Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 24 June 2008)
Series: Warhammer Fantasy
Length: 413 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read. For this week’s Throwback Thursday I have a look at a classic Warhammer Fantasy adventure novel with the entertaining fantasy thrill ride, Runefang.
I have been reading an awful lot of Warhammer 40,000 novels lately, but deep down my heart will always belong to the Warhammer Fantasy franchise, as that was the game that I played back in the day. Even though the Warhammer Fantasy game has ended (replaced by The Age of Sigmar), while it was going the Black Library invested a lot of time into creating some excellent novels in this setting, which I have also been enjoy recently. This includes the awesome Broken Honour and some of the earlier entries in the iconic Gotrek and Felix series (including Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer). Even after reading these, I am still in the mood for more fun Warhammer Fantasy adventures and so I just read Runefang by established Warhammer fiction author C. L. Werner. Werner, whose other writing credits include the Witch Hunter, Thanquol & Boneripper and The Black Plague series, came up with a compelling idea for this novel which I had a lot of fun getting through.
As civil war, discord and political instability rock the human realms of the Empire, a far greater threat marches upon it from the south. A massive horde of undead creatures has been raised from the grave and is cutting its way through the heavily populated province of Wissenland. As the forces of Wissenland gather to fight, they are disheartened to find that these are not the typical shambling herd of undead horrors, but a well-organised, highly disciplined force of relentless fighters with dangerous magic backing them up. Worse, the leader of this force is a true monster, the wight lord Zahaak, an ancient general of the legendary dark necromancer, Nagash, who has risen from his last defeat to finally achieve the victory he promised centuries before.
After several devastating slaughters, it becomes apparent that the undead force before them is unstoppable and the only way to defeat it is to kill the unkillable undead general. In desperate need of anything that will save his realm, the Count of Wissenland and his advisors come up with an unlikely plan: recovering the Solland Runefang. Lost years before when an orc raid destroyed the former province of Solland, the stolen Runefang, one of the legendary 12 swords signifying rulership of the Empire’s provinces, is rumoured to be the only weapon capable of killing Zahaak.
The task of finding the Runefang falls to Baron von Rabwald, who pulls together a small expedition of soldiers, knights and adventurers and leads them to the Runefang’s purported hiding place in the Worlds Edge Mountains. However, this is no easy quest, and the chances of success are low, especially as the Worlds Edge Mountains are a notorious haunt for monsters, orcs and innumerable other dangers. Worse, they are not the only group seeking the lost Runefang, and the fell magic of Zahaak is never far behind. Can the expedition recover the Runefang before it is too late, or will Wissenland fall at the hands of its greatest foe from the past?
This was an outstanding and extremely exciting Warhammer Fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading. C. L. Werner did an excellent job providing readers with an amazing fantasy adventure, and Runefang has a lot of great elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers.
At the heart of Runefang lies a captivating and highly enjoyable fantasy narrative that quickly drags the reader in with its impressive action, enjoyable characters, intriguing examination of the Warhammer world, and exciting adventure narrative. Starting off with a fantastic introduction that sees the Wissenland army’s first disastrous attack against the undead horde, you are swiftly brought into the middle of the conflict as you witness the aftermath of the defeat, which also introduces several of the main characters. Following some compelling exposition about the enemy they are facing, the story splits into two parts, with Baron von Rabwald leading most of the supporting cast off to find the lost Runefang, while the rest of the story focuses on the Count of Wissenland’s attempts to delay the undead army to give the adventurers time. This split works really well, and seeing the disasters unfolding in Wissenland heightens the stakes of the expedition’s adventures and ensures that the reader is even more invested in its outcome. The expedition storyline encounters multiple obstacles throughout their adventure, including monsters, traps, and orcs and goblins. They are also forced to deal with a rival force of humans who are also hoping to claim the Runefang, untrustworthy mercenaries, as well as a traitor within their ranks who is helping the enemy.
This all translates into a very good and action-packed adventure, and I loved seeing all the epic events unfold through the eyes of the varied characters. The story chugs along at a quick and exciting pace, with a good combination of action, dark moments and some fun, if grim, humour that I quite enjoyed. Werner also ensures readers are in for a wild ride by not being sentimental when it comes to character survivability. This became really apparent around halfway through Runefang when several key characters, many of whom had been built up in a big way for most of the narrative, were very suddenly killed off, and one of the supporting cast took the reigns as lead protagonist. While this was a little surprising, I think it worked rather well, and it added to the suspense and drama of the tale, as the new protagonist is forced to make some big choices and deals to keep the quest alive. Following this, the story keeps advancing at a great pace, with new foes and dangers appearing the closer the protagonists got to their goal. This leads up to the epic final sequences of the expedition narrative, and it was fantastic to see the surviving protagonists go up against all the villains that had been chasing them in a big, extended confrontation, and Werner kept continuously hitting the reader with twists, surprises and dangers. The reveal about the traitor in the ranks was pretty good, especially as Werner threw in an excellent red herring character (although by the time it is revealed, there were limited potential characters who it could be). Everything comes together extremely well, with all the storylines and character arcs reaching their natural end, and I felt that it was an excellent, if rather bittersweet, conclusion.
