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The Gobpocalypse of 171, as remembered by Kotan "Cleaver" Eristhallen, Captain of the Guard
I'd like to say the ones who survived were the best -- that's not true, though... A few of the best died. Most of the survivors weren't the best, just the slowest. And the Mayor of course.
The marksdwarves were supposed to climb to the top of the tower on the mountain and rain hell down on the invaders while they ran around killing all those beak dogs we keep pastured up there. But you know how the marksdwarves are -- no matter how great their shooting, no matter how many bolts they pack into their quivers, they're all more afraid of being called cowards than they are of the enemy. They want to get up in the greenskins' faces and smash 'em in the teeth. Death delivered up close and personal -- that's the dwarven way, right? Armok loves axes and hammers. Killing at a distance while you're in hiding? That's treefucker stuff.
Soon as we got word from the surface we had an invasion inbound, those silly bastards geared up and started running up the stairs. The moment they saw the enemy, well, climbing up to the top of the tower and stapling helmets to skulls just didn't seem heroic enough -- and yeah, they were probably blown from sprinting up those stairs. Maybe in that moment taking on 150 invaders hand-to-hand seemed preferable to another three flights of stairs. Well, somebody started the charge. Before we could get the gate closed. The plan would've worked. I've no doubt the civilians'll be arguing in the tavern for months, pro, con, what the fuck ever. It was a good plan. Close the gates and fill 'em full of bolts while they approached, while they wasted time slaughtering those hideous beak dogs. Disgusting things, never like 'em. See that scar? No, this one. Beak dog, summer of 68. Greenskins wiped 'em out, too. Cleared the slate. Probably felt the same way about those vermin we felt when we saw those Armok-denying dwarf mercenaries marching along in a steel wedge sort of like an axle or a hinge-pin for the horde. Top of the tower, empty the quivers, then an orderly reposition to the armory to jam those quivers full while the heavies re-opened the gate and waited at the end of the Corpse Gallery. When I think about all the time the mechanics and machinists spent up there, crafting that perfect monument to death -- well, it would've worked. Except for that damned charge. The gate wasn't closed yet. Sure, we didn't want to lock the last two foragers out. Yes, you could say it wasn't a charge made out of vanity or stupidity and the mayor will probably call the fallen heroes who didn't hesitate to fling themselves into the path of danger. She can always cook up a story that makes bone-headed disasters look like cunning strategy. Remember the tiger?* [refers to the cowardly tiger incident -- recorded separately] The idiots charged. Maybe they were thinking about that elvish raid Malfol Lightfingers single-handedly defeated before the rest of her squad could strap up, let alone make it to the gate? The pucks're really only dangerous when you can't see 'em and they're holed up somewhere in all that Armok-blasted greenery snapping poisoned arrows at you, and even then, if you keep your boots on and cozy up tight with your shield and you're not surrounded, you'll probably come home with nothing but frustration and maybe a souvenir arrow halfway through your backpack. Greenskins aren't pucks. They know how to make armor, crappy armor, granted, strong enough to turn a couple of axe strikes at least and it's not the greenskin you're swinging on you have to worry about, it's his twelve friends who're flanking you while you're otherwise occupied. By the time we finally got the gate slammed closed and barred, nine of the marksdwarves were out there screaming and charging 150-odd armored greenskins. And their allies.
No, one of 'em, just one, Catton the Ranger, actually followed his fucking orders and climbed the godddamned archer's tower. It's a sad story, I'll tell you what happened to him later. So instead of a full squad of marksdwarves killing bloodmad greenskins while they carved up those disgusting beak dogs in an orgy of slaughter, we had one, exactly one marksdwarf in overwatch position to winnow the enemy while they started in on the worthless livestock and his nine squadmates. Catton had discipline. When we finally recovered his body he only had two bolts left.
That's right, we shut the gate. That was the plan. Only the plan wasn't really going to work anymore, was it? We couldn't squat in the Corpse Gallery while nine marksdwarves were fighting hand-to-hand without support.
Well, we could've. Gotta be able to live with your decisions, though, or you'll end up chained next to the dwarves who went soft or lost their tempering and shattered.
Soon as we formed up we charged through that beautiful Corpse Gallery, that masterpiece of ambush, and headed to the surface. Half the marksdwarves were down by then and the survivors were fighting with their backs to the tower fortifications.
No, I didn't see the mayor till the end, when we were looking for survivors and making sure the invaders weren't among them.
No, made no difference she was out there, any more than any trooper.
The moment the gate opened the greenskins flooded in. I've never seen anything like it. They were knocking each other over to get into the tower. Traps took the first half dozen and a few even made it onto the stairs where the laggards dealt with them. One even ran up the stairs into the tower, confused, most likely.
No, it was already too late to save Catton. By the time we got into the courtyard he was already down. Four greenskins clambered up the tower walls up over the top floor. Right, the unfinished floor. Catton killed two right there, shoved one off the tower we think, but one did for him. Reckon even one good crossbow up there was enough to give the savages a bad case of steel indigestion.
We never made it out of that courtyard. There was only room for six of us side-by-side, struggling to keep the staircase clear for reinforcements, and outside? Well, we'd meant to hold them at the gate, make 'em come at us 3 at a time, rotate out when the arm got too exhausted to keep up the killing. That plan fell apart immediately. We never even saw the gate.
I'm not blaming anyone -- another two minutes, and we'd've been formed up and ready to receive guests.
Of course there would've been more survivors.
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No, you can't.
I was telling you about the gate. They hit us like an avalanche, like all 150 of them tried to get through the gate all at once. About the last thing I saw, Dosom Grace-of-ishen smacking greenskins around with that elegant crossbow he had carved out of cave crocodile bone -- white as alabaster, all carved and inlaid with silver, light and nimble as a willow wand.
No, he didn't make it. He died with a shattered crossbow in his hands and a quiver jammed full of bolts on his hip. Such a waste. It was a damn fine crossbow.
