Saturday, 21 September 2019

REVIEW: Ghoulslayer - Part 2: Spoiler Warning

FULL SPOILERS AHEAD - Jump back to Part 1 if you've not read the book yet. As with my previous Gotrek reviews, I hope this part of the review can also serve as a recap ahead of any future instalments.

Taking place shortly after The Neverspike (reviewed here), Ghoulslayer begins with  a brief prologue visiting the hidden Shyishian princedom of Morbium for the first time, in which a one of the many fortresses dotting the Eventide, a madness inducing magical sea is first battered by lethal bone rain, and then overrun by ghouls, obviously unaffected by the Eventide's madness. Morbium's Erebid people, particularly the Grave Warden soldiers focused on seemed so ostentatious and particular that before they were besieged by ghouls I was hoping and expecting for them to turn out to be the book's titular ghouls in a nice bit of early misdirection. Ghoulslayer's ghouls when they do get any attention turn out to have rather dull delusions of being a pretty conventional medieval court that feels positively uninspired compared to Morbium, and even towards the very end of the book part of me was still holding out for a nice dark twist in which the Erebid were revealed to have been a different group of ghouls all along, with Gotrek, Maleneth and Trachos sharing in their delusion after accidentally eating some bad meet of having had a hex put on them by the clearly slightly dodgy wizard who sends them Morbium to begin with.

We're then treated to a letter from Maleneth to an unnamed superior in the Order of Azyr (possibly the Grand Theogonist mentioned in Realmslayer: Blood of the Old World), recapping her previous adventures with Gotrek, and introducing (and subsequently trashing) Trachos, the Celestial Vindicator Lord-Ordinator who'd unwittingly ended up in Shyish with the pair, and now travelling with them on Gotrek's quest to confront Nagash, with his own designs on the Master Rune of Krag Blackhammer Maleneth's been so keen to cut out of Gotrek's corpse for the last two audio dramas, novella and shorts.

The story proper opens in Klemp, an unremarkable Shyishian dive town currently in a state of mass panic as neighbouring settlements are swept away by Nagash's armies in the wake of the Necroquake. An inebriated Gotrek lies passed out out the corpses of of a very stupid, or very unlucky group of footpads, while Maleneth and Trachos get ready to come to blows with each other as each tries to claim the Master Rune inside his body (Trachos is slightly unhinged and thinks giving the rune to the Order of Azyr himself will atone him of past sins). Before Maleneth or Trachos can do anything to each other or him, Gotrek wakes up and stomps into the Muffled Drum tavern, giving the pair cause to follow.

In the Muffled Drum, Gotrek makes a lot of noise about his intentions for Nagash, further panicking most of the patrons, and drawing the attention of Kurin, a decrepid, wizardy type who appears to be made of sand. Kurin comes from an ancient line of magisters called the hush (not capitalised) or Shrivers, who he claims ruled the surrounding lands generations ago, have powers over memory, and spend a lot of their time cheating death as comatose mummies, earning the ire of Nagash. After Gotrek's picked a fight with some locals (calling a group of Dispossessed offering to help "pathetic excuses for dwarfs"), Kurin tells Gotrek that he is able to offer him a means of reaching Nagash. Maleneth is convinced Kurin is a fraud, but Gotrek doesn't seem to care either way.

Before Kurin can explain anymore, the bone rain we saw fall on Morbium earlier descends on Klemp, preceding an attack by ghouls. As the locals panic and flee, Gotrek and his allies fight their way through the ghouls to Kurin's residence, a disguised hovel leading to a larger chamber containing the inert forms of several other hush. Kurin directs Gotrek to Morbium, an ancient kingdom, hidden from Nagash for untold eons, that a path to him should exist through. It's worth noting that Morbium is described by Kurin as an "underworld", but it is inhabited by mortals, presumably existing in Shyish's Innerlands, and is not one of the underworlds (essentially afterlives) described in Malign Portents or the Age of Sigmar Core Book.

Before Gotrek, Malenetch and Trachos set off, Kurin offers to to summon the ghost of anyone they may want to talk to. Albeit dismissively, Gotrek asks to talk to Felix, saying he owes him an apology - interesting because Gotrek was convinced for the duration of David Guymer's audio dramas that Felix was very much alive and a Stormcast Eternal, but could easily be No Prized as Gotrek having decided that Felix was probably actually dead sometime preceding Darius Hinks' stewardship. Kurin obliges, and reshapes the face of one of his mummified peers into a likeness of Felix, who... seems relaxed and says he can't stay long, telling Gotrek to "give them all hell" and causing him to think that there's a good chance Nagash has him.

