Wednesday, February 17, 2016

REVIEW: The Call of Archaon

The fourth book in the Realmgate Wars series is the first to tell its story from a differing viewpoint instead of the Stormcast. We get to delve into the twisted psyches of the followers of Chaos as they vie for the honor of joining Archaon's Varanguard in eight serperate short stories following three main champions written by four different authors!

In my review I go over each short story on its own and then give an overall score for the book at the end. I do have to warn about SPOILERS though, since it's pretty much impossible to talk about any of the short stories near the end of the book without giving away details from the endings of previous ones. You have been warned!

Beneath the Black Thumb - David Guymer

The first story in the book focuses on a champion of Nurgle, Copsys Bule. He seems to be high in his god's favor, but somewhat complacent since he has done so well. We get some really nice dialogue here between him and a representative from Clan Pestilins of the Skaven. The skaven is there to try and get Bule's help in fighting the "Lightning Men," or the Stormcast as we know them. Besides their interactions we also get some really nice (in the Nurgley sense of the word) descriptions of Bule's garden. This is his crowning achievement, and from what's described, it sounds to be pretty mammoth in size. What constitutes a garden of Nurgle? Well rotting corpses of course. It's suitably disgusting and perfect. We are also introduced to Bule's number two warrior Fistula, who is very hungry for power and seems to be just as competent as his leader.

They invite the Skaven to stay for a feast because Bule senses something momentous is going to happen. At the feast a portal rips open and out pours the Seraphon. Some really great battle scenes ensue, and I particularly like the skaven's perspective on the whole thing. They seem to have some sort of racial memory and our main skaven protagonist keeps having flashbacks to the jungles of Lustria. It's a nice little nod to the old Warhammer and helps put this new setting and conflict in context.

Overall this is a very well written story with great world building going on and engaging fight scenes. The one thing that holds the story back is that it's the first in the book. Even though it's a collection of short stories they all intertwine, and in fact, features the same characters throughout as they build to their conclusion. It's more like a single novel written by committee. Beneath the Black Thumb is suitably entertaining though and if you like Nurgle, skaven, or the Seraphon (lizardmen) then I would highly recommend it. In fact, I think it might be the only fiction with Seraphon in it so far.

Final Score - 4/5

Eye of the Storm - Rob Sanders

The second story introduces to the next champion of Chaos. This one, Orpheo Zuvius, is a follower of Tzeentch and has a pretty interesting backstory. He started life as the prince of a city that came under siege from Chaos. Eventually he became corrupted by promised power and help in his own city's downfall. As he watched his city burn he saw the sign of the Everchosen and knew he was destined for greatness, and now he is searching out his destiny. His retinue consists of a bunch of knights that used to be loyal to his family who are now literally twisted by Chaos, and a gaggle of blind sorcerers he has bound to his will. In this story we are also introduced to one of Archaon's Gaunt Summoners, who are watching all of these various champions to try and direct them towards the right path. He acts as more of an observer and narrator and doesn't actually interact with them at all. We will see more of him later though.

The main meat of this story revolves around Zuvias stumbling across a tribe of Khorne Bloodbound by accident and having to trick them into not killing him. Of course the only way he can do that is to play to their leader's hubris and try and convince him that Archaon has actually chosen him and Zuvias is merely here to guide him. The two warbands together travel across the plains of Ghur in search of a plateau he saw in a vision.

Watching Zuvias manipulate the Bloodbound is fairly entertaining, and the story as a whole is good. In relation to the rest of the stories in the book though it did feel slightly slower.

Final Score - 3.8/5

The Solace of Rage - Guy Haley

Now we come to my favorite character, well group of characters really, in the whole book. This story focuses around a warband of Bloodbound, which you might think would end up being just one giant battle, but you'd be wrong. We are introduced to Ushkar Mir, our champion of Khorne, who is also quite tragic. When his city was defeated by Chaos he was given two choices, join or die. He decided to join, but only so that one day he would rise high enough in Khorne's favor to deserve a personal audience with the god. Then he would try and kill him. Khorne can sense all of this of course, but finds it amusing. When we encounter the warband they have just lost their leader and our now trying to choose who amongst them will fill the void. The whole first half of the story is really just debating and posturing amongst the warriors and it's great!

