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.

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