The first novel to reveal any of the background story of the Age of Sigmar, The Gates of Azyr by Chris Wraight is somewhat dissapointing in its ambitions. The story is limited to a single battle on the realm of Aqshy (the realm of fire and sneezing) between the Stormhost and the Goretide. Essentially, if the main event is the Age of Sigmar box set, then this is the novelisation of the movie.
The book starts really well, looking at some of the mortals – scared human tribes running away from Bloodreavers of Khorne. There are some great details here, the way the Bloodreavers are lean, hungry predators, used to running for days at a time after their prey. A diet of human flesh fuels them and their victims are malnourished and unable to run for so long. And the Bloodreavers also have personality, they are drawn from the survivors of the strongest survivors in the tribes, given a choice to join them and eat the flesh of their friends, or be killed. Immediately I was drawn in to the story, this new twist on Khorne added personality and danger to the most generically evil Warhammer faction. The concept is horrific and the world – the realm of Aqshy – is established as a sort of post-apocalyptic cannibal hunting ground, a perfect break from High Fantasy tropes so far. If the other realms can continue in this theme I have high hopes for the setting of Age of Sigmar.
However the story then focuses on the Goretide, led by Khorgos Khul, and their battle with the Stormhost Eternal vanguard led by Vandus Hammerhand (who I kept misreading as Vandus Hamsterhand). I can probably remember their names due to the fact that they keep announcing who they are and what they do, falling just short of proclaiming that they rolled a six when attacking with their Mighty Axe of Khorne. It’s very much a case of giving each figure in the box set a bit of background, but not enough to really tell a story. Oddly enough the promising characters established earlier in the book are set to one side (or killed), which seems like a waste. The new characters are not interesting, although Khorgos Khul does his best to be three dimensional by stopping for a bit of a chat.
So the Stormhost then: the idea of an angelic counter to the daemonic Chaos makes a lot of sense, and I have no doubt that to the average human both sides seem equally overwhelming and terrifying. At least you know you are meant to be scared of daemons, but when the angels look like this? They are not exactly reassuring either. I like the idea that the Stormhost is comprised of warriors that had no choice but to be abducted and rebuilt in some sort of excruciating ritual, their old personalities lost as they are reforged into enormous eternal warriors, denied even a chance of death and instead brought back to half-life over and over, losing a bit more of themselves every time. That sounds cool: like undead Roman golem statues that arrive in lightning bolts. But the Stormhost characters are written exactly the same as Space Marines and a lot of their dialogue is instantly familiar: ‘for the God-King’ type stuff. The concern I have is that they will end too similar to Space Marines: basically just big blokes that quite like killing things and bloody love their boss.
I’m hoping that they will be more inhuman than Black Library Space Marines: almost schizophrenic with memories of their previous lives, separated completely from regular humanity both mentally and physically – entombed as they are in massive golden suits of armour. Perhaps the main draw of Age of Sigmar for me is that the sandbox approach to the world gives more room for creating unique interpretations.
There are hints at continuity with earlier times, although I am no longer sure if this is the Old World so much as the previous time of mythology (an era between the death of the Old World and the victory of Chaos in the new realms). If so, this seems like a bit of an odd choice as well, when Vandus and Khorgos Khul realise they have met before in a previous life, they could potentially be remembering an End Times battlefield. There must be some good reason for not doing this, but I am yet to understand it, beyond a desire to make a really clean break from previous continuity. I’m still hopeful there will be more callbacks and references to the Old World beyond some familiar god names.
Ultimately, this is a waste of an opportunity to launch the Age of Sigmar with a strong bit of background fiction. The novella is not terrible, the writing is the same sort of functional, solid, action-based stuff as most Black Library Horus Heresy books, but it doesn’t set up much about the other realms, the history and motivations of the factions or set up troubles to come. If this was bundled in the Age of Sigmar box, or released at a less important time, it would have gone largely unnoticed, but instead it is in the odd position of loudly trumpeting the beginning of a new era of Warhammer, and it is not fit for the task. Hopefully a more significant first book is due soon.