Age of the Undead: A Zombicide: Black Plague Novel
It seems like every few months, publisher Aconyte Books – rapidly taking multiple genres by storm at the moment – announces that they have the license to another awesome boardgame or role-playing game that they can use to develop some more of their incredibly high-quality tie-in fiction. They began with stalwarts like Arkham Horror and Legend of the Five Rings, two properties that still form a key part of their portfolio, but the publisher quickly expanded with a wide variety of licenses across numerous genres – from sci-fi games like Twilight Imperium and Terraforming Mars, to fast-paced apocalyptic boardgame Pandemic, and even the popular CCG KeyForge. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing the titles that Aconyte have published based on those properties, particularly the way that the publisher has carefully matched authors with properties, resulting in brilliant reads like Josh Reynolds’ Wrath of N’Kai or Marie Brennan’s The Night Parade of 100 Demons, and am always eager to see what is next in their ever-expanding lineup. So when they announced a range of novels based on the popular Zombicide boardgame, I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with the license – especially since the fast-paced, gory zombie apocalypse boardgame has a variety of spin-offs that send it into space and even the medieval period.
The first novel in the series, Josh Reynolds’ Last Resort, was a streamlined, action-packed and gore-soaked tribute to the ‘contemporary’ Zombicide setting that I thoroughly enjoyed, which set a high standard to follow. While I missed out on grabbing a review copy of Tim Waggoners’ Planet Havoc novel, which took place in the futuristic Zombicide Invader setting, fortunately I was in time to snag a review copy of the forthcoming Age of the Undead novel, set in the medieval-themed Zombicide: Black Plague and written by one of my favourite Black Library alumnus, C.L. Werner. Werner is the author of some of the best fantasy-themed fiction ever published by Black Library, including the darkly humorous Thanquol and Boneripper series, as well as some fantastic stories involving the Dwarf-like Kharadron Overlords, and of course the cult classic Marius Thulman – Witch Hunter series. Werner is a master of the fantasy genre, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing what he could do with Zombicide: Black Plague as a setting. My intrigue was only heightened by the superbly grisly cover art, and a back-cover blurb that promised a vengeful Knight gathering together a motley band of allies to defeat a sorcerous necromancer responsible for unleashing a zombie apocalypse upon his homeland. I couldn’t wait to see what Werner had in store for me, and dived straight into the novel as soon as I could.
Age of the Undead opens with a classic Werner prologue, in which he deftly lays out the cause of the afore-mentioned zombie apocalypse and how it spread across the land, banished and defamed necromancers rallying together to uncover ancient and twisted occult artifacts in order to raise an army of the undead. When the undead horde massacres a living army raised to put it down, the corpses of the knights and peasants only further bolstering it, those few survivors flee the battlefield and look for shelter elsewhere. Protagonist Alaric von Metz, a gallant knight, races back to the village of Mertz and his family’s castle – only to find its fearsome defences battered down and its defenders slaughtered to a man. The only survivor is charismatic thief Gaiseric, stuck in the castle dungeons and barely able to outwit the undead infesting the castle; when the two meet, they soon discover that the zombie horde that attacked the castle was raised by the terrifying necromancer Brunon Gogol, and Alaric swears his revenge. But first the two men must escape the castle and its zombie inhabitants and find refuge, gathering together supplies and allies with the ultimate aim of killing Gogol and ending the zombie menace. As they travel through a country now transformed into a land inhabited by shambling corpses, they’ll find themselves fighting a desperate rearguard action to survive in a major town fallen to the dead, infiltrating a secretive facility operated by Witchfinders and guarded by fiendishly complex and deadly Dwarf-built traps, and encounter both necromancers and mysterious wizards with hidden agendas – all of which could spell their death or undeath.
One of the greatest strength of Age of the Undead are the characters found in the novel, with Werner clearly drawing upon his extensive Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar experience to craft a group of instantly-recognizable, yet distinctive characters that he deftly fleshes out into fully-developed protagonists as the novel progresses. Indeed, one of the most impressive elements of the novel is how each major character feels like they could be the protagonist of their own story within the Zombicide: Black Plague setting, despite the fact that several of them are not encountered until nearly half-way through the narrative. Alaric wrestles with the clashing nature of his duty to avenge the butchering of his family and retainers, as well as the need to protect his new friends and accomplish a mission that could save the lives of those left alive in much of the country, and Gaiseric has a neat arc where his career as a charming yet unrepentant thief finds new purpose in defusing many of the lethal traps and countermeasures facing the group. I think Witchfinder Helchen is a particularly engaging character, and I really enjoyed the way in which Werner had the apocalyptic events of the narrative – and the morally ambiguous and even compromising decisions she has to make along the way – fray at the edges of her iron resolve and monochrome worldview until she’s something quite different in the last chapter of the novel. Without wishing to spoil too much more about the plot, there are some other genuinely original and engaging characters that pop up in the plot as it progresses: the relationship between the wizard Hulmul and his magical familiar is something I haven’t really seen before, and an orcish character and his pet wolf that appear later on provide some amusing comic relief. The characters are supported by a fast-paced, blood-soaked narrative that hurls the small group against unrelenting hordes of zombies, with Werner deftly ensuring that each ‘special’ type of undead the group faces is nicely differentiated from the ‘common’ zombies that constitute the bulk of the shambling corpses, leading to some distinctly hair-raising and action-packed sequences, particularly towards the end of the story.
Age of the Undead is an atmospheric, blood-soaked & action-packed zombie-fest from C.L. Werner that perfectly meshes with the Zombicide: Black Plague setting, and demonstrates why Werner is such a prolific and popular author. His characters are deftly crafted and well-developed, there’s a carefully-developed atmosphere of quiet desperation and short, violent bursts of undead violence that permeates the entire narrative, and Werner manages to expand upon the overarching Zombicide setting while also imbuing it with his own unique take on the setting as a whole, creating something both unique and original. Age of the Undead ends with some intriguing plot points left dangling tantalizingly in front of us as readers, and I can only hope that Werner and Aconyte work together on future novels in the Zombicide series – and any other I.P.s that Werner might be interested in as well.