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Heldenhammer by Graham McNeill

May 23, 2008

It’s difficult to talk about Heldenhammer without talking first about its setting, the Warhammer World. So I’ll do that.

Set in what looks like a mis-remembered drawing of our own world, with not-quite-real country and place names, the Warhammer World contains nothing original. Fantasy elements are almost entirely derivative of Tolkien and Moorcock, and most of what’s left is cobbled together from random bits of history, often badly distorted. It’s a poor setting for any writer to attempt a creative work, being so utterly uncreative itself.

So to Heldenhammer. This is the story of Sigmar, an ancient warrior-god of early humanity. The setting is the human lands that will one day become The Empire (a sort of Holy Roman Empire with). For now, the humans are scattered into various small tribes, whose not-quite-historical names will jar with any student of European history. Ostrogoths? Oh, no, this tribe is called the Ostagoths and so on.

Beneath the banal exterior lies a fairly simple story. So simple in fact that it trips over itself frequently. Sigmar is the uncertain but high in resolve son of a tribal king, except he’s already distinguished himself in battle several times, and earned a powerful magical weapon from the Dwarfs, sometime allies of the human tribes. He’s uncertain and hesitant with women like a modern teenager (like the target audience for the book, I suspect), yet we are to believe he’s in his late twenties.

McNeill makes a decent go of things, especially considering what he has to work with here. To be fair, the book warms up towards the end, with Sigmar uniting several tribes in a titanic final battle with the orcs who have invaded in large numbers. There the book ends, presumably to be picked up again in a future volume. I’ll be happy to miss those.

It was a mistake to read Heldenhammer so soon after Wolf of the Plains, which is historical fiction done so well. This book pales in comparison with any historical alternative, and also pales compared to better examples of the fantasy genre.

Books from the Warhammer setting suffer compared to those based around the Warhammer 40,000 setting, which although developed by the same company and same people, offers a richer tapestry to develop stories against. McNeill himself has written fine stories in that setting. We’re not talking Alasdair Reynolds, Dan Simmons, or Peter F Hamilton levels of science fiction. But it does provide an interesting enough background for agreeable pulp reading. It’s far more difficult for a writer to achieve the same using the limp setting of the Warhammer World.

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