Lord of the Night reviews the groundbreaking Age of Sigmar novel Hallowed Knights: Plague Garden
by Josh Reynolds.
“Without a doubt the finest Age of Sigmar novel written to date, Plague Garden has everything that made Warhammer Fantasy great with everything that makes Age of Sigmar great melded together to make the best of both worlds!” – Lord of the Night @ Heresy Online
Hallowed Knights: Plague Garden
is a novel that I was eagerly anticipating since it was announced. Despite a rocky start Age of Sigmar has made its mark as a game and feels like a worthy successor to Warhammer Fantasy, but alas the novels had not yet caught up and the only stories being told were typically just battles between the Stormcast Eternals and Warriors of Chaos with some gems like Skaven Pestilens standing out. But the potential for stories like Swords of the Emperor
, The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade
, or Gotrek and Felix
was not there yet, but Plague Garden has changed that. An actual story that features complex and varied characters, an epic quest that drags the reader along for the ride and fantastic world-building that is just as interesting as the story, all without sacrificing the exciting action that makes Age of Sigmar what it is.
The Hallowed Knights are the faithful, and only the faithful shall endure. As the Sargasso-citadels of the Most Loathsome Order of the Fly fall before Sigmar’s chosen, Lord-Castellant Lorrus Grymn is lost to the Realm of Nurgle. Fresh from his Reforging and leading a band of the faithful into the darkness, Lord-Celestant Gardus Steel Soul once survived the horrors of the Plague Garden and knows what myriad of horrors awaits the Hallowed Knights within. Armed with faith and sigmarite and a guide that they cannot trust, they are prepared to face the worst among nightmares in order to rescue their fallen. But will faith be enough to survive in the domain of a Dark God? Or will the Hallowed Knights finally find their faith wanting as Nurgle’s legions march towards their death and corruption?
Hallowed Knights is the first novel that I feel has truly captured the spirit of the original Warhammer Fantasy through telling a story that is about more than just a battle. It is an epic quest into a heart of darkness that will see the Stormcast tested in ways they have never before been tested, but it is also a character story that explores two particular members of the cast in depth, what motivations drive them to continue in the quest, and what fears they must deal with as the horrors continue to dog their path. The quest to rescue Grymn from the clutches of Nurgle’s servants lets Reynolds put his characters in a much direr situation than they’ve experienced, and when you take characters out of their comfort zone you can really see what makes them tick and what they can take, which makes the character stories all the more interesting as the cast becomes more and more worn down. By the end I felt that Plague Garden had done a great job in taking both the main story and the character stories and giving them both equal footing, neither sides to the story felt sidelined in favour of the other.
The cast in Hallowed Knights is the most varied that any AoS novel has featured so far. Gardus Steel Soul and Lorrus Grymn return from the Realmgate Wars series, and plenty of the Stormcast are what we expect. But the two real gems in this story are that for the first time we have female Stormcasts like Lady Cassandora Stormforged and Knight-Venator Enyo, and a true first for not just Age of Sigmar but Games Workshop in general, Knight-Venator Tornus the Redeemed, the first character to be saved from Chaos. For me Tornus was the best part of the novel as no character like him has ever been depicted before, what it takes for a character who has been in the thrall of evil to become good again is not simple, and Tornus faces many challenges throughout the novel from the doubts he has about himself to the doubts others have or try to instill in him, and some other challenges that made for quite a remarkable scene near to the end. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of Tornus in the future, as I suspect his trials are far from over. Reynolds doesn’t neglect the other side though and we get some delightful Chaos characters, especially those from the Order of the Fly whom readers may remember from the event-exclusive novel Nagash: The Undying King. Duke Gatrog and Blightmaster Bubonicus are both a rather different and endearing breed of Chaos warriors, their focus on honour and chivalry totally at odds with their nihilistic creed of decay, which is what makes them stand-out from the rest, though the less honourable still get to shine with a special guest character that I won’t name, you’ll just have to read the novel to find out. One of the best parts of Plague Garden is that Reynolds makes each member of the cast memorable and actually likeable for different reasons, some are relatable, some are funny and some are just plain cool, but when you enjoy every character it doesn’t matter who a chapter focuses on because you’ll like it no matter who is in it.
