Sunday, 1 December 2013

5) - Plague Daemon

Excitement in the world of this blog!  First we have passed 1989 and made are way into the second year of warhammer novels.  Second i have no idea what order they were released in so i decided to go for Plague Daemon so we could do our first full sequel as its the second tale of Orfeo!  I tried to get my mindset into 1990 so did a bit of research into what happened, i was 10 when it rolled round the first time and have long since forgotten.  So forget the reunification of Germany or the first Gulf war and Jim Henson's death.  I did remember this however -
Magicland Dizzy on the ZX Spectrum was released in 1990, 128k of greatness.  Eat your heart out GTA 5!

Ok the cover at the top is the one i got which is the Black Library reissue of 2002 so lets have a look at the other ones the world wide web has revealed to me.
So this one i think is the original, its got the same random background as others in the series and in case you don't know the title they have repeated it time and time again in child's writing.  Its then copy and pasted the Great Unclean one from the Lost and the Damned onto the front.  You may think this is a bit easy but remember its 1990!  That would have taken a supercomputer!  
All this just to copy and paste the cover of Plague Daemon
Next i found this - 
Getting a bit better
They have decided by this time the copy and paste is far too difficult and time consuming so they just used the whole cover of the Lost and the Dammed.  The best one by far is the remade one as its actually for the book with the main hero and villain both depicted.  Although the daemon has some real issues with its nails and is long overdue a manicure.  How does he manage to hold anything?
Again it is authored by Brian Craig, real name Brian Stableford and if you have read my previous reviews of Zaragoz or the short stories you will know we are in for three guaranteed things.  Lets crack out the Brian Stableford warhammer checklist - 

1) An awesome build to the character development and plot.
2) A disappointing ending to said plot after it fails to live up to expectations.
3) A really strange sexual encounter.

Ok checklist at the ready - SPOILERS INCOMING

So we start of with the narrator of the tale Orfeo still in captivity and in the midst of a daring escape.  Maro is with him and they steal some donkeys....yep.  Maro fumbles the harness and Orfeo gets annoyed but come on, Maro has been threatened with becoming a eunuch!  I would be a wreck under that kind of pressure so come on Orfeo give the kid a break.  Funnily enough they are caught as the pursuers can walk faster than the donkeys and Orfeo is asked to tell a tale about the dread powers of chaos.
Saddle this or loose your manhood, good luck!
The tale starts with a scene setting description of the location of this adventure which will be based in the Border Princes.  For those who don't know the Border Princes are an area of the warhammer world where no maps really exist.  The story goes that its full of petty kingdoms that are constantly falling and being rebuilt so its a blank canvass for writers.  I am for this as its nice to see some other areas of the warhammer world get some love rather than being set in the Empire all the time.  Oh and its nice to see Brian Stableford leave Bretonnia!  The first chapter proper describes the land of Khypris which is built around the river of the Tana Dante.  It is made up of many towns and the chapter goes into quite a lot of detail about the land and its enemies, the hill men known as the Zani.  It reminds of a campaign setting and this is one of Stableford's strengths as i really buy into this as a real place that could exist. Next we are introduced to the star of the show, Harmis Detz.  Detz is a soldier in the border guard who wear the colours of Prince Faramond the ruler of Khypris.  Stableford has obviously learns from Zaragoz where we had to imagine a poet was an amazing warrior.  At least now we are following a soldier any fights will be a lot more believable.  So Harmis Detz and his brother Lavarock are stationed in a remote village.  Lavarock has a wife and child, Harmis is single.  Oh well i dont fancy Lavarocks chance of surviving this now!  Wait?  Lavarock.....
Lavarock.....Interesting choice of firstname from Mrs Detz, Luckily for Harmis he was born first.
So Harmis is on watch and after a strange drowsy fog they come under attack and he is knocked out by a flying hoof before he sees anything.  When he comes to its carnage and everyone is dead, including Lavarock.  Wow i know i did not like his chances of surviving but that was much quicker than expected.  Harmis decides to track down his brothers murderers who turn out to be a band of mutants.  Knowing he cant beat them in a fight he continues to follow them to the wizard Astyanax's tower.  Cracking name for a wizard and again gives life to this area of the Border Princes.