Then the courtyard flooded with howling greenskins and I barely had time to set my boots before they crashed into us like an avalanche. Climbing over the top of each other to get at us, past us and down the staircase because they thought we were like a cave beetle, all hard but thin shell on the outside, soft and vulnerable inside. Only five stood beside me, five dwarves I've trained with every day for -- years. The wall on my left, a solid beardmate on my right, all hell to the front and no retreat. We knew what'd happen if they made it past us. No, not even the Corpse Gallery could've stopped this mob. Would've cost them 50 or 60 to get past. They had more than enough. Crammed so tight in the courtyard at first I couldn't swing my axe. That's when you need a dagger -- notice how all the veterans, have one of these? Just a plain steel dagger -- a blade, a handle, maybe a lead ball for a counterweight. Reason we don't have those brass-and-gold filigreed confections the civilians have, some of 'em true works of art, don't get me wrong, is ours will get used over and over and most likely left in an adversary's armpit or rib cage or eye socket.
Well, I couldn't even get to my dagger. That's what it was like -- screaming goblins lover-close, could feel their spit flicking my face, both hands bracing my shield and my boots grinding backward. Silent Logan saved my life then -- came up behind the line with that awl of a spear she always has within arm's reach. You've seen it? Not long enough for a proper spear at all, no idea where it came from and she ain't telling. Greatforge says it's a tallfolk weapon designed for use on heavily-armored opponents. I can see that -- I mean, you could poke a troll with it 18 times and it'd laugh and rip your head right off your shoulders for you and maybe bleed out by nightfall. So you'd have your revenge, I guess, but it'd be, what's the word?
Posthumous. At best.
Still, she saved me. That stumpy spear flicked over my shoulder, between the shields -- taking an eye here, a throat there. Greenskins started going down. Not many. Just enough I could let one hand drop the shield and grab my axe. Then the blood started to fly.
You see, a proper battleaxe is just about the opposite of Silent Logan's knitting needle. To work an axe you need brute strength a lot more than precision -- that's how you can tell off-duty axedwarves, by the way, they all have shoulders that make their heads look small. Axes cleave the lightly armored bits and crush where your opponent has proper gear. They either kill instantly or maim. You don't really need to cut every opponent's head clean off it's shoulders though when you do it tends to take the starch out of his friends. What you want is an opponent who's combat-ineffective, whether you've lopped off its sword-arm or carved a leg from under it or smashed its helmet long enough to set it up for the killing blow. That's why -- you notice those engravings on the wall outside the weaponsmithy?
Yeah, that's why dwarven battle scenes always show hands and heads flying through the air. And the blood rains down, gets everywhere. In your veard, in your mouth, in your eyes... I've known a handful of granite-spined soldiers died cause they were blood-blind just a second too long. That's why we forge our helmets with this little ridge, see? Channels the blood away from your eyes. That's also the practical reason for the post-battle ritual you asked about before. We strip our armor of, hand it over to the smiths for repair, and we -- the survivors, I mean, those of us who took lives -- we take that ceremonial bath together, fill the pool with the blood of our enemies and consecrate the souls of the fallen to Armok. He's a thirsty god. I think the master weaponsmiths collect that water and use it, at least part of it, to temper their steel, you know, forging new weapons that somehow draw on the strength of both fallen foes and the survivors. That might be just the kind of hoodoo tall tale the guilds encourage to make their work seem more mystical, I don't know. Seems to me the higher you climb in the guilds the more mystical gibberish you're obliged to spout. Apprentice smiths talk about temperatures and alloy formulas, guildmasters talk about gods and phases of the moon and the memories of the materials as though they're alive. Sounds like self-aggrandizing nonsense to me. I know a lot more about how to use their finished product than their process to create it.
Yes, right here, always.
Look, don't tough. Never touch a warrior's weapon and no, that's not a euphemism.
Smirk at me like that again and you'll learn the limits of our hospitality.
No, a promise.
Killing Time. An old soldier's joke. 99% of war is, and 1% of war is...
Not at all, is it? I wouldn't expect you to know the difference and I'm a little surprised you noticed. Go watch the woodcutters at work. Their tools have blades the size of your hand, thick, wedge-shaped cross-section. A battleaxe curves like this to give it more contact with its target for a draw-cut as it sweeps along.
Not a cleaver, more like the curved blade of a skinning knife.
That little hook is called the beard, and it's handy for yanking shields out of hands or snagging a bit of armor to pull your opponent off-balance just long enough to put them down. Notice the profile, too -- only about a finger thick, makes it lighter and more nimble, too, reduces the inherent force behind every swing, but like I said earlier that's why we have shoulders like this. Sharp enough to cut a falling silk thread in half. Against armor it crushes, at first. Crushing is what armor's supposed to do when you hit it that hard -- if it didn't crumple under impact then all the force goes straight into the body and you're looking at broken bones. Sometimes, yeah, they actually stick right out.
Never been to the proofing room, have you? I doubt the smiths would let you in.
Oh, you'll know it -- even louder than the smithies right next door. A couple of the stoutest apprentices with big old sledgehammers test the armor before it's passed to the quartermaster.
Of course we -- listen, if you'd put on armor hadn't been proofed, you'd probably be better off going into combat naked. At least you can run faster that way and if you do get hit there's a lot fewer shards of shitty armor for the surgeons to cut out of you. nearly every opponent I've ever faced -- pucks are a joke. Greenskins use iron, but they don't have the knowledge or the patience to forge proper steel and when they do have it it'll still be crusted with its previous owner's blood. Tallfolk can make good steel, too expensive for the rankers, though -- only their nobles and generals have it. So if it was somehow to come to war we'd know who to kill first. Starts with crushing, then mangling the armor if not the soft bits underneath and once a piece of armor's well and truly fucked it becomes a liability. No more smooth curves to urn away a blow, no more sliding plates over your joints. Find yourself unable to bend your knee to walk, or even raise your shield, maybe not even able to close your hand around the shaft of your axe. When that happens, if you're smart, you'll cut straps and give up on that bit of armor. It's done all it can for you. Remember those plain daggers -- yes, exactly. That's why we all have 'em. Now, take your recruit, first time in a true clash. When you don't know any better the hardest thing in the world is to cut straps and drop the damaged armor.
