Wednesday, December 10, 2014

RETRO REVIEW: The Heart of Chaos by Gav Thorpe

Apparently all I remembered from the first time I read this book was the final battle. I had in my mind that this was just a big action scene, but there's so much more to it. Both Kurt and Ursala embark upon their own personal odysseys that eventually bring them back together in the highly entertaining conclusion to the Slaves to Darkness trilogy.

The book opens pretty much right where we left off in The Blades of Chaos, with Ursala pursuing a campaign of genocide against the coastal towns of the Norse. Make no mistake, this is truly a genocide. While her intentions may once have been pure, Ursala is now hell bent on killing any Norse she encounters as part of her vengeance against Kurt. Her army has gone along the entire coast burning any villages they find and slaughtering everyone, man, woman, and child. Even Ruprecht, her ever loyal companion starts to see her righteousness slowly morph into something darker.

As they rested near their most recent conquest, a large Norse force finally catches up with them and forces them into their first real high stakes battle. During the conflict, Ursala learns from a champion she defeats that Kurt is still alive, and in fact, the leader of the Norse. The Empire is victorious, but just barely. With their supplies largely exhausted, they are forced to call it quits and head back home for the winter, much to Ursala's dismay.

Upon arriving back in Marienburg, the trio of Ursala, Ruprecht, and Johannes - a knight who is infatuated with the maiden of sigmar - are forced to flee the forces of the count who now wants his sword, Ulfshard, back. As the group flees the city they decide to head to Talabheim on a boat. While on their way there Ursala is granted a vision. She knows Kurt is going to be leading the horde down South and takes it upon herself to personally stop him. The vision takes them to Wolfenburg, the capital of the Ostland. This point the story shifts gears a bit and becomes more about court politics as Ursala tries to trick the Count into aiding her. It's a nice break from what we normally see with Warhammer novels. You really start to become a little afraid of her as you see her manipulate everyone around her to get what she wants. You really get the feeling that she could care less about anyone elses' lives, or even the fate of the Empire. All she wants is vengeance against Kurt. Of course she doesn't believe that, she thinks everything she is doing is for the good of her people.

While all of this is going on in the South, Kurt is still reeling from the death of his wife and child. He is determined to make the Empire pay and take Ursala's head as his prize. Even though he is mighty, now known as the Sutenvulf, or Southern Wolf, he knows that it will be a difficult task to unite enough of the disparate tribes to his cause. At the urging of Jakob, Kurt and a few of his closest friends and most loyal warriors head North, seeking the Gate of the Gods and the favor of the Chaos gods themselves. This was one of my favorite parts of the book as what they encounter becomes stranger and stranger the farther North they go. Along the way they befriend a Chaos Spawn, encounter a blood thirsty group of Khornate warriors, and we even learn a little more about the cultures of the tribes who live so close to the touch of the gods. Again, this is part of what makes this whole trilogy so great to me. Everyone in it is presented as a fully formed person who is part of a realistic culture. The warriors of Chaos don't just live off the good will of their gods and the blood of their enemies, no, they hunt the great Elk who roam the frozen tundras of the North. It's just little touches like this that bring the story to life. This is world building at it's best.

Of course all normality ceases as soon as they cross the threshold over the Realm of Chaos. From this point on, everything becomes a mix of Salvador Dali, Lovecraft, and John Blanche, and it's absolutely brilliant. It's almost a little sad when these warriors we have been following throughout the whole trilogy start to mutate and warp. They see it as a blessing of course, but to me it was almost as if the characters we knew were dying, and new ones taking their place. Your whole perspective of the world begins to shift when the blessing of the gods is upon you. For example, Jakob, who had been cowardly and self serving previously, now is more of a vessel for the god's will, acting as Kurt's herald. It's a logical progression for his character given the circumstances, but still a little sad. They will never be human again.

Kurt himself goes on an even stranger journey as the gods pluck him from his companions and give him a spirit quest of sorts. The whole episode seemed reminiscent of a peyote induced hallucination. It was very fitting for the other-worldliness of Chaos and revealed a few very interesting things about Kurt and his past.

Without giving too much away about the rest of the story, I think it's safe to tell you that Kurt and Ursala do eventually meet again on the field of battle. The final battle is suitably epic and has plenty of smaller character moments scattered throughout. It's a hard thing to balance, but Gav does it perfectly. It feels both grand and sweeping while also being close and personal. When you think about the body count left in the wake of these two lovers' quest for vengeance, then their story is even more tragic. Entire peoples and nations crumbled due to the betrayal of love between these two.

The whole trilogy is great and a truly gripping story about the fate of these two and the intricate games the Dark Gods play. At the end of it all you'll be asking yourself who was really the pawn of Chaos, Kurt or Ursala? The Heart of Chaos was a truly epic send off to the series and I want to say it's my favorite of the three. It's really hard to pick though, they are all so good.

Just like its predecessors, it may be older, 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.

Final Score - 5/5

This trilogy is one of the best sets of books from Black Library, in my opinion. It's a unique take on the Warhammer Fantasy world, approaching it more as a real world and less as a Fantasy setting. The love angle is also something we don't see often and it's handled just as dark and tragically as you would expect from Warhammer. I highly recommend that you read the entire trilogy, you won't be disappointed. I'm really tempted to bring the Sutenvulf to the table as a model now.

Slaves to Darkness trilogy Final Score - 5/5

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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