After a bit of banter on the road, the trio then reach Morbium, where they quickly stumble across Lohisa, High Pristess of the Cerement, Morbium's religious order of ancestor worship, and help her fend off some ghouls. Lohisa gives a brief history lesson on Morbium, ruled by a Morn-Prince, and having evaded Nagash since it's founding by preserving the souls of the Unburied, past generations of ancestors in cocoons spun by the noctuid, revered magical moths. She then demonstrates communing with these ancestors, during which she takes a vulnerable, papery form, separating her soul from her body in order to do so, and needing all her concentration to retain her physical shape.

Also mentioned by Lohisa is that the founding of Morbium was assisted by Kharadron, which would likely place it after the events of the Season of War, as Kharadron weren't trading with or helping the surface before then, and no earlier than the Realm of Chaos (due to Kharadron not existing prior) if it were possible for Kharadron to have wanted to help establish the Kingdom in order to give them somebody to trade with that long ago. Lohisa describes the Unburied going back at least seven generations ("my great grandfather's grandfather"), and I'm not sure if that much time is supposed to have passed since the Season of War, but timelines are a pretty ambiguous factor in AoS, an it's always possible that time has moved faster in this part of Shyish than the rest of the Mortal Realms.

Prince Volant, the current Morn-Prince is currently rallying the Grave Wardens of Morbium's various keeps against the hordes of invading ghouls, and Gotrek must find him if he's to reach Nagash. After Gotrek and Trachos pool their engineering skills to get a gatehouse overrun by ghouls open, we get a bit of downtime, with Malaneth asking Gotrek about his time in the Realm of Chaos (bit odd when she was there with him in Blood of the Old World), and Gotrek telling her he "killed and was killed over and over again", nothing really dying there. Trachos removes his helmet for the first time to reveal messy white hair, framing a previously handsome leonine face, now covered in scars, and shares his backstory, involving being the last survivor of his retinue of Celestial Vindicators, and then being assigned to a force of Hammers of Sigmar in Shyish, only to fall out with them after slaughtering some liberated slaves a few of whom had turned to cannibalism. Maleneth, with the help of the consciousness of her former mistress bound to her amulet, starts to contrive a plan to engineer a situation where Gotrek would take the same vunerable form used by Lohisa's magics, in order to be able to kill him in a weakened state and claim the Master Rune.

We're given a few chapters from the perspective of Prince Vollant, and King Galan and Queen Nea, the rulers of the unnamed Flesh-Eater court invading Morbium as the war unfolds. Prince Vollant rides a skeletal drake, and his knights skeletal steeds; these are never directly explained, and not given any special treatment by the Erebid, and Lohisa is seen animating the corpses of a few slain ghouls, meaning it's safe to assume necromancy is a sanctioned thing in Morbium. As described in Part 1, the Ghouls aren't hugely interesting, and their chapters are rather short. They worship a god called the Great Wolf, and view the Erebid as upstart barbarian rebels that it's their duty as fair and just rulers to put down, and have several Terrorgheists at their disposal.

Gotrek and party eventually reach the outpost Vollant had prepared to make a last stand at and been beaten half dead at, where Gotrek spots, and fells a giant ghoul "hundreds of feet tall", and not likely to be turning up in any battletome soon. Vollant and Gotrek seem impressed with each other, and Vollant offers to bring Gotrek to Nagash if Gotrek can get the Erebid and Unburied to the Lingering Keep, Morbium's capital. The route to the Lingering Keep is blocked, and the only way to reach it looks like via the Spindrift, a decommissioned Kharadron skyvessel the Erebid have to hand... but with no way to channel the remaining aether-gold in order to fly it. Trachos suggests the Master Rune of Krag Blackhammer, and Gotrek begrudgingly agrees.

We're given a lovely description of Gotrek hooked up with cables in order to power the ship, and after he expresses concerns over the Master Rune burning him out and Grimnir consuming his personality, Maleneth suggests using Lohisa's means of communing with the Unburied in a vulnerable state to help Gotrek take some of the weight. To Maleneth's surprise this actually works, and the Spindrift pilots a smoother course, with Maleneth's mistress spurring her on to murder him. Trachos and Maleneth have about as close to a heart to heart as either is able to get, with Trachos saying he thinks that Gotrek's having faith in him when he himself did not has changed him for the better, and Maleneth not quite being able to bring herself to deride him.

On the Spindrift reaching the Lingering Keep (described as almost the size of a Free City), Maleneth resolves not to kill Gotrek after all, telling herself that she'd rather find out what his purpose is, why he's been sent to the Mortal Realms and by who, before sticking a knife in him. The city is awash with Ghouls, lead by King Galan and Queen Nea, and after Prince Volant explains that he can't send Gotrek to Nagash until the ghouls have been stopped, Gotrek becomes convinced that Nagash is afraid of him, and has sent the ghouls to Morbium on purpose in order to prevent the Slayer from ever reaching him, and gets on with chopping through ghouls. There's a short scene where after Trachos and Maleneth have been separated from Gotrek, Trachos removes his helmet to reveal his face is pulsing with supernatural silvery light, most visible through his scar tissue, presumably a side effect of reforging (he's on his third). Gotrek eventually reunites with the pair, telling Trachos "no wonder you wear a hat", and that's the last we hear of it, but hopefully it's a hook for future stories.