Not fear, not exactly -- I'm sure it'd be the same for you, too -- it's every instinct you own shrieking not to give up the least scrap of protection. You can see it in their faces. Recruits usually drop their weapons before their shield, even though we've drilled them over and over, made them recite the First Rule two hundred times a day.
Hmm? "Always bring your weapon to a fight." The second is, "if you don't have a weapon, take your enemy's." Nowhere do we tell them to keep their shields at all costs. Five: "Your armor is optional. Your shield is optional. A weapon is not." Middle of a battle with nothing but a shield? Battle like that, outnumbered twenty to one? That's an elaborate suicide.
The point? There's no safety to be had in combat and anything that makes a recruit feel more safe is probably a hazard. You have no idea how hard we have to work to overcome those instincts to flinch, to back away, to drop your weapon. I don't think anyone is born combat-ready. It's all a matter of training -- two years, at least, though most of that's meaningless until after you've been through it, stared death in the eyes and whether you laugh or spit or look away it changes you.
We do it, look, the two years are necessary so recruits have a chance to survive their first battle. If we didn't give them that preparation we'd be no better than the greenskins. They spend lives the way we spend crossbow bolts.
Yes, because a greenskin can whelp a dozen pups a year -- I've read the sociological works, too. Don't look so surprised. That's another difference in our cultures: because there's so many less of us, we value individual learning and development. We teach all our children to read. And yes, we live a lot longer than tallfolk -- well, more accurate to say our lives can be much longer. More time to master your craft, whether it's masonry and architecture, smithing, or killing. Two years sounds much longer to you than it does to us. For a greenskin it's an entire childhood.
No idea, I've never seen an account of a goblin who died of old age. Maybe the scholars will retain some of our captives and make a study on teh topic. I doubt it, though. There's a lot of bad feeling in the fort right now and anyone who said, No let's no torture that greenskin to death, well, they just might wake up with a surgeon's face smiling down at them. Scholarship often stands in line behind sentiment -- if it didn't I reckon the scholars would pretty quickly learn better, if they survived the education process.
The training and the gear. Listen, you can take a dozen craftsmen and drape them with the finest gear Greatforge's smithy ever produced and sure, they could probably defeat an equal number of greenskins or pucks, maybe without taking any casualties. We don't often have the luxury of numerical parity. Send those same poor sods against twice their number? Some would die. Against three times tyheir number, maybe one would come back. Two-year recruits, even unblooded, can usually old their own against three-to-one odds. And the way we fight, that's usually the best we're going to get. That's another reason we train to render opponents combat-ineffective rather than dead. Going for a kill just takes longer. That training at least puts a little granite in their spines and gets 'em accustomed to facing their opponents. You know when most of the dying happens in combat?
Huh. You've talked to some soldiers before, I see. That's right: when your opponent breaks, turns to flee, that's when combat turns into killing. That's one of the big reasons that disaster in the courtyard lasted so gods-damned long. When a greenskin broke he had nowhere to run because twenty of its pals were shoving through the only door. We couldn't break them except one at a time and even then we still had to put them down to get at the next one in line.
Oh, we did, efficient as butchers, quick block, shove the weapon aside on your shield, cut, scan for the next attack. We were already wading through corpses up to our hips, muscles on fire from all that killing, before the mercenaries forced the gate. Blood pouring like a waterfall down the staircase -- three weeks and it still isn't clean. Mayor's talking about diverting a stream through there just to clear up all that blood. I doubt Armok will mind, not this time.
I felt a break in the rhythm of the fight. It's hard to explain. Like you're dancing and your partner stumbles. I had half a dozen wounded, two still in the line and four shoved back against the wall. I ordered a two-pace advance, to win just a bit more room to bring up reinforcements and hopefully give the worst wounded a chance to get inside. The greenskins weren't mobbing the gate even though I could still hear 'em howling, seemed just as loud as ever but it's hard to hear much with your ears stuffed full of the clang and crash of combat. We cut down the last few in the courtyard. Maybe they pulled back? Saw the slaughter, the blood streaming out of the gateway? Had time to shuffle the line, send a few back down, two ranks now, shields locked and shoulder-to-shoulder facing the gate when I saw the bright gleam of steel. Immediately I figured the Skullcrushers had flanked 'em, circled around the mob and sent 'em running. Though the gate, a wedge of twelve troops --
A commander's squad, yes, like mine. Just like mine.
The newcomers stopped and shifted from wedge to column smooth as a parade ground review. Then they charged through the gate and hit us like a catapulted boulder.
Surprised? No, stunned -- like that time I caught a hill giant's punch on the helmet and I couldn't walk for eight days. All of us were. I spoke to the survivors and we all had that same eternity of disbelief, this-can't-be-happening, actually refusing to accept what our eyes were telling us. That's another way to die in a fight.
Maldor, Flathead, and Little Goat were all down before I could react. These mercenaries, these thrice-cursed race-traitors, they fought at least as well as my squad. Surprise got them almost into the stairwell before we could push back. Now, if we'd had a squad, a half-squad, hell, even two crossbows up in the tower they might've been able to break up that clockwork formation, slow it down, or just warn us in the courtyard what was coming. We didn't have that. We paid.
The mercenaries were blood-mad. I've seen it -- fight long enough and you'll see it, too. Sometimes in dire battles Armok possesses you and you can fight with the strength of five, fast as a ballista bolt, stand up under wounds that'd take down a water buffalo. Armok rides you for a time. Then He leaves. Except for some, I don't know, either he leaves a sliver of his rage behind or the riding breaks something inside them. They're changed. Insatiable bloodlust, nearly unstoppable, fight like berserkers and never retreat and the worst part is, they grin and smile and laugh while they kill.
