Tuesday, 29 July 2014

'Archaon: Everchosen' - Rob Sanders (Black Library)

In the north of the world the forces of Chaos gather, awaiting their moment to strike. At their head is the Everchosen, the warrior who will lead the final, cataclysmic assault that will usher in the End Times and the reign of the Ruinous Powers. But he was not always thus - he was once a man, a devout servant of the warrior-god Sigmar. What could cause such a soul to fall to the worship of the Dark Gods? What dark events could have put a knight of the Empire on the path to becoming the harbinger of the world's end? And just who was the man who will become known to all as Archaon?

Games Workshop's 'Warhammer' setting has always sat in the shadow of its far future sibling, rather unfairly I think as the Old World is just as rich and detailed a setting as that of the Imperium of Mankind. I always thought that the Old World would benefit from having someone like Horus to be a huge threat and push the narrative in new directions (otherwise it really is just one battle after another) and, a few years ago now, it got one in the form of Archaon, Everchosen of Chaos and the man to bring in the End Times.

It never happened of course. How could it when Games Workshop's strategy is to keep its settings in a state of 'on the precipice but gamely hanging on'? For me though, the introduction of Archaon was a real sign that some effort was being made to make 'Warhammer' as dynamic and interesting as Warhammer 40,000.

So, you have a character like Archaon and the immediate questions are who is he and where did he come from? Rob Sanders is the man tasked with answering these questions and he does so with some aplomb, despite the character already being part of established canon (meaning that everyone knows Archaon will make it through the events of this book and that his destiny is certain). With this book it's very much about the journey, rather than the destination, and Sanders shows us key moments in the life of Archaon where demonic influences war against fate itself to ensure that destiny is fulfilled. There's almost a hint of the meta-fictional about it with Sanders effectively writing about something that is effectively 'writing' the life of Archaon; ripping out whole chapters and starting again if the narrative doesn't flow satisfactorily. It's a really thoughtful approach that breaks up the 'hack and slash' elements of the plot and really gets you thinking about what you are reading.

Central to all this is the man Archaon himself and Sanders charts his life with a certain grim relish. At least that was the feeling that I got when Archaon accepted his destiny in several dramatic pages of blood, fire and falling masonry. Yep, while Sanders may not make it the overall focus of the plot, he still proves himself to be more than capable of writing the 'blood and thunder' moments that typify Warhammer novels. Large buildings are destroyed, mythical beasts wipe out armies and Archaon bestrides it all like the avatar of Chaos that he is. There is no doubt now that Sanders can write stirring scenes with the best of them. And while the destination is assured, Sanders puts enough obstacles in Archaon's way to keep things interesting (intrigue and double crosses abound) and develop his character further, especially his feelings for Giselle and her quest to save him from a path that he has no intention of leaving.

One of the issues that I've had with Sanders' writing, in the past, is that he takes the detail of military structure to ridiculous lengths, overshadowing the actual plot with talk of which regiment is subordinate to which commander and so on. Sanders falls victim to this indulgence again in that he doesn't leave a lot of room in the Chaos Wastes for anything but war bands, all of whom carry their own allegiances, feuds etc. This time it really works though; the Chaos Wastes are all about conflict and champions trying to carve out power for themselves. How else would you show this than by sticking at least one different war band in each paragraph? It still comes across as convoluted at times but that's just how it should be.

By my reckoning, Archaon still needs to complete a few more trials (to be worthy of the Chaos Gods) which means more books in the series You can sign me up for all of them if 'Archaon' is anything to go by, a book that overcomes inherent issues with ease and is exactly what good Warhammer fiction is all about. If you like fantasy then you really need to give 'Archaon' a go, sooner rather than later.

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