Wednesday, July 12, 2017

REVIEW: Plague Garden

Josh Reynolds returns to AoS in style with Plague Garden which sees Gardus plunge headlong into Nurgle's realm once again, but this time in pursuit of his friend and Lord-Castellant, Lorrus Grymn. Can the Hallowed Knights prevail in the domains of the Chaos gods themselves?

Few authors are as prolific and consistent in quality as Josh Reynolds is, especially when it comes to his Age of Sigmar novels. In fact, to many, he has become the go to author for anything Age of Sigmar related, and much like Dan Abnett in the 40k universe, he has started to carve out his own little corner of the Realms. If you read a Josh Reynolds novel you are likely to find a bunch of tiny connections and call outs to his other works. This also allows him to really explore and flesh out a few key things. With Plague Garden he returns once again to the story of Gardus and the Hallowed Knights, now set firmly after the events of the Realmgate Wars. Gardus, the Lord-Celestant of the Steel Souls warrior chamber, is still in Sigmaron at the start of the story, having yet to be reunited with his warriors who fight on in Ghyran.

This is a great place to open the story, since it once again lets us explore Sigmar's city and get another glimpse at how the Stormcasts operate when not in battle. We see a lot more of the Stormcast being unarmored, or at least without their helmet here, which lets us see their humanity more and think of them more as people. We didn't see this much in the early days of AoS, primarily I think because GW wanted us to picture them more as warriors. Right off the bat we find Gardus talking with Zephaclaes, another Stormcast character that Josh has written from Fury of Gork and Skaven Pestilens, with some great call outs to both of those books. We also meet Cassandora, a female Lord-Celestant! In fact, there are many female Stormcast in this story, almost an equal amount I would say, which is a very welcome addition to the setting. We also check in with Ramus, from the Mortarch of Night story, who is still despondent after losing Tarsus in battle. This is what all of the leaders of the Hallowed Knights are called together for in fact, a funeral of sorts for Tarsus, though no one knows whether he is really dead. Here Ramus tries to get several Celestants to listen to his pleas for help to seek out his lost friend, but to no success. It's a great bit of story that connects back to what we've read in the past and helps build up the world, and also hints at possible future storylines. Sigmar himself appears at the funeral with a request of Gardus. He wishes him to take Tornus the Redeemed with him down to Ghyran. Tornus, of course, is the former Nurgle warlord Torglug who was killed by the Celestant-Prime and reforged to be a hero of Sigmar.

Meanwhile in Ghyran, Lord-Castellant Lorrus Grymn is prosecuting a war against the Order of the Fly in the nurgle infested swamps. The Order is another great crossover from Josh, featuring in many of his stories including Outcast from the Sylvaneth book, and Nagash: Undying King. I really love these foul warriors since they are decidedly Nurgle devotees, but see themselves as noble knights. It really gives them more character than what you normally see from Chaos characters in a unique twist. They're basically Brettonia if you crossed it with Nurgle. While attacking the Sargassum Citadels, Grymn realizes the there is an unsecured Realmgate below, and sets off with just a handful of warriors to seize it while the rest of the chamber continues on with the main battle. Unfortunately for him this leads to Grymn being sucked through the Realmgate into Nurgle's Garden itself, and just before Gardus arrives with reinforcements too. Once the citadels are secured Gardus decides that he must rescue his friend and takes around half of the chamber with him through the Realmgate.

Once in Nurgle's domain they must pursue the Lord-Castellant, now captured by Gutrot Spume, to the very door of Nurgle's Manse. I don't want to spoil any more of the story, since it's probably my favorite AoS novel so far, but there is a ton of action and some great world building. The finale is extremely tense and filled with some extremely memorable moments. The pre-finale is probably one of my favorite parts of the book with a great moment of redemption for a certain character and a surprising twist for another. The whole story is very fast paced and I never once got bored or lost interest, while at the same time there were plenty of "slower" moments that let us further explore Josh's wonderful cast of characters.

The characters really are what shines the brightest from this book, and that's saying something because the whole thing really is pretty blinding. Gardus, a long time fan favorite, has plenty to work through as he must come to terms with what his second reforging has done to him and what that may mean. He's also an extremely gifted warrior, dominating in pretty much every fight he enters and very relatable to the reader, retaining much of his humanity. There's even talk of what will become of the Stormcast once the wars are over, with Gardus wanting to return to healing. Some of my favorite characters though are Tornus, Spume, Grymn, Enyo, Cadroc, Gatrog, and the rest of the Hallowed Knights as a whole.