You don't ask that, it's personal.
The mercenaries came in smashing, pushed us back, and we almost lost it then because a good dozen greenskins equipped with grapples and ropes had scaled the tower and killed poor Catton some time before and now charged us shrieking from the tower stairs, from behind.
In that instant we could've broken. We'll never know, because there was no place to run. I screamed at the troops, Action front! and everything I could think of to keep them from turning away from those steel-clad executioners in front of us. Another couple went down, stabbed or clubbed in the leg. I braced to stop the greenskins by myself. Just then the wounded I'd tried to evacuate, those four struggled back up the stairs and laid into the greenskins who, I reckon, died surprised. The two survivors of that sally guarded the tower stairs behind us till one collapsed from blood loss. Lucky for us the greenskins only brought that handful of mountaineers.
When you've been in combat that long something strange happens. All the noise, all the chaos and motion can lull you into a heavy, drowsy, almost dreaming place where you feel so disconnected from everything, from your own body, that a missed parry or a too-slow block seem unimportant. It's the exhaustion, I guess. A scholar once told me it's the way our minds go to prepare for imminent death. When you feel that warm haze descend on you if you don't shake it off quick, you're dead. Same as trying to fight knee-walking drunk. Well, not the same -- just as bad though. That's why we train with songs. Doggerel mostly.
My blade is sharp, my armor's strong Cave their skulls in all day long.
That's an old one. When we fight, we sing.
If the turncoats had led the fight they would've found themselves well-matched. Since they were smart they waited until we were near our limit, exhausted, edges dulled. Now if they were truly clever they'd've waited another hour or so, until we'd killed all the greenskins. They'd have taken the fort then.
No, traps work much better against the foolish and impulsive -- dwarves are too deliberate, know what to look out for. The Murder Gallery would've cost them, sure. Remember they would've had plenty of bodies to throw in front of them. Hells, could've walked all the way to the final strongpoint without setting a boot to the floor, if they wanted, over a carpet of corpses. I suppose they were too concerned with missing the whole fight and that's why they didn't wait. Armok grant our enemy's impatience always outweighs his prudence.
Shoving through the pile of bodies slowed their charge and I had enough time to settle my boots and brace myself before they crashed into the line. We don't train to fight our fellow dwarves. You may think that's idealistic -- depends on where you've been and what you've seen, I guess. Fratricide is our greatest crime.
Took a real effort for me in that moment to fight -- not just pushing off that wool-blanket-smothering fatigue, not just the bone-deep exhaustion in my whole body. To fight, to kill a fellow dwarf?
That didn't stop them, not at all. No hesitation. They must've fought kin before.
Six of my squad fell in that fight. That's where I got this, and the splint. Warhammer to the forearm. Shield out of position and I'd overextended to parry a pike thrust at Silent Logem and I saw that hammerhead swing, saw the glee in the dwarf's eyes and the manic grin when my arm snapped. Armor crumpled on me -- already used that vambrace to turn a couple dozen greenskin swords, so it was weaker than it should've been. Silent Logem put her little spear into the hammerdwarf's neck, here, up high under the ear there's a little gap if your coif doesn't sit just right, gave me just an instant to drop my shield and snatch Killing Time up left-handed and carve that hammerer a new mouth a little higher than his first.
We train with both hands for exactly this reason. You take a greenskin's or a puck's or a tallfolk's weapon hand? Fight's over for them. Nothing left they can do except maybe try for a shield-bash or bleed on you. See, it's more than just the armor makes us hard to beat.
That hammerer might've been their leader, I'm not sure. They hesitated when he toppled. That's when I rallied the survivors.
Nine, I think, all of us hurt, nine still in the fight.
Really? What? "Blood for the blood god, skulls for the skull throne"? No, more likely something less wordy -- "Come on, troops, it's killing time."
The sagas get that wrong. More than five-six words in the middle of combat get violently interrupted, and anyway you want to spare that breath cause you'll need it. Speeches are before the fight starts.
After? No, usually no one's much in the mood after.
We charged and believe me it took everything I had left to shove through that abattoir, and we split the mercenary line, cut them apart against the walls. Not an ounce of surrender in them. They knew what to expect if we took them alive. The charge surprised them -- maybe they had me pegged as the leader and thought that hammerer had me right sorted. I'm not sure. We broke their lines and maybe it was just rage or maybe we'd pushed past exhaustion and into that place on the other side where sheer will replaces muscles. When the mercenaries were down the only logical move was to charge the remnants of the army. Almost seemed easy after wading hip-deep through corpses.
Listen: warfare works like this. Two sides struggle to break one another's will. Killing is incidental. Target your opponent's morale, hack at it until they just don't want to fight anymore. We could've stayed right there in that courtyard blocking the gate, take 'em on a few at a time, let 'em exhaust themselves climbing over the bodies. We could've retreated back through the Murder Gallery and let the traps take their toll, let them walk through the crusher and kill the scraps that made it through. Neither tactic would give us a quick victory, though, and greenskin mobs are strong but brittle. Like poorly tempered iron or steel with too much carbon.
Or, yes, like glass. Strong and breakable. Seeing half their number disappear into that courtyard, then their elite mercenaries -- you know, maybe when we ran out screaming they thought their hired help had turned on them. Or just decided to run away.
I hadn't seen the field before then, running out through the gate was the first time I'd seen the entire scope of what we faced. I saw the moment, I saw the face of the battle change. The fight had been going on long enough and they'd spent their initial bloodlust and burned through the false courage that charging into combat always brings. They were tired, too, after struggling up the hillside and shoving through their own mob to get to us.
No, all the beak dogs were long dead by then, even saw a few greenskins rolling around in pools of their blood. This entire crowd, another eighty I'd guess, swarming like maggots over a week-old corpse, when they saw us charge out, for just an instant, they froze. Every one of them. That's when I knew we'd won. We might take more casualties, I might not even live to see them driven away myself, even so, we'd won.