What follows is the first major battle scene of the novel.  Harmis cant get to the wizard before the mutants so uses a mirror to try and signal them.  The tower (or house but i prefer to think of it as an old school wizards tower) is based in a lake of dark water known as the Tarn.  When the mutants attack they are assailed by tentacles and battle to free themselves from being dragged into the water.  A lone archer is also shooting at them but eventually the mutants make it through the door.  Soon though they are fleeing back out but their leader who is a sorcerer is clearly getting ready for a large spell.  Harmis sneaks up behind him and sinks his two throwing daggers into the sorcerers back.  At first they have no effect and the spell causes the tower to collapse before the sorcerer collapses.  Harmis gets a bit cocky seeing himself as a mighty wizard slayer, but then the sorcerer looks at him and curses him before he dies.
Dont look at his eyes!  Schoolboy error from Harmis.

Harmis awakes to find the wizards two apprentices helping him.  The girl Averil who is described as being very plain and Nicodemus who was the archer.  Nicodemus has injured his arm and is now next to useless.  It turns out the sorcerer who they call a Lazarite has cursed him and he must drink the black water, known as Tarnwine to keep the curse in check.  Harmis is taken to the dying wizard Astyanax who has been trapped under the debris of the collapsed tower.  The wizard pleads with Harmis that a greater threat still exists.  A daemon known as the Katharos is abroad in the land and they have planned for his coming. The wizard blesses the knives he used to kill the sorcerer so they can damage the daemon and tells him the daemons true name.  Harmis is less than impressed by this turn of events but decides to help the young apprentices get to the town they need to get to.

So in a quick recap we have a reluctant hero who must go on a quest to save the people form a daemonic magical threat that he knows nothing about.  Oh and he is after revenge for his brother as well.  Its classic sword and sorcery!

The trio come to Aldium where they spread word to the authorities.  Unlike your normal fantasy affair where no one believes the heroes the people of power kick start into action.  We then get the rest of the chapter dealing with how the towns people deal with the news.  I can see why its included as it gives the sense of impending despair which Nurgle feeds on but its not very exciting to write about so will skip over it.  Harmis and Averil kind of fall out as he wants to leave them and go back to the Border Guard instead of following the quest.  However he is addicted to the Tarnwine which they have as its fighting the corruption inside him.  The local commander gives him special dispensation and written orders to accompany the young apprentices wherever they need to go.  The quest continues!

After a few plodding chapters the action starts to ramp up.  The Zani have invaded and a scouting group of them spot the three companions and they try and shake them off but to no avail.  Harmis leads them into a wooded area.  Looking for help he finds some Gypsies who he decides are just as bad as the pursuing Zani, so he decides to hide up a tree and hope they take each other out.     

Nope, no respite from Murdering Marauders here, best let them kill each other.
Sure enough the Zani attack the camp and we get a pretty gory and descriptive account of the fate of the gypsies.  Well i guess thats what you get for camping on someone else's land and not paying any tax.  Anyway as the Zani sleep Harmis descends from the trees and starts silently killing them.  However it would be boring if it was that easy so of course they wake up and the fight ensues.  Harmis uses their injuries from the previous battle to his advantage to win the battle.  Stableford is very clever with these kind of fights.  Technically Harmis should have no chance but by manipulating the environment and being clever the victory is believable without any over the top heroics.  Harmis has to use one of his magic daggers though so he is down to one which means he has one shot at the daemon, just to build the tension. 

