Wednesday, January 2, 2019

REVIEW: Black Pyramid

I have been looking forward to the follow up to Plague Garden even since I finished reading Gardus' first outing, and Black Pyramid definitely followed through on everything I hoped for. Part continuation of Gardus' story, part follow up to Ramus' from the Mortarch of Night book, Black Pyramid really delivers on all fronts, and even has a couple of surprises along the way.

Plague Garden was definitely the story of Gradus, Grymn, and the rest of the Steel Souls. While Black Pyramid is the second book in the same series, and does feature all of those characters, I would argue it's more a sequel to the Mortarch of Night storyline with the Bullhearts. Gardus is in this quite a bit, but Ramus features more heavily, and I think has a more complete character arc throughout the story. The book opens with a coalition of Hallowed Knights Warrior Chambers getting ready to invade Caddow, a city within Shyish long ago abandoned. Gardus is joined by fellow Lord-Celestant Cassandora and her chamber, as well as Ramus and the Bullhearts. Together they are accompanying a mortal contingent of Free Guild, Collegiate Arcane, and other odds and ends as they journey through a long dormant realmgate in Azyr to the sister city in Shyish.

Caddow, the city within Shyish, has been in the hands of Archaon's forces since the Age of Chaos, and in charge of its protection is Bakhos, a champion of Slaanesh. The ruins are also crawling with Beast herds, which is what the Stormcast initially encounter. As the beastmen throw themselves at the azyrites in droves, we follow one particular gor, Ghosteater, an albino gor with a fairly unique ability. The Stormcast are quick to establish a beachhead, something they were aided with by a contingent of Vanguard Stormcast already there, as well as some Fyreslayers repaying a debt. The large Slaaneshi army is slow to react, camped at the outskirts of the city, and it isn't until Bakhos' advisor, Vlad, encourages them to attack, that they take any action. This merely results in them feeding bodies to the meat grinder, which is exactly what Vlad planned, since he is in fact Mannfred von Carstein in disguise. The mortarch is at Caddow to steal the legions of mummified dead that slumber beneath its streets and hoped to use the battles as a distraction. Unfortunately for him, things don't go as planned and he winds up in the custody of the Hallowed Knights, finding himself face to face with his good pal Ramus once again.

From here the plot spirals in a number of ways that I don't want to ruin for you, but a few standouts are, of course, the confrontation between Ramus and Mannfred, Ghosteater joining the ranks of Bahkos' chosen, and Gardus' own struggle with what is right. There are a ton of cool world building moments in here, which is what I've come to expect from Josh Reynolds at this point. All of the free guild feel like regiments that have existed for centuries with storied histories and honors, and their leaders feel like real people. Some are noble, some are stubborn, some are slimy, and some are extremely capable. The trio of Collegiate Arcane wizards have their own little storyline that's great, and even the Fyreslayers, who are barely in the story, feel unique and inspiring. Caddow itself has a ton of character as well. An ancient city that use to trade with not only the rest of Shyish through a fleet of dust barques that sailed the deserts, but it's sister city in Azyr as well is just as interesting as any of the characters inhabiting it. From the mummified nobility and legions buried beneath it, to the "Settrosian" architecture that makes up the city's buildings, and the trolls currently taking up residence in its sewers I never got bored reading about it.

The characters in Black Pyramid are all great, with several returning favorites and a bunch of new ones. Gardus is our anchor throughout the story, the one who everyone else looks up to, and the de facto leader of the whole expedition. Here he must face the ideas of what is really right and just. Is he too faithful? How can he reprimand Ramus for wanting to seek out Taursus within Shyish when it's basically exactly what he did with Grymnn and the Garden of Nurgle. He has an arc throughout the story, but its definitely smaller than that or Ramus or Mannfred. Ramus is haunted by the loss of his Lord-Celestant and the knowledge that he still lives within Nagash's prisons. He is even more haunted by anger. Anger at Mannfred for betraying him, anger at Gardus for refusing to help him, and anger at Sigmar for denying him. This rattles his faith to its core, to the point that he is willing to do something drastic in order to do what he thinks is right and just, regardless of the consequences. It's a really interesting look at the truths of being one of the "faithful." What happens when a Stormcast, especially a Stormcast of the Hallowed Knights, loses faith? What do they have to turn to and what lengths are they willing to go to.

Josh once again shows his mastery of death with Mannfred. The vampire, often depicted as being cruel and manipulative to a Machiavellian degree, is once again given a more human take. Yes, he is all those things, but he is also human, or was once, and the echoes of that humanity continue to ring throughout him even all these millennia later. He is haunted by the voices of the few friends he had made throughout the ages of the Mortal Realms, all now dead. None haunt him more than Taursus, or who he knew as Tarsem before he became a Stormcast. This relationship only briefly touched upon in Mortarch of Night, is explored even more and you really feel the pangs of guilt that eat at what's left of his soul. Isn't it his duty to try and save one of the few friends he had throughout his long life, even if that means defying or standing up to his master, Nagash. There's also some interesting exploration of what free will Mannfred really has, or is he really just an extension of Nagash, doomed to play the same role forevermore.

On the Chaos side of things Bahkos is ever the arrogant champion you would expect from one of Slaanesh's ilk, but with a more refined and cultured side. He understands the importance of discipline, and has a tragic backstory for how he came to inherit the guardianship of Caddow, or so it seems. Most interesting to me though is Ghosteater. In fact, he's probably my favorite character from the whole book. Ghosteater has earned his name, since, for whatever reason, he can eat the spirits of those he slays. These souls then stay trapped within his head forever and provide a commentary to his actions as he goes about. They whisper advice and guidance to him that help keep him alive and grow intellectually, surpassing the other mindless beasts around him. Even though he killed them they know that if Ghosteater dies, then they die as well, so it's in their best interests to help him. Out of all of the ghosts, one rises to prominence, Herst, an elderly scholar with an odd affection for the gor. The scholar helps him navigate the politics of the Slaaneshi camp and ascend through the ranks of the beast herds. Ghosteater and Herst are one of the most interesting duos I've read in AoS fiction. The idea as a whole is quite unique and interesting, but the fact that Ghosteater is receptive to the advice and teachings of the man is what I like the most. I could very well see Ghosteater rising to dominance of all of the beast herds in the Mortal Realms given a long enough timeline. I really hope we see more of these two, even if it's just the occasional short story.

Even now I've just brushed the surface of all of the interesting characters within Black Pyramid. With this and Plague Garden, I can see the Hallowed Knights series becoming the defining series within AoS, definitely when it comes to Stormcast at the very least. I highly, highly recommend you give this a read. It's well worth it and will have you hooked throughout the entire story. Just as with every Josh Reynolds book there are a bunch of callouts to other stories of his, but most of these are just easter eggs. To get the most out of the book though I would say you should definitely read Plague Garden and Mortarch of Night before heading into this one. The story of Taursus, Ramus, and Mannfred is vital to the plot here.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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