Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Warhammer End Times book review: The Fall of Altdorf by Chris Wraight

So after a fairly substantial disappointment in The Return of Nagash, I was rather hoping that things would improve with The Fall of Altdorf, penned by Chris Wright. The omens were good, like a twin tailed comet arcing across the Old World sky. Wraight is one of my favourite authors having disappointed me only a few times, and this book deals with a pretty major event that hopefully will be paid its dues. Less Vampiric meanderings and more actual events of consequence please!. It is also probably worth mentioning that unlike Nagash I have not read all of the End Times Glottkin book so will be approaching this novel from a reasonably fresh perspective, at least when it comes to the climax. One of my main reasons for picking these books up was from struggling with the format of the End Times campaign books and I was interested to see what I would get from this novel. 

Straight away things are extremely promising. The book starts with a major battle, and we are introduced to familiar characters, reassured immediately and in comfortable surroundings. Unfortunately this battle goes very badly for the Empire as heroes are laid low and the army is sundered and the remaining forces fall back to Altdorf to prepare the defnces for the final onslaught. Starting the book in such a dramatic fashion promotes interest from the reader. You want to read on to find out what happens. Without spoiling anything, multiple plot threads are also laid down at this point that will have serious repercussions later throughout the narrative. Straight away you are involved and in the thick of the story.

And this sense of involvement is carried on throughout the novel, leading to the reader’s attention never wavering, overall I found this a FAR more engaging read than the first book. Quite a few characters are deftly introduced and juggled with the perspective changing from protagonist to antagonist adeptly and smoothly. It must be said though that the sections from the view of the Glottkin are just a procession to Altdorf, adding little in character development or plot but plenty in action. However this works as a nice counterpoint to the more sedate (well relatively) pace of events back in the Imperial Capital.

And it is Hellborg who takes centre stage here as he tries to organize the cities meager defenses in the Emperor's absence. Those that have read Wraight’s superb Swords of the Emperor (review here) will be very familiar with this character as it featured both Hellborg and Schwarzhelm. Fall of Altdorf has the focus solely on Kurt this time as Ludwig Schwarzhelm looks to head North to find out more about the REAL chaos horde descending from the wastes. Between winning over the various Electors and dealing with the new Supreme Patriarch (unlike the campaign book there is no real mention of Balthasar Gelt’s fate), a likable if crude Amber Wizard named Martak. As they each fulfill their duties (there is a sub plot where Martak tries to get Hellborg to investigate the sewers of Altdorf for infected taint before resigning to fate and leaving on another equally important task) the inexorable march (pustulent crawl) of the Glottkin horde brings the invading army ever closer to the walls of Altdorf, the drama being maintained by the sections telling of the minor cities they grind to a pulp in their wake.

There is another element to the story and this is one of the few links to the previous book (there is practically no mention of Nagash in this book) Vlad, resurrected by the Great Necromancer, has a very unusual mission. To ally with the forces of the Empire. Be they living (preferable) or dead. In order to combat the all conquering forces from the Chaos wastes all the remaining forces of the Old World will need to stand together, they will just need to stand together under Nagashes banner. Vlad for his part wants electorship of Sylvannia and to be recognized and also to find out what has happened to his beloved wife Elizabeth. As you can imagine, his approach doesn’t go down all that well.

Wraight, for his part juggles these different elements of the story with much élan, proving to be quite masterful in handling multiple narratives as he has been in the past. However The Fall of Altdorf is far from perfect, the book feels a little hurried. Lip service is paid to certain aspects of the story and there are bits that are not as impactful or as grand as they should be giving what should be a major event in the Old World rather a low key feel. A lot of this is given the truncated nature of the narrative and once again a lack of exposition, although the book does better in that regard than its predecessor. The lack of a solid link to the previous book also hurts it somewhat and I would go as far to say you could skip The Return of Nagash entirely (not a terrible idea to be honest).

One thing that I have read about the book is a certain amount of disgruntlement with the ‘ease’ that the Empire is overcome by the Chaos forces. I can’t really agree with this, it is made quite obvious from the very start that the forces of the Empire are not at their best. A canker works at them from within and the cities are effectively laid low before the first blows are even made. The weakness is rife throughout the troops and many are described as unable to stand or hold their weapons, food and water supplies are poisoned and the Reik is described as a sludge. The very life of the Empire is being choked from within and it should be no surprise that the valiant defenders can muster little resistance.

Of course the end of the book is where things really heat up as once again in a mirror of the opening chapters the stakes are raised and once again the brave and bold are laid low. The very ending of the book does feel a little Duex ex machina though it avoids becoming ludicrous. Overall it is a satisfying climax and although much is left shattered you get the sense it is not the end, it is a shame then that the narrative is almost certainly not to be continued in the next book in the series The Curse of Khaine by Gav Thorpe.

So overall a much better book than The Return of Nagash. With a more tightly focused narrative and more competent wielding of multiple points and pacing it is both an easier and more satisfying read. The book does feel somewhat underplayed and lightweight and I would have appreciated more of an insight in general as to the wider state of the Empire but enough is imparted within the pages to give the reader a sense of the direness of the situation. The book does feel isolated, likely connected to both its predecessor and successor in only the most flimsy of ways. Knowing that the whole of the end times is only 5 books you can understand why but it would still be nice to have made a little more out of it (there are accompanying character novels but I feel it is an Old Worldwide perspective that is needed). As an accompaniment to Glottkin, the second End Times campaign book it seems to function quite well. On the whole it is recommended. Fans of Swords of the Emperor in particular will find much to enjoy….

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