The Return of Nagash by Josh Reynolds (Book Review)
The End Times have begun for Warhammer Fantasy. The hordes of Chaos are pouring in from the North even as vast armies of Daemons lay siege to Ulthuan and the Skaven rise up from the Under-Empire to claim dominance on the surface world. Bretonnia and the Empire face enemies of their own and heroes and villains rise up as well, only to fall before each other. It is a dark time indeed for Warhammer Fantasy, made all the darker by the fact that the greatest villain of the ages, Nagash himself has returned to challenge everyone everywhere. The Return of Nagash is the tale of how the necromantic liche is resurrected and what part the Von Carstein vampires play in that.
In the age when the Nehekharan Empire was still strong and vibrant in the Southlands, Nagash rose to power as the greatest sorcerer of his times, and he eventually went on to become the grandfather of all vampires everywhere. He clashed with heroes like Sigmar of the Empire, who eventually went on to become a God to its people, and his is a name considered one of the foulest by all the good people of the Old World. His is a legacy that cannot be forgotten, and that is exactly what Josh Reynolds builds upon in this novel. Through the eyes of the liche Arkhan the Black and Mannfred von Carstein, we see how the End Times are changing the world, and get a hint of the role that Nagash is going to play in it, not to mention the immense challenges that must be overcome for his return to become an undisputed reality.
When I first heard about the End Times, I wasn’t sure what to make of all the news that was filtering out of Games Workshop. Warhammer Fantasy is a setting that has suffered, terribly so in my opinion, from a lack of attention through Games Workshop’s publishing arm Black Library. One need only look at last year’s Advent Calendar or the schedule of releases for the last eighteen months. Fantasy releases have been few and far in between, feeding the perception that Fantasy just doesn’t sell that well and so the content is to be more moderated than for either Warhammer 40,000 or the Horus Heresy.
Which is why The Return of Nagash and Gotrek & Felix: Kinslayer are such important novels. For a setting that has been locked in a harsh status quo for years, things are finally changing. There are fortunes made and lost equally in the End Times and at the forefront of it all is Nagash, the greatest necromancer and sorcerer the Old World has ever seen. Nagash himself doesn’t make an appearance until the very last few pages, since the bulk of the narrative is from the point of view of his right hand man, the “nice guy” liche Arkhan the Black, and one of Nagash’s distant sorcerous progency, Mannfred von Carstein, the Vampire Lord of Sylvania.
There are many other characters we meet along the way, even get to see the story unfold from the perspectives of many of them, but the ultimate driving force in the novel are Arkhan and Mannfred. The reason is because with the advent of the End Times, Arkhan thinks that the time to resurrect Nagash is at hand finally, and Mannfred agrees, but he wants to bring forth Nagash to serve his own ends. They are both ambitious in their own way and the novel charts their ambitions and their foibles and their weaknesses and their strengths.
Given the large number of characters present in this novel, things could easily have gotten sidetracked, but that’s not the case thankfully. Even when we have characters making an appearance for a brief scene or two or three, they feel relevant to the plot because there is a genuine progression of the story with each character. Sometimes the novel can feel a bit disunited because it kind of amounts to Arkhan and Mannfred going to different places to collect artifacts necessary to resurrect Nagash, but Josh pulls off the execution and makes it all worth it in the end.
Nagash’s role as a supervillain of the Warhammer Fantasy world is undisputed. He is such a major threat in fact that even the Ruinous Powers want to stop Arkhan and Mannfred from resurrecting the Great Necromancer. That alone should tell you something and convey the import of the ritual. He is unto a god by himself and has contended against other gods. The way that it filters down into the novel with the characters involved is that the forces of Chaos do everything they can to stop Arkhan and Mannfred. They send armies of Beastmen and manipulate equally the Dwarfs and the forces of the Empire to content against both these mortal villains.
For Mannfred, locked away in Sylvania by an ambitious and suspiciously extremely-skilled member of the Imperial Colleges of Magic with a metaphysical barrier that prevents the exit of all vampires, enemies are on every side of him. As the inheritor of the legacy of both Vlad and Konrad von Carstein, his predecessors and the greatest among the von Carstein vampires, he is ambitious and skilled and driven to make his own way during the End Times. The Return of Nagash is as much about him systematically destroying his enemies, both within and without his allies and that was one of the things that I really loved.
In other circumstances, he would have been a great force for order in the Old World, but as a vampire and a villain, Mannfred is thoroughly irredeemable and you can’t help but both like and dislike him in equal measure.
But all of that is not reserve for just Mannfred, for Arkhan too has a strong arc of his own in the novel. He is a character I am somewhat familiar with thanks to Mike Lee’s Nagash the Sorcerer, the first novel of the Rise of Nagash trilogy, and getting to see him again, like this was something that appealed to me. I think he was in Josh’s Neferata as well, which is the first novel in the Blood of Nagash duology, but I can’t remember offhand right now. Regardless, Arkhan is one of the more intriguing characters in this novel, and Josh certainly seems to have a good handle on him and his motivations, which are called into question again and again, and we see in each case exactly how he rises to the challenge.
Another thing that The Return of Nagash does really well is depict the epic level of combat and also gives a wider perspective on the Old World as the End Times kick off. We visit Sylvania, Ulthuan, Bretonnia, the Border Princes and more in this novel, with a cast that includes all sorts of characters, whether wizards or warriors, Elf or Dwarf, Human or Beastman. This certainly isn’t a novel that is not steeped in the mythos and lore of the Warhammer world. When Josh got started on Warhammer Fantasy back in 2012, his work was a bit shaky but he has come far since those early days and right now he is definitely among the best writers at the publisher.
And The Return of Nagash is certainly his best work to date, even better than Neferata I dare say, though that is a close call indeed. The pacing can suffer at times, given the scope of things, but overall, it is a solid novel, worth a read or two or three.
Posted on September 26, 2014, in 2014 Reading Challenge, Book Reviews, Challenges, Review Central and tagged 2014 Reading Challenge, Arkhan the Black, Banshees, Beastmen, Black Library, Black Magic, Book Review, Bretonnia, Chaos, Dark Magic, Drakenhof Templars, Dwarfs, Elves, End Times, Epic Fantasy, Fantasy, Games Workshop, Ghouls, Horror, Josh Reynolds, Konrad von Carstein, magic, Mannfred von Carstein, Nagash, Necromancy, Review, Review Central, Ruinous Powers, Skaven, Slayer, Slayer Hold, Slayer King, Sylvania, The Empire, The Return of Nagash, Ulthuan, Under-Empire, Vampires, Vargheists, Vlad Von Carstein, von Carsteins, Warhammer, Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer Fantasy Battles, Wights, Wood Elves. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.