The Gates of Azyr by Chris Wraight. The first Warhammer Age of Sigmar novella, originally published by the Black Library, July 2015. Approx. 90 pages.
I had come to pillory The Gates of Azyr.
For every perceived transgression committed by Games Workshop with their Age of Sigmar release against my inner child, I was prepared to show the world that there was no way that this gimmicky nonsense would translate into good fiction.
In short, I was ready to hate The Gates of Azyr.
I cannot say I was right. I also cannot say I was wrong.
The Gates of Azyr is a decently written novella with a paper-thin premise. Chris Wraight has always been a solid author, so I wasn't expecting total rubbish. It's just that in the end, he was handed a square wheel and tasked with making it roll. Let's take a look at what we have here.
First things first. I am not writing up a primer on this ridiculous Warhammer: Edgy Reboot. All you need to know can be told to you in a much better and more eloquent fashion than I would be able to convey by the nice folks at 1d4chan.
In short, Nagash, the AntiSigmar, rose up and everything got End Timesed. At the last moment, Sigmar himself plucks the worthiest warriors from the hellish near-apocalypse, bringing them to his celestial realm. Everybody else is.....wait for it......
Warhammer: Age of Rapture begins.
Sigmar has a plan though: he will rebuild these warriors. He will armor them in gold and cobalt overkill. He will give them all mighty warhammers and convenient comet fire to shoot from their palms. Behold! The Reforged!!!!
And I shall render their visages in my own glorious image!
So, anyway, the time has come for the Reforged to Retake the charred remains of the world, now renamed Aqshy, because don't even get me started, from the blood saturated minions of Khorne. And so, the forces of Sigmar teleport from Asgard, and ride the Bifrost Bridge down to Earth (I'm not typing Aqshy again in my life).
It's just...ugh, nevermind.
Alright, now that I've had a few paragraphs and puerile images to sate my dissatisfaction with the Age of Sigmar concept, let's look at the actual novella.
Everything I said already, plus due to a need for even more convenient/illogical gimmicks, the Gate of Azyr (which is the portal needed to reenter the sundered world) needs to be hit with magic from both sides in order to open. So, a smaller force of Reforged are teleported worldside in order to hold the line against the obligatory pre-massed horde of Khornites (named the Goretide, proving that 'excess' and 'cornball' are two words never introduced to Games Workshop employees), while some of their comrades "magic the Gate".
With this in place, the book essentially becomes a battle report. I mean, let's be honest: this book isn't meant to introduce us to the literary possibilities of the Age of Sigmar setting, it is really just a tie-in novel to the box set, like Island of Blood or Dark Vengeance were for their respective sets (a bit of advice; if you aren't familiar with how the units and such look, take a gander at the set itself. Trust me, all the units are in the novella). Reserving yourself to that fact, and lowering your expectations in turn, will heighten your appreciation for what it is. Again, Wraight is a solid author, who writes vivid, bold scenarios. So let's look bit by bit at what he put together.
Like I said, Wraight writes in colorful strokes. The world is a dismal, sundered landscape. Everything is saturated in red, the water is poisonous, vegetation in desiccated, ominous lightning crackles perennially overhead, etc. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And Wraight portrays it all well. So, good marks here.
What characters? Anyway. This here is the crux of the problem. Warhammer Fantasy allowed for characters to live and thrive. Even when there was the constant threat of war and evil, there was civilization, industry, etc. And thus, characters are born. Here, everything is about the mission. The Khornites are thoroughly evil. Wraight is wise enough to put any humor in the book into the conversations between the Goretide executives. There is some fun banter.
The Reforged, on the other hand, are as dry as burnt toast. Our leader, Vandus, is understandably focused solely on his duty (another potential hamstring to future works featuring the Reforged: Space Marines of Future Past). To compensate, Wraight inserts scenes where Vandus' "previous life" hiccups some distant memories. It's pretty silly and generic, but something needed to be introduced to let the audience form an emotional bond with him. The rest of Sigmar's army, forget it. There is the Chaplain type who grunts out cryptic observations. He is also known as the Cryptborn. There is the leader of the sky units, I mean the Skyhost. The limit of his characterization is that his heart soars as he does. And that's it.
There are also some arbitrary humans scurrying about. They are standard post-apocalyptic types; there is a tough, grizzled female leader, a whiner/worrier, and some others. They offer little overall contribution other than ushering the bad guys towards where the action will take place. Once the hammers and axes start swinging (from about a third into the story until five pages from the end), these apocalypse urchins literally lay down to take a nap.
I want to say this category is a home run. The mechanics of the fighting is portrayed very well. However, Wraight is again hamstrung by the materials. There are only so many ways you can talk about killing people with warhammers before careening ass over appetite into redundancy (he swung the warhammer in a wider arc, his warhammer scythed out, etc.). Any time a Reforged starts prepping for a comet-fire hadouken, the tendency is to groan, not become excited. Again, subject matter, not writing skill.
What I do have a problem with is some of the in-battle dialogue. Most of the time, it is harmless, standard growls, taunts, threats, and rallying cries. There was just one moment where Vandus made a declaration to a leader of the Goretide and basically told him "If you leave now, you will live to see another day. If you stay, you will surely die." Hold the phone, the entirety of your being transported from another goddamn realm is to purge these creatures from the scorched earth! Why are you giving options to daemon-spawn????
Not much. There's some obvious padding. More than a few times we here the same thematic elements of how this is the start of the true battle, and how for the Khornites they had gotten bored living for a few thousand years off of refugee scraps, and their zest is now renewed. It gets tiresome, but given the world setting, what does Wraight really have to use to evoke emotion from the reader?
In the end, it has been a lot of fun ribbing this novella. Hubris may eventually sink Games Workshop, and Age of Sigmar seems an accommodating iceberg. Then again, I am known as a perennial pessimist.
Pictured: Your humble blogger.
But I don't want to come off like I am insulting Chris Wraight as an author. Again, to stress the merits of this novella, the very distinct world concept is portrayed very well. There is a lot of action, and it is written in an exciting manner. The villains are very enjoyable. And we all know that a fun psychopath can more than compensate for a white bread hero.
Here's what it is:
The Gates of Azyr is a bit better than you would expect for a box set tie-in novella. The premise is paper thin, the action is non-stop. The fact that the good guys are pretty much devoid of emotion promises to be a hurdle for future authors and stories, but hey, I can still enjoy a yearly viewing of March of the Wooden Soldiers, so there is always hope, right?
Wraight obviously does the best that he can with what he has to work with. I am not saying he is absolved of any blame associated with the final product, but he did take some garbage ingredients and serve up a palatable dish.
A snippet of the box set art for the Age of Sigmar set (although if you buy the set, you get a spiffy little hardback). I can't really deduct points for it not jiving with my personal aesthetics; the composition, artwork, and color saturation are all strong. Wise choice to crop it to showcase the duel between Vandus and Khul.
Cover Final Score: