I've got to admit I was a little hesitant about reading this book. Although it is written by Chris Wraight, who I consider one of the better Black Library authors, a Warhammer story about two of the Empire's champions just didn’t grab me. It has been languishing on the 'to read' pile for some time now and has been overlooked in favour of Pariah and Heresy novels. Now its time has come and I regret taking this long to get round to it.
Another boon from Dagmire from the 40K Overlords, Swords of the Emperor is made up of two separate novels, Sword of Justice and Sword of Vengeance. Added to this are a couple of short stories each of which focuses on one of the books main protagonists, Ludwig Schwarzhelm and Kurt Helborg. Balancing action, intrigue and believe it or not politics whilst still keeping things interesting is no mean feat, but Wraight manages it. The novels directly follow each other, forming a cohesive whole story ambitiously epic in its scope.
This tale starts innocuously enough, Ludwig Schwarzhelm, freshly victorious from campaign, is sent by Emperor Karl Franz to deal with an electoral dispute in far off Averland. Struggling with the inane politics involved in the task, Schwarzhelm nonetheless discovers that not all is as it seems in the city of Averheim, a hidden canker within leading to devastating consequences. The second story deals with Schwarzhelm's quest for redemption as events escalate to the point where the fate of the entire Empire rests in the balance.
I felt the characters in this book were very well written. It is refreshing to read a story where the main character has such obvious and fundamental flaws. Schwarzhelm's rivalry with Helborg is portrayed in a very realistic and understandable way and his frustration at being saddled with his new role is palpable. There is also a fine cast of supporting figures, all of which are well characterised even if they do feature somewhat sporadically as the books focus shifts to encompass the various plot threads. As mentioned, the scope of the story is quite epic but the viewpoint is close. There are details and Wraight pays close attention to all aspects of the tale refusing to gloss over any of the narrative. The result is a book that feels quite dense and real. Wraight's writing style is easy enough to read although it certainly isn’t pulpy in the slightest. In fact the story and writing is handled in a refreshingly adult way and not dumbed down at any stage, Wraight handling the subject matter with more élan than many of his contemporaries. I couldn’t describe the book as unputdownable however (mainly because that's not a real adjective) as the pace of the narrative does dip somewhat, now and again
All in all, probably the greatest praise I can bestow upon Swords of the Emperor, however, is that just for a moment it made me want to get an Empire army. Wraight's vivid descriptions of battle sequences painted a heroic and gritty picture that I found myself craving in miniature form. Without resorting to any outlandish silliness (no monsters or Steam tanks) it falls to the rank and file and knights to carry the day and the action is so real you can almost feel it.
At the very least serving as a reminder to me not to judge a book by its cover, Swords of the Emperor is an excellent and intelligent read. The main story is compelling and the short stories have their own charm, one of which was one of my favourite entries in the Hammer and Bolter best of. Regardless of whether you are a fan of the Empire or not, this book comes highly recommended.