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The Sundering

In honour of my favourite fantasy tabletop wargame returning, I decided to try reading The Sundering again after having abandoned it part way through a couple of years ago. It was, of course, something of a slog, but my current Warhammer enthusiasm meant that I actually stuck with it all the way through this time.

I'm not going to write an in-depth review of the omnibus here. Partly because of how long it is (three novels, a novella, and a short story), and partly because I've already expressed my feelings about Black Library fiction on numerous occasions (love the games and settings, find the fiction rather dull). I will, however, give some brief impressions.

First things first, the quality of Gav Thorpe's writing, for me at least, is generally a step above the average published by Black Library. None of the books of The Sundering are high literature, but neither are they quite as egregiously bad as many other Warhammer books I've read. His writing suffers from the usual flaws of most Black Library fiction - the action scenes are too long and far too frequent - but overall it is much more readable than many and no different from many other pulp sword and sorcery stories.

Where the stories do fall rather short, however, I think is all down to the subject matter. The Sundering, as it is know, is the long and bloody civil war that leads to the schism between the High and Dark Elves of the Warhammer world. It's one of Warhammer's foundational myths and vast in scope, with repercussions that fundamentally change the setting; herein lies the problem. Any attempt to cover such a mammoth event in even a few books will inevitably mean that some compromises must be made and, for the most part, Thorpe's approach is to make each sequence of chapters a snapshot of the larger narrative. While each book mainly focuses on a small cast of characters (at least, compared to the events as a whole), large swathes of time are frequently skipped in order to condense the drawn out conflict into the space of a large novel.

When done well, this form of episodic (not sure if that is the correct term) storytelling can be quite effective, but I found it rather unsatisfying here. None of the characters were ever imbued with enough life to really make me care about them, and the epic scale of events had little dramatic tension when the outcome felt so unimportant; many thousands of minor supporting characters had their lives upturned during the course of the books, but it had no emotional weight behind it.

Later books often revisit the events from earlier in the series, but portray them from a different character's point of view. Again, if I had any form emotional attachment to the characters this could have been a powerful dramatic device, but when they frequently repeated dialogue and descriptions word for word it felt more like recycling of old material to pad out a word count than the deeper illumination of previous mysteries.

This is perhaps a harsh criticism of the books, but then I did find them a rather boring read. Gav Thorpe is by no means a bad author, but I think anyone would struggle to cover so much elapsed time and so many threads of narrative in a satisfactory manner. The Sundering feels like a series of stories that were perhaps setup for failure from the start. There is also, sadly, a sharp decline in quality towards the end; just when the plot is finally reaching its dramatic conclusion, the remaining characters suddenly start making decisions that seem arbitrary and wildly out of character. After taking so long to build up to the finale, The Sundering suddenly rushes through the end sequence as if the author themselves were also getting a little bored.