Last year in January we had the first Gotrek & Felix novel after a gap of several long years. The series started off as short stories by William King that were eventually collected into a novel and became a trilogy, then a double trilogy and so on. Eventually, when William King left, Nathan Long was brought in and he enjoyed a good long run as well. But then the series lapsed and all we had for a while were more short stories and even some novellas, although they were primarily written by a new incoming group of authors. It was good stuff. But what we really needed was a full novel, and that’s what Josh Reynolds’ Road of Skulls did.
The new Gotrek & Felix novels, whether those written by Josh Reynolds or David Guymer, are set out of continuity, which means that they are not part of the main series and are set somewhere in between those adventures already published. Road of Skulls, the first in his new set of novels, was an absolute fantastic read and reminded me of why I loved the series in the first place. And now we have the third novel, The Serpent Queen, and it is every bit as good. It features some more out-of-continuity adventures but sets them in the Southlands, in the homelands of the Lizardmen and we see a conflict between Tomb Kings and Vampires. Pretty superb right out of the gate.
The opening of this novel sees the adventuring duo set off for the Southlands in search of gold, fame and doom. Well, Gotrek is looking for all of that, and Felix is just tagging along since he is sworn to record the Dwarf’s adventures and his death. Gotrek Gurnisson is a Slayer, a Dwarf who committed a grave sin and has been cast out of his hold and Dwarf society, except as and when he achieves redemption by dying a glorious death in battle. Slayers are an unruly and unpredictable lot, though they can be counted on to defend Dwarf honour when the situation calls for it. They have broken some oaths and even committed some grave sins, but once a Dwarf becomes a Slayer, his entire outlook changes. Gotrek once saved Felix and as recompense the poet struck a deal to be his Remembrancer, to follow him in his adventures all over the Old World and even beyond should the need call for it.
The latest adventure puts the duo in the fabled homeland of the fabled Lizardmen, humanoid Saurians who are said to have an entire culture and civilisation in those lands. There are mysteries and treasures to be found aplenty in these lands, and Gotrek has it in his head to die a glorious death fighting against the rumoured saurian monsters that are said to inhabit those lands. We start off with some great scenes set aboard a ship as the two travel to the Southlands. Reynolds establishes the camaraderie between the two characters right from the beginning and establishes their character and attitude as well. He already showed in Road of Skulls that he had a great grasp on these characters and he flexes those muscles yet again in this novel to tell a really rousing adventure.
Whether we have a naval battle between two armies of undead forces, or we have clashes between the forces of Vampire Lords and Tomb Kings, Reynolds is always in command of the plot and the characters. He draws in Queen Khalida of Lybaras, an ancient Tomb Kings principality, and Nitocris the Serpent Queen, a Vampire of the brood of the Lady of the Silver Pinnacle, to show how an ages old conflict from before the ascendance of Mankind and the Empire still has relevance today. Nitocris wants to gain entry into Lahmia on behalf of our Mistress and Queen Khalida stands between her and that goal, for Lybaras is the gateway into Nehekhara and to the Lahmian lands. Nitocris is aided by a necromancer named Octavia and her three Vampire brothers. To counter them, Khalida press-gangs Gotrek and Felix into her service, promising the former a great doom and the latter his life.
As I’ve said already, Reynolds gives Gotrek and Felix a fantastic outing in this novel. He knows the characters inside and out. While at times it seems that Felix is being a bit too reluctant and complaining too much, Gotrek’s enthusiasm and boisterousness more than makes up for all of that. Reynolds plays to both their strengths and he gives them both a hell of a lot of things to do, keeping them busy all throughout. Characters like Khalida and Nitocris also get a great outing, although Khalida gets far more development than Nitocris does, who often appears to be just a stock character.
In a surprising move, Reynolds shows Gotrek and Felix go up against a lot of different monsters, each of whom offers Gotrek a chance to fulfill his doom, to achieve his glorious death. In doing so, Reynolds shows off Gotrek’s fighting prowess most of all, and it is glorious. Not all these big scenes seem particularly necessary, but they offer a great amount of insight into Gotrek as a character, and even how easily he can get distracted, which was funny at times.
Khalida, as someone who has been around for thousands of years and is one of the ancient Nehekharans who were awoken from their death-slumber by the hated magics of the sorcerer Nagash, proves to be one of the most fascinating characters in a Gotrek and Felix novel. I had always expected Tomb Kings to be the bad guys in a story set in the Old World, and surprisingly, they are little of what I expected. Khalida and her servants are honourable folk, but ruthless as well. Reynolds explores a significant number of Tomb King forces and disposition in the novel, showing off the Ushabti and Tomb Scorpions and Liche Priests and more besides. If you’eve ever wanted to read a novel about the Tomb Kings as they are in the present timeline of the Warhammer Fantasy setting, then Serpent Queen is definitely the novel that you should be reading.
At the same time, Reynolds lavishes an equal amount of attention on the Vampires as well. We have Nitocris and her handmaidens. We have Octavia and her brothers. We have ghouls and zombies and terrorgheists and Banshees and bats. The Vampires were pretty much as I expected, but the gold bit here was the web of betrayals and treacheries that threads through their forces. This is something that Reynolds really capitalises on since this is something that is a part and parcel of life as a Vampire. They are always scheming and plotting against each other, but when they have common goals, they do work together. This is something that we saw again and again in Nathan Long’s Ulrika the Vampire trilogy and we see it again here.
Two entirely different forces of the undead, two entirely different methods of waging war. And caught in the middle are our two protagonists. One of them wants to live, the other wants to die. But they are friends and comrades, bound together by the strongest of oaths and a shared destiny that has been in play ever since they first came together. For Gotrek his entire life as a Slayer has one end goal: a glorious death. This has actually been a part of the meta-plot of the series for quite a long time because it has often been hinted that Gotrek has a greater destiny than just death in battle. His doom is tied to the doom of his race, which was something that Reynolds touched on in Road of Skulls and which he goes into some more detail in the new novel as well. I must confess that the grandiosity of this entire subplot is really tickling my imagination now. How is it going to play out? What does all of it mean?
A few days ago Black Library announced that the main series would continue later this year with David Guymer’s Kinslayer. David has previously written the excellent audio drama Curse of the Everliving and the novel City of the Damned, both of them Gotrek & Felix tales and he has also written at least one other short story featuring this adventuring duo. I am really looking forward to that one, I must say.
In the end, what everything in The Serpent Queen comes down to it is that Reynolds has shown off his writing skills once again. He debuted in the Black Library’s ranks of authors with Knight of the Blazing Sun, as far as novels are concerned, although he wrote some short fiction before. And now he’s graduated to writing some of the biggest characters of the setting, and he has done a great job with them. He populates The Serpent Queen with an excellent supporting cast of characters, each of whom has something different to offer, and I loved reading about all of them, especially Zabbai who is one of Khalida’s captains and a pretty damn kickass character as well. I loved reading about her as much as I did Khalida and the main duo.
So cheers to Reynolds for writing this novel, which is a great and recommended adventure of Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger.