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Book Review: Warhammer: The End Times – The Return of Nagash

Warhammer: The End Times – The Return of Nagash
Publisher: Games Workshop/The Black Library
Cost: $30 (Physical)/$15.99 (Digital)
Page Count: 448
Release Date: 08/30/2014
Get it Here: The Black Library

If you’ve been reading my White Dwarf reviews, then you know The End Times are here. Games Workshop has given the fantasy side of Warhammer a major shot in the arm with a world reaching plotline, the death of a lot of major characters and some excellent new rules and minis that will drastically change how the game is played (in my opinion, for the better). You can find all of these changes, both crunch and fluff, in the two book set Nagash, which I will be covering in a few days if you don’t want to drop the $85 on it. I will say that The End Times has me excited for Warhammer for the first time since Fifth Edition (nearly twenty years ago) when I got my Lizardmen Vs. Bretonnian boxed set.

The Return of Nagash is a very long and extremely detailed novel that takes place before the Nagash book set. Although Nagash does indeed rise in this book, it’s not until the last five percent of the novel. So if you are looking for a cheaper alternative to the Nagash set, this is not the answer. Instead, The Return of Nagash is a look at the events that took place prior to Nagash. You get to see how alliances formed and fell, many major battles and, most importantly, a look at how everything came together thanks to the machinations and/or involvement of quite a few key players. In fact, this is probably why I loved The Return of Nagash so much. A lot of Warhammer novels (both 40K and Fantasy) tend to be more bad than good, with hackneyed plots, two dimensional characters and a LOT of padding. I was afraid this would be the case with The Return of Nagash when I saw what it was roughly 450 pages long, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. Dozens of characters were given the spotlight throughout the book. Every character given a name, be they a longtime major player in Warhammer like Mannfred Von Carstein or Arkhan the Black down to new characters introduced simply to die in this novel, are really fleshed out. Each character is given enough personality and depth that you get to know and care about them. Then the axe falls.

Seriously. This is like all of A Song of Ice and Fire rolled up into a single novel with the amount of “name brand” character death. Sometimes you can see it coming, especially since you know how the novel will end, while other times it’s a bit shocking, especially for longtime Warhammer fans. So many major characters die HORRIBLY in this thing. Servants of Chaos, necromancers, major elven heroes and the like all bite the axe, so good and bad characters all bite it. Some of the deaths are from regular old combat while some are just nasty. A certain major character is turned into a vampire. Lots of major mainstay characters are sacrificed to Nagash so he can return. One is actually used as the host for Nagash. One longtime Vampire Counts character turns to Chaos and pays the price for it. One is turned to ash and rust with a single touch from Arkhan the Black. Even though we all know the book is going to end with the resurrection of the first necromancer and lich-king himself, it’s the journey rather than the destination that this novel makes so much fun. It’s honestly one of the best Warhammer novels I’ve ever read, and it’s up there with Tales From Failed Anatomies and The Reaver as the best tabletop fiction of the year. I can’t remember the last time I loved a Warhammer novel this much. It’s been years, and it’s so good it makes me want to pick up the author’s other work, especially since he did a Gotrex and Felix novel featuring my Tomb Kings lynch pin, Queen Khalida.

It’s also worth noting that this novel is a great jumping on point for newcomers. You can read and thoroughly enjoy this novel even if this is your first ever taste of Warhammer fiction. New and old characters are treated with the same amount of respect and characterization. You are also given lots of background on the character and events in the world in general. Sure longtime fans of Warhammer will probably get more out of the book because they have all this extra knowledge, but newcomers can easily read this without feeling lost or over their head. I was really impressed by how accommodating The Return of Nagash was to people who have never painted a Citadel miniature or read a single army codex. I loved it and this is exactly the perspective Games Workshop and their creative team needs to be taking with The End Times. Newcomers will be in for a wilder rider as they will look at each character equally and probably be wowed by each named death in the book. Meanwhile longtime Warhammer fans will probably be even more shocked by certain character deaths as they have been around forever, while not as invested as the characters who exist on in the pages of this book.

