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Soul Wars

By Andrew Lovett-Barron
Published in Reading
October 17, 2021
2 min read

Sometime earlier this year, while hunting around for absolutely fluffy things to read (or listen to via Audible), someone recommended a few of the Warhammer 40k novels to me — specifically the Horus Heresy books and the Eisenhorn trilogy. Anyway, being a complete sucker for massive-scale world-building and lore (even if it isn’t always coherent), I ended up falling down a rabbit hole that has seen me absorb these books with no small amount of enthusiasm. But, as I wait for the next Siege of Terra novel (as I wrote this, I actually searched for it and it appears to be out, so I have some airplane listening), I ended up exploring some of Game Workshop’s other universes — the Age of Sigmar.

This, unfortunately, got to one of my other nerd holes which we’ve explored in past essays — zombies, undead, general spooky stuff. I ate it up. Soul Wars described a world that sees the different factions of order and chaos, life and death, etc. fighting for control of a variety of mortal realms, each with its own continents, societies, histories, etc. within. The gist is that Sigmar is a combination of Zeus and Odin (with a bit of the Roman Janus mixed in) who had initially gathered various gods (the death god Nagash, dwarf gods, forest gods, etc) in a fight against Chaos, who have their own collection of divine nerdowells to keep track of. However, due to poor client management and bookkeeping, Sigmar’s pantheon broke up and he is left to wrangle things with a skeleton crew. He decided to do this by gathering the souls of lost heroes and turning them into Stormcast — immortal warriors who are “reforged” when they die, but who lose a bit of their past memory and identity through that reforging. An interesting balance.

In contrast, Nagash, the god of death basically, has some hair-brained scheme to do something, but it doesn’t work. I actually didn’t entirely understand what was going on here, BUT it caused a global undead cataclysm, which is the basis around which the tabletop game is based, and kind of sets up the whole universe. There’s a lot of vivid descriptions of fighting ghosts and some interesting things done with the nature of souls, identity, and ownership thereof. Also cats.

It was a fun read.

What’s interesting about all of these books, is how firmly it establishes a basis for worldbuilding in the game workshops tabletop game (and expensive plastic) business. There is so much there to work with. So many characters, factions, domains — there’s literally something for everyone and yet it feels mostly cohesive, albeit laden with tropes from time to time.

It is no Fifth Season or even World War Z. Cynically, it’s (and all of these Games Workshop books are) something closer to the proliferation of toy-selling TV shows from the 80s, distilled and refined over decades, with a deep financial investment in both definable intellectual property and intentional open-endedness to keep the good times rolling. Optimistically, it’s a collection of thoughtful and enthusiastic storytellers collectively working on different parts of a very, very large mosaic (I should also mention, Sailing to Sarantium remains one of my favourite random fantasy series) with common references but different frames.

As I said, it was a fun read and I had a fun time with it. It also served as a reasonable introduction to the whole Age of Sigmar universe, in that it does some hand-holding about what exactly each of these characters and categories actually are. And if there are any questions, there’s a wiki of ungodly proportions to help clear things up.

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Andrew Lovett-Barron

Software Designer and Researcher

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