Book Review: “Headtaker” by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Today, forum moderator Ath brings us a review of Headtaker, by David Guymer.

The Skaven are well-established in Warhammer fiction, their first appearance dating back to the classic Skavenslayer stories in the early 1990s, and their portrayal has remained relatively consistent since then. They are a darkly comedic bunch, on the one hand horrifying monsters intent on devouring the world of men, but on the other, treacherous, arrogant and incompetent enough that their plans never quite fall into place and dissolve into bickering and finger-pointing. This can make them challenging to read, as the constant plots and backstabbing sometimes seem in danger of becoming predictable and repetitive, but when done well they are thoroughly enjoyable.

“Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on…”

 

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

As far as I’m aware, this novel is both David Guymer’s first full-length Warhammer fantasy story, and the first time Black Library have issued a Skaven-centric novel not written by either William King or C.L. Werner. The eponymous Queek Headtaker has been a special character on the Warhammer tabletop for some time, but, other than a brief cameo in a Thanquol novel, hasn’t really appeared in the fiction or background until now. This book therefore represents an opportunity to do something new and different with the Skaven, and largely succeeds in that goal, while remaining faithful and respectful of the precedent set by Messrs. King and Werner.

The plot revolves around an attempt by the Skaven to attack the Dwarf fortress of Karak Azul, a major manufacturing hold, to disrupt the Dwarf infrastructure. Meanwhile the Dwarfs of Karak Azul have plans of their own to punish the local orcs and goblins for a previous humiliation. The real focus of this book, though, as with most of the Warhammer Heroes line, is on the characters, rather than the plot itself.

Queek is an unconventional Skaven character. He has no interest in the usual politics that the Skaven preoccupy themselves with, nor does he display any real sense of self-preservation, enjoying a good scrap and preferring to fight in the front lines. It seems he has maintained his position through the favour of his clanlord, together with his personal ferocity and the loyalty of his lieutenant, who actually organises his army. He is widely believed mad, although it is hinted at various points that this might at least in part be an act designed to disorient political rivals. He makes a refreshing change from the Skaven as traditionally portrayed, while still remaining distinctively one of them.

“Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.”

 

The main character, however, is not really Queek himself, but Sleek Sharpwit, an envoy of the ruling Skaven council sent to supervise Queek’s mission. Sharpwit is even more unconventional than Queek, an almost entirely original Skaven character. Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on; one memorable scene has Sharpwit lamenting Skaven short-sightedness where, following a collapsed tunnel, they would rather dig through it and trust to luck rather than take the time to clear it properly. Sharpwit is accompanied – and constantly hindered by – the more conventional Skaven Grey Seer Razzel, who resents his position of authority. I found Sharpwit’s efforts to manage Queek and Razzel and play one off against the other while retaining his own position to be some of the highlights of the novel.

We also see something of the Dwarf characters who stand in the way of the Skaven: Thordun, a young Dwarf from the human Empire who is seeking to make his fortune in the Dwarf lands, and Handrik, a Dwarf elder and friend to the king who is trying to make right a recent embarrassment.

“…the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals…”

 

While the Dwarfs are generally realised well, Thordun’s story is one of the weaker plot threads, as the character and his human sidekicks seem to be used largely as a means of creating conflict among other characters and driving more interesting plot developments. Handrik is a strong and memorable character, though, displaying generosity of spirit combined with a badly injured pride and a stubborn melancholy.

If the book has a real weakness it is in its final act, where I found that the number of concurrent subplots and characters, and the cutting between them, made the story rather difficult to follow. Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

As always, I found it a little frustrating to have the possibility of real world development dangled during the course of the book; while the book doesn’t exactly return things to the status quo as is common with such Black Library novels, it still falls short of giving us anything in the way of progress. The Skaven characters have a more satisfactory conclusion.

Overall, the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals, and should also be accessible as a standalone novel (although the absence of a map is not helpful in this regard). Throughout, Headtaker manages to remain faithful to the setting and background while at the same time is unafraid to attempt something more original, an effort which I thought was on the whole very successful.

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. David Guymer can be followed @WarlordGuymer.

Interview with David Guymer

Today’s interview is with David Guymer, one of the newest writers to join the ranks of the Black Library author roll. Part scientist, part writer and all nerd, he’s here to answer some questions about the creative process that goes into word craft.

David Guymer, because being the lord of the rats never sounded so good.

David Guymer, because being the lord of the rats never sounded so good.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?

David: Fraught.

Some people might enjoy a whispering muse at their shoulder. My writing is accompanied by buzzing neurones, lack of sleep, worry, doubt, and then I print off what I’ve done, cover it in red and do it again. And again.

It’s not a method I’d recommend but it gets the job done, and anything that can survive three or four lashings of the red pen probably deserves its place in the final draft.

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?

David: Basic rule is not to listen anything with lyrics but the precise choice varies from project to project. I find music useful in setting the right mood for a piece and (probably for fantasy and horror more than anything) if you get the mood spot on then you can get away with a lot.

“I’m a gamer first and a writer second, but I love the fact that this is a world that enables me to do both.”

 

For Headtaker that was the Dragonball Z soundtrack with a bit of Final Fantasy: Advent Children. Big fight music for big fights! For City of the Damned I needed something more eerie. I started off juggling between The Killing and Mass Effect 3 soundtracks before ultimately settling on the soundtrack to the old computer game, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

The Karag Durak Grudge, by David Guymer

The Karag Durak Grudge, by David Guymer

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

David: It’s hard not to work with a character every hour of every day and not become attached. There are actually very few characters that don’t pop into my head from time to time to demand a little love and attention. I’d originally intended to produce a small list of a selection of my favourites but, for the reasons noted above, I’ll just give you my standout, except no alternative, favourites. And that is…

Sharpwit.