I've heard scholars ask the same question -- best guess I've heard is freezing like that's a way to hide from predators who don't see well, like a grizzly or a cave toad. I don't know.
Because I knew they'd break. They still had fire in their bellies they would've screamed right back at us and hurled themselves forward again. All the bravest ones were already dead.
No, they don't think the way we do. No greenskin trooper is ever worth as much as the weapon it carries, and their leaders spend them the way dwarves spend crossbow bolts. Maybe even more carelessly. If you'd ever seen a greenskin breeding pit you'd understand. Twelve, sixteen pups at a time and dozens of pits even in a small hive.
Fire. Fire, or a cave-in if you have time and the right gear.
No, I don't want to talk about that.
Another? Yeah, I have about one more tankard of ale left in me.
We smashed into that crowd of undisciplined killers like Armok's own mailed fist. I was the blade, cut my way as deep into the pack as I could, momentum from the downhill run and all my armor and I felt like I could fly, like I could finish this battle up by myself if everyone would just get out of my way. Killing Time scribed prayers in spatters and sprays...
There's always a heart of an opponent's army. With pucks it's a priestess or sometimes a beast slayer with one of those absurdly huge swords. Tallfolk, a steel-sheathed lordling with some fancy decoration on her helmet. Greenskins have a general, or a shaman, or sometimes both. They're in the middle of the mob because they think that's the safest place. Therefore it isn't because we know exactly where to hunt for them.
For morale. The less training, the less espirit de corps your army has, the more crucial it is to ensure your leader's visible, obvious to the troops.
Right, that's the heart. Carve out the heart and the army starts to die.
Yes, yes exactly -- you can't tell a dwarf champion from a raw recruit in combat until it's too late to disengage.
I wish I could agree. We, as a people, are just as obsessed with status as you. Maybe more. Tell a peasant he's the head of Battlefield Gleaning Team #4 and he'll pester Knucklebone to make him a nifty little badge out of a segment of buffalo horn, something like a bug button with a rune or something carved on it and in minutes he'll start walking taller and bossing his crew like a baron. Everyone loves even the tiniest bit of authority. And if that peasant stumbles across a not-quite-dead-yet greenskin and takes a spear to the stomach I'll wager gold to pewter his dying wish? Bury me with my badge. Put Boss of BGT#4 on my sarcophagus. And don't try telling me tallfolk are all that different.
Well, I found it -- staff with an uncut emerald big as my fist on top, helmet made out of some kind of horned critter's skull, I never saw it before, tattered silk robes all embrowdered with poppies, you know, the kind they wear -- yes, for weddings. I killed it. One to the neck, head went one way and the skull helmet went the other.
No, half the bodyguards were already down and the rest turned when they saw what I did.
Nothing but a couple of hours of just plain hard work. Trickle of reinforcements shoving through that waterfall of blood just in the fight and already tired, helped us chase 'em down.
The Mayor? Pulled her out from under about a dozen corpses, beat just about to death and then nearly suffocated before we found her. Claimed ten kills, yep, one with a bolt and the other nine she beat to death with her crossbow. No, I tell a lie -- she said the last she strangled with the crossbow's cord after it shattered.
No, who'd make up a story like that?
I heard the same rumors, so let me say it plain: we opened the gate because we had a whole squad out there unsupported. Yes I knew it was the Mayor's squad. No, that had no impact on my decision.
Re-elected? Well, that's no surprise I guess. We dwarves do admire a fighter, even one who chooses stupid unnecessary fights.
Of course, we have an inquiry after every battle, a post mortem, if you're of a morbid sense of humor.
Their conclusions are public, you can ask -- yes, I'm a member of the council.
All right. The short version is, we screwed up twice. When the crossbow squad charged the whole force unsupported, without the proper gear and training. And again when we opened up the gate -- my decision.
No, only the Mayor survived, eight killed in action and one who died in hospital a few hours later.
I will, yes, I'd make the same decision.
Because when you standin a line you need absolute faith in your squaddies, beardbrothers to your right, left, at your back. Without that trust we couldn't face 10 or 20 times our number of opponents wit any hope of survival.
It's like, okay, remember what I said about armor earlier? Reason it's so strong in the first place? Smiths use special hammers when they shape it, just peck at it for hours. All these tiny impacts change its shape ever so slightly, create dynamic tension in the metal, make it stronger. That's what they say, I don't know. End up with a piece of steel that can stand up to just about anything. Soldiers are the same way. training is the hammer, the countless bumps and dings that shape a civilian into a fighter, then a soldier.
What? No, a fighter just fights. A soldier follows orders -- fighting's just part of the job. The smallest part, but you wouldn't know that from the sagas or from drinking with old soldiers, now would you?
I was saying, trust in your squaddies, that's the -- ah, hells, my metaphor fell apart. The elather straps, maybe, or the rivets that hold the armor together? One more reason I'm more suited to the axe than the quill. When you write this do a better job with that bit. It's important.
Karstborn taught me that. My first squad leader, oh, forty-some years ago. "Armor's optional. Weapon, that's important, but never forget your mind is a weapon. Your body is a weapon. If your adversary's armed, take its weapon. Trust in your squaddies is not optional. March without trust and none of you'll come back." Then he made us take turns strapping on a mountaineering harness and jumping into a pit while our squadmates held the other end of the rope. Pissed myself that day. Twice.
No, no more for me. I have patrol in the morning.
Well don't blame me if you get your legs broken poking around Greatforge's turf.
-- The Gobpocalypse of 171, as remembered by Kotan "Cleaver" Eristhallen, Captain of the Guard. Recorded by Guillame of Bergentown, named Dwarf-Friend, 18th Malachite 172 (by Mountainhome reckoning)
FANTASYBOOKREVIEW's 2019 Year in Review: my Best of Year lists, and we're doing something a bit different this year.
submitted by SwiffJustice to Fantasy
Note: this post can also be viewed (with cover images and updated formatting) on our blog.
