Monday, 21 December 2015

An Oldhammer Bookclub: A review of Brain Craig's Plague Daemon


Plague Daemon remains one of my favourite covers. Did you know that it was originally to have been published under the title, Ystareth?
"The dire magician stood back, and it was one of his unhuman companions who stepped forward, bearing a heavy halberd, ready to make a solitary charge. The three remaining monstrosities spread out, two with longbows at the ready, the third with a massive spear. the halberdier was the one with the scaly skin and snake-like tongue; he was the most powerfully built of the beastmen. When he charged the door, it seemed as though he would cover the distance in a matter of seconds. But the snake-tongued monster had covered no more than half the distance when something reached out of the water and caught his ankle, bringing him down on the narrowest part of the causeway. It was along, black tentacle, smooth and leech-like...

Thus was Harmis Detz, soldier of the Border Princes, plunged into a desperate struggle against the plague-bearing forces of chaos. The story is told by Orfeo, first introduced in Brian Craig's Zaragoz. 

So reads the blurb.

Welcome back to the Oldhammer Bookclub, and a rather belated meeting it is too, considering I started reading the book in August and finished it in September. Life got busy is all I can say, and it took me much, much longer to complete this novel than I expected. In fact, I found myself reading a few pages each evening just before I put the light out and, looking back, I quite appreciated this slow-burn approach to the story. 

Like Zaragoz, Plague Daemon is a novel I have read before, several times. My first experience with the book was back in 1990 when a school friend (and Bloodbowl enthusiast) called Moley was given the book by his brother. I can recall seeing that dramatic cover on his bedroom floor to this day and getting the opportunity to flick through the novel. At this point in time, the only GW book I had in my possession was David Ferring's, Konrad, and I was disappointed to find that the specially drawn illustrations that had supported the narrative in my book, was not present in Plague Daemon. That is something that still disappoints today, though we do get some fine illustrations of the characters and images taken from the Realm of Chaos: Lost and the Damned book. 

I didn't actually get to read the book until I was at university later on in the 1990s. I had a girlfriend at the time called Nicola, and we whiled away the warmer months exploring the towns and villages of the West Country, particularly in Cornwall, and one of our favourite haunts were second hand book shops. I had just discovered the incredible Conan stories written by R.E.Howard, and unbelievable as it sounds now, they were out of print then and trying to find a copy seemed an impossibility. Whilst looking for Cimmerian adventures, I discovered an ex-library copy of Plague Daemon in a 'fantasy section' and, despite it being a later Boxtree edition, I was suitably pleased. 

I read the book over that weekend. Life was slow for me then and, apart from drinking in the pub come evening, there was little to do but read or socialise in the era before mobile technology, the internet and tablets. At this point, I was between painting kits and had been thoroughly turned off Warhammer by the Red Period - though Plague Daemon did inspire me to buy up some paints once again and dabble with a few pieces, some of which were used as window displays in the old Exeter GW shop. 


I have always loved maps, from Warhammer to Fighting Fantasy. Plague Daemon gives us quite a bit of information about the Khyprian Empire, a part of the Border Princes not chronicled before or since. 
The book took me back in time. I didn't know it then, but the changes I disliked about GW we down to a shift in leadership. Bryan was gone, with most of the painted miniatures. The new owners had debts to pay. So, launching full force at a younger market made perfect sense - but the product had, for me anyway, lost it's charm, and now seemed more child-like and 'toy' orientated. Ironic I know, considering Citadel miniatures are (and were) 'toys'. Plague Daemon took me back to the Warhammer World as I recognised it.

Twenty years later, Plague Daemon still draws me back into that chaos haunted world, doomed to destruction, but with a populace largely unaware of their imminent and horrific end. I loved every page. So, as before with Zaragoz, I present this review using the series of questions I used previously. As with the previous Oldhammer Bookclub review, the rest of this article will contains SPOILERS so if you haven't read Plague Daemon, and plan to do so, I recommend you cease reading now! 


As I have said, the specially crafted internal illustrations were replaced with character sketches.
1) Did the book engage you immediately or did it take time to draw you in?

Despite having read the novel before, I could recall little of it save the identity of Ystareth, the plague daemon, and the method it used to spread it's appalling pestilence. As before, the story starts with a quick prologue chronicling Orfeo's situation in Arjijil and shows us one of the travelling player's attempts to escape his captivity. I know others have found these little scenes distracting, but in all honesty, I rather enjoy them. This little escapade is no longer than ten pages and is easily completed, and serves to develop the relationship between Orfeo and his captor, Alkadi Nasreen. Of course, the escape is foiled, but it's outcome sets up this second tale of Chaos well. Wanting to know more about Orfeo's fate after Zaragoz, I was thoroughly absorbed by this brief prologue.

