the little foreshadowing clues I’d picked up on subliminally throughout the book stood up and took a bow, and Schwarzhelm’s true strength of character was tutting me for my haste in judging him. A remarkable reading experience.
All in all I highly recommend this book to anyone with a taste for darker fantasy, whether a Warhammer fan or not. I really thought I couldn’t be surprised by fantasy books anymore. I was wrong.
I eagerly await the next in the series!