Pull up a chair and warm yourself by the hearth, good traveler! The day is late, and we’ve all journeyed from afar to get here. Our voyages over the past year has carved many a winding path through the vast fields of genre fiction; some roads have been recognizable, and others were unfamiliar and untrodden. This is why I’m going to do things a bit differently this year. Instead of a single list of Top 2019 Reads, I’m splitting it up into two categories:
– Favorite Traditional Published Books of 2019; and – This Year’s Hidden Gems
Let me first clarify that I don’t think that traditionally published books should be categorized or judged on a different scale than self- or independently-published books. I have read over eighty books this year, and I think we’re in a golden age of fantasy writing worldwide. Creativity, exploration, inclusion, and brilliant storytelling are consistently setting new precedents, regardless of the author’s background or marketing support. The goal here is to applaud the flat-out incredible range of popular SFF books I’ve read in 2019, while also calling attention to some of the more underground, underrated, or less talked-about gems that I think deserve a bigger audience.
Favorite Traditional Published Books of 2019The following list contains wide-release books I read in 2019. Not all have been published in 2019; some will be released in 2020. They are unranked, but if I were to rank them, the group at the top of the list would be listed the highest. (At least, today they are. Ask me again tomorrow, and the order might change. And this is why they’re unranked.) Much has been said about many of these books already—I’ve included links to my full reviews of each one—so I’ll keep my additional comments to a minimum. Without further ado…
The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft The third book in Bancroft’s The Books of Babel tetraology solidifies this series as a generational classic in the making. Hot on the trail of finding his lost love, Thomas and his crew are catapulted further into the mysteries of the Tower as it starts to crumble under the strains of populist strife. Poetic prose, clever humor, heartfelt character connections, and wondrous mysteries abound. Full review
The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood One of the best debut novels I’ve read, full stop. A genre-defying story of hidden gods, trans-dimensional portals, priestess-turned-assassins, thievery, artifact-hunting, sky ships, ancient myths… there is so much story packed into this one novel, it feels like you’re reading a full series by book’s end. If the gods are just, this book will have a massive reception upon release. It’s a truly remarkable achievement. Full review
A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay Perhaps the finest work of one of the world’s greatest living storytellers; Brightness examines the ramifications of decisions made by fringe players of historic events that reshape the world. A historical fantasy based on soldiers and leaders in medieval Italy, the characters are as beautiful and rich as Kay’s prose. Stunning set pieces, with soaring emotional highs and devastating moments of loss. Vintage Kay at the top of his game. Full review
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix Harrow A beautifully written and lovingly crafted adventure about the strength of love, the importance of stories, and the timeless power of words. This is a book that will reward repeat readers. Exquisite and unforgettable. Full review
Master of Sorrows, by Justin Call Another brilliant coming-of-age debut about a half-priest, half-warrior boy who is destined to become The Dark One. The world-building echoes Brandon Sanderson in terms of depth and breadth. A doorbuster of a book that covers a very short period of time; it’s plain to see that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the world that Call has planned for us. Immersive and unputdownable. Full Review
The Girl and the Stars, by Mark Lawrence A new trilogy set in Abeth, taking place centuries after the Book of the Ancestor series has ended. A brilliant introduction to another genre-defying trilogy set far beneath the ice planet’s surface, with hints suggesting how all Lawrence’s books are tied together. A fascinating and full-realized world that seamlessly blends fantasy and tech with a protagonist you’ll root for from the start. Once again, Lawrence one-ups himself with each release. Full review
The Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo Bardugo’s first foray into adult fantasy explores hidden societies beneath the surface of Yale University, told through the eyes of a survivor of a mass murder who can see ghosts. Mysteries, magic, and shocking reveals aplenty, with Bardugo’s wonderful prose and deeply flawed characters helping to make this a haunting, cant-miss read. Haunting and original. Full review
Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence A devastating yet triumphant end to Nona’s story in the final entry of the Book of the Ancestor trilogy. A clever narrative structure keeps the tension high, and the fates of all our favorite nuns and their encroaching enemies are determined. Emotional, surprising, and unmissable. Nona will be missed. Full review
The True Bastards, by Jonathan French Fetch was my favorite character in The Grey Bastards so I have been waiting years to read this sequel after learning she would be the main POV. It did not disappoint. It is a pulse-pounding story of sacrifice and survival, of rising above persectuion, and the strengths of brotherhood no matter your background… and enough violence, profanity, and black comedy to whet even the darkest of appetites. Full review
Darkdawn, by Jay Kristoff Mia “Murderqueen” Corvere’s story comes to an end in a blood-soaked, tear-fueled rage of death, love, stabbings, more death, all the the vengeful showdowns we had been promised, and enough surprises to make physically unable put the book down over the last hundred pages. (I’ve tried it. Don’t question it, it’s science.) It also provides plenty of Kristoff’s irreverant humor as well as poignant commentary on the power of words over weapons. Full review
Dispel Illustion, by Mark Lawrence When a trilogy deals with time travel, quantum physics, closing loops, ‘rules of a branching multiverse,’ and, oh yes, cancer, D&D, nostalgia, and a touching love story, one would think that it would be impossible to pull off a fitting finale. One would also learn to never underestimate Mark Lawrence’s skill in covering all his bases while delivering a clever and satisfying finish that hits all the right notes. Full review
The Dragon Republic, by R. F. Kuang In the follow-up to the shocking and unforgettable The Poppy War, Kuang manages to deliver this sequel with improved focus and a more balanced tone, but still delivering on Rin’s hellish coming-of-age journey through a war-torn world of havoc and survival. Full review