Chapter One begins the tale proper with a scene setting overview of the land of Khypris and it's periodic threat of invasion by the tribal, Zani. In fact, much of their society to geared around these invasions and Harmis, the central character, has spent his life training to deal with them. Where Zaragoz was very much a slow burning adventure with much of the early book setting up the character of Orfeo, with Plague Daemon the reader is flung into the action from the very beginning. Harmis finds his outpost overrun by what he assumes is a Zani invasion, we the reader are better informed and can recognise the strange signs Harmis uncovers to be the work of a far darker power.  

Thinking about the question once again, I have to say that I was both engaged immediately (by the premise of the tale) but drawn in over time by the experiences of the characters, and in the ways that they changed. 

2) What was your overall 'feeling' about the novel once its was complete?

I found the ending to be rather sad. So sadness remains my overall feeling about the novel. GrimDark is a term thrown around fairly liberally now, but in truth the tone of Plague Daemon is much darker, and far grimmer than anything Black Library would put out now. Women give birth to mutated fetuses, which require burning, children are killed and young people are butchered because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is no 'Boy's Own' tale about Imperial Knights or Space Marines. Actions can have dire consequences and the 'goodies' often die painful, inglorious and futile deaths. 

"He could not bear to look at the hollow eyes of the little children. He could not bear to see what had been done to them!

Bleak.

3) Pick a character - are their actions justified?

When reviewing a book of this type, it is easy to cling to the main character and analyse their journey through the narrative in some detail, and indeed, there is nothing wrong in this at all. Personally, I often find the supporting characters more interesting, especially when they are actually characterised with a little depth. So I am going to pick Astyanax. He appears at the very beginning of the novel and is mortally wounded in battle with chaos mutants, but the echoes of his actions resonate through the rest of the story as to make his a far more important character than he initially appears to be. 

Astyanax is a powerful wizard in the mould of many fantasy wizards; he lives in a remote tower, along with his apprentices and works tirelessly to extend and enrich his knowledge. However, his purpose is the protection of the land from chaos, and he seems to be well versed in the threat Ystareth poses to Khypris. So well versed, that he has prepared agents to act in defence of the realm once the daemon is lose - with one of their responsibilities being to break the bridges that span the waterways in an effort to slow the daemon's progress.

He has also spent a long period enchanting the local waterway, the Black Tarn, so that it's waters can help nullify the effects of Ystareth's magic. Averil, one of Astyanax's apprentices, uses the magic of this water source to prevent the disease that cripples the land consuming Harmis along with it. 

Though Astyanax is killed in battle against the forces of Chaos, his actions are thoroughly justified and if anyone can take the credit for preserving the state of Khypris, it should be he. Without the knowledge he passes to Averil and Nicodemous, and the magical properties of the Tarnwine, there would be no way that the forces of good could stem the tide of corruption that Ystareth wroughts across the land. 

4) Is the overall plot engaging?

I would say so, yes. Though the plot seems to unfold far slower than in Zaragoz. Brian Craig gives the reader plenty of time to experience the impact a plague daemon (and the Zani invasion) has on a remote society. As I have said before, much of this is pretty bleak and compares the fragility of human nature when under pressure with the hideous evil of chaotic power. The temptation to abandon your humanity lies manifold during the journey, and through greed or fear many a minor character succumbs all too easily. Despite the depressing circumstances, I never gave up willing Harmis to victory - an easy feat considering I knew that he'd emerge victorious in the end. I felt myself concerned for the fates of the other characters too, particularly Averil, and Craig adds a nice little sexual tension sub-plot involving her, which was nicely wrapped up at the end of the tale. 

The tension builds nicely as the novel develops and I felt like I too was being drawn inexorably towards the daemon too. The final battle inside the plague choked palace of Khypris is atmospheric, if a little short. Some of the best writing in the novel can be found there, but I felt the final battle was a little rushed, almost as if Craig was approaching his word limit.

And images taken from other publications, such as White Dwarf and the Lost and the Damned.
7) Which passage in the book strikes you as being the most poignant or memorable? 

Choosing a memorable moment is never as easy as it sounds. And in doing so I considered, and discarded,several key scenes. The first was the attack on Astyanax's tower at the beginning of the novel, an action scene that best resembles what a 'great Warhammer battle' requires, at least to me. The 'goodies' of the mythos defending themselves against the horrors of the world, and prevailing despite the heroic cost of doing so. In fact, I have long thought about designing a scenario based around this small conflict, as it would require but a handful of models, a few pieces of custom scenery and a whole load of narrative and tactical choices for both sides. Perhaps I will one day. 

