Inside Pulse 12

Audio Drama Review: The Realmgate Wars: The Prisoner of the Black Sun (Warhammer: Age of Sigmar)

The Realmgate Wars: The Prisoner of the Black Sun (Warhammer: Age of Sigmar)
Publisher: Games Workshop
Cost: $14.99 (MP3)/$17.50 (CD)
Runtime: 67 Minutes
Release Date: 09/26/2015
Get it Here:The Black Library

I’ve only ever picked up a Warhammer audio drama once before, and that was Assassinorum: The Emperor’s Judgement, which had some hokey voice acting and, while it WAS a good story, would have been better off as a novella instead of acted out. However, I decided to take the plunge once again with The Prisoner of the Black Sun for three reasons. The first was that I hadn’t been too impressed with Age of Sigmar fiction so far (despite really enjoying the game) and since Josh Reynolds wrote this, I wanted to give it a chance. I loved his The Return of Nagash which won our award for last year’s “Best Gaming Fiction” and The Lord of the End Times is a front runner to win this year as well. The second reason was the promise of a canon return of a certain Von Carstein to the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Josh Reynolds does a great job with the undead of Warhammer, so while my fingers were crossed hoping for Vlad, since this was the first of a four part series… my gut told me that the vampire in question would end up being Mannfred. Because you know… if we were going to get anything close to what I wanted, we’d have a wacky buddy comedy where Arkhan the Black and Lord Kroak had to team up for some reason and the two liches had no choice but to work together as fate threw wacky shenanigans at them (please don’t pistol whip me George Cox). The third and final reason was I wanted to hear what Nagash sounded like. Stupid and trivial, but it is in fact why I picked this up. So is The Prisoner of the Black Sun the first of a great audio series, or was it sixty-seven minutes of my life that I won’t get back with the bright side being I know not to pick up the other three parts of the series as they come out? Let’s find out!

The CD is divided into eight tracks running sixty-seven minutes, while the MP3 is one long piece. My advice is to pay the $2.50 extra and get the CD, as you can rip the disc and listen to the story whenever you want after selling the CD and getting most of your money back.

The Prisoner of the Black Sun starts off with a monologue by Nagash and how he endures/exists, regardless of wins and losses, highs and lows. Oddly enough, it sounded more like Arkhan the Black in tone and mood than Nagash, which is worth noting since the two are so interconnected and much of Nagash is in the one-time gambler. In fact, the monologue is the entire first track, taking up four and a half minutes. I’m not really a fan of the voice used for Nagash, but I did enjoy the words, so my first impression is that once again, this was a story that would be better off read than heard.

From there, the story instantly shifts into a battle with the Hallowed Knights, a sect of Stormcast Eternals, as they do battle with the forces of Khorne in the realm of Death. Our Lord Celestant (leader) of this portion of the Hallowed Knights has the unfortunate name of Tarsus Bull-Heart, which put the voice of Tim Curry and the Darkwing Duck song in my head. If there is one nitpick I have with Age of Sigmar, it’s the terrible naming conventions being used. The Hallowed Knights have traveled to this war-torn realm full of Khornites and carrion birds to try and find the lord of undeath himself, Nagash. However, you only get this story bit from reading the back of the CD case (or the Black Library sales blurb). The story itself just has a massive battle going on and you aren’t told why until later on. Instead, you just get a lot of combat description while all the key names and Age of Sigmar jargon are mentioned. Miniature product placement at its finest. This was a bit disappointing, as usually Reynolds’ Warhammer stories are heavy on character development and low on combat, but this wasn’t the case with the first quarter of The Prisoner of the Black Sun. My guess is that because Age of Sigmar is both very new (roughly three months old) and the focus is far more on combat than the narrative side WFB once had, that will change as the game ages and things get fleshed out. At least I hope so.

After the (first) battle ends with the Stormcast Eternals victorious, the story finally begins to take shape. We get some back story for Tarsus Bull-Heart and his life before he was chosen by Sigmar. It’s also worth noting that Tarsus’ Relictor is NOT from Nagash’s realm ala Ionus Cryptborn, so it’s nice to see that they come from different places rather than all having been plucked from Nagash’s control. You also get the same bit that Nagash once betrayed Sigmar between the end of 8e and the start of Age of Sigmar, but still not how or why. It also seems extremely unlikely that the hints we have been given about Nagash betraying the alliance of gods to Chaos is very likely, considering how he is pretty much the antithesis of Chaos. You don’t get much more orderly than Death. I’m hoping we learn that said betrayal was not actually Nagash’s doing but, once again, Mannfred who screws over all of reality as he did in The End Times.

