Saturday, November 23, 2013

Broken Honour

Broken Honour by Robert Earl. A Warhammer Fantasy book, originally published by The Black Library, February 2011. Approx. 416 pages.

Robert Earl's Broken Honour is another one of those books that has been winking at me from the "To Read" pile (now an estimated half-mile high) for close to three years. It is the type of fantasy work that usually appeals the most to me; a tale of rank and file infantry versus seemingly insurmountable odds. Now, I had never read any of Earl's work before (I actually had not heard of him until the Florin & Lorenzo omnibus was released), but Honour garnered mostly positive reviews, including a glowing one from none other than Graeme Flory.

So, taking this into consideration, and adding a badass cover, and neat a premise (a company comprised of former prisoners vs. a horde of beastmen) into the mix, we have the makings of a great read. Does Earl deliver? The answer is a near-emphatic yes.

Trouble is quickly closing in on the city of Hergig. Vast numbers of beastmen, in all shapes and forms, have eluded the efforts of Hochland's annual cull by employing such foreign behavior as strategy and tactics. Every able-bodied man is already wielding a weapon under the baron's banner, and still, the outlook is grave. Enter Free Captain Erikson, late of Praag, late of Reikland. Knowing the need for troops, and the profit to be had in the business that is war, he sets off for Hergig with a pouch full of gold to raise a regiment and secure a commission.

But as already mentioned, anyone that can stand upright and wield a weapon at the same time is already doing so; therefore, Erikson's only choice is to fill his ranks with the city's leftovers: the 'guests' of the Hergig gaol. So, rounding up roughly 160 "soldiers" from this pool, Erikson forms the "Gentleman's Free Company of Hergig", and the festivities commence.

The narrative of Broken Honour focuses mainly on the Free Company (naturally), with some time devoted to the supporting cast. To its credit, there are also portions focusing on the beastmen, and their leader, Gulkroth. Gulkroth is a particularly nasty specimen (and considering these are beastmen, that is pretty bad), a formerly shifty and sneaky character who is "touched" by a local herdstone and achieves a godly level. It is he, in this enlightened and enhanced form, that consolidates the various herds and integrates the techniques that they bring to bear.

Earl's writing style, I can only imagine, may not be for everyone. When he writes for the human characters, he injects a lot of humor into his prose. Playful jibes, sarcasm, these are the norm. There is little to no character development to be had here. These characters are absolute stock characters; and would be immediately recognizable onscreen. Don't get me wrong, he used stock character tropes, but made them engaging and likable. My point is, if you are looking for poignant character studies, look elsewhere. Case in point, there is precious little insight offered as to what motivated Erikson to form his army. It's just put forward that he has been a lifelong soldier and mercenary and now he has decided to be a troop commander.

Earl's writing for the beastmen is quite superb; he has immersed himself into what the psychology of these bovine bastards of Chaos might be.

One field in which Earl more than excels is in writing battle scenes. The actions committed to paper are neither extravagant nor sparse. He understands the anatomy of the monsters he is writing about, understands which movements are fluid, and which are ungainly. He utilizes a rich vocabulary to flesh them out (I have never seen another author write about beastmen and use the word "dewlaps". Kudos, Robert). Empire soldiers fight with precision, the freed prisoners fight with the desperation of street-fighters.

Other than that, there are few surprises to be had here. Very few of the Free Company are even given names (less than 10), the rest are pared down via redshirting. The Company is sent on various "certain death" missions, which you know that through grit and guile they will make it through, because, well, there attendance in the final brouhaha is obligatory.

This is all fine though, since, as already mentioned, there is a fine cast keeping things lively. Erikson and the few Company members that get fleshed out are good protagonists, and you enjoy rooting for them. There is the "cool aloof character" in Freimann, the morally-ambiguous leader of the guerrilla longrifle troop. Throughout the book there is a subplot featuring a cowardly officer in the baron's employ whose relationship to a company member causes the suicide missions they find themselves deployed on.

There are only two more minor quibbles to be had here, and one is a tad spoiler-y, so read on at your own risk. The first problem is that one character arc goes largely unresolved. Understandably, this may be because the book leaves itself open for a sequel, even though it ends well as a standalone (very craftily done, in a way that shows that events are ultimately cyclical). The other problem, and is just in one scene, is that...

SPOILER: In the final battle, when the baron is fighting Gulkroth, the Free Company members get a free swipe when his back is turned. In that moment they inflict "half a dozen" wounds on him. Then, the baron gets a swing with his runefang sword, which, Earl writes, is the only type of weapon that can do any real damage to him, adding that normal swords or spears would just break against his hide. But, on the same page, the Company just did damage against him with ordinary weapons. Not to be petty, but that is quite the contradictory WTF moment to transpire over the course of a page.

Back to our regularly scheduled review.

I know it seems that a lot of nit-picking is going on here, but that is not the case. I am only listing a handful of objections. The rest of the book is 400 pages of well-paced, action-packed, cleverly written fun. It would be great if a sequel novel would present itself. Maybe Honour was intended to be a series, hence its release as a standalone and not as an entry in the "Empire Armies" series. Either way, grab a copy if you can. It is one of the few Black Library out of print titles that doesn't cost a small fortune in the secondary market, or you can opt for the ebook version, available directly at the Black Library website. Highly recommended.

Here's what it is:
An excellent Warhammer Fantasy standalone title that focuses on the lowly infantryman. The first book I have read that features Chaos Beastmen as the main antagonists. A fast-paced read with well-rendered battle scenes, and clever dialogue.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Pretty nice cover indeed. I am not too crazy about the title font, but the gold background color scheme works well, especially when paired with the red of the pistolier's garb. This soldier serves as a fine avatar for the grimdark mood of Warhammer Fantasy, square-jawed, rough around the edges, and death dealing pistol firmly in hand.

Cover Final Score:


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