Priest of Lies, by Peter McLean After reading Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies back-to-back, Tomas Piety overtook the voice in my head. I started to think like him, to talk and respond like him. That is how well-crafted a character he is, and how in control McLean is in delivering such a unique narrative voice through his stories. Piety is an ex-soldier-turned-gang leader who is leading his former platoon mates in a takeover of his old city, but there are plenty of rivals standing in his way. And some people you just don’t mess with. ‘Addictive’ doesn’t begin to describe these books. Full review
Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames Book two of The Band changes its focus from metaphoric 1970’s classic rock debauchery to a 1980’s-inspired band of mercenaries led by femme fatale Bloody Rose, daughter of Kings of the Wyld‘s Golden Gabe. The story is told from Tam’s POV, the newest member of Rose’s band Fable, as she navigates the highs and lows of tour life. Humor is intercut with heart and heartbreak, with plenty of action and a rousing finale. Full review
The Sin in the Steel, by Ryan Van Loan Debuting in 2020. Buc is a teenage genius. Part Alexander Hamilton, part Sherlock Holmes, she and her traumatized soldier companion are commissioned by a massive corporation to discover why their trading ships are disappearing at sea. Ancient gods? Pirates? Politics and mad mages? It’s a foul-mouthed, swashbuckling, double-crossing adventure not to be missed. Full review
Starsight, by Brandon Sanderson How does he keep doing it? Sanderson’s first foray into outer space science-fiction was a knockout in Skyward. Exceptional world-building, an original ‘magic’ (cytonic) system, plenty of mystery, and likeable protagonists — all Sanderson staples. In this sequel, Spin is forced out of her comfort zone to confront who she really is, and find out her place in the universe. As new alien races and threats are introduced, Sanderson has the chance to use the farthest reaches of the universe as his sandbox, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity to create fascinating societies, life forms, and forces of destruction to contend with. The creativity is turned up to eleven. Full review
This Year’s Hidden GemsFantasy fiction has an incredible online fan community. Countless blogs, Facebook groups, Discords, reddit pages, and Twitter conversations are daily evidence that there is a positive and supportive system between authors, fans, and publishers. Word of mouth might be the single most powerful tool we have to promote the new and exciting stories that are being loosed into the aether. While some titles that have little difficulty picking up new audiences, others could greatly benefit from online buzz to help gain traction. I like to call these books ‘hidden gems;’ some books you might know quite well, and perhaps have already read more than a few, but I encourage you to pick up a couple of new ones to read in 2020.
Not all of the following books were published this year, but since I read them in 2019, they are eligible for this list. Many of these stories appealed to me for many different reasons, so I’ll try and be as specific and concise as possible in sharing why I think these are also some of the best reads of the year.
The Millennial Manifesto, by Michael R. Fletcher A powerful tale on what some resourceful, fearless, and determined young people can do when they’re fed up with the atrocities of the world that’s being turned over to them. A generational call-to-arms. Full review
River of Thieves, by Clayton Snyder Sharply written and utterly hilarious, this story of some take-no-prisoners vigilantes feels like a middle-finger response to the shameful and depressing state of government and the cartoonishly idiotic dipthongs that pretend to run things. The fantastic dialogue shines. Full review
Legacy of Ghosts, by Alicia Wanstall-Burke Wanstall-Burke’s Blood of Heirs is a SPFBO5 finalist for good reason, but Legacy of Ghosts is where the story really launches it into uncharted territory. Strong character development, exciting set pieces, and intense showdowns aplenty. The wait for book three is going to be a long one. Full review
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in the Water, by Zen Cho What starts out as a book about banditry and border wars becomes a meditation on identity, and how its ramifications affect different races, customs, and lands. A novella that runs the full gamut of emotions, with an excellent payoff and solid foundational world-building for Cho’s other works. Full review
Wrath of Storms, by Steve McKinnon What Symphony of the Wind brings to the table, Wrath of Storms dials it up across the board. This series feels like a fantasy Die Hard mashup, but now we’re going to add Tomb Raider and 007 films into the mix. In other words, you can count on more incredible action sequences, a breathless pace, characters you love to hate and hate to love, and pure, adrenaline-fueled fun. The lore runs rich and the emotional stakes grow deeper, and McKinnon can’t write these fast enough. Full review
The Girl with No Face, by M. H. Boroson Fantasy, horror, action, spirituality, religion, deep character growth, and sheer wonder, set in Chinatown pre-20th century San Francisco. Spirit healers, evil yokai, dazzling swordfights, and something called a ‘love spell’ that will give you nightmares. This is an incredibly underrated series with a vividly-realized narrative voice. Li-Lin is someone you’ll root for and want to spend time with again and again. Full review
Never Die, by Rob J. Hayes An adrenaline-fueled, anime-inspired story of vengeance, exploring what it means to be a warrior, and what tolls it might take on the human psyche. A deceased boy gathers a troupe of infamous, X-Men -style warriors to take down the man who killed him. But they’ll have to contend with yokai, Japanese spirit monsters of legend, if they want to survive. Non-stop action, a great mix of ‘let’s get a team together!’ scenes, strong characterizations for such a short one-off novel, and plenty of surprises by the end. Full review
Borderlands: Prelude, by Charles Gull Gull introduces two vast kingdoms at war in his Borderlands series of novellas, with each subsequent book centering on a different protagonist while continuing the same story line. This intense military fantasy offers plenty of unique monsters, environmental dangers that call to mind McDonald’s ‘The Misery,’ and a long string of action scenes and world-building developments that establishes what’s to come in the many planned books ahead. Full review
Bloodwitch, by Timandra Whitecastle A prequel to the Living Blade trilogy, Bloodwitch introduces some of the major players and their origins, and how what we already know of them might be misconstrued. Whitecastle utilizes her articulate prose to weave wondrous scenes of water-magic and high-stakes adventure. Full review
Zed, by Joanna Kavenna George Orwell meets Black Mirror. A satirical, hilarious, and downright frightening near-future science fiction story about an omnipresent tech company who grows so powerful that they influence law, economy, and just about everything else on the planet. Their “Beetle” network is like Alexa or Siri on steriods. Many potshots are fired, and nearly all of them land. Full review