Much like other Age of Sigmar stories, the goal of the Stormcast Eternals is to find a gate that will give them passage to secret places and thus grant an audience with that realm’s leader, who has become hermetic and withdrawn. We’ve seen this with several leaders so far, so it’s very much a copy and paste of previous AoS stories in this regard, right down to the cutting through Chaos forces to get to the leader. I really wish they’d stop retreading this bit, but at least The Prisoner of the Black Sun doesn’t do the same ending where a great hero of the Stormcasts defeats a huge Chaos bad guy at the cost of his own life. That was literally done with every story in BOTH campaign books, which really does make these feel like Warhammer Mad Libs more than anything else. Of course, there are three other parts of this story to go, so it could still happen. I dread it, because every bit of AoS fiction so far has been cookie cutter in terms of the beginning, middle and ending, but I’d like to hold out hope that this series will be different and stand out from the pack.

Speaking of other things that are repeated from other stories, Tarsus happens to slowly remember things about his previous life, which just happen to be in the realm he is currently in. Which is exactly the same thing that happened to with Vandus Hammerhand in The Gates of Azyr and the first AoS campaign book. So a lot of the story is stuff you have already heard before, several times, just paralleled with different names and realms. Again, a bit of a disappointment that new things aren’t being tried or done. Age of Sigmar is too new to be repeatedly telling the same plot points over and over again. It’s brand new! You have limitless options. Why are the writers having to do the same exact thing repeatedly with little variance? My guess is bad GW editorial direction forcing this upon the authors.

It’s at about the halfway point of The Prisoner of the Black Sun where we get something other than the usual AoS carbon copy fiction. It is here where the Stormcast Eternals enter a starry chamber that relates back to an era before The Age of Sigmar – perhaps even the world of WFB. It is also here where the Hallowed Knights discover an undead being trapped in the chamber and they set it free. Of course, they don’t realize that he is undead when they free him. The Knights assume it is just a corpse, but this is the realm of Nagash and nothing is truly dead. I won’t spoil which Von Carstein the Hallowed Knights have released upon the Age of Sigmar, but it IS one of the two I mentioned above. You’ll have to listen to the audio drama to get that spoiler. They never do give the vampire’s name until the last ninety seconds of the story, but the personality and its steed make it obvious which Von Carstein it is. It is funny to see the Hallowed Knights showing obvious prejudice towards the vampire and how easily he points out there is little difference between his kind and the Eternals. Both are technically undead – just with different powers in service to a different god. Once the vampire finally makes his appearance in the story, things go from the dry generic carbon copy Stormcast Eternal fiction we’ve had since the Age of Sigmar began to something far more interesting. We get character development, talking rather than combat descriptions and an actual story being told. Although some AoS naysayers might make the jibe that it takes a classic Warhammer Fantasy character to make the Stormcast Eternals interesting or worth hearing about, I’d counter that it’s more the author and his experience with the character that helps to bring out the personalities in the Stormcasts that otherwise have lain dormant in previous AoS fiction.

After encountering the vampire, the horde of Khorne approaches and it is time for another long battle scene. However, with the largest collection of the Blood God’s servants that the Hallowed Knights have ever encountered, the servants of Sigmar have to decide whether to trust and ally with the vampire against the Chaos God’s minion. I think you can guess what choice they make.

The story ends with anyone remotely familiar with the fantasy side of Warhammer knowing that although the Hallowed Knights “weather the storm” of Khorne’s forces, the being they have allied themselves with in their quest to find Nagash may be just as bad as their common foe. The actual Knights themselves are ignorant of this, and they set out with their new ally as the audio drama ends… until the second of the four releases comes out is made available to the public.

I did enjoy The Prisoner of the Black Sun and I’m glad it didn’t end on a cliffhanger. I hate that. I am unsure if I will be getting the rest of the series though, if only because I do feel this would be a better story to read than to listen to. Games Workshop loves their audio dramas though. I am primarily interested in seeing how the Von Carstein got himself captured and tortured by the forces of The Blood God and what he’s been up to since The End Times. Is that enough to make me get three more CD’s? I’m not sure. Anyway, The Prisoner of the Black Sun is the best piece of Age of Sigmar fiction so far. I’m very disappointed that it clung to many of the tropes of AoS fiction that have made it predictable and sometimes even a joke, but I’m also glad those tropes are all brought up and dispensed with in this first of four parts. It seems like the other three will be far more creative and less likely to follow the same exact basic plot everything else AoS has so far, but who knows?