The reasons are many. He’s delightfully devious, intelligent, but also vulnerable in a way that’s relatable to a human being reading about rat-men. I also think he’s quite unique amongst the skaven currently out there, surviving well into old age on the back of his wits and cunning. Before the plot for Headtaker was settled, Sharpwit existed. His full backstory and arc needed padding out, but the character was there right from the beginning. He’s my little contribution to skavendom!

As for other authors, that’s tricky too. What with their being so many. When I close my eyes and just wait for a character to spring to mind then (surprise surprise) they’re all members of the Tanith First!

Unseen, by David Guymer

Unseen, by David Guymer

I don’t know how he does it, but nobody writes characters quite like Dan. It’s doubly amazing given that his books tend to feature so many of them. The very first that came to mind were Rawne and Feygor. I couldn’t even tell you why as it’s so long since I read them, but that just goes to show how powerful they are.

He2etic: What are your favourite armies in the Warhammer and 40k universes?

David: I have a skaven army, naturally, that’s waxed and waned through the years ever since I first picked up a box of mono-posed plastic clanrats when I was twelve. We’ve fought some epic battles down the years and they’re the favourite to which I always return.

Most other armies have had my eye run over them at some point or other down the years. Wood Elves and Tomb Kings attract a lot of covetous glances. Writing Headtaker made me desperately want to collect dwarfs, but I do yearn for the chance to field some cavalry for once.

With 40K it’s more tricky. I did have a bit of Imperial Guard, but my school friends and I didn’t really play it. Necrons, Dark Eldar and Tau didn’t even exist when I last properly played 40K!

That said though, an Imperial Guard army is my current project because I do love tanks and big guns. What I *really* wanted though is Eldar or White Scars. I love them for the background and the feel of them, but neither suits the way I play. I’m a ‘sitting on my hill clustered around my war-machines’ kind of guy.

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Not just those in the Warhammer universes, but in other franchises or even of your own make?

Curse of the Everliving, by David Guymer

Curse of the Everliving, by David Guymer

David: Ikit Claw was always my favourite character, so I’d always love to write about him. The great thing about Warhammer and 40K though is there are so many great characters, settings and possibilities that it’s a pleasure to write for any of them. I’d never fielded Queek in my skaven army, for instance.

And I didn’t think much of King Kazador in the old dwarf army book either. He was basically a dwarf lord with an extra point of strength and a hatred of greenskins.

But when you look past the stats, immerse yourself in the background, then you see that there’s so much character to them both.

If, however, we’re talking other franchises then I’d love to write a Star Trek story as I grew up as (and still am) a massive Star Trek fan.

I’ve also threatened to write a Ms. Marvel screenplay if no-one else looks likely to do it!

He2etic: What are your favourite drinks, both alcoholic and not?

David: I consume vast quantities of milk. It’s good for you, although in these doses probably less so. With alcohol, you can’t go too far wrong with a good cider. Out of regional pride, I like to get Aspall’s Suffolk Cider. So if anyone sees me dry at the Weekender, you know what to get me.

He2etic: What is it about Warhammer and its 40k brother that you love the most?

Gotrek and Felix, Lost Tales, from the Black Library

Gotrek & Felix: Lost Tales, from the Black Library

David: I’m a gamer first and a writer second, but I love the fact that this is a world that enables me to do both. When I think about what I want to write it’ll be cool stuff from the game that comes up. I want to see what happens when a doomwheel charges a giant, or when rat-ogres get shot by an Anvil of Doom.

If they let me loose on 40K, I’d want to write about a fleet battle in an asteroid belt or hundreds of battle tanks blowing the crap out of a titan.

I like that these are worlds where big things can happen, where there are heroes and villains and a whole lot struggling along in between. And I like that one will always be trying to stab/poison/blow up the other.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

David: I’d be terrible at this. I’d just want to put Star Trek and Buffy actors in everything. Will Wheaton as Felix Jaeger? No… no, I don’t think so.

“It’s hard not to work with a character every hour of every day and not become attached.”

 

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing?

David: They don’t come much longer term than my ‘first’ novel, which I started working on well before I first submitted a story for Black Library. It’s a fantasy story about wizards that (stop rolling your eyes at the back) draws quite heavily from my love for Dragonball. It’s about two-thirds done. Occasionally, between projects, I’ll edit the opening paragraph for the zillionth time and then it’s back to the hard drive. I do plan to finish it one day.

It’s a long term project!

Closer to fruition, I’ve got plenty of irons in the fire with Black Library to keep me going for the near future. So I’m afraid you’ll not be seeing the back of me just yet.

That’s all the time we have for today! Thanks David!

Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio. The author can be followed @He2etic, or on his blog.

Author Interview – Clint Lee Werner

Apologies for the late posting but things have been quite hectic in Shadowhawk-land. Suffice to say that I redeem myself by bringing a long-time fan-favourite author to the blog. If you all thought that all the previous interviews have been amazing then you are about to get a one-up on them. C L Werner, or rather Carandini as he is known on the Bolthole, has provided some rather meaty answers and his enthusiasm definitely shows through.

His name is synonymous with that of Grey Seer Thanquol, one of the most treacherous and fun-to-read skaven character ever, as well as his early Chaos Wastes novels which helped to define this realm in even more detail than before. Other may remember the Brunner and the Matthias Thulmann novels as well. He is also a regular in the Warhammer Heroes brand for Warhammer Fantasy and has also appeared a few times in the monthly Black Library e-zine, Hammer & Bolter.

With several short stories and novels under his belt, many of them part of series and trilogies, we are going to see just what makes him tick and where he gets his inspiration from.

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