Sin Eater, by Mike Shel The second entry in Shel’s ‘Iconoclasts’ trilogy solidifes him as one of the brightnest new talents in fantasy novel writing. Shel has many years’ experience writing for RPGs, and he utilizes these tools to develop a harrowing tale of elder gods, ancient races, dungeon crawls, magic weapons, and an absolute killer of an ending. But the book truly excels when the relationship between Auric and his daughter Agnes is put under the spotlight. Rich and rewarding, with deeply flawed characters and an escalating intensity, the third book is one of my most anticipated of 2020. Full review
Legends of the Exiles, by Jesse Teller Teller continues to flesh out his ambitious, gargantuan world of Perilisc with bi-annual releases that span continents and generations, further cementing Teller as one of the most imaginative and driven writers out there. Legends is comprised of four powerful novellas, with four different women as each story’s lead, overcoming great burdens in a generally male-centric society. (Although Daughter of Beasts may beg to differ.) This is also a deeply personal story for Teller to write, and he has since bravely shared some of his own past experiences that mirror some of the horrifying and tragic events in the book. While not all aspects of these stories clicked for me, I’m still thinking about them many months later. Full review
The Glass Dagger, by M. D. Presley This criminally underread series continues to astound with its complex themes, time-shifting dual narratives, an inherent magic system based on breath, politics, manhunts, sorcery, steampunk and flintlock fantasy elements, and a fully-realized world loosely based on Civil War-era America. Book three of the series sets up what should be an incredible finale, due out this year. Thought-provoking and wildy original, tackling themes of identity, familial loyalty, responsibility, patriotism, deism, and so much more. Read this series and share it with your friends. Full review
Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike Pike’s first entry in The Dark Profit saga, Orconomics, won first place out of 300 entries in a self-published fantasy contest for good reason. It’s refreshingly original, absolutely hilarious, poignant, and reflective of our current state of late-stage capitlaism. Son of a Liche somehow ups the ante in almost every aspect, delivering an endlessly quotable deluge of smart, incisive commentary, trope subversion, and masterful, rhythmic prose that flows like a long verse of Bill Hicks’ dark poetry. It also manages to pull heavily on the heartstrings, delivering a sneaky and surprising amount of well-developed character depth. This book impresses on so many levels. A must-read. Full review
Kings of Ash, by Richard Nell Nell’s Kings of Paradise blew me away, instantly becoming one of my favorite debuts, and books, of all time. Kings of Ash sneers at Kings of Paradise on its way to dethroning the former champion. Ruka is the most interesting character in all the fantasy I’ve consumed over the years, and this trilogy is a character study of what this broken and hated boy is capable of when he grows up to a be feared, charismatic barbarian with multiple personas, an eidetic memory, his own skewed sense of morality, and a thirst for conquest and vengeance. As if that wasn’t enough, Ruka discovers some hidden traits about his mind grove that is jaw-dropping in its awesomeness and its consequences. Nell is a truly amazing talent, and it is only a matter of time before this trilogy is picked up by a wide-releasing publisher. Full review
The Shadow King, by Alec Hutson The Raveling trilogy is a throwback, classical epic fantasy story that is smartly plotted and tightly written, with a deep well of rich lore and detailed world-building that draws on both eastern and western cultures. It is also an extremely polished work, and would fit perfectly in the bookshelves of any fantasy enthusiast. The Shadow King concludes what is a truly thrilling adventure that will have you both pumping your fist and grimacing with anticipation. Although the trilogy may be over, I hope we’ll see a lot more of this world. Either way, anything Hutson writes is a first-day purchase. Full review
To Flee a King, by Steve Rodgers Releasing in 2020. I was privy to an early draft of Rodgers’ third book of his Spellgiver series, and it was by far my favorite of the three. And this is after choosing City of Shards as a semi-finalist in SPFBO4. To Flee a King is another masterclass in world-building, showcasing one of Rodgers’ greatest aspects as a writer. While we once again shift between a few POVs, the Lidathi general Kemharak’s story is at the forefront as he tries to lead his people out of the frozen north and find a place of safety to settle amongst a world that has been taught to hate his race. Rodgers impresses in not only imagining a dearth of original ideas on how his world functions, but also at how deeply he considers how each of his creative decisions interact and evolve within the societies and environments he has built around them. This is one of the many reasons why the Spellgiver series separates itself from other epic fantasies of its kind.
Flight of the Darkstar Dragon, by Benedict Patrick A clever twist on portal fantasy, Patrick launches the first of a new series outside of his Yarnsworld universe. An airship is pulled through a doorway into a closed dimension of countless portals of shifting doors that open and close, leading to indescribable new worlds. Min attempts to lead her trapped airship crew back home, but must contend with a power-hungry wizard, environmental hazards, and, oh yes, a planet-sized dragon. Gaining the respect of her crewmates would be a good start. Full review
Faycalibur, by Liam Perrin Perrin once again goes against the grain in delivering a Python-esque, Pratchett-inspired take on the Knights of the Round, told from the perspective of Sir Thomas the Hesitant of the Less Valued Knights. (If certain texts were to be believed, then yes, the Less Valued Knights actually existed.) This series continues its warm-hearted adventures filled with wit and optimism, which sound like a perfect escapist antidote to the dreary state of current world events. This story shows signs that Perrin has a long game in mind for Thomas and his crew. A delightful read. Full review
To everyone who’s been following our site for a while, thanks for spending some time reading our reviews this year. We’re really proud of how we’ve expanded our team and increased the frequency of our releases and blog posts in 2019, and we have some exciting things to share in the weeks and months ahead. We’ll still be writing reviews like crazy, but we’ll also be putting more effort into creating more original content. We want to continue to make FantasyBookReview a top source of fantasy book news, releases, interviews, advance reviews, contests, and much more. We welcome all feedback, positive and negative, so please don’t hesitate to comment below.
Happy, healthy, and safe new year to all.
— Adam and the FBR team