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Riders of the Dead
Dan Abnett
Black Library Publications, 407 pages


Art: Adrian Smith
Riders of the Dead
Dan Abnett
Dan Abnett lives and works in Maidstone, Kent. After graduating from Oxford, he worked for a while as an editor of comics and children's books before turning to writing full time. In the dozen or so years since then, he has written for such a diverse range of characters -- including Scooby Doo, Thunderbirds, Conan the Barbarian, the X-Men, Johnny Bravo, Batman, Rupert the Bear, Dr Who, Mr Men, The Terminator and Postman Pat -- that he is now clinically bewildered. He created the popular series Sinister Dexter, which he continues to write, along with other strips, for 2000 AD, and has recently helped rejuvenate the Legion of Superheroes for DC Comics.

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A review by Nathan Brazil

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'History was being shaped at such a rate it could be witnessed. This was not the Long, placid drip of time that transmuted destinies so slowly that its progress was imperceptible to those living through it. This was a moment struck out hard and hot on the anvil of fate.'
Riders of the Dead is the story of two young men, Gerlach Heileman and Karl Reiner Vollen, who begin as vexillary and clarion in a company of Empire demilancers. Heileman is drawn as a typically arrogant son of a noble, whose future is all mapped out. Vollen, on the other hand, is from a noble family whose heritage has been lost. He owes his position to favour, and his family are in service to the Heilemans. What they have in common is their training, and firm belief that the forces of Empire will easily repel the invading armies of Northern savages; the Kurgan hordes massing near the city of Zhedevka. It is at this point that the lives and destinies of Heileman and Vollen veer off in radically different directions.

What sets this book above the steaming pile of sub-standard fantasy, is the author's ability to produce eye-level, entirely convincing battle scenes, across three different cultures, and an entire continent. Dan Abnett is a world creator; the kind of author whose settings and backgrounds are of equal interest and importance to the plot as the main cast and ultimate goal. No time is wasted in setting Heileman and Vollen moving through blood and chaos, where they rapidly discover that real war is not the set piece military manoeuvres they'd expected. Not by a very long way. The big problem is an enemy which fights to a different set of rules, and it isn't long before all hell has broken loose.

'There was nothing he could have done. Nothing any man could have done. The North was a primordial torrent, in the form of flesh. He could have no more stopped it than raise up his hands and halt the giant clouds that sailed, sedate as galleons, across the oblast heaven.'
The conflict is between three main factions. On one side is the Prussian like, militaristic Empire, ruled by Karl-Franz, and their Kislevite allies, who are a rougher, semi-nomadic people, based on a Slavic-Russian model. Opposing them are the Kurgan, an unruly grouping of religious tribes, whose brutal lifestyle and methodology are more like a terrifying cross between the Vandals and the Aztecs. As the story unfolds we encounter characters with memorable, evocative names, such as Zar Blayda, Ons Olker, Von Margur and Rotamaster Beledni. In order, these are a black-armoured Kurgan chieftain, a scheming Shaman, a blinded Empire Knight with supernatural sight, and the grizzled leader of a hardened Kislevite warrior band. It is also noteworthy that many of the lesser characters get to play key parts, and are not there just to make up the numbers.
'"Words are power." Said Uldin.
"No, Kurgan. Knowledge is power. Words are just a way of getting it."
The action is fast paced and frequent, but allows for some skilful character development, dry humour, and savage lessons in the life of a soldier. Its relentless pace is rarely and obstacle, but does occasionally produce a few holes. For example, at no point in the changing lives of Heileman and Vollen is there time for any meaningful reflection on the girlfriends, siblings and parents who are lost to them. Also, the sensational is almost always given precedence over smaller battles, so don't expect too much deep thought. But these criticisms are not something that will bother Abnett's principle target audience; Warhammer enthusiasts who want sprawling, highly detailed military campaigns. For anyone who doesn't belong to the club, there's more than enough here to provide an entertaining, above average read. This was my first novel by Dan Abnett, but it won't be my last.

Copyright © 2004 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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