Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sword Of Justice

Sword of Justice by Chris Wraight. A Warhammer Heroes book (and Book One of the Swords of the Emperor Duology. Originally published June, 2010. Approx. 414 pages.

Being as though I am slightly ahead of schedule on the Black Company books, I decided to go digging in the old Rubbermaid tubs for some reading that has been on the back burner for way too long. Sword of Justice seemed a good choice. Generally good reviews online, penned by a solid author (Wraight), and it has a pretty epic cover. So let's see how the first book in this duology pans out.

Sword of Justice focuses on one of Warhammer Fantasy's greatest heroes indeed, the Emperor's Champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. He, along with Grand Marshal Kurt Helborg are the greatest warriors of Emperor Karl Franz (they also possess the mightiest facial hair, with Schwarzhelm sporting a beard that could make Santa Claus weep tears of envy and Helborg touting a moustache that Rollie Fingers would deify). They each wield an iconic blade of the Empire; Schwarzhelm the Sword of Justice, and Helborg the Sword of Vengeance. They are contemporaries, allies, and brothers. And, due to their distinctly different personalities, they are at times bitter rivals. Helborg is more the idolized celebrity; while Schwarzhelm is all dour efficiency. He is truly akin to a living sword; a powerful symbol, sharp within the confines of his trade, ready to mete out the Emperor's justice. But, more stately affairs elude him. And the crux of Sword of Justice lies in Schwarzhelm becoming embroiled in political affairs that are clearly out of the range of his expertise. But more on that in a bit.

I really need to start from the beginning, especially with a book like this. Sword of Justice opens with one of the best battle scenes ever to be read in a Warhammer Fantasy novel. And by opening battle scene, I mean three straight chapters of brutal Empire vs. Chaos Beastmen action. Wraight really excels during these brutal action sequences, although to be honest, I preferred Robert Earl's physical descriptions of beastmen in Broken Honour. This rousing opener introduces us to Schwarzhelm, some of our later supporting cast, and shows a bit why the Emperor's Champion is a bit leery of the Reiksmarshal. Again, even if you do not read this entire book, you should treat yourself to this great battle scene. 

After the cleansing of the beastman horde, Franz dispatches Schwarzhelm south to Averheim (the Champion's birth land) to oversee and pass the Empire's judgement regarding the electing of a new count. The whole affair has gotten rather ugly, as the side with the claim of blood lineage is offering a weak candidate, an effete aristocrat married to a mysterious woman. On the other side is a popular figure of no royal blood, who is backed by one of the richest families in the region (which itself has extremely slight bloodties to the throne). This latter candidate also has the coveted backing of the trade guilds. But, there is more. Always, there is more. Reports are pouring in of a massing ork army in the east. Also, there is the issue of a burgeoning drug epidemic in the area. Plus, something is not right in the air. Something that cannot be directly quantified, but still definitely wrong.

This, of course, is not the mission that Schwarzhelm would prefer. He would be much more content to pursue the rumors of massing greenskins than pore throughout lineage claims. But he does as he is directed, and as he goes to sort through the petitions, he dispatches a force to address the orks.

Things do not go any smoother once the focus shifts to Averheim. While it was to be expected that both sides would try to subvert the judgement process, the two factions push it to some pretty harsh extremes. Someone is blocking news of the force in the east; and paid mobs of the two claimants riot in the streets. Plus, the narcotics distribution has gotten out of hand. Also, there is the growing, festering evil, coursing through the undercurrent of it all.....

Sword of Justice has a lot of things going for it. First of all is the action, and there is a lot of it. You get large battles with beastmen, orks, servants of Chaos, and even the forces of man dueling it out. 

The characters in the story are a mixed bag. There is only so much that can be done with Schwarzhelm due to the established parameters of his personality. Therefore, we are given the character of Verstohlen, a spy/counselor who handles all of the "finesse" aspects of the Champion's duties. It is Verstohlen who emerges as the most fleshed out and likable character. We are also introduced to Bloch, a halbardier captain who Schwarzhelm sees promise in an takes into his force. He is a gritty, dirty fighter, salt of the earth leader, and provides the smart ass remarks that are necessary in darker works like this. After that, some other characters get a cursory treatment; we get a brief saunter through Helborg's head (very welcome), and then there are the remaining roles filled by trope players; thuggish thugs and bookish intellectuals. It all makes for a smooth ride. There are characters who you can from a mile away aren't to be trusted, and there are some whose deceit does come out of left field.

And deceit is one thing that is in plentiful supply in Sword of Justice. I was honestly expecting a few sneaky twists and turns, with a swift resolution at the end. That's not what happens here. Wraight ups the ante, and creates an unholy quagmire in Averheim. There are points where you seriously doubt whether or not any of this can be rectified. It is to Wraight's credit that this becomes more than what it appears on paper.

I will put this out here, not as an actual complaint, but just to let you know: this is most assuredly a "Part 1" book. There are a slew of unresolved threads at the end of this book that you will not get any closure on until reading Sword of Vengeance. This might seem pretty obvious, knowing that this is a duology, but remember that when Sword of Justice came out, it was not billed as such; it was just the first Warhammer Heroes entry. So, if you don't like cliffhangers, you might be a little let down by the end of this book.

And that's it in a nutshell. Any issues are in the fact that the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (though still compelling enough to carry the narrative), and the cliffhanger ending (although the quality of the writing will hook you in for the second entry).

On the plus side, you get great action and a lot of it. Like previously noted, Wraight brings a broad selection from the Warhammer beastiary into play here; and he writes for each of them well. The best ones; Chaos "pets" (kind of like evil marionettes) are truly frightening and showcase some very tense moments.

Another good thing, I would fully endorse Sword of Justice as a good "entry point" to the world of Warhammer Fantasy. Wraight does a good job in introducing many aspects of the worldscape, and the workings of the Empire in a way that is informative for new readers while not being redundant to long time readers. Recommended.

Here's what it is:
The first shot in a promising duology has equal parts bone crunching action and shady political dealings. A shade darker than your average fantasy yarn, with high stakes and some despairing moments. It could have been tied up a little more neatly so as to be complete, yet open-ended. Still, very enjoyable.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I unabashedly love this cover. It is a cover that sells a book (although this book is sold on its own merits). Unwavering, unflappable. A true icon of the Emperor. A perfect representation of Schwarzhelm.

Cover Final Score: 


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