During the fight though Harmis is wounded and the infection still within him gets worse.  They find a roadside hamlet and it looks deserted as people flee the oncoming Zani.  They find an inn where a few people have decided to hide and hope the Zani miss them.  There is only one bed and Harmis takes it, much to the annoyance of the locals but they are fearful of him for he is a member of the border guard.  They decide that there mission is to important to wait so Nicodemus goes on ahead in a bid to find the wizards old apprentice (who i assume is now a wizard in his own right) Ritandyr.  With only plain Averil to look after the ill Harmis from the locals there is a bit of tension here of a different kind to that we have found so far, it examines human nature and its very well done.  Then things go a bit bizarre.  It wouldn't be Brian Stableford if it didn't i guess.  One of the women in the Inn needs to give birth, so she needs the bed.  Harmis is too ill to move so she has to lie next to him and give birth.  Harmis is in and out of consciousness and we get the events from his viewpoint, which needless to say is a bit f*cked up.  Anyway the baby is born and its a hideous mutant.  They all blame Averil as she helped deliver the baby and being a wizards apprentice is accused of being a witch who has cursed them.  Also the women giving birth dies from the labor as she bleeds to death.  All while poor Harmis is in bed next to all this.  I dont care how ill you are i would have got up before then.

Congratulations its a.....erm....
80s cartoon Muppet Babies would have been much better if it was Mutant Babies.  But anyway Harmis is well enough to ride so they get out of town as quick as they can before things can turn nasty.  In the next village they come across another moral conundrum.  Three members of the border guard are all that is left and they are wounded.  A women is trying to help them but they need Harmis help as with their horses they can have the cart pulled and use that to get them to safety.  Averil is dead against the idea as she wants to press on with the mission, and not at all to do with the fact that she has been described constantly as plain and the women helping the wounded soldiers, Asmunda, is otherworldly beautiful.  In the end Harmis gives them one horse and they leave them.  However in thanks Asmunda gives him a gold coin, even though he was willing to give the spare horse for free.  This section of the novel reminds me of an after disaster type film when society breaks down and focuses on human nature and moral issues.  Its a change of pace but it makes you think so it does add to the novel.

Finally they reach the town of Cavanal where they are meant to rendezvous with Nicodemus and Ritandyr.  Cavanal sits on the Tana Dante, the river and even though the bridges have been broken to prevent the advancing Zani from taking the town a small temporary bridge has been set up with all the refuges desperate to cross it.  This is bad news as we know the Zani are not the real threat but the plague daemon so it will be able to cross the river.  Averil has to wait in the queue as Harmis goes to look around.  He bumps into Asmunda again and a bit of light flirting ensues before she goes her own way.  While waiting he hears rumors of a plague in town and that the first victims were three soldiers who arrived on the back of the cart.  Harmis starts to wonder if he is the cause of the plague.  I don't think so, the daemon is Asmunda, its far too obvious to build any suspense.  Anyway with the Zani approaching tensions rise with the refugees and as it starts to boil over Harmis intervenes and the wizard Ritandyr appears to cool things down.  With the wizards authority they are able to get across the bridge into Cavanal itself.   

They take up residence in an inn at the first task is to locate the daemon.  They decide to use a powerful spell to locate the corruption.  During the spell it turns out its the gold piece Harmis was given by Asmunda is the source of the plague.  Oh well at least they didn't keep the obvious suspense going for to long.  We now know its her officially.  Anyway they need to perform an even more powerful spell to stop the corrupted gold.  They are going to unleash a thunderstorm and use the tarnwine to wash away the corruption.  Harmis will see none of this as the Zani now lay siege to Cavanal and Harmis must join the defence.

The clue was in the giant skull face of death.....
Now to explain the siege i must explain a bit more about the Zani.  They are hillmen who have massive Yak like beasts called Aurochs.  When they need to they move down into the lands of Khypris for their herds to graze but they have never made it across the river, the Tana Dante.  Anyway they are clearly being manipulated by the daemon who wants to sow the seeds of despair.  Despite the fact we have been building to this confrontation for some time the siege is pretty brief.  The battle on the banks of the river is brutal enough but as the Zani make it into the town the magical storm starts with a far from natural lightning and thunder storm.  This causes the herd of Aurochs to panic and stampede, crushing the Zani who were trapped by the beasts on one side and the river on the other.