Though the book definitely has a lot more to the story and characters than previous AoS novels have, it still retains all the powerful action scenes and battles that keep the pace going strong. The Stormcast are as powerful as ever and when they march against Chaos it’s still just as cool as it was at the beginning to finally see the forces of Order have a real response to the massively armoured Chaos Warriors and Chosen, and we get to see a lot of the different kinds of Casts with Liberators, Judicators, Paladins of all sorts, Prosecutors and the various Knight ranks that take to the skies. Reynolds does write good action scenes that really capture the might of the Stormcast while not making them seem overpowered or invincible despite their undying nature. Chaos gets just as good a showing however, all sorts of Rotbringers and various Daemons of Nurgle (with some extra additions) get to do battle and Reynolds matches them against the SCs quite well, the durability and staying power that the Nurglites have lets them meet the Stormcasts head on and results in lots of brutal melees and attrition fights. What makes the scenes stand out and feel different to what has come before is the location really, fighting Chaos in its own home offers a new set of challenges and handicaps that the Casts must overcome, and that makes the scenes so much tenser, especially knowing that every Cast that falls isn’t going to be replaced which had me wincing each time one fell, because it meant that the goal would be even harder to reach.
The novel’s pacing is rather enjoyable though a bit slowed at times as the characters become bogged down in the morass and detritus of Nurgle’s garden. The novel starts off sedately by showing the Hallowed Knights when they aren’t fighting for the Mortal Realms, which gives us plenty of new lore and lets the reader remember who these characters are and what we know about them while also introducing new members of the cast that we haven’t seen before. But once things get going in the Sargasso-citadels and the Realm of Nurgle things really pick up, albeit with lulls as events unfold and travels are taken, driving the novel towards the final confrontation and an absolutely incredible closing scene that slows things down and takes us to the end.
As is usual for Reynolds novels the world-building is top-notch and one of the best parts of the entire story, as I read through the book it wasn’t just the story and the characters that kept me going but also the disgusting and rotten sights that Reynolds created in the garden that really immersed me in it all. Reynolds just has a real knack for creating wonderful, and in the case of Nurgle’s realm horrible, lore for his novels and the end result is that you find yourself pulled into the world because you can imagine and picture so much of it that it takes a step towards being real in your own mind. Every level of the Garden of Nurgle felt distinct and disgusting, new horrors being revealed with every ascension (or descension?) that the Stormcast take. Astute readers will also notice more than a few easter eggs and references to other AoS works including Nagash: The Undying King
, Skaven Pestilens
, The Realmgate Wars
, and the Hunt for Nagash/Mannfred
audio-dramas, though there may have been even more that I didn’t notice, and I suspect there were one or two references towards Warhammer and the World That Was that went over my head. But it wasn’t just the Chaos aspect that Reynolds fleshed out, the addition of Femcasts to the Stormcast Eternals not just as named characters but as background characters really expands the faction and means that a much wider range of characters can be used in future works, perhaps even an all female Stormcast novel one day. Early on Reynolds shows the rituals and beliefs of the Hallowed Knights
As always with a Black Library book, Hallowed Knights was very quotable, but my favourite had to be this one for how epic it was and what it was said in response to, which I think has to be one of my favourite moments in a book ever:
“Who shall carry my light into the darkness?”
“Only the faithful.”
The ending was unbelievably epic, there’s no denying it! I never guessed what would come at the end, and Reynolds definitely made damn sure that if you’re a fan of Warhammer you’ll never forget this ending, it definitely ranks up there as one of the best moments that I have read in a Black Library book for how awesome it was. Reynolds closes off the story of the quest into the Plague Garden quite definitively but I feel like the character stories will be continuing into the next book as there’s still a lot for Gardus to do and a lot of hurdles for Tornus to overcome. But since there’s no hook for the sequel at the end of the novel it’s a total mystery what the second Hallowed Knights book will cover, which I suppose means it’ll be exciting to find out when it’s released.
On the whole I would give Hallowed Knights: Plague Garden
a score of 8.8/10
. If you’re an Age of Sigmar fan then this is a must-read for you, it has everything that we all love about AoS and then even more. But really the people I would recommend this novel to are those who have read the Realmgate Wars series and found it lacking, those who do like the setting for AoS but want more from the novels, more interesting characters and stories that revolve around more than just another smackdown between the SCs and Chaos. If that is you, then I strongly urge you to get Hallowed Knights: Plague Garden
, I feel that this is the first proper series that Age of Sigmar has and I would liken it to the Ultramarines series in that it is about author-written events rather than an established narrative. It feels like the first true Age of Sigmar novel, and hopefully a sign of things to come. So in summation I give Hallowed Knights: Plague Garden
a final score of Great
That’s it for this review, if you’ve made it this far thanks for reading. Until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!