We meet the Slaughterpriest, Orto, the Skullgrinder, Kordos, and a champion named Skull, who speaks for Mir, since Mir is mute. I think this group is the most engaing bunch of supporting characters in the book. It really felt like each was a fully formed individual and not just a plot device. Orto is a devout follower of his god and comes across as earnest and sincere, which is strange for a man who eats hearts. Kordo is the strong and silent one. He really just kind of hangs around, unwilling to lend support to either of the combatants, but it completely works for his character.

Eventually their posturing is interrupted by a sudden invasion of Ogors. The Gaunt Summoner we met in the last story is watching Mir as well, and to speed things along he opens a portal in the Ogor's land and dumps them right in front of our warband. It's really cool seeing how different people within the warband react to the situation differently. Some, of course, fly into a rage and charge into the Ogor's headfirst, but others, like Mir, pull back a bit and take time to organize the lines and come up with a plan. The resulting battle is really entertaining and actually ties into a story from the Bloodbound battletome.

It's refreshing to see Khorne's warriors portrayed as actual humans instead of just two dimensional murder machines. I highly recommend reading this story.

Final Score - 5/5

Knight of Corruption - David Annandale

Having been introduced to all of the potential champions for Archaon we now come back around to Bule and his band of Blightkings. At the end of their last story they stepped through a portal into a new, unknown realm. Luckily for them, it appears to have mortals still eking out an existence amongst the ruins, and they are quick to prey upon them. Within the ruins of an ancient city they find a rather ramshackle tower occupied by the pious followers of Sigmar. This is a group of humans who had witnessed the fury of the Stormcast from afar and built this tower as a place of refuge and as a tribute to the God-King. They are basically written to sound like a group of flagellants, but it's still interesting to see some denizens of the realms actually surviving.

Bule sees this as a perfect opportunity to prove his worth to both Nurgle and Archaon and launches his attack against the tower. The battle is pretty interesting, and the humans even manage to hold their own against the Chaos warriors. Slowly though the battle starts to turn against them, that is until the Stormcast make their appearance. I have to admit, I always get excited now when the Stormcast show up in a story. There's something about them that just really intrigues me. The battle suitably ramps up as the Blightkings fight against the Stormcast. This is also the first time Bule has seen these warriors.

The story is mostly a large action piece, but at no point did I feel exhausted like you sometimes can from just non-stop action. David did a good job of making the human survivors interesting and believable. The transition of David Guymer writing the Nurgle characters to David Annandale writing them was smooth and seamless. It must be because they're both named David. The continuing tension between Bule and Fistula also kept me intrigued. At this point I wasn't 100% sure if Bule would actually end up being the Nurgle champion. Fistula was being set up as possibly coming in and stealing the thunder.

Final Score - 4/5 

The Trial of the Chosen - Guy Haley

Yet another great story from Mr. Haley featuring Ushkar Mir. Now firmly on his quest to become one of Archaon's chosen, Mir finds himself in Shyish, the realm of death. Let me just say that I was pretty excited to see Death featured in a story. They arrive through a realmgate made of ossified bone, into a desert made of crushed bones. They like bones there. The Gaunt Summoner arrived a few moments before, but made himself invisible to observe the Khorne war band. Once our "heroes" arrive, they are promptly attacked by a pair of Necrosphinxes(!) that had been guarding the gate. Sadly, this didn't mean the Tomb Kings were safe like I was hoping, but maybe we will see this kit make a return at some point at the very least. The battle is as intense as you would expect.

Afterwards the war band makes their way through the vast desert guided by a phantom. They have no clue what they are searching for, but Mir trusts in his fate. There is a pretty cool scene about half way through where their Khorgorath, who is usually mewling and scrounging around for skulls, finally has his fill. Having consumed enough skulls, it stands straight up as if in a trance and just wanders away, making it's way back to Khorne's throne. I loved this bit. It really characterizes those creatures better then we have seen in any other story so far. It almost make you feel bad for them even. Orto, Kordos, and Skull continue to be interesting characters and really add to the story instead of just being present like a lot of side characters sometimes do.

Eventually they come to an oasis whose waters kill anyone who drinks from it. At this point the Chaos warriors are about to die from thirst and exposure if they do not find what they are looking for. Sensing that Mir must drink from the waters to prove himself, he drinks the smallest amount possible. This knocks him into a vision of his past, or is it really only a vision? This was another great bit and a fantastic ending to this story. It's hard for me to pick my favorite story from this collection because all of the ones featuring Mir are just so great.

