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A quality Warhammer story.
on 11 October 2013
I feel I must make a confession, dear reader. Despite many years of reading Warhammer fiction I've never read a Gotrek & Felix story before. The closest I've come has been to listen to David Guymer's own audio drama, Curse of the Everliving, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As City of the Damned sits outside the continuity of the main series, it seemed as good a point as any to dive in.
During their travels, Dwarf Slayer, Gotrek Gurnison and his human companion, Felix Jaeger, arrive in a village that's been terrorised by a 'beast'. Seeking his doom, as Slayers are wont to do, Gotrek decides to track the beast to its lair in the ruins of a city. It turns out he's not the only one with that idea...
The first thing I'll say is that David's descriptive language is a joy to read. There's a richness there that fleshes out all his locations and characters distinctly, and the similes are varied and very colourful. The settings capture the medieval flavour of the Warhammer Fantasy world beautifully and he's filled them with a plethora of interesting sights, sounds, smells and people. The highlight of this is his creation of the titular city itself, which oozes atmosphere through every ruined building and dark shadow. You get the feeling that there's some unknown danger around every turn and it makes for very compelling reading.
A wonderful setting is, of course, no good without some intriguing characters to populate it, and there's a fairly large and varied cast, all with their own reasons for being in the city. Gotrek and Felix find themselves in league with a group of half-mad flagellants, a band of mercenaries, and Rudi, the last survivor of a village attacked by the beast. Along with Felix, Rudi is a primary point-of-view character and feels suitably fleshed out. Other than them, only the leaders of the flagellants and mercenaries, Nikolaus Straum and Caul Schlanger, get explored in any real depth which is a little bit of a shame, especially as some of the mercenaries seem to have interesting stories to tell.
Arrayed against them are the many and varied denizens of the city, the Damned, and worse. Like the city itself, they're full of visual character, and David captures the idea of a gribbly swarm of nastiness beautifully.
As for our heroes, Felix is very much the focal point. We see the world mainly through his eyes and he definitely feels like a character resigned to getting caught up in perilous situations - only to be expected as the companion of a slayer. Of course this rational human viewpoint is a necessity alongside the fairly single-minded Gotrek, who feels a little too much like a functional character. I imagine he's quite a challenge to write as not only is he seemingly capable of defeating any foe, he's also girded in impenetrable plot armour. He is, though, the main source of comic relief and his banter with Felix frequently lifts the tone of the story.
The narrative for me was a bit of a mixed bag, though there's a lot to admire. The tension and atmosphere as we follow our protagonists through the city is excellent - as good as any I've read in a Warhammer novel. The city scenes are nicely paced and keep the pages turning quickly. The plot, too, takes what seems to be a fairly straightforward premise and layers it up with several subplots - some of which are very intriguing and elevate the complexity of the plot dramatically.
On the downside, this narrative complexity does add to the challenge of following what's going on, especially in the beast's point-of-view passages. This is something a reread might help with though as it's dealt with in an eventual reveal. There are also a lot of perspective shifts from character to character where it isn't immediately clear who's been jumped to which did jar a little..
I also had a couple of issues with the overall pacing of the story. The lead-up to them entering the city felt a little laboured, seeming to take a long time to set up the world and the motivations of the characters. The final act, however, almost felt a bit too rushed. Once everything becomes clear the various narrative threads appear to be tied up in very short order. The tension and drama of the fantastic middle act more than makes up for these though.
Gotrek & Felix: City of the Damned is a very enjoyable read. It's full of Warhammer flavour, in both big themes and small details, yet it doesn't feel forced, which suggests an author who's very comfortable with the setting. I can't compare it to any previous Gotrek & Felix novels so I don't know how well David's interpretation of the characters will sit with long-standing fans of the series, though as a standalone novel it's well worth a read.
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