Wednesday, October 31, 2018

REVIEW: Shadespire: The Mirrored City

From the moment I first read about Shadespire I knew it would be a great setting for a novel, and so I was pretty surprised when there was no tie in fiction upon its release. The wait is now over though, and we have our first full length Shadespire novel from non-other than Josh Reynolds, master of the Age of Reynolds. So, what exactly happens within the Mirrored City and who do we meet?

You might have thought that a Shadespire novel would follow one of the warbands we already know from the game, but wisely Josh Reynolds has chosen to create his own protagonist. While there is some great Stormcast fiction, I think it was a good choice for our first detailed look at the setting in story form to be through the eyes of a regular human. That's where Reynar comes in. Reynar is a former Freeguild Captain who has deserted his regiment and is now seeking plunder and renown within the ruins of Shadespire. This is, of course, the physical ruins of Shadespire that still reside within the Desert of Bones in Shyish. Basically the Shadespire we read about in the AoS Skirmish expansion. Here we find him and a band of other deserters and privateers exploring the ruins when they come under attack by a pack of Bloodreavers. After the majority of their party is slaughtered, Reynar and Utrecht are able to fight off the Bloodreavers in their immediate vicinity and make a break for it. The khornate followers aren't going to let their quarry escape that easily, especially their leader Isengrim, who has seen a vision of himself taking Reynar's skull and now believes he must complete that task in order to appease his god. As the pair of ex-Freeguilders run through the labyrinth of the city they are led into a mirror lined alley with no escape. That is until a phantom in the mirror opens a portal for them. With their choices either being the unknown or certain death, they pick the former and enter the ominous gateway.

Here is where we enter the city of Shadespire as we know it in the game. A city out of time and space, and now doomed to suffer under Nagash's ire between the Realms of Light and Shadow. It's not long before the pair are attacked by a ghoulish warband of the city's former inhabitants, and once again, death seems imminent, but this time they are actually saved. Severin Steelheart and his warband of Stormcast along with a Fyreslayer named Khord come to their rescue at the last moment, too late to save Utrecht, but Reynar is taken with them to safety. It turns out they are all working for a Katophrane named Sadila who promises them a way out of the cursed city if they can help her find all of the pieces of the faneway that she needs. In their camp we get to see a bit of the day to day life of those trapped within Shadespire, which I find very interesting. It's not all battles and skirmishes in the streets. We also get to meet a bunch of the others trapped in the city, mostly humans, but there are a few other Stormcast as well. In fact, Sadila has been building an army, but for what reasons Reynar is unsure of at first.

The ex-Freeguild Captain wasn't the only one drawn into the cursed city and Isengrim fell into the same trap as Reynar did will pursuing him, though he was given no choice. Once within Shadespire proper he was also attacked by the pack of petitioners, and was saved as well, but in his case it was by a mysterious Chaos Warrior named Zuvass and the Sepulchral Warden and his skeletal warband. Much like the Steelhearts, this group of warriors is working for another katophrane, one directly opposed to Sadila. Each chapter is basically split into two parts, with the first half following Reynar and the second half Isengrim. It's an interesting parallel between the two as you see how they both adapt and react to the city and the circumstances they find themselves in. Inevitably the pair's stories intertwine as their individual missions find themselves at odds with each other. Also, Isengrim wants that skull, and he won't take no for an answer. Without giving away much more of the plot, there are plenty of twists and turns, including a Shadeglass golem, a trading market, a run in with Ironskull and his orruks, and more. It all culminates in a finale that you probably didn't see coming at the start of the book and will leave you wanting more.

As with all of Josh's stories, his characters are fantastic. Everyone feels unique and distinct, even the Steelhearts. Severin comes off as pompous and stubborn, while Oberyn is basically an automaton at this point after his many reforgings and Anghrad is definitely the most sympathetic towards the mortals, though only to a point. Khord is the most likable of the whole bunch, though even his past is mired in mystery and questionable actions. Reynar is the most complex of them all. He's a deserter and a treasure hunter, so his selfish nature is established early on, but you see flashes of the man who was once a captain of the Freeguild. He continually talks about how friends are a liability, yet at the same time you see him creating friendships with the likes of Khord and the wizard under Sadila's employ. You really don't know which way he's going to go on certain things until it happens, which always makes him interesting to read. Sometimes he comes off as cowardly and petulant, but at the same time he can make some good points during those fits, like when he points out that Stormcast always look down on the regular humans and when they don't live up to the impossible standards that Sigmar's finest have set for them they call them "mortals" like it's a curse word. Zuvass is another one who constantly keeps you guessing and also has a pretty unknown moral compass, even for one who's dedicated to Chaos. Isengrim always felt like more of a tool to me, being used by Zuvass and the katophranes. He's smart though and can realize that enough, so you never know if he's going to go along with the plan or turn it on its head.

One of the biggest characters is the city of Shadespire itself. Josh does a great job at really exploring the weirdness of the city. No one can die in Shadespire, at least not permanently. You may get killed, but you'll only reappear later on, with all of your memories of your death intact. In fact, they talk about how you might not appear again for hundreds of years, or even show up thousands of years before you first entered. There's talk about running into multiple versions of yourself as your different timelines may overlap. At one point a character finds his own corpse, and another has his own shadow stolen from him. The city itself is a constantly changing nightmare, with geography having little to no meaning from one moment to the next. Some of the creepiest bits are when they look to the skies and catch glimpses of impossibly large shapes moving behind the starless sky. There's tons of creepy details in here that can really mess with your mind. I would say this is definitely the most nihilistic Warhammer book I have ever read, especially after it was all finished. That's not a bad thing at all, and is definitely fitting for Shadespire. This book almost feels like a physical manifestation of depression or melancholy within the setting of AoS. As if that's the true enemy of all of the characters we meet within Shadespire. What's the point of everything if you can never truly die but you'll never escape. Oh, also, you no longer need food, sleep, or water. Everything here just slowly unhinges their mind until there is nothing left. I hope we can get some more stories within the Mirrored City from Josh, even if they don't follow the same characters. I think there are so many weird and odd things to explore here, especially with the Nightvault opening up, that it would take a long time for the stories to grow stale. If you think the Mortal Realms can be weird and mind bending then you haven't seen anything yet. As always, there are little connections here and there to past Reynolds stories, though not to the same degree that others are connected. I caught references to Hammerhal and Black Rift, though I'm sure there are more I just missed.

If you're a fan of AoS and Shadespire then I definitely recommend this book to you. You don't need to have read any other stories beforehand, but being familiar with the background of AoS and Shadespire will definitely help you with understanding what's going on. It's a great psychological mind bender of a story. It has a definite creepy and unhinged vibe to it, so if that's your thing you'll love this.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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