Final Score - 5/5

In the Lands of the Blind - Rob Sanders

Having revisited both our Nurgle and Khorne champions, it was now Zuvius' turn in the spotlight again. The Tzeentch warrior finds himself outside of a massive Chaos fortress, which he concludes can be none other then the Varanspire, Archaon's personal fortress. He finds the stronghold assailed by champions from all over the realms, all of them trying to prove their values to the Everchosen. Knowing what he must do he begins his own assault on the castle. There are some great descriptions here of what the Varanspire looks like, and even just crossing the walkways that lead to the gates proves a tremendous ordeal. Not only are the defenders upon the ramparts raining down crossbow bolts, but the skies are filled with Furies, which swoop down and attack the aspirant chaos warriors. At one point a wall of fire even sweeps around the outside of the castle, killing many of them.

Zuvius is able to make it across though, in part thanks to his personal guard, who not only fought on his behalf, but shielded him, and any other champion nearby, from the firewall with their shields. There is a moment where one of his guards is killed and it made me a little sad, which was surprising, because I didn't think I cared about any of them.

Once at the walls he uses everything at his disposal to get inside, including his own abilities and those of the sorcerers he had bound to his will. There are some entertaining action scenes here, as he and the other champions manage to storm through on of the gates, although he may not find what he is looking for within... This story was well written, but there is just something about the character of Zuvius that doesn't really compel me to like him.

Final Score - 4/5

Blood and Plague - David Annandale

It's all come to this for Mir and Bule, the two champions have been led to this spot by fate to duke it out for the right to become one of Archaon's Varanguard. The two war bands come into a giant arena type area carved into the rock near the Everchosen's army, who surround its rim to watch. The big man himself is actually there as well, and for some reason, I read all of his lines in Christopher Lee's voice as Saruman. The premise is simple, there can be only one. Some crazy Chaos magic overcomes the champions and their warriors causing them to hallucinate. The Khorne guys suddenly think the arena has been transformed into a rotting garden of Nurgle while the Nurgle guys see a barren skull, and blood littered wasteland.

The fight between the two forces is great. This, to me, is the perfect climax to the whole book. What makes it even better, is that the war bands start to realize that there can be only one champion, not one war band. This leads to some fun back stabbing and double crossing as the various demi-champions in each force are taken care of by Mir and Bule, while others like Orto choose a different path. There's really not much to talk about here, it's just a great fight scene with some good character development as well. I enjoyed every page of this story and it's definitely tied for me with the previous two Mir stories as the best in the book. The ending is fantastically bleak and very fitting for Chaos.

Final Score - 5/5

See No Evil - Rob Sanders

The final story in the book once again follows Zuvius, who is now one of the Varanguard. The Stormcast forces have taken control of a coastal fortress that had previously been Archaon's and he is none to pleased with it. A giant armada is launched to retake it with the Varanguard at the fore. We get to meet a few more of Archaon's elite, which Rob Sanders does a good job of fleshing out. 

There are some really cool beach landing scenes, as well as some awesome fortress storming goodness. It's as brutal as you would expect a Normandy style assault to be, with the Stormcast pretty much cutting down the Chaos invaders. Zuvius though wants to prove his worth to his new master, who is also personally at this battle, so he pushes himself to be at the forefront of everything. The final confrontations between the Varanguard and the Stormcast command is entertaining, as well as a line from Zuvius' familiar saying it can't tell who the enemy commander is because they all look the same. Overall it's a good story, it just didn't hold the same suspense for me anymore since we are no longer waiting to see who becomes a member of the Varanguard.

Final Score - 4/5

As a whole this book was very good, and even the stories that got lower scores from me were still very well written and entertaining. Each story on its own can definitely carry its own weight, but all together they work even better. The books so far have all been broken into a few novellas from different authors, each one pretty much unrelated to the other story in the book. The Call of Archaon is unique in that it's the first one to have a bunch of short stories, written be several different authors, all telling one cohesive story. I really like this format and I hope that GW uses it again in a future book, possibly with another race in Age of Sigmar.

Overall Final Score - 4.7/5

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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