[WFB] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: “Ancient Blood” by Robert Earl, Black Library, 2008

Two things before we begin. Firstly, this is another of those posts where I arguably read too much into mediocre pulp tie-in novels and I’m aware some of you find that irksome. Secondly and not so trivially, it’s difficult if not impossible to discuss this book without using the wordgypsiesat some point, and I’m aware that many if not most actual Romani consider that word a slur. I use the word here when engaging with the context and origins of a fictional construct; if I need to talk about actual people who really exist I’m going to say Romani. And just to defer the inevitable: no, I’m not offended on anyone’s behalf, this is just a courtesy note to people who might be offended on their own behalf, and that’s only fair and polite. That said: let’s get on.

Ancient Blood passed me by originally, coming out in the same sort of timeframe as Steven Savile’s fascinatingly execrable vampire trilogy and somewhat overshadowed by it. Which is a shame, because it’s a quieter, better, arguably more thoughtful book, despite making a few of the same missteps and turning over some awkward ground in the process. I bought it on a whim over the weekend and it’s… intrigued me.

I won’t give much of a plot summary because honestly it’s not that important. There’s a racist nobleman, he’s taken against a minority group for distinctly Freudian reasons because there’s nothing quite like Freud for easy villain motivations, and this book follows what happens to the people he’s persecuting, as well as the kinds of nasty bastards who can be relies upon to deliver racism by proxy. And since the minority group in question are the Strigany, there are vampires. (It’s not a spoiler, you muppet, there’s one on the front of the book.)

Who the balls are the Strigany? (Even casual Warhammer fans may be scratching their heads at this one.) We’ll get back to them in a minute, once we’ve established something important about this book.

There’s a weird atemporality to Ancient Blood, in that the battle depicted resembles a scenario from White Dwarf that came out around this time in which Marius Leitdorf, the Mad Count of Averland, takes offence to the existence of Halflings and hires mercenaries to invade the Moot. They’re similar in terms of location and plotting, and in terms of the mercenary units involved, whose presence sites the book in the Warhammer world’s present day. But the framing device anonymises the Elector Counts involved; they’re just “Stirland” and “Averland”, which Kim Newman used to do for Electors who we weren’t expected to give a toss about but never for an actual character. More than that: the prologue explicitly locates the story in the Time of Three Emperors some two to eight hundred in-universe years earlier. I can’t work out if this is editorial meddling designed to separate a fan favourite special character who actually had a model available from Freudian Fantasy Racism, or if it’s sheer coincidence and nobody bothered about the dates. The Time of the Three Emperors is peak Vampire Counts lore time after all, and Earl’s contemporary Savile quite happily moved Detlef Sierck five hundred years back in time to locate him in the period, so it’s not as if the Black Library was paying its continuity editor a Christmas bonus that year anyway.

I don’t mean to get all frothy about this; guess what, freelance writers hacking out some pulp fantasy don’t attend to the details of the setting like semi-professional fanboys do, i.e. with terminal intensity. That’s fine. I mention it because it may indicate something about the publisher’s and author’s priorities. The Black Library wants the book out and not actively poisoning sales, and Robert Earl is far more interested in the Strigany than their oppressors. (He’s a WFRP writer, not a WFB writer, and I wonder how much of a factor that is here.) He has some fun with some Dogs of War units who’ve clearly caught his eye, but he’s fundamentally on the side of their victims here.

