The Red Hours (Black Libary Novella Series 1 #8)
I hadn’t intended to write any reviews of the Series 1 Novellas released by Black Library before I had finished publishing reviews of the books in Series 2, and I’m only three books away from finishing off that entire series. So why am I writing a review for one of the books from that first series of novellas released by Black Library? Well, quite simply because I found The Red Hours by Evan Dicken, the eighth book in Series 1, to be an absolutely stellar piece of Warhammer fiction, and one of the finest Age of Sigmar stories I’ve ever read. Unlike the titles to be found in Series 2, which I found to be near-uniform in the high quality of the writing and imagination of their authors, I had a far more mixed experience with the Series 1 novellas; however, Dickens’s title has deeply impressed me and in my opinion is by far the best of the entire series; that easily puts it on a par with Parrott’s Isha’s Lament, or Crissali’s The Measure of Iron from Series 2.
After falling foul of a high-ranking senior officer in the armies of Sigmar, Captain Byrun Hess finds himself manacled and dragged towards his new posting – the terrifying-sounding outpost known as the Grave of Heroes, isolated deep in the deserts of the Chamon region. Chamon is a desolate, boiling-hot place where shade is sparse, the weather only alternating between scorching sun, and brutal shardstorms that can scour skin, bone and even stone. It’s a grim and foreboding location even before he sees the Grave of Heroes, a ramshackle and rundown fortress, and the motley collection of soldiers who form the skeleton garrison. Long-running grudges, incompetent leadership and a lack of direction mean Hess’ fellow soldiers are a trial to deal with; but before he can even begin to whip them into shape, a shardstorm and an accompanying catastrophe reveal an ancient evil lurking underneath the Grave of Heroes. Death soon follows, and far from plotting his return to civilisation, Hess finds himself in a desperate face to uncover the truth behind the malevolent force lurking beneath him, and the reasons why his fellow exiles are turning on each other.
In less skillful and imaginative hands, this could have been little more than a potboiler, the sort of generic plot-by-the-numbers that Black Library seems to have (mostly) moved on from these days. It’s very fortunate, therefore, that Dicken obviously put a great deal of time and thought into The Red Hours, creating a compelling and memorable adventure tinged with an atmosphere of suspicion, paranoia and distrust amongst its characters. What appears at first to be a relatively simple tale of one man’s journey back from disgrace and obscurity, perhaps by winning a siege against a foe emerging from the deserts of Chamon, suddenly morphs into an intense, claustrophobic and downright sinister occult murder-mystery. Dicken is a master of atmosphere, slowly but surely increasing the tension amongst the small band of characters as they attempt to figure out who the murderer is amongst them, only to begin turning on each other as the hours pass and no obvious answer emerges. It’s a genuinely gripping narrative that Dickens plays superbly and faultlessly, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the very last pages.
That engaging plot is allied with clever writing and excellent pacing, and all of those elements are tightly bound together by the great cast of characters that Dickens develops throughout the course of the novella. Even though some of them only appear for a few pages, each human, aelf and duardin in The Red Hours is a complex, fully fleshed-out being that never once come across as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts there only to advance the overall plot of the novella. Hess is a great example of a classic protagonist, one the reader can bond with near-instantly, and someone who possesses an intriguingly complex personality and motivations. The disgraced officer is an undeniably skilled and honourable combatant, one who has achieved considerable success on the battlefield at the head of a company of Freeguilders; and he has also been undeniably wronged, used as a scapegoat by a Sigmarite general who wants to cover up the high casualties of a victory over Chaos. Yet Hess also has subtle character flaws that emerge throughout the course of the novella – an overriding desire to regain his former social standing and his independent command, and is happy to to whatever is required to achieve that goal.
Indeed, some of the best parts of the novella are witnessing Dickens portray the two parts of Hess’ personality clash together, and clash with his companions in the fortress. Those companions are just as well conceived as Hess, and Dicken artfully plays around with the standard heroic tropes of the setting; here we have a disgraced, bitter and apparently cowardly duardin, alongside an aelf who cannot stand the sight of blood and fears her races’ natural longevity, and a human Castellan who is practically a heretic thanks to her taste in art. They’re all unusual, often inverted, takes on the character archetypes usually present in Warhammer fiction, and the manner in which they interact throughout the novella is another key part of why The Red Hours is such a pleasure to read.
Add in some expertly choreographed fight scenes late in the plot, as well as a frankly fascinating angle on the development of the Sigmarite religion, and the formation of the mythology around the God-King and his acolytes at the expense of those once considered allies, and you are presented with an imaginative, deftly written and action-packed novella that is an incredible accomplishment by Evan Dicken. The Red Hours is one of the finest pieces of Age of Sigmar fiction I have ever read, as well as being a great Warhammer read in general, and leads me to rank Dicken up there with the finest of his fellow newcomers to the Black Library pantheon – Parrott, Albert, Ware and Crowley. I had not read anything by Dickens before The Red Hours, but you can be certain that I will be reading (and reviewing) everything of his that I can get my hands on from now on.