Wednesday, October 15, 2014

RETRO REVIEW: The Claws of Chaos by Gav Thorpe

Today I decided to do my first retro review, basically a review of an older book or game. I first read The Claws of Chaos when the last book in the trilogy was released in 2004 and on a second read through it still holds up as one of my favorite Warhammer Fantasy novels and one of Gav Thorpe's best works to date.

When I first read this I was mostly into 40k with very little interest in the Fantasy side of things, it just seemed dull and generic to me. I believe I had tried to read a Fantasy novel or two already but couldn't make it all the way through. Then, for some reason, I picked up this book and I was instantly hooked. I finished the whole trilogy as fast as I could. What really drew me into it was the small, personal way it approaches the Warhammer world. There are no large, over the top battle scenes and inclusions of random units just for the sake of inclusion. This story follows Kurt Lietzig and his slow, torturous, and completely believable fall to Chaos.

The novel is set several hundred years in the past, during a particularly tumultuous period of the Empire's history when the throne was unoccupied and power was up for grab. We are introduced to Kurt and his love Ursala who scrape by a living in a small town. He is a knight in the Osterknacht, the Elector Count of Ostermark's personal bodyguard. Despite this he is a lowly knight, without much standing or money. Ursala is a deeply devout Sigmarite in a time when the cult of Sigmar was at a low and is also a vagabond who was unable to find a home until she met Kurt. These two characters and their relationship are at the center of the story and it all sinks or floats with them. Luckily they are completely believable and you really are torn as he slowly starts to fall to Chaos. The saddest part of the whole affair is that he really, truly believes that everything he is doing is to save Ursala. 

Early on Kurt is called away to war to help Kislev fight against the encroaching hordes of Chaos. This gives us our one somewhat large battle scene, but it is mainly used to show us Kurt's initial horror at the ruinous powers and to introduce us to the character of Jakob. Jakob, who initially portray's himself as a Kislevite, is actually a Norscan, who has been exiled from his homeland and ends up as a squire to one of Kurt's fellow knights. When Kurt discovers that a witch hunter named Marius Van Diesl, the same one who burned his family at the stake when he was a child, is heading towards his town, he deserts his post to rush home to save his love. Along for the ride is Jakob, who senses the touch of the gods in Kurt, and a ticket home for him if he can corrupt him to Chaos. Kurt believes that Marius he finally found him and plans to take revenge by harming his love, but little does our he know that the witch hunter is actually heading to his town to track down an unrelated Skaven infestation and, in fact, ends up coming to Ursala's defense when the small minded townsfolk accuse her of being a witch.

The rest of the novel sees Kurt make bad decision after bad decision as he tries to save Ursala and salvage their relationship. On the run from Marius and his companion Ruprecht, you are genuinely drawn into the struggle of the couple and the conniving Jakob. The climax is both small and personal while at the same time it manages to ramp up the action and Chaos aspect of things. It really end on a great note and makes you want to jump right into the second book. If you can't tell, I think the best part of this novel are the characters. With no large set piece battles to eat up time, each character is really given time to develop and you connect with all of them, even Jakob. Another element I really enjoyed was how low-fantasy this was. There's magic and fantastical creatures included, but it's all kept to a minimum and approached in a near mythical manner. Most humans in this time period never encounter anything supernatural and don't believe in it until they see it. Having read the rest of the series I know that it eventually gets to a very high-fantasy setting, but it does it in a subtle way as the characters are immersed in it more due to circumstances. It never feels forced and only grows as the gods become more involved. 

I really love this series. It approaches Fantasy in a way you often don't see; through a small, central group of characters that is built around a tragic love story. This alone separates it from the majority of what Black Library offers and I would recommend it to all fans of Warhammer Fantasy. It's also a great entry point to people who aren't as familiar with the universe, since it approaches it in a more grounded manner and slowly builds up to the craziness we know and love. 

It may be old, but it's still available as an eBook for $11.99 or you can buy the whole trilogy in a real, paper book (my preference) for $29.95, which is the cheaper option if you want all three books. 

On to the second book...

Final Score - 5/5

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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