So. Let’s talk about the Strigany. They have their origins in the sixth edition Vampire Counts Army book from 2001-ish, where they appear in the theme list for the Strigoi vampires; a token unit of rank-and-flank living troops among the Ghouls and Skeletons. A throwaway gesture. They represent the last survivors of the ancient kingdom of Strigos, which itself represents the last living outpost of old Nehekhara; driven from their home by the final war against Nagash, they settled down under the guidance of the vampire Ushoran and the Crown of Sorcery. Then they got their bonches punched in by orcs, the chief priest was killed, the Crown taken, and the survivors fled north again, becoming a nomadic race of…

Oh, for fuck’s sake, they’re gypsies. All right? Because Dracula had gyspsy minions so Strahd had gypsy minions so Warhammer vampires have to have them too, because Warhammer is a trope hoover and doesn’t have the best record with regards to ethnosensitivity. BUT:

You have the real-world misnomer – “gypsy” being derived from “Egyptian” because that’s where pig-ignorant Europeans decided the Romani came from– and then you have this fantasy version which takes that misapplied belief and runs it to ground and builds on THAT rather than the real Roma. The Strigany came from Fantasy Expy Egypt but it’s the first nation they built in exile that defines them and there’s something poetic about that.

I don’t know how much of this was intended (bearing in mind that the architects of Warhammer were trained archaeologists, but also let shit like the Pygmies slide) but I also know a thing or two about the intentional fallacy and whether it was intended or not, there’s room here for a sympathetic retelling of that past and the present it leads to.

Robert Earl makes a credible attempt at taking that sympathetic point of view. I’m not Romani, so I don’t want to stick my neck out and say it’s acceptable or not on the Fantasy Racism front, but the really obvious exoticising and hate is sited in the antagonists, while Earl is much more matter of fact in depicting the Strigany and their life in renewed exile. There is a certain amount of “Strigany sorcery” involved but it’s all things the Strigany do to even the odds against them, and plenty of what they get up to is commonplace tactics and good sense. We do meet three of our characters while they’re thieving, but it’s clear that they do it because they’re young, bored and greedy, not because they’re Strigany. The Strigany do travel from town to town and play to stereotypes to bring the locals in, but it’s made clear this is a performative act in which they’re making a living (and there’s another caravan who do essential battlefield and plague cleanup that the Empire can’t be arsed with, so there’s at least a squint at something broader). Maybe you can’t ever do this sort of thing well enough but I thought it was a fat sight better than, say, the WoD’s Ravnos clan or Ravenloft, which just had… evil tricksy fantasy gypsies who serve vampires because that’s what they do.

Ah, yes. The vampires. The other half of the Strigany diaspora. The ancient and terrible living ancestors who have watched over the Strigany in exile, and who are approached to avenge wrongs like, well, the pogrom in this book. Flick through the Goodreads page for this book and you’ll see reviewers vocally disappointed that this book isn’t about the Strigoi bloodline. The thing is, the Strigoi aren’t that interesting. They’re feral killing machines who’ve forgotten almost everything except their eternal status as whipping boys to the other bloodlines. Everything that makes them interesting in a novelistic sense is also true of the Strigany, and the Strigany are functioning characters who can have conversations and differences of opinion and fall in love and so on.

The one Strigoi we meet here becomes interesting as he regains his sense of self and past, his appreciation for the finer things, and there’s a particularly effective bit where he commissions a macabre memento mori that relates the story of the bloodline without any tedious “as you know, your father the king” fantasy expospeak. In fact, the whole book is pretty light on that; the Strigany and the mercenaries and the vampire do what they do and Earl trusts we’re clever enough to get the gist of it.

Anyway, Earl is also clever enough to pull off the “understanding vampires through the eyes of others” thing Savile was going for, showing us the Strigoi as yes, terrifying monsters, but also inheritors of a shattered kingdom who have never lost their sense of obligation to their people. It’s only boring when his Strigoi turns around, sees a beautiful woman, and comes over all my-bride-in-darkness, and Earl seems to decide that’s a misstep quite quickly and end up abruptly having it not go anywhere.

Personally, I’d have preferred it if the Strigoi had entered into the love triangle subplot, especially since it first appears in the novel as part of the setup to that plot. There’s another weird misstep around that; it’s not teed up very well and later in the book one character refers to another’s vampire-blood-fixed-it-for-you facial scars like they’re still there. I’m not sure how well this one was edited or even redrafted; there are a lot of little elisions and flat character beats, especially with the generically nasty mercenary general, which feel like nobody passed over this thing to tighten it up, and that’s a shame.