Tornus has the most to prove on this mission, being paired with the warrior chamber he almost single-handedly slew while he was still Torglug, and on top of that he's thrown against Nurgle's forces once more. It's fun seeing several of the Nurgle characters recognize Tornus for who he used to be based off of his unique speech pattern and some sort of sixth sense. Not all of the Stormcast are particularly warm to him either, some still holding a grudge for killing them in the past, Cadroc in particular. Cadroc is an interesting hero, since we are supposed to root for him, but he's a little unbearable. The Knight-Azyros used to be a prince in his mortal life, and he carries himself as such. Constantly poking, and prodding Tornus hoping to get a reaction out of him. Enyo, another female Stormcast, and the Steel Souls' Knight-Venator, becomes an ally of sorts, sticking by Tonus' side throughout. Once inside Nurgle's Garden, things only get worse for Tornus as he starts to feel an old embrace tugging at his soul. It's a great test of his character and his new devotion to Sigmar.

Probably my favorite story hook though is Gatrog, a knight of the Order of the Fly, who survives Cadroc's beacon and then is saved by Tornus' intervention. Tornus sees himself in Gatrog, and believes that since the lantern's light didn't kill him that he must have a kernel of good in him, just like Tornus did, and thus can be redeemed and reforged as a Stormcast. Gardus reluctantly agrees to keep the plague knight alive and they use him as a guide through Nurgle's realm, although as a prisoner under Tornus' custody. The end of his story arc is fantastic and handled expertly.

Gutrot Spume is just a fantastically fun character. He has no redeeming traits, being a unrepentant piece of scum, but he talks and acts like a pirate! Oh, did I forget to mention a good portion of this book takes place on boats? You essentially get a mini pirate story in the middle of this odyssey through Nurgle's realm. Every time I read his dialogue I heard Barbossa's voice in my head from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which is perfectly fitting in my opinion. You can tell Josh has a ton of fun writing the Nurgle characters and they feel like real people, granted they are horrible people for the most part. Even the demons we encounter have more character then we are used to, with many of them wearing haughty clothes and carrying themselves with a noble air. It's a great twist on the classic Nurgle motif which adds a nice bit of humor to them.

The rest of the Hallowed Knights in general are great in here too, feeling a lot more human than in some other stories. Since they are in one of the Realms of Chaos they are cut off from Sigmar's light and suffer injuries that are persistent throughout the story, and once they die they their souls stay trapped within their corpse. This leads to a cool bit involving Morbus, the Lord-Relictor, as he must draw forth their souls into himself for safe keeping. Morbus actually has some really cool moments near the end of the story that would look downright awesome if it were a movie. They also struggle with the temptations of despair and failure that Nurgle's realm induces, making them feel even more mortal to me. While physical injuries and impediments are great, the fact that they are susceptible to psychological issues distances them even further from the Space Marines people commonly like to compare them too. Grymn is incapacitated for the majority of the story, but has his own struggle which I don't want to spoil, plus all of his interactions with Spume.

Last, but not least, theres the Garden of Nurgle itself with all of its fantastical elements. You really get a sense of this place being wrong in every sense of the word, defying any logical attempts to explain it. The Garden is divided up into various levels, that descend towards Nurgle himself, kind of like purgatory in Dante's Inferno. Along the way are a bunch of different environments from swamps, to bogs, to grey wastelands, Skaven infested warrens, and mind bending cities that follow no rules but Nurgle's own. Josh knows how to take the Mortal Realms and really turn the fantastical elements up to 11 like it should be, such as with the giant worm in Skaven Pestilens, and here he isn't even bound by the restrictions of the Realms. The domains of the Chaos gods are, and should be, off the walls in their own special way, and he nailed it.

Plague Garden is a triumph of a story for AoS, bringing in many familiar faces from both the main AoS storyline and Josh's other books seamlessly. We get to see the Stormcasts out of their element, thrown into a realm beyond their control and really have their limits tested. The world itself is further built upon with the inclusion of female Stormcasts and a look at how the different warrior chambers interact with each other, as well as Sigmar himself. I think it's really cool that we get a scene in here where the Stormcast get to talk to Sigmar directly. It helps differentiate him even more from the Emperor in 40k, since he is actually present and can directly interact with the warriors he has created. I was eagerly turning each and every page of this book, always wanting to see what came next. The web that Josh has started to weave between all of his different stories does a great job of making everything feel more real, since the consequences of one story are not just contained within that book, but resonate and affect everyone in a tangible way. Josh has already said that the follow up to Plague Garden will deal with the Hallowed Knights revisiting the hanging story thread of Tarsus from the Hunt for Nagash, a story I am beyond eager to read.

I highly recommend you pick up this book if you are a fan of Age of Sigmar. I think people who are unsure about the setting will love it too, although I do believe it would benefit from some pre-existing knowledge of the setting to get the most out of it. If I had to make a list of what I would recommend reading before this it would be War Storm, Ghal Maraz, and Wardens of the Everqueen at the minimum. If you want to understand the larger world Josh is building and all the other little call outs then I would also read Fury of Gork, Mortarch of Night, Nagash: Undying King, and pretty much any other AoS story Josh has written. Not reading those won't ruin your experience of Plague Garden at all, but it will definitely enhance it. The book is also pretty sizable, probably clocking in as the largest AoS novel yet.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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