Before I begin this review, I should mention I’m a big fan of the Gotrek and Felix novels for Warhammer Fantasy so this is not an unbiased review. William King is one of my favorite neo-Sword and Sorcery authors. I’ve been a big fan of his work with this series and the Kormak Saga. I’m also a fan of his Space Wolf novels. So, this is going to be from the perspective of someone who already read this book, went on to read the rest of the series, then re-read it for Grimdark Magazine.
Trollslayer is a novel of the Warhammer Fantasy line of books, taking place before the destruction of that world and its recreation as The Age of Sigmar in recent years. The Warhammer Fantasy setting was the precursor to the more popular and more enduring Warhammer 40K universe that has the distinction of being where the term “grimdark” comes from.
Warhammer Fantasy is a land with elves, dwarves, humans, and gods of good. It is also a setting with massively powerful Chaos Gods, orcs, beast men, infestations of skaven, empires of necromancers, and a decidedly more adult interpretation of Medieval classicism’s treatment people.
Trollslayer is far less grandiose than these concepts, though, and centers around a much simpler premise: the seeking of a good death. Gotrek Gurnisson is a dishonored dwarf who has chosen to commit suicide by heroic battle (becoming a “Slayer”). We don’t learn what crime Gotrek has committed in this book or many others down the road but it is so heinous that the only way to regain his honor is to die trying to kill something much nastier than himself.
Usually, this is just a formality given the hostility of the setting but Gotrek is a seasoned warrior that is almost impossible to kill. Indeed, the series central conceit is that he’s too damned skill to die easily and won’t accept anything less than a clean death for his honor to be restored. Trollslayer is still at the beginning of his quest, though, when he has the full belief that his death is right around the corner.
Accompanying Gotrek on this suicidal quest is Felix Jaeger, a university student and bard who agrees to record Gotrek’s adventures. A skilled duelist but far less useful than Gotrek himself, he serves as the everyman sidekick who provides a human’s eye view of Gotrek’s larger-than-life adventures. There is a Sherlock Holmes and John Watson kind of dynamic here as the book is the first of Felix’s in-universe novels about Gotrek.
Rather than a single story, Trollslayer is a collection of several stories that follow the pair as they deal with the dark and violent world surrounding them. The stories contain terrible tales of sorcerers, curses, and the forces of Chaos enacting terrible plans. Despite the fact they are depicted as purely evil, the “good guys” are not much better. Gotrek is honorable but ruthless, killing anything inhuman (or elven or dwarven) without hesitation. The peasantry are superstitious, the nobility corrupt, and many times the supposed allies of the heroes turn on them for petty reasons.
If I had to choose my favorite stories from the work, I’d go with Wolf Riders that deals with the a noble family’s horrible curse and Blood and Darkness that deals with an army of beastmen led by a vengeful young woman out to slay her own daughter. The Mutant Master shows that you should never trust the people you’re rescuing and gradually changes Felix from a trusting noble soul to a more hardened adventurer. Ulric’s Children is another entry that I very much enjoyed as it showed the dark side of Gotrek as well as having one of the grimmest endings of the series. None of the stories are bad, however.
Is it grimdark? It’s dark fantasy and while a bit closer to traditional fantasy than many works, I’d still say there’s a lot of good to be had reading these books. They are the grimdark version of popcorn fiction and quite entertaining. William King has an easygoing and entertaining style that never feels unrealistic despite dealing with such a fantastic world. Recommended if you want to begin new series to devour one after the other. Trollslayer may only be one volume but it is also one of the best overall.
Buy Trollslayer by William King