I’ve brushed up against this now so let’s have it out: I don’t think this book was finished. Besides the occasional stumble on craft or pacing level, it’s too damn short. The premise is built up, the battle is established and resolved, the Strigoi calls his people home and they look pretty set on going, surrounded by omens, the love triangle is “resolved” in a way that could still turn out fascinatingly adulterous and the mercenaries are still out there and not the kind to give up…

All the pieces are in place for a nice long haul story that shows a side to the Warhammer World we don’t get to see very often, marginalised people and vampire sympathisers and the Dogs of War and going back to Strigos, something which can afford to happen without wrecking the status quo –

And then it just stops. Turns out this was a two act story, even though the tail suggests it could go to four or five. Checking the reviews for his other books suggests Earl does this a lot; clocks off when he hits a page count and the first thing that feels like a finale. Or maybe he was commissioned to write something about a battle, and with the battle done so was the book, and he was just leaving room for another trilogy set in the Border Princes and then down into Strigos. (Earl also seems to be responsible for relocating the ruins of Mourkain further south; I wondered, when they turned up in Total Warhammer II, whose idea that had been.)

Either way, it’s unfortunate. But maybe the whole premise of “Warhammer gypsies and their vampire god” is unfortunate to begin with? I don’t get to say, but I’m sad Earl didn’t get to take this one further; I for one quite like these people, and I want to see where they end up. Although I really don’t need another huge fanfiction idea taking up my brain space right now. But I have one. Thanks, Robert Earl. You swine.

[Warhammer] Lord Ruthven’s Regenerations

Who is Lord Ruthven, anyway?

Obviously, he’s an homage: the first modern and recognisable vampire in English literature, the brooding Byronic antagonist of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, published two hundred years ago last month. “Byronic” is no accident; Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician, and a fellow traveller on that infamous summer jaunt to Lake Geneva that produced, among other things, Frankenstein, and he consciously modelled his character on his employer.

So that gives us a kind of ur-vampire, the originator of the tradition that gave rise to Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, and James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney, and thence the big lad himself, your actual Count Dracula, and thence the twentieth century vampire tradition in which the Von Carsteins are sited. So obviously, when I was after a name for my Von Carstein general, Lord Ruthven sprang to mind.

The Lord Original

The first Lord Ruthven; a Mordheim vampire with enthusiastically swooshy cloak. My original figure went AWOL roundabout the time I graduated, and goodness knows where he ended up. Thanks to Michael Churchill from the Middlehammer Trading Outpost, and to the last bit of a broken General of the Empire kit who provided his new sword, though; he’s back!

This version was a bugger and a half to fit in a unit. My original solution was to mount him at the very front of his base and the command group in his unit at the very back of theirs, creating a sort of frame for that enormous cloak. These days, I’d stick him on the corner with a gravestone next to him (probably that one I have that’s leaning at an extreme angle of its own), or even have him running around on his own, relying on the Wristbands of Black Gold to keep him going.

In any case, as the general of an Army of Sylvania he was invariably a third level wizard (I only had the one to play with most of the time, might as well make it a good ‘un). His equipment has come and gone, but I’ve eventually settled on this as fairly representative:

  • Sword of Striking, Black Periapt, Ring of the Night
  • Aura of Dark Majesty

Five attacks, hitting most things on twos, is pretty reasonable for a non-Strigoi. That sixth Power die, or eighth if the army also includes a Necromancer, is pretty reasonable for a non-Necrarch. The 5+ Ward Save is less than I’d like but I learned not to touch the Crown of the Damned very early on, and obviously he has the “keep the army marching forward” power because why would he not?

