I haven’t read a huge amount of Black Library fiction written by Andy Clark, but what I have managed to read I’ve been impressed by. I’m currently reading his Imperial Knights novel Kingsblade after getting it as part of the recent Black Library Humble Bundle selection, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. And of course Mr Clark most recently authored the short story Consequences, an event in the Warhammer 40,000 lore that appears to have divided the fandom more bitterly than the Horus Heresy did ten thousand years before the story takes place! That isn’t a huge amount of his work under my belt, but it’s given me an understanding of his writing style, and I was eager to see what other stories of his I could find to read. After reading a review by the veteran reviewer Track of Words, I decided to request a review copy of one of Mr Clark’s latest novels, Gloomspite, and was lucky enough to be sent a copy. I’m becoming more engaged with the Age of Sigmar setting that Gloomspite takes place in, and I was particularly intrigued by the novel’s focus on the Grots, a race I hadn’t known anything about before starting the novel. Track of Words also intimated that I would never look at a mushroom the same way after finishing Gloomspite, and that’s certainly the most unique recommendation I’ve ever come across for an author’s work. So I decided to start reading and see where Mr Clark would take me.
As the back-cover blurb highlights, Gloomspite is set against the backdrop of the isolated city of Dracothium, beset by riots and, plagues and fires inside, and lurking enemies underneath just waiting to strike, all under the sight of the Bad Moon. Captain Helena Morthan attempts to keep the peace under increasingly trying circumstances, and isn’t assisted by the arrival of sellsword Hendrick and the men of his warband, their leader still grieving over the loss of his brother. It’s certainly a potent mixture of elements, and promises to result in a great deal of chaos, disaster and darkness that makes a fantastic read. From the very first pages those promises are fulfilled, as we are presented with an engrossing and perfectly-pitched prologue that thematically sets up the atmosphere and tone of the novel as a whole. Hendrick, sergeant of The Swords of Sigmar warband commanded by his brother Varlen, is forced to watch helplessly as his brother is burnt on a bonfire by a mob of enraged townspeople; they are terrified of his brother, who has been hideously mutated, by a cursed crown he innocently placed upon his head, into a warped, monstrous creature that flails with tentacles and fleshy growths at anything it faces. As it burns it shrieks, Hendrick forced to listen as the thing that was once his brother and leader screams about something called the Moonshadow, which will bring doom to the city of Draconium. It’s a powerful and emotionally-laden opening, one that demonstrates Clark’s writing prowess and his impressive command of atmosphere and character. Hendrick takes up the mantle of leadership of the Sigmarite warband reluctantly, and leads them towards Draconium in an attempt to discover why the monster that was once his brother raved about the city and its destiny.
From there, we’re thrown into the complex, violent and fearsomely chaotic situation in Draconium by Clark, who slowly and teasingly begins to reveal the horrors lurking beneath the fortified city. I admired the way in which Clark swiftly and deftly built up a picture of Draconium so you could picture it in your head as you read: a frontier city, as much fortress as centre of trade, at the ragged edges of Sigmar’s domain and consequently forced to deal with disorder and commotion both inside and out. It’s a rough and ready city that Clark imbues with a great deal of charm despite the horrors he unleashes on it, inhabited by a mixture of races; I got something of an Ankh-Morpork air from it, albeit an entirely serious and grimdark nature. Clark makes it feel distinct and alive, something that existed long before the novel itself was written. Captain Helena Morthan of the City Guard is confronted with an increase of break-ins, disappearances and other mysterious incidents that all seem to involve holes being dug from below; it’s strange enough even for Draconium that she’s forced to investigate. Particularly when the incidents involve officers of the watch being found dead, gnawed to the bone and stabbed dozens of times; or officers going missing without trace. In addition, there are the bad dreams plaguing the population, and violent incidents breaking out for seemingly no good reason even given the generally anarchic nature of the city, and the Realm of Fire in which it resides.