I have to say that this was a particularly good and accessible entry in the wider Warhammer Fantasy canon, which is very well suited to this sort of immense and powerful story. While Werner could have just phoned in Runefang with a generic adventure story set in the universe, he does a great dive into the lore. This novel is set well before the events of most Warhammer Fantasy novels and takes place during the Age of the Three Emperors, where the Empire was split by a raging civil war. As such, the province of Wissenland is on its own throughout the novel and must also deal with the substantial machinations of its neighbours as it fights to survive, which gives it a great additional edge of intrigue. The author also spends a great deal of time focusing on the ruined province of Solland and the importance of its lost Runefang. It was fascinating to see the ruins of Solland in Runefang, as it was still badly scarred by the orc invasion that destroyed it, and the impact of Wissenland’s absorption of it was quite interesting. I also really appreciated the fantastic portrayal of the notorious Worlds Edge Mountains, the former realm of the dwarfs that is now controlled by orcs, bandits, and monsters. The author did a really good job showing this to be a desolate and dangerous place, and he really did not disappoint when it came to featuring the variety of cool creatures and threats it contains, forcing the protagonists up against dangerous odds again and again.
Finally, I must highlight the author’s excellent use of the undead army in this book. Rather than using the armies of the Vampire Counts or the Tomb Kings (which were the two undead factions at the time of Runefang’s release), Werner features a historic army of undead creatures who have risen after their defeat during the early days of the Empire to have their vengeance. As such, they are a unique force of undead creatures, and I loved seeing them in action, particularly as you get some awesome reactions of terror from the human characters observing them. Overall, I really loved the cool use of Warhammer Fantasy elements, history and settings in Runefang, and I felt that this was the sort of Warhammer novel that any fantasy fan could pick up and enjoy.
I also need to highlight all the impressive action featured throughout Runefang, and Werner has a clear talent for making fight scenes come to life in a big way. There are so many battles throughout this book, and each of them is showcased to the reader in exquisite detail. Whether it be a small skirmish, a one-on-one fight, a brawl against a giant monster, or a large pitched battle between armies, the author ensures that the reader gets the full sense of everything that his happening. It was extremely cool to see all these fights unfold, and I was able to mentally see every sword swing, desperate charge and epic moment. I liked how some of these fights emulated the battles from the table-top Warhammer Fantasy game, and you could really envision how they would have looked being played out on the board. These action scenes combined well with the awesome and exciting story, and I think that they strongly enhanced my enjoyment of Runefang.
The final thing I want to talk about is characters, as Runefang features an excellent and massive cast of distinctive protagonists and villains. Now, I am not going to go into too much detail about character arcs or development here, as to do so might ruin which key characters are killed off early. However, I have to say that I was really impressed with the awesome way that Werner introduced each of the major figures in the book. As such, you quickly grow to like many of the figures in Runefang, especially as Werner goes out of his way to feature a unique and often damaged group of protagonists to fit the story around. I will say that I deeply enjoyed the Baron’s notorious and scarred champion, Kessler, who has some great moments; the dwarf Skanir, who serves as cantankerous guide; and the fantastic duo of the halfling Theodo Hobshollow and his ogre sidekick, Ghrum, who were an excellent and entertaining comic relief team. There are also some really good villains in this novel, including the bandits who are also after the Runefang (featuring a brilliantly despicable leader and an entertaining pair of cowards), and an extremely dangerous orc warlord, Uhrghul Skullcracker. Uhrghul was a particularly fun character, and I liked both his philosophical insights about being an orc leader as well as his effective way of questioning human prisoners (eating my legs in front of me probably would get me to talk). I did think that the main villain of Runefang Zahaak was a tad underdeveloped, even if he was shown to be an epic badass with major historical cred to his name. However, this might have been a deliberate choice by Werner to highlight the uncomplicated nature and motivations of the undead compared to the more insidious, evil, or animalistic plots of the humans and orc villains. I had an amazing time following these characters, just try not to get too attached to any of them.
Filled with fantastic action, a compelling adventure storyline, fun characters and great use of the Warhammer Fantasy setting, Runefang was an outstanding novel from C. L. Werner that I had an amazing time reading. Werner really went out of his way to create the most impressive and exhilarating fantasy adventure he could, and the result is really worth checking out. A highly recommended Warhammer fantasy novel that you are guaranteed to have fun with.