What sketchy background existed suggested that he was an illegitimate scion of the Von Carstein lineage – a lowly captain who distinguished himself on the streets of Mordheim, proving tough as old boots and an accomplished duellist to boot, rising in the estimation of his seniors until, by the time the Wars of the Vampire Counts turned and the Sylvanian heartland was under siege, he was a Count in his own right, and a proudly independent Lord by the time Mannfred returned and staked his renewed claim to authority. He entered exile rather than bend the knee, abandoning his old holdings in Templehof and setting forth in search of a new domain to call his own… and that’s where we find him in this run of revival games.

The Lord Subsequent

This figure is better known, these days, as Sir Francis Varney. In the first instance, however, he was a deliberate replacement for the missing original, and a deliberate choice for seventh edition WFB, which allowed the great man to slip into something more comfortable; a suit of heavy armour and shield that didn’t interfere with casting spells!

(There was also a mounted version – a Rutgar, General of the Empire figure with a badly sculpted wig, mounted on a grunged-up Deathclaw figure with a rather nice exposed ribcage conversion. Goodness knows where that’s got to; it didn’t come back with the rest of the army, but may have been sold separately.)

He didn’t actually see that many battles before The Great Rulebook Mouldering and my subsequent foolish sale of the army. Here’s the one extant version of his seventh edition equipment I’ve been able to find:

  • Dark Acolyte, Infinite Hatred, Summon Creatures of the Night
  • Sword of Battle, Armour of Night, Wristbands of Black Gold

Once again, he’s built to run around on his own near but not in units. A level 3 wizard with the capacity to raise fresh Dire Wolves and Fell Bats into units and no slouch in combat with a bonus attack and rerolls to hit. I’m not sure I’d build him exactly like that now, but I’m also not sure how I’d build a seventh edition army – perusal of my forum activity suggests I was vocally and persistently wrong in my approach to that army book!

In his single eighth edition outing, the same Lord Ruthven looked a bit like this:

  • additional hand weapon, heavy armour
  • Nightshroud, Talisman of Endurance, Potion of Strength
  • Aura of Dark Majesty, Beguile, Dread Knight

This was an acknowledged failure at the time and history has not vindicated it. After careful perusal of the army book for the period, I’m actually thinking I’d rather… not build a conventional Vampire Lord at all. I’m rather fond of the Ghoul King, and it calls back to the Strigoi of yore, a Bloodline for whom I wish I’d had more time. That has me thinking about… some possibilities.

The Lord Alternative

A while ago, I bought into Bad Squiddo’s Dracula Kicsktarter. This includes a rather dynamic figure in the same mould as the classically Gothic Lord Ruthven, but noticeably without weapons; appropriate, perhaps, for a better-dressed-than-average Strigoi Ghoul King? The characters around him – well, there’s a suggestion of a Necromancer in there, and a couple of Vampire Thralls, and three Banshees (the erstwhile Brides). That’s a reasonable suite of characters for an eighth edition army.

I’d considered, briefly, the idea of buying into the Fireforge plastic undead Kickstarter, dolling up my Gripping Beast Revenants and investing in some Iron Wind Skeletons to fight alongside them (that’d squint back to the Army of Sylvania and beyond to fourth edition Undead), and sticking the Avatars of War plastic harpies I have onto some 40mm square bases, and maybe picking up some Vargheists… but how likely was that considering how much of my Warhammer experience is about using the models – the very same models – that I’ve had for so long? And do I really want to paint that many new Zombies? Honestly? When I already have a reasonable amount of square based lads lying around the place?

How about… instead…

The Lord Definitive

This will, one hopes, be the final incarnation of Lord Ruthven. He’s the less rubbish looking of the Middlehammer von Carstein figures (the other pack has been rejected many times over owing to the footslogging version’s giant comedy hand), selected partly because he looks like the one in the Mordheim PC game but mainly because he comes with matching mounted and dismounted models, which make him ideal for slapping on the back of big monsters.

Of course, he doesn’t actually fit on the back of his Zombie Dragon (I must have assembled dear Beaky in a less than perfect manner, humhum, can’t imagine how that happened), but I’ve managed to scare up a wingless Winged Nightmare and a spare pair of Daemon Prince wings which, with enough pins and putty and pokery-jiggery, should look halfway decent when it’s done. If it doesn’t I shall pray to Nagash himself for forgiveness, repose Beaky’s neck, and hope it doesn’t ruin her paint job along the way.

