The Old World, Games Workshop’s high fantasy universe, is a somewhat lighter setting than their despair-filled 40k counterpart. While both engage in “grimdarkness,” the former is often laden with joviality and gallows humor. And thanks to authors like Robert E. Howard, Ursula K. LeGuin and J.R.R. Tolkien, a lot of people understand fantasy long before they touch a new novel in the genre, as the concepts of orcs and magic have been carefully established.
The double edge of the sword is that franchise fiction can make readers apprehensive. There can either be plentiful rules we frustratingly don’t know, or that we’re too familiar and jaded for any surprising plot twists. It takes a skillful writer to infuse old content with something new, something that can appease old fans and yet is accessible enough for casual audiences.
Fortunately, Nathan Long has that kind of talent.
A three-in-one package of Valnir’s Bane, The Broken Lance and Tainted Blood, Blackhearts: The Omnibus makes it a point to be lower than high fantasy. Never mind complex histories or mythologies, and forget about learning the world’s lore. There’s little need, as the trilogy is an easy read about ordinary guys in extraordinaire situations.
Nathan Long’s tale stars luckless trickster Reiner Hetzau. Although far from innocent, Hetzau is imprisoned on false charges and is spared for a secret mission with a pack of other criminals. Eventually earning the group’s leadership, Hetzau and the Blackhearts face marauders from the north, treacherous Imperial commanders, rat men and plenty of other dangers. All the while knowing that their freedom remains elusive, even when their captors are at a distance.
Nathan Long excels at two things; characters and plots. Because the story is told exclusively from Reiner’s point of view, a fair bit happens off scene and outside his knowledge. Thus political intrigue and unforeseen surprises keep shaking up events, turning the books into true page turners. There may be times one wonders if the plot has gotten off track, right before it comes sailing back at the reader… and then explodes.
With the Old World setting established for him, Long focused on creating a cast of smirk-jerking characters that may remind people of some adult version of The Goonies. What’s more, you cannot help but feel that there is some similarity between Reiner Hetzau and one Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame. The book feels like it was made for the movies too, with many of the characters’ backgrounds addressed through dialogue over narration. Long did a fine job with showing over telling.
But in that statement lies the only possible weakness to the collection, as the stories follow Reiner Hetzau exclusively. If you happen to like him and his roguish ways, you’ll probably end up loving this book. But if dashing scoundrels aren’t your thing, then this is probably not the book for you.
But Blackhearts: The Omnibus is an enjoyable, leisurely read for even the uninitiated. Try a chapter for free. You’ll probably like it, or may even love it.