The second would be the aftermath of the attack on the gypsy camp. There are no heroics here, just the awful suffering of a survivor. But such scenes help to show the consequences of evil upon the world the characters seek to save. It helps with connection. For me, many of the later Black Library books were so shallow I felt little, or no connection with the world or it's characters at all, nor did I feel that their choices would have any real impact on the wider, or smaller, world in which they lived. 

My favourite moment has to be when Harmis faces the daemon, and knowing it's true name can finally exert his power over it. There is a lovely exchange between the two opposing characters that continue the theme of what chaos is that Craig began in Zaragoz. Here it is:

"Know, Harmis, that every nation of the earth is but appearance and illusion, and that the power of kings and princes have is but a shabby shadow of the real power which stands astride the world. Your rulers are but puppet clowns, dancing on the strings which gods and daemons tug for their own amusement. This world is but an eddy of dust in the whirlwind of eternity, infinitisimal in the eye of time. What do you think it can signify, to save a nation? What do you think it can matter to the masters of chaos, if a world such as yours were here, or gone, or never at all, when there are so many worlds in the universe of stars?"

"I do not believe that there are masters of Chaos," Harmis replied, as steadily as he could. "Not even those who style themselves as its gods. And I do not care at all what matters to them, or to you or your monstrous kind. I care about what happens to me- which is this world, this nation, and my friends. You have murdered my brother, and thousands of our kin, but you still have me to face, and in the power which Astyanax and fate have given me you will meet your last reckoning. Come down from the throne Ystareth, for it is I who am the judge here, not you."


Ystareth, like so many lost to chaos, have lost sight of what it means to be human. That mortals will fight, not for power, but for the earth upon which they live. For their family and friends. For the very things that make us human. And that characters such as Harmis will sacrifice far more than their souls to do so. 

During my games of Warhammer, I have always attempted to orchestrate such meetings between characters. That final duel between good and evil that will decide the fate, not of nations, but of the characters themselves. Once all that stood between victory or defeat was a single halfling, alone between the broken barricades. A troll squared up to that fragile break in the battle line and charged, yet that halfling summoned his courage and passed his fear test and stood his ground, preventing the troll from breaking through and ultimately winning the battle. So incredible (an unexpected) was this feat, that all the players clapped and cheered the little chap, even those on the 'loosing' side, and everyone agreed that that small event was one of the finest moments in their gaming lives. 

True heroism. 

Overall Score: 4/5 - another worthy read that builds on the successes of Zaragoz. An unexpectedly bleak vision of the Warhammer world. 


So, have you read Plague Daemon recently, or long in the past? What are your thoughts and memories of the novel? 

Orlygg



6 comments:

  1. This is a good read, it feels like a mature story, just like Zaragoz. Like Zaragoz and Storm Warriors it uses quite an obscure setting, the Border Princes and human or once human protagonists. Compare and contrast with pretty much any of ghastly childish bollocks that was the staple of the 90s output.

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    1. You mention Storm Warriors there, and you want to know something? I have yet to read a copy? So even after all of this time, I still don't know how the trilogy ends. Not that I mind of course, as I was lucky enough to pick up a mint copy of the first edition not so long ago. It goes without saying that it will be the next book I read in my little Bookclub.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about these early books being much more mature in their themes and deliveries. It was something I really appreciated as GW's future target audience in the late 1980s, and something I missed in later years.

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  2. I read this book a couple of months ago. One of my favorite things about it is that even though Warhammer is a high fantasy game the book had more of a low fantasy feel to it. My favorite passage in the book is "...all men should resolve that they will not tolerate any exercise of power which stifles or decreases hope." Mainly because it applies to real life as well as fantasy.

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    1. For fantasy to feel 'real' it needs to mirror real life as much as possible. Well, I think so anyway. As soon as the world in which the tale is told becomes unbelievable then I loose interest. A fine quote you draw out of the book too!

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  3. That exchange between Detz and the daemon sums up what Warhammer was all about for me.
    The Chaos Gods are a bit like us, the readers and players, win or lose, what happens in that world is entertainment. But for the people who live in it, it's a matter of life and death, not just for themselves but for family and friends.

    The theme of ordinary humans standing up to petty and whimsical gods and the monsters that do their bidding is what made Warhammer stand out from other fantasy universes of the time, which focussed more on prophesied Chosen Ones to do all the work of defending ordinary people. It's something that has been lost from Warhammer in recent years, particularly with the coming of the abomination which is Age of Sigmar...

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  4. The older books seem to focus on the man on the street and I think that was lost on the shift to mass battles. A mass of beast men in battle is no where near as threatening a one man against 3. That's what I like about Bernard Cromwell and joe Abercrombie they focus on one part of a larger battle. I might have said the same about Zaragoza but again I enjoyed the book. The story would have worked without Orfeo although it's a nice framing device and ties the story up at the end. Anyway here's wishing all RoC 80s people a merry Christmas and thanks for the blog.

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