Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Gates Of Azyr

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.

World Building:
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????

Other Issues:
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?

For Sigmaaaaaaar!!!!!!

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.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

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:


Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Enigma Of Flesh

The Enigma of Flesh by  C.L. Werner. An Adeptus Mechanicus short story, originally published by The Black Library, May 2015. Approx. 31 pages.

Continuing along with the recent batch of Adeptus Mechanicus fiction releases, today we look at The Enigma of Flesh, an offering by veteran Black Library scribe C.L. Werner. Werner, as we all know, is perhaps the most influential Warhammer Fantasy author, but his 40K outings have all been solid.

Enigma focuses on the Kastelan robots. A few points first; unlike the recent Skitarii-centered stories (Skitarius, Vanguard, The Zheng Cypher), the Kastelans fall under the purview of the Cult Mechanicus. Also, the Kastelans are not mechanically-augmented units; they are actual robots, which need to be controlled (or moderated), by a nearby datasmith. Yeah, the logistics don't necessarily add up, but common sense only flies so far in the Imperium of Man, plus, they can unleash holy hell on enemies. Now, one subject that will inevitably arise when discussing Kastelans is their design. Being constructs of the 30K era still in use in the 40K canon, the Kastelans boast a sort of "future-retro" design. Some love it, some hate it, either way the end result looks like the bastard offspring of Robby the Robot and a Cobra Viper.

An infinitely better love story than Twilight.

The setup of Enigma is fairly standard, a fitting template for a short story. Captain Marhault of the Cadian 32nd's Fifth Company is desperately trying to hold the planet Thain against an endless horde of Tyranids. As the story opens, a ship carrying much needed reinforcements is arriving.

Suffice to say, this being the 40K universe, nothing is as cut and dry or benevolent as it seems. These reinforcements are in fact two of the aforementioned Kastelan robots, and, as alway, the Adeptus Mechanicus has their own agenda. Also, as always, it doesn't take into consideration the worries of the average foot soldier.

The Enigma of Flesh benefits from a strong foundation. Each brick laid in making is well placed. Werner has paid attention to all the details; local topography, and how it factors into troop dispositions and defensive positions. As far as the combatants on both sides; both the Kastelans and the Tyranids are rendered well. What I particularly enjoyed were not just the descriptions of all the players, but the focus on the fierce weaponry employed by the Kastelans, and the brutal havoc they play upon the chitinous 'nid swarms. This is a very smart move; since even in the hands of the best scribes, 'nid stories can get a tad redundant. There's only so much to say about them, they are horrors to behold and they move in huge swarms. But colorful details of them getting blasted to gooey bits, always a plus. And whether or not you are a fan of the Kastelan design, it is a lot of fun to see them going on destructive romps like Sanda and Gaira.

The few characters we get in Enigma are well-realized. Marhault is a good human lead; a tough Cadain veteran with genuine concern for his charges. Datasmith Livia gives a slightly human face to the Tech Priests of Mars, while the coldly practical Magos Procrustes embodies their philosophy entirely.

It is intriguing to see these varying mindsets clashing, since each carries a weight of legitimacy in their respective logic. As the battle plays out, Werner shows us that it proceeds very much like a chess game; and while Marhault is nobly, yet possibly foolishly, trying to save his pawns, Procrustes has not for a moment forgotten what the true goal of the game is.

As much as I liked the set-up and the battle scenes, my favorite part of Enigma occurs towards the end. Shifting away from the battlefield, we get a lesson in the validity of the story's title, set against a backdrop reminiscent of a 50's movie mad scientist laboratory.

It is no coincidence that the primary industrial value of Thain is the export of grox-dung; in the Imperium of Man, a cake of dung is pretty much a man's net worth.

Here's what it is:
The Enigma of Flesh is better than it had any right to be. Using a standard story template and focusing on some of the goofier looking recent models from Games Workshop, Werner built a strong foundation and gave it life with well-rounded characters and blistering action. And personally, I love it when the book's title has a profound resonance with the tone and moral of the story.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I'm guessing this pic comes from the Cult Mechanicus Codex, no? It's not a bad pic; it just makes the Kastelans look like an infantry unit. There's nothing wrong with them recycling an existing pic for a short story cover, but I think they could've found one that "sells the robot" better in terms of menace or potency.

Cover Final Score: