Continuing on with my journey to read and review all of the Warhammer Horror titles being released by Black Library, I now come to a novel I’ve been looking forward to for a long time – Josh Reynold’s Dark Harvest, set in the popular Age of Sigmar setting. Why was this particular novel one of my most hotly anticipated titles of 2019 once it had been announced? Well, the new Age of Sigmar setting does intrigue me to a certain degree, especially now that it’s been around for a few years and Black Library have helped flesh it out with various novels, short stories and anthologies. But the main reason was the author himself – I’ve been a fan of Mr Reynolds for quite a long time, ever since I first discovered him through another Warhammer novel – Knight of the Blazing Sun, a fantastic Old World Warhammer novel that, while sadly out of print, is available on Kindle. His mastery of atmosphere and keen eye for engaging characters caught my imagination, and I subsequently began to pick up his titles whenever I could, both those published by Black Library and from other publishers. I particularly enjoyed his Royal Occultist series of novels and short stories, which blended cosmic horror with the occult detective genre in an incredibly enjoyable way, and as such wasn’t surprised to see his name appear in the first tranche of Warhammer Horror titles when they came out. His novella The Beast in the Trenches in The Wicked and the Damned triptych was a fantastically grim and often surreal journey, and demonstrated an instinctive understanding of how to write pure horror in the Warhammer 40k universe, and how to clearly differentiate it from the standard grimdark nature of the setting.
Given all of that, you can perhaps more clearly understand my anticipation for Dark Harvest, especially when that incredible cover art by artist Maxim Kostin was finally unveiled: dark, shadowy and brimming with menacing imagery and iconography, it deftly sets the tone for the tale to come, and especially Greywater Fastness, the geographical area that the tale is set in and around. For you see, the Age of Sigmar setting is one of deep contrasts – Sigmar and his heralds have returned to the Old World, drastically reshaped by the End Times and its apocalyptic aftermath, and brought light and faith and security to many areas. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are now safe from the depredations of Chaos and the many other races that inhabit this world; but far more are still living in darkness, or at the very best toiling away in the shadows and the twilight, waging their own bitter conflict just to stay alive in a hostile world.
One such area is Greywater Fastness, a fortress-city perched on the very edge of (human) civilization that seems to be perpetually in conflict with the environment surrounding it, and the Sylvaneth lurking within the forests that draw closer every day and have to be beaten back with blade and gunpowder. Reynolds creates a setting that’s an instant classic here, within a few pages developing a living, breathing city whose very existence is paid for in blood, soil and bodies on a daily basis. There’s no sunlight breaking through the thick, grey, rain-clogged clouds, the soil is bitter and only grudgingly grows anything, the rain is endless, and yet humanity clings on despite all of that, waging an endless war just to survive. The atmosphere Reynolds builds up draws you in rapidly until you feel like you’re right there in the blasted, Sigmar-forsaken lands, inhabiting a city on the knife-edge, populated by desperate citizens, guarded by the brutal Greycaps, and never at peace. There’s a sense of claustrophobia and a general deep-set sense of fatalism in a place where Sigmar’s return to the mortal realms means little, if anything, to the average person.
That includes the protagonist of Dark Harvest, Harran Blackwood, a man who isn’t exactly in a great place life-wise when we start the novel. Blackwood is another engaging protagonist from Reynolds, the first-person narrative of the novel demonstrating his skill as a writer and his way with words. As an example, take this section of the novel’s opening paragraph: “My back ached, and my head was ringing like a duardin smithy. I could taste last night’s mistakes in the back of my mouth, and my skin had that greasy, gritty feeling that comes from too many baths in water barrels.” In just a few sentences we’ve gained some insights into Blackwood’s character and circumstances, and discovered that he’s a blunt, forthright character who’s also endlessly quotable. Blackwood is a protagonist who perfectly suits the surroundings in both character and temperament, a former warrior-priest of Sigmar who’s forsaken his vows for mysterious reasons and has instead found employment as a sell-sword and knee-capper for a local thug. However decades later he’s summoned by a coin, a simple token that brings him outside of Greywater Fastness and travelling to the Wald, a village even further from Sigmar’s light and well within the territory of the Sylvaneth – and even darker and older deities. Blackwood is a brutal, hard-nosed cynic ready to kill a former friend if it means staying alive for a little longer, and yet despite that Reynolds is such a good writer that I found myself enjoying Blackwood, his cynicism and single-minded sense of purpose growing on me as the book progressed.
There’s a mystery to be solved here, one that Blackwood has some context for (but not all by any means) and which Reynolds deftly draws out and then builds upon as the novel progresses. As Blackwood travels to the Wald and discovers a community that seems suspiciously retrograde and cult-like even for the Age of Sigmar setting, Reynolds wields atmosphere and tension like an expert, using them to subtly build up the inherent horror of Greywater Fastness and the Wald, and the things that are hunting him in the shadows and the foliage even as he is hunting a former friend. Everything is used – smells, sights, even taste: everything becomes exaggerated and unsettling under Reynold’s pen. Particularly evocative is the malice of the swamp and the forest, and the utterly alien and unknowable nature of the Sylvaneth and their kin; their mocking laughter, their hatred of humanity, the fact that they’re aeons old and have forgotten more than humanity will ever know. The Wald is under siege from the Sylvaneth, and yet also managing to live in a curiously symbiotic relationship with them under a distinctly feudalistic system that’s beginning to fray and break at the edges even as Blackwood arrives. It’s a claustrophobic, tense and insular community that doesn’t welcome outsiders; and while that might sound clichéd, Reynolds gives it so much depth and colour and complexity that it breaks out of the tropes that might have restrained it.
At times, Dark Harvest struck me as a Warhammer version of Apocalypse Now expertly blended with The Wicker Man – a bitter, cynical ex-warrior venturing into the unknown depths of the jungle and swamp on a mission he doesn’t really understand and through an environment that actively wants to kill him for his very existence, only to encounter an isolated community rife with secrets and living a strange, ritualistic existence that has this darkly ethereal edge to it. It’s combined with fantastic, three-dimensional characterisation that results in an engaging and even sympathetic cast, where even bit-part characters feel fully fleshed-out, their role fully considered and plotted. The Sylvaneth, the tree-people, come across as genuinely alien in nature and form, and deeply, disturbingly unknowable. Every time they appear, or lurk in the woods and the edges of the swamp, I couldn’t help but grimace slightly – Reynolds really brings them to life and makes them resonate as a constant, ever-present background threat that intertwines with the main plot-line. Plus there’s that central mystery, which is unspooled a bit at a time, always dragging you further in with Blackwood and his few allies, to the point where I became so gripped by it that I couldn’t stop reading, picking up the book at every opportunity until I’d finished it in just a couple of days.
To me, Dark Harvest is the perfect example of what Warhammer Horror seems to be striving for – talented authors allowed to utilise the settings to their full, horrifying potential without being tied to the requirement to advance a specific meta-narrative or highlight a new model or setting. The focus is purely on the Horror aspect of the imprint and that is as it should be, as it therefore allows authors like Reynolds to unleash their full potential without being held back by any other requirements. Fast-paced, engagingly written and absolutely awash with a dark, sinister and foreboding atmosphere, Dark Harvest is a brilliant slice of horror set in the Age of Sigmar universe, and I really, really want to see more of this from Mr Reynolds.