10/10 Enthralling fantasy action and adventure from one of my favorite settings.
Gotrek Gurnisson was somewhere in his past shamed for a crime he refuses to speak of. To atone for this crime, he has taken on the life of a Slayer, dwarven warriors who seek a glorious death in battle. His human companion, Felix Jaeger, drunkenly agreed to journey with him and record the epic tale of his doom. And so the two travel cursed and Chaos-ridden lands, Gotrek in search of death, and Felix in search of a way out.
The Warhammer Setting
Warhammer, from Games Workshop, is a popular tabletop setting used in wargames, RPGs, and board games, and in recent years, a variety of video games. It’s characterized as “grimdark” which comes from the setting description in Warhammer material. It’s a very dense setting that’s grown over the decades, and the Gotrek & Felix stories were started to explore the setting while offering a jumping-on point. Originally, these were short stories published in various Warhammer books and magazines, then collected into a singular novel in 1999. The first three novels were eventually collected into an omnibus.
The first story, Geheimnisnacht, introduces our “heroes,” the death-seeking dwarf Slayer, Gotrek, and the human poet and disowned merchant’s son, Felix. Though Gotrek is often seen as the hero of the story, the stories are told from Felix’s perspective. Like many stories of Gotrek and Felix, this story helps inform those new to Warhammer about aspects readers can expect from the setting. Here, we first learn of Chaos and the fear it instills in common folk. There’s also no shortage of action. The second story, Wolf Riders, introduces us to orcs and goblins (often called greenskins) as well as magic, which is dangerous and feared. There’s also some good character development for our dual-protagonists.
The third story, The Dark Beneath the World, offers a look into dungeon crawling as a narrative. This is easily one of my favorite stories in the series. It’s a classic dungeon crawl presented full of gory action and grim details. It drives home the true fear that the setting creates and how dangerous the world is, even for great heroes. It’s the highlight of the first book. Other stories introduce us to the cultists of Chaos, werewolves, and mutants—animal-human monstrosities twisted by Chaos powers.
The one other story I want to highlight is Blood and Darkness. It is, to me, the weakest of the book. It’s packed with too much backstory on a secondary character, full of tropes, and is too long and drawn out for what it is. It did not work well for me, and I will probably skip it in the future. While most stories are indeed grim and dark, full of gory action, and so on, there are some stories like The Mark of Slaanesh and The Mutant Master that also bring in some of the setting’s humor to lighten the mood (at least a little).
Gotrek and Felix have become iconic characters in the Warhammer setting, and for good reason. Gotrek embodies the grim reality of the setting, determined to die in battle to atone for a terrible crime he refuses to speak of. He is dour, full of bitter grudges, and almost without fear. Felix, on the other hand, is our eyes into the world. He’s a poet and scholar, likewise running from a past he hates to revisit, and always wary of the next adventure. At times, he can be pessimistic, but that’s the world he inhabits. Any misadventure could be your last, and he does not share in Gotrek’s need to die in battle.
As this first novel was a series of short stories, we don’t get other recurring characters, but the secondary cast is often given unique personalities and flavor. Blood and Darkness probably has the most character development for a secondary character, but it was plagued by too many tropes for me. Wolf Riders and The Dark Beneath the World are the two I think had the best secondary characters who felt fleshed out.
Some of these stories are a bit old, just over 30 years old. Certain writing conventions have changed in that time. There’s a fair amount of emotional telling and filtering, on top of liberal use of adverbs (I had never even encountered “sootily” before, and even now, it has red markings as if misspelled!). But otherwise, it’s a fun style dripping with atmosphere; it’s just a touch dated. There are, however, some downsides to these stories having been written sometimes years apart (10 years from the earliest to the last story in the collection) in that it can be repetitive. We learn some of the same things again and again because when these were first published, Games Workshop and King couldn’t assume that readers had read the previous story. There’s also a narrative trick that King uses multiple times where Felix sees their current plight as unbeatable, that even Gotrek is helpless to save them and they’re doomed—only for Gotrek to then win and save them. It happens at least a few times, but it would have been fresh when these were first written.
These books are an easy read with a style that draws you in. It shows its age in some places, and the Warhammer setting won’t be for everyone, but it’s among my most-read books. If you enjoy fantasy, regardless if you know anything about Warhammer, this series is a lot of fun, and it eases readers into the setting if they know nothing about it.
(No relation to the author that I know of)