Another thing I loved about The Return of Nagash was how some longtime characters were treated. Generally undead lords like Arkhan the Black and the like are treated as two-dimensional stereotypical bad guys. In the past, only Vlad Von Carstein has really been given this much depth. By the end of The Return of Nagash you get to really know characters like Heinrich Kemmler and at times even feel pity for some of these undead warlord. I have to admit, I found Arkhan the Black to be one of the most likeable and personable characters in the novel and he’s an ancient lich bent on the total destruction of all life as we know it. That doesn’t mean that everyone else is utterly unlikeable, but that you really get to see his thoughts, motivations and desires. You can actually empathize with someone who wants life to cease to exist, which is damn impressive. I even felt pity for Mannfred and Krell at times who really step out of the “Nyah ha ha ha” evildoer motif. Of course, part of this is because the Undead are actually the lesser evil in The End Times of Warhammer but also a testament to the writing of author Josh Reynolds. I also have to say that out of all the characters in the novel. Erikan Crowfiend, a vampire (Strigoi, I believe) introduced in this novel, became my favorite character in the book and I would love for him to get a novel showcasing his entire backstory (as a prequel) or even one featuring him as a major character in The End Times. He was pretty fantastic. Obviously I haven’t read all the Warhammer novels, but I don’t remember ever encountering this character before and neither has anyone else I know that reads Warhammer fiction on occasion. Still, Erikan Crowfiend was a truly wonderful character and he shows how you can be a vampire in Warhammer and not some blackhearted sociopath. The usual portrayal of Vampire Counts is probably why I gravitated to the Tomb Kings when the Undead split occurred. They were undead but more or less “good guys.” Of course, that’s a bit out the window now with Nagash’s return…

In a nutshell, the plot of The Return of Nagash centers around the current lord of the undead, Mannfred Von Carstein and the ancient liche, Arkhan the Black. Both want to resurrect the first and greatest necromancer, Nagash for different reasons but they choose to form a temporary alliance to make it happen. The plan is to gather several artifacts from Nagash’s previous existence, including the Fellblade (which was used to kill him), two of his mystical tomes and his ancient black armor. The book entails the undead’s attempt to gather these items while also dealing with intrigue, backstabbing and generally not getting along. The backbiting isn’t just between Mannfred and Arkhan, but within the rank and file of the undead. Leadership of a certain squad of knights changes three times within the course of the novel for example. You really do get a great look at all the principal players in the realm of Sylvania and how differently each major vampire is motivated and/or thinks. By the end of course, the Undead triumph over human nations like Bretonnia and the Empire, while also outsmarting and out muscling High Elves, Wood Elves, Beastmen, Dwarves and Skaven. Of course, it’s impossible to go into this novel and not expect the undead to accomplish their goal of resurrecting Nagash because it’s THE TITLE OF THE BOOK FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. Even so, I had to admit I expected some major characters from other armies to make it out alive by the skin of the teeth or through luck. Of course, even those that do survive and are on the winning side don’t make it out unscathed. Even in victory, Mannfred is given his worst nightmare made flesh as a reward and Arkhan the Black gets…some kind of spell placed on him from Aliathra the Everchild. It will probably either be a curse that leads to his eventual defeat at the end of The End Times, although what I’d really like to see is that it allows him to break free completely from Nagash’s control. You can see hints of that in the novel and I’d love to see Arkhan get to finally be his own “man” after eons of being little more than Nagash’s construct. That would be an awesome finish, but we won’t know exactly what happened here for many months/years down the road.

Of course, the novel isn’t JUST about the Undead. We get revelations about many different factions in the Warhammer world. We get to hear about the decimation of Bretonnia, including revelations about the Green Knight and the death of BOTH faction heads in the civil war that had engulfed the country. We get to see how both Elf nations have changed, including Orion becoming little more than a berserker and Tyrion becoming even more of a Marty Stu than ever. You get to see tens of thousands of Skaven die, the Chaos Gods thwarted and portions of the Empire fall. Yes, the majority of the novel does center on the Undead, but whatever Warhammer faction is your favorite, you’ll get to see them represented here, and with both respect and detail. Except Lizardmen and Tomb Kings. They don’t appear at all. Sure, those are the two armies I collect and paint, but even with them being snubbed, this is still a fantastic novel. More importantly, it’s a wonderful introduction to The End Times as a whole and promises great things to come… like hopefully a new Bretonnian Army book and a bunch of new miniatures. It’s been over ten years GW!

In the end, The Return of Nagash is a fantastic novel, whether you are a longtime Warhammer fan or brand new to the brand. It’s a long book, but every page drips with importance and detail. You’ll mourn new and classic characters alike as they bite the dust and by the end, I will be surprised if you aren’t SORELY tempted to spend the $85 on the two book Nagash set to find out what happens next. It really is THAT good. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. Between this and Nagash, Warhammer: The End Times has simply been fantastic so far and it’s rekindled my love of a brand which for a long time now, has been little more than something for me to paint rather than play. A fantastic job by the author Josh Reynolds here and I can honestly say that when my review of Nagash goes live in a few days, it will be just as positive and praise-filled. There has never been a better time to bite the bullet and try Warhammer than right now and this novel showcases exactly why.

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