Friday, February 10, 2012

Marks of Chaos Review

Marks of Chaos is a print-on-demand book available from the Black Library. It's also the first Warhammer novel I bought online. It comprises of two novels, Mark of Heresy and Mark of Damnation, as well as two short stories, No Rest for the Wicked and A Night Too Long.

The sole reason for me buying this is because I have long admired the author, James Wallis, for his work in the games industry. I was a big fan of his old company's (Hogshead Publishing) output for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as well as some of the other games he put out.

The man can write innovative games, such as The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen - a game I can boast I have the Gentleman's Version (not the commoner's Wives and Servant's Edition). Sadly not all of his projects panned out - in the twilight times of Hogshead he was going to rewrite the original ending to the award winning Enemy Within campaign until a hard disc crash destroyed his draft and probably his will to start all over again (if only Dropbox was invented 15 years ago).

I have the original ending of Enemy Within - Empire in Flames and on paper it is a relatively good scenario. It's even got a fantastic mcguffin that I think players will enjoy, a fairly epic climax and epilogue that would satisfy any player characters that has slogged through the entire Enemy Within Campaign (and trust I only got as far as finishing running Shadows over Bogenhafen with some players who all-but-mutinied against the dark, dark plot.

Wallis stated his Empire in Chaos would be even better, and given Marks of Chaos I am willing to bet it would have been a really memorable climax. I'd also be glad I was the one sat behind the screen rather than playing as his novel puts the protagonist through the ringer and then some.

The story concerns Karl Hoche, a loyal lieutenant in the Imperial Army. Now at the start this sounds like bog-standard Warhammer but Karl very quickly finds some things are amiss in his unit and is unceremoniously parcelled off to Altdorf to report his findings to the regiment heads. It all goes south and Hoche ends up joining a secret branch of the Reiksguard called the Untersuchung (German for Analyse), a spy organisation that hunts Chaos within the Empire. It is the only way to stay safe from the regiment that want him dead to preserve their honour.

From this point on the novel shifts from the archetypical Warhammer fighty-fighty teen prose to a fairly tense spy-novel full of intrigue and nastiness. Hoche gets trained up in espionage and infiltration but realises pretty quickly that various factions within the Imperial forces are engaged in petty politicking against one another. For example the Witch Hunters view the Untersuchung as heretics. The Untersuchung view the Witch Hunters as unsubtle plods who would rather burn old ladies than do the legwork. Then there's the fact the Untersuchung is only part of the Imperial guard as a technicality, and that both they and the Witch Hunters have also been infiltrated by a group known as the Cloaked Brothers. This is a shadowy faction of ex-witch hunters content to observe Chaos and eventually defeat it by using that knowledge. So content they do not try to stop their plans.

This is also the same Warhammer as the Enemy Within campaign, so that means the upper echelons of Imperial society is compromised by Chaos cultists. The Powers that Be are just more likely to hinder or even actively kill our hero than help - either because they are cultists or because they are duped by their superiors who are cultists.

Plenty of cults abound in the book. The Purple Hand, a deep-cover cult and one of the main villains of the Enemy Within, make an appearance. So does the Ancient Order of Illuminated Readers in Marienburg, explaining what happened to them after James Wallis's (and plenty of other authors) own Marienburg-based Dying of the Light scenario. This was an order of readers who literally pulled their own tongues out to prove they would reveal the cult's secret lore, and since the Dying of the Light they have gone even further downhill into wickedness. There is also a new Khorne cult - the unsubtle Blood Chaos God - who Wallis nicely weaves into the narrative.

As I said this feels more like a spy novel than a wargame novel (not say there isn't a few scraps along the way). The closest I can think of his that Hoche is akin to 24's Jack Bauer, at least in the first season when Baeur was a human being and not an invincible action movie character. He's permanently relying on his wits first and is being hounded by both the supposed-good guys and the bad guys.

About 1/3 of the way through the book the plot kicks in. The Untersuchung is disbanded for heresy (a point some readers regret, although Hoche's mentor is never explicitly seen dead). Due to a botched mission and torture by a highly placed Chaos cultist he is left with a mutation and delivered to the Witch Hunters to be tortured. It is never quite clear how he gets the mutation, it seems to be a combination of tainted meat and a cultist's knife.

This is a point where the book really excels. In other Warhammer novels mutation is used as a McGuffin to give the hero superpowers like some sort of X-Man. Here it is shown in all its horrors - the gradual loss of humanity, the disfiguring of both the soul and the body. Hoche's mutation is rarely a blessing, but often a curse. Over the course of the novels Hoche's physical corruption manifests in more and more overt ways while he tries to stay mentally pure and set himself the task of destroying as much Chaos as he can before he inevitably succumbs to its lure. There is no possibility of redemption, no reprieve and no magic McGuffin that will save him. Only damnation waits, and living each day to fight Chaos is a victory in itself.

The conclusion of the book sees Hoche eventually track down the true followers of Chaos and thwarts their plans, leaving himself branded a mutant and a traitor (which in the roleplaying game is usually a sign you did the scenario successfully). There are sufficient followers of Chaos in the Imperial faction to ensure he is blamed for their botched plan and he leaves alone to hunt down Chaos wherever he finds it.