Arriving outside the city, Hendrick and his band are allowed to enter and deliver their warning, only to be met by disbelief and misplaced confidence from the ruling Regent Militant, dismissed quickly and brusquely. Left frustrated and feeling as if he has failed in delivering the warning brought with his brother’s life, Hendrick finds himself and his colleagues reluctantly recruited by Captain Morthan to try and locate the cause of the escalating anarchy, madness and general chaos slowly infecting the city. Tasked with investigating various incidents, the warband swiftly become aware of the dangers lurking below the city and preparing to enact the prophesied doom; Clark has a great time unravelling each aspect of the mystery, expertly doling out occult clues and steadily ramping up the tension as things occur, one after the other. When things do come to a head and the apocalypse is finally unleashed, the pace accelerates to near-break neck speed as the city’s thin veneer of civilisation begins to disintegrate, and the population are forced to fend for themselves against the depredations of the Bad Moon and its followers. The action and chaos is perfectly described, and I was deeply impressed by Clark’s sudden and brutal willingness to sacrifice PoV characters in the middle of the novel to underline the brutality of what is being inflicted upon the city by that terrifying celestial object. It adds another dimension to the story and makes it all the more compelling as a result , even as it moves towards its climax and the revelation of why the Bad Moon chose Draconium
The action is non-stop from the half-way point of the novel, mystery, apprehension and investigation discarded in favour of a tide of greenskins, insects and even fouler creatures that Clark brings to life in a vivid, memorable and thoroughly unsettling manner. There are vile, disgusting, stomach-churning insects and bugs alongside the Gloomspite Gitz, and in many ways they’re the stars of the show, ever-present and lurking in the background even before things turn truly terrible. One sequence in particular early on in the novel, where a millipede is described emerging from a decaying, half-eaten corpse, has stayed with me for quite some time after finishing the novel and moving onto other titles. Indeed, Clark’s peerless work in regards to the general sense of decay and degradation that slowly consumes Draconium is remarkable, to the extent that I cannot look at fungi in general the same way I did before reading Gloomspite; and it will be quite some time before I prepare a meal with any form of mushroom in it.
The brilliant-yet-nauseating descriptions of the fungi and insect-based destruction afflicting Draconium is equally matched by the quality of the characters in Gloomspite. The members of the Swords of Sigmar warband are all fleshed-out, completely believable characters that have backstories, flaws and often complex motivations despite some having relatively limited time within the novel, and I was deeply impressed by them. From dour, bitter and resentful Hendrick who is constantly living in the shadow of his dead brother and is forced into a leadership role he didn’t seek and isn’t sure about, to mysterious wildman Olt Shev, wildling member of the warband, each member is memorable and unique. And on a personal note, as the father to an autistic son, I deeply appreciated the presence of Eleonora as an autistic character, especially one who’s a skilled engineer and entirely capable in her own unique way. With an accurate portrayal of stimming as a coping mechanism, and her difficulty socialising, yet still able to function and work a trade, I found her to be a positive and rewarding character that successfully refutes many of the ignorant and hurtful myths associated with autistic people.
In addition, the city of Draconium almost becomes a character in its own right, each location the characters visit seeming to be distinctive and with it’s own imagery and architecture, meshing together to create an original setting that helps draw you in. And of course no discussion of characters in Gloomspite would be complete without discussing the Grots themselves. While they don’t appear for quite some while, at least directly, they’re constantly in the background influencing events and showing discord and diseases. When they do finally appear, they’re terrifying and chaotic enemies, with Clark deftly bringing out their anarchic, unpredictable nature as they emerge and start slaughtering. Their diversity is fascinating to read about, and such is Clark’s skill at portraying them that I almost want to go out and buy a Grot army myself; only my wafer-thin wallet prevents me from doing so. The Loonking in particular is an awesome antagonist, and I’d love to see a novel focusing on him that would allow Clark to expand on his schemes and machinations in far more detail.
Utilising his deeply impressive writing style and flawless command of the Age of Sigmar setting, Andy Clark brings Gloomspite to shadowy, disgusting and terrifying life, the novel grabbing your attention from the very beginning with a power and energy I rarely see in Black Library titles. Populated with engaging, multi-faceted characters who walk off the page and into your head (and heart), and set in Draconium, a fascinating city with a compelling backstory that deserves further expansion, Gloomspite is one of the most accomplished and polished Warhammer novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I near-obsessively read it over the course of a few days, finishing it far quicker than most of the scifi or horror titles I’ve read this year, and it deserves – no, demands – to be read by anyone even vaguely interested in Age of Sigmar, or Warhammer in general.