The siege of Cavanal

Ive never seen the Lion King....I know!  Brian Stableford should sue Disney, they are clearly stealing his ideas.  When Harmis gets back to the inn he finds the wizard dead, the daemon has got to him via the spell.  Nicodemus is hurt, again, he really is useless.  So despite being defeated they head to the city of Khypris itself in an effort to confront the daemon.  During the journey Harmis hears Nicodemus and plain Averil making love when they camp, and is annoyed about it but then doesn't begrudge them seeking solace with each other.  Well that was random!  And it means we can check off the random sexual encounter from the checklist!  I didn't think it was going to happen but he managed it.  Pro.

Now it gets serious.  The plague has spread and decimated the land and the writing goes into great detail about the people that are left and the dead at the side of the road.  People are desperate for help but they cant help them so they must walk on.  The part about Harmis not looking at the children is pretty tough to read.  I can understand why he wont look as it would break his resolve.  Tough stuff.  

So the heroes arrive at Kyphris and the guards let them in but the city is deserted, everyone is dead or in hiding from the plague.  They make their way to the palace where it is locked and Nicodemus does his first useful thing and opens the bolt of a locked door using magic so they can get in.  Again there is no sign of life as the plague has claimed everyone within.  Movement out of the corner of the eye leads them on and they make their way down into the dungeons with each step the corruption gets worse.  Waiting for them is the Asmunda and the daemon tries very convincingly to persuade Harmis to join her and serve the plague god.  Harmis refuses and says the daemons true name, Ystareth.  The daemon is now bound to the place but then it all goes a bit weird.

Harmis has an out of body experience due to him still having some of the curse in him.  There he sees the story behind the daemon.  She had once been a citizen of Khypris and had a brother whom she had loved dearly.  However the brother had been killed in this dungeon.  There was no one person to blame so the revenge had been directed against Khypris itself, revenge the chaos god Nurgle was happy to help with.  I like how we get to see the story behind the daemon and its motivations but i am not sure about the way it was delivered.  The daemon could easily have just told them!  

The final confrontation takes place in the throne room with the daemon in its true form sitting on the throne.  Now lets quickly look back at the checklist, we should have a very anti-climatic ending.  Well i am very pleased to report that this is not the case in Plague Daemon.  It is a cracking end where Nicodemus sacrifices himself to give them a chance against the magical pestilent breath of the daemon.  Harmis users that powerful image of the dying children earlier to overcome the daemons power and put his magical dagger through the daemons heart.  I cant do it justice in a paragraph so i wont try.

So the story comes to an end and we switch back to Orfeo who reveals afterwards that Harmis ended up ruling Khypris with his wife Averil.  Wait he gets married to Averil, why did he mention in the story she was having sex with Nicodemus, strange thing to put in your story to a wandering bard.  Anyway they get into an argument as the Caliph says this should have been in the story.  Orfeo disagrees saying the story is about hope.  I disagree the Caliph is right.

Orfeo has been watching too much Dawson's Creek....Spooney bard!
Okay to sum up Plague Daemon i would say i enjoyed it more than Zaragoz.  The build up is not as good but the detail of the lands of Khypris and its population lends it credibility and i really bought into it.  It is a little light on the action but the moral dilemma side of it gives it a different aspect and realism.  We still had the random with the sexual encounter and the out of body experience at the end, oh and the weird birth scene.  The more i think about it the more i am convinced Stableford enjoys, erm, herbal medicine as some of the stuff is so random. In the end it was much more of generic sword and sorcery romp than his previous efforts and it better for it.

I do however have one major gripe.  Its a big one as well.  During the setup at the start when Orfeo is speaking to the Caliph about the tale and setting up the story itself he says this - "But i have only known one man who claimed to have fought a champion of chaos face to face and won."  So right at the very start of the novel we know Harmis wins.  This instantly ruined all sense of suspense that the novel then tries to build.  Drop this part and it would be a much better read, or put it at the end.

Im off to play Magicland Dizzy.

Rating - 6/10   

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