Gotrek and Maleneth make very short work of King Galan and Queen Nea, and the ghoul army quickly falls into disarray without their leadership. Neither Gotrek nor Maleneth seems to like that they compliment each other well in combat, which is a nice touch. We then get Prince Volant's inevitable villain reveal, with a monologue about how the only way he can preserve the Erebid in any way is to offer however many thousand souls worth of Unburied Morbium has banked up to Nagash in exchange for a role as his servant, thus saving himself, and thus the bloodline of the Erbid. Vollant reveals that he believes this to be a last resort, having previously hired Kurin and the shrivers to send rare souls to Nagash to offer in place of the Unburied (Maleneth feels vindicated and Gotrek accepts that the interaction with "Felix" was an obvious sham), but Nagash wouldn't stop there, and it's the Unburied or bust. Gotrek weighs up being able to get to Nagash, and gives a misdirecting speech about having previously given up hope of finding anyone in the Mortal Realms who thinks like him, before telling Volant to stuff it, and praising the Erebid's tenacity and ancestor reverence, before Lohisa kills the Morn-Prince.

Gotrek then gets a bit introspective, telling Trachos and Maleneth that perhaps he'd been sent to the Mortal Realms to do more than just die, and tells the Erebid, that as much as they remind him of Dwarfs (his Dwarfs, not duardin), he wishes Dwarfs had been a bit less proud, and a bit more willing to accept change in the face of Armageddon, and that their duty is to themselves and the Unburied, and not Morbium itself. The Erebid reveal a cache of leftover Kharadron skyvessels that Trachos says he can use Gotrek to power. Gotrek groans.

The book closes with another missive from Maleneth to her superior in Azyr, saing that she, Gotrek and Trachos (who she both writes in marginally more complimentary tones about than earlier) are helping the Erebid pilot their skyfleet to Hammersk√°ld, a nearby stormkeep. The Erebid have adopted Gotrek as a sort of messiah, and are starting to model their wargear - and hairstyles on his. Naturally Gotrek is less than thrilled at this development and only placated by the alcohol his new groupies seem to insist on offering him. Gotrek has apparently abandoned any kind of mission to confront Nagash, and is now convinced he's able to 'fix' the Mortal Realms, but needs to get his axe back first...

Phew! I couldn't really discuss Nagash's non appearance in Part 1 of this review. It became pretty obvious from the point there were about 50 pages left that Gotrek wasn't going to be confronting Nagash, at least not in Ghoulslayer, and that we'd either be looking at a cliffhanger, or Gotrek not getting near Nagash at all. While disappointed, I was comfortably invested enough in the story (albeit more Gotrek and his companions' than Morbium's) that by this point that I didn't mind a whole buch, which is a real testament to Hinks' writing, and was happy for the novel to end the way it did.

Ghoulslayer vastly differs from David Guymer's audio dramas, which feature Gotrek facing off against and trying to make sense of AoS cornerstones like Fyreslayers, Sylvaneth and Silver Towers; instead having him interact with an entirely new corner of the Mortal Realms created specifically from the book. Part of the fun of Gotrek in the new setting is giving him a WFB grognard's approach to the established parts of it, and it stands to reason that if he was going to decide he liked or respected anything in the Mortal Realms that it couldn't be anything appearing in a battletome, thus necessitating Morbium and the Erebid.

I hope you've enjoyed this review, I imagine I'll be back with another one when the Black Library get round to releasing another Gotrek story in whatever format, in the meantime I'm going to get on with finishing painting my Gotrek model and hoping that Battletome: Cities of Sigmar gets a release announcement tomorrow night so I can get on with writing about it!


  1. While I found King Galan's chapters interesting enough, I think it was a shame that Gotrek's battle with him didn't get a bit significance attached to it.

    If you think about it, Galan was just as much of a mirror of Gotrek as Volant was. It's just where Volant abandoned his people and used his traditions as an excuse to justify his actions, Galan lived completely in the past and held on to his kingdom's memory even after it was dead and rotted.

    Not to mention that Gotrek's influence over the Erebid at the end, with many of their number getting swept up in his infectious heroism was itself kind of a parallel to the infectious madness of the Flesheater Court.

    Alas the book's actual narrative didn't seem to catch onto the potential there and IMO wasted what was a potentially really interesting confrontation for Gotrek.

    I mean it was still a good book, the fact THIS is my biggest criticism rather than any technical flaw attests to that. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who likes Gotrek. It just fell a few hairs short of being a *great* book.

  2. This feels very much like a side story. Especially some of the revelations and the ax set up. It seems like the proper place for it is actually BEFORE blood of the old world. Since that starts with Gotrek looking for his axes.