This one is the most straightforward yet in terms of his equipment; as far as his native sixth edition is concerned, he sports the Carstein Ring, the best saving throw around for a Vampire of the period, and the obligatory third magic level. If the silly bleeder’s going to strap himself to the back of a Large Target there’s no point mucking about with anything but Keeping Him Alive technology, and if I want a general on foot then that’s what Carmilla is for. Add an additional hand weapon for stabbing things up (it’s on the model, if you look closely at the version on foot, and it’s what he had in the Mordheim warband too) and he comes in at a none-too-trivial 739 points and three character slots. Definitely one for the Big Games.

Now all I have to do is paint the bastard.

[WFB] The Army of Sylvania (WD291/Storm of Chaos, 2004)

This is it, folx. This is the big one. I’ve been after this article for ages, since none of the PDFs I’ve been able to find are complete; I actually cracked and bought a copy, with my own money and everything.

This came along at exactly the right time.

I was in the process of starting out again, after the GCSE interregnum when “all that bleddy Warhammer” had been sacrificed on the altar of familial dissatisfaction. I’d just rebuilt my Chaos Space Marines for the Eye of Terror campaign and I was after a new WFB army and there, a month after the campaign results, was this none-more-goth business.

It would be a few more months before the actual rules dropped and crystallised my vague ambitions. I reproduce those too, largely to keep them in circulation and lend some context to future doings. In the event that Games Workshop puts this fifteen year old material for a no longer supported game line back into circulation through legitimate means, all they have to do is ask and I will happily take it down.

Put all of this together and you have the shape of my first army; no Ghouls or Necromancers (although I had the figure for one, hanging around from my Mordheim box), overequipped Skeletons and Zombies with every polearm the box could offer, and a veritable swarm of Wolves and Bats. One unit of Black Knights ’cause that’s all I could take. And a lot of kitbashed Skeleton Crossbowmen, which involved cutting Tomb King Archer hands off and then cutting the shafts of Empire Militia crossbows to fit on either side of them and somehow lining up the four small jittery pieces of plastic… I must have been mad.

I wonder…

Lord Ruthven’s Resumption

Lord Ruthven: Vampire Lord with extra magic level, Sword of Striking, Wristbands of Black Gold, Black Periapt and Summon Wolves
Carmilla: Vampire Thrall with Spectral Attendants and Earthbind
Sir Francis Varney: Vampire Thrall with Army Standard, Walking Death and Earthbind

Sir Francis Varney’s First of Foot: 24 Sylvanian Militia with spears and full command group
Templehof Pals: 24 Sylvanian Levy with halberds, standard bearer and musician
Bat Swarm
Bat Swarm
3 Fell Bats
10 Dire Wolves: Scouts, Doom Wolf

Black Coach
Black Coach

Order of the Black Cross: 8 Drakenhof Templars with barded Nightmares and Drakenhof Banner

I could very easily go to 3000 points, too. It’d only take adding the Spirit Host, a couple of Banshees, and either slapping a Dragon under Ruthven and promoting Carmilla to Countess, or adding Mannfred von Carstein as the second permitted Lord.

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the Thralls don’t have armour; they’re all the lightly-clad Mordheim figures who are blatantly not wearing any, and I am reluctant to stick shields and things on figures who might find themselves further ennobled to spellcasting and unarmoured status at the drop of a hat.)

There are a few odds and sods I’d like to replace. The Fell Bats, with some nice Reaper ones. My old foot Reiksgard, with some plastic Greatswords, who may be about to vanish from the miniature range, so I’d better get a shift on if I’m going to do that. And I’d like some Crossbowmen and Archers for doing the other Von Carstein theme force… but I’m in several minds about exactly where those should come from. We’ll talk about why next time.