The second book revolves around the Storm of Chaos event, a big metaplot for the Warhammer tabletop wargame. Sigmar is reborn as a man and the forces of good must find him before the Chaos cults do. These good guys have formed a holy crusade, led by a Sigmarite priest called Luthor Huss, and have been denounced by their church's authorities as heretics. Hoche falls in with the renegades as they search for Sigmar, all the while being unable to show his true nature to anyone. He ends up as a leader of the Crusade and is instrumental as a background player in location the reincarnated god and getting him past the Chaos cultists who have insinuated themselves in the Imperial court to the Emperor.

After an amusing and bloody scene with an enemy Imperial steam tank Hoche is left alone by Huss and Valten, the reincarnated Sigmar, on the gates of the Imperial Palace. He has walked into the stronghold of his enemies and must face the Witch Hunters the Chaos cultists have sent after him.

The book ends with Hoche triumphant however. He thwarts their efforts to kill him again, even proving to some of the good guys that he is truly a good man still in a strange world where the leaders of Order are actually the servants of Chaos, and a mutant is the hero.

It's a relatively deep and horrifying pair of books, following Hoche's descent and struggle for humanity. Other characters join him but ultimately Hoche is alone. This does lead to some excellent set-pieces, whether its interrogating a witch hunter on the privy at crossbow point or commandeering a steam tank to get Sigmar Incarnate through the compromised Imperial forces.

Sadly the "Wallis Unfinished Series Curse" hit again as it did Empire in Chaos. It’s a testament that the books are called "The Chaos Hunter" series but it is only mid-way through the second book Hoche earns that epithet. The author was unable to commit to writing more books in the series, originally planning 4 books but life forced him to leave it at two. The third and fourth books would have seen Hoche sacrifice his life nobly to remove the cancerous cultists at the heart of the Empire in the town of Middenheim, only to be succeeded by one of his followers as the Chaos Hunter. (Snark: Which is better than him sticking around for 12+ novels with a death wish and becoming superhuman, unlike some other Warhammer books).

Given the retconning of the Storm of Chaos (current Warhammer Fantasy Battle presents it as only one possible future for the Warhammer world) I am uncertain as to whether Hoche's tale will ever continue in any form, though without Wallis perhaps that is just and fair. A different author might lose the feel of the novels.

Overall this is an excellent buy. The two short stories are more of a buddy-cop show involving two Palisade members (seemingly Secret Service operatives) investigating shenanigans in Altdorf. Fun stuff, but the novels are the real highlight of this omnibus and can be gotten in 2nd hand bins still.

The only criticisms I have is that sometimes the plot is a bit too smart, sometimes characters (including the hero) can be a bit stupid or razor sharp - but this reflects how I find myself sometimes. There is a little cliché, such as the rabidly fanatical witch hunters who are either corrupt or cannot find corruption when it stares them in the face but are willing to hound the innocent. Thankfully there is a counter-example to this in the second book, but here the witch hunters don't come off well.

C.L. Werner, whose excellent Warhammer Witch Hunter books I will discuss another day once argued the Cloaked Brothers in particular seem unnecessary and somewhat tacked-on. It's worth noting that Wallis admits he was building up to doing something conclusive with them that would have been seen in books 3 and 4. I would argue they drive the entire plot in the first book and are a mirror to Hoche in some ways - people who see Chaos everywhere in its wickedness yet coldly do nothing, while Hoche becomes a folk hero for attacking Chaos wherever he finds it without thought for self-preservation. Which is because the man has nothing to lose in dying.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Hammers of Ulric: Why It Sucks!

This book was dreadful. Simply dreadful.

Which is a shame as one of my favourite areas in Warhammer is the City of the White Wolf, the closest thing to Minas Tirith in the Empire. It was originally the focus of a Warhammer supplement by veteran designer Carl Sargent as well as the setting of an excellent adventure, Power Behind the Throne - the last canon entry in the Enemy Within campaign. Much like Marienburg a lot of the city's stories should write themselves.

Enter the authors, Dan Abnett, his wife and James Wallis, author of the excellent Marks of Chaos series and the reason that I read this 'book'. One of my friends exclaimed surprise that I hated it as she is a fan of Dan Abnett's 2000 AD material.

I got this book in an anthology of "Dan Abnett Warhammer Fantasy Novels". Abnett is one of the more prolific Warhammer 40,000 book authors - which I assume his 2000 AD experience translates better into. I was however a bit put out - these novels are all co-written with author people who do not appear on the cover. Seems a bit shocking to me.

The book consists of short-stories that were originally in Games Workshop's fiction magazine. Later on the stories are shoe-horned into an overall arc-story that is supposed to tie all the threads together.

The first story relates to the titular Knights of the White Wolves. In the foreward they are described by Abnett as "proto-space marines" and it really shows in their lack of personalities. I could just as easily describe the cast of a cliched war movie or Charlie Sheen's Hot Shots - there's the gambler, the Porthos-like drunk, the fresh-faced new recruit, the veteran traumatised by a failed mission and can't kill anymore but like Miguel Ferrier in Hot Shots will be cheerfully slaughtering enemies by the end of the first story thanks to the new recruit, the commander on his first mission.

I can summarise the plot of the first story - the knights lost their last sortie against some beastmen. Their colours were taken and their leader was slain. Now they ride off and kill the beastmen with only a few minor casualties - one of whom had it coming anyroads. End of story. No real twists. The descriptive prose doesn't hang particularly well in my opinion but it is a very short story.

The highlight of this novel is the second and fifth stories by James Wallis. They involve a priest of Morr who investigates crimes and prefers to use his brain and underworld connections rather than his muscle. These sections are well-worth reading and really are the saving grace of the novels. There are some twists, I didn't see them coming - you might though, but the overall descriptive prose drips with atmosphere.

Needless to say when the death priest character is later parcelled off to Abnett's main narrative he is borrowing knives from the Wolves and charging a horde of cultists.

The third story involves a kid who is naturally invisible, and a thief he befriends. All is sweetness and light as the thief gets the kid to steal for him and pay his qutoa to the Underkings (thieves' guild). Eventually they do a job to rob a cult that nearly get them both killed, with the kid sacrificing himself to let the thief get away to safety, as he was the kid's only real friend. Awww.

This doesn't seem very Warhammery to me and it is not explained why the kid goes unseen by most people. I would assume it is a mutation of some sort but the story doesn't bother to explain this. Sadly that's not the only thing relating to this kid that is not explained...

Story Four sees the Knights of the White Wolf dealing with the evacuation of a manor and some ghosts. Some of the dead knights are replaced with new knights, but for the most part they're all interchangable. This story also introduces my least favourite character in the story, Lenya the milk maid, who becomes a love interest for one of the new knights.

Story Six, curiously starting hours before the end of story four, is the story of the milk maid. Having arrived in Middenheim she starts looking for her long-lost brother. Pretty much the entire cast of the novel, the Knights of the Wolf, the death priest and even the thief from story 3 all bend over backwards to help her, despite the fact she acts like a bitch to the knights, and the thief has no real motivation for trying to help her.

As she drags various characters through Middenheim I spent the story going, "The brother will turn out to have been the invisible kid."

Guess what the twist was? Lucky she met the one guy in the massive city who knew him. This also make little sense - Lenya knows her brother has this 'gift', that people don't notice him and really it should make looking for a man no-one can remember a futile effort.

Story Seven is I suspect the beginning of the chapters written to make this into a novel. The knights of yawn go and fight an undead beastie that has half-inched every organisation in Middenheim's sacred items. The story ends with the beastie being knocked flying by a warhammer and flying off, vowing vengeance...

which it gets in Story 9, getting a new body.

A but let's not forget Story 8! The milkmaid sends her knight-lover and his buddy to rough up and capture the thief who saw her brother die. That's it really. It ends with him being understandibly pissed off with them.

Story 10 is the exciting conclusion. Well the conclusion.

The undead liche from Story 7, with his cult (from story 3) have cursed the city. Plague runs rife, a war with Bretonnia looms and people are going mad and murdering each other. The knights of the wolf investigate - getting the entire cast together. The thief even returns to help, despite again having no motivation to do so, leading the knights and death priest to where the kid died - the Cult's Headquarters. They fight through traps and encounter the cult, described as "hundreds of worshippers down there, robed, kneeling, wailing out a turgid prayer".

They also have a dragon tucked away there. Yes really!

So what do our heroes, a mere 15 or so knights and a death priest do? Sneak? Come up with a plan? Nope - they charge. And win with only minor (i.e. unnamed characters only die) casualties. The Grim and Perilous world of Warhammer eh! Everyone faces off with the liche, who can even explain all the unresolved plot-threads in the novel and even tries to tie together all the earlier magazine stories.

Meanwhile milk-maid and an injured knight decide the others are in danger so they ride across the city, pausing only at the Sacred Flame of Ulric (the central holy site mentioned exactly once in the book, back in story 1) to set his warhammer on fire. They then ride across town, finding the cult HQ (which remember the thief had to lead them to), getting through all the traps just in time to stand up to the liche. Milk-maid Mary Sue takes the flaming warhammer off her knight-escort and kills it with a well-aimed throw. Incidentally how goes is a two-handed warhammer as a thrown weapon? In this book it seems to act like a boomerang.

Not to be outdone in illogic and cliche, thief-boy inexplicably gains the kid from story 3's invisibility power and uses it to find the weakspot in the dragon, killing it and earning his spurs as a knight. The story ends with a Twilight-situation between the urban-milkmaid and her two paramours - the thief she had roughed up and the knight she's treated like crap all the way through the later parts of the novel.

Overall this novel is cliched, boring and heavily reliant on ridiculous combat situations where our heroes always seem to emerge unscathed. Logic is left out in the cold, while deus-ex-machina is the order of the day.