By Matthew Ward
Published by Osprey Publishing
‘Time is running out for Yelen and Mirika Semova. Though the sisters have earned an enviable reputation amongst their fellow explorers of the Frozen City, their lives are haunted by a curse - the more Yelen uses her magic, the closer the demon Azzanar comes to claiming her, body and soul. But Azzanar is not the only one manipulating Yelen and Mirika...
When catastrophe separates the Semova sisters, it falls to Yelen to save them both. But in a city shrouded in deceit, who can she turn to for help... and what price will she pay to get it?’
I’ve interviewed Frostgrave’s Joseph A. McCullough, the creator, designer and writer of the Frostgrave miniatures game this book is based on. He’s told me in no uncertain terms that the wider world of the fabled city of Felstad, and the newer game Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago, will remain undefined and unexplored. There will be no larger map, of the city or the land it inhabits, and no definitive realms, kings, queens or kingdoms, and that the phrase ‘here be dragons’ applies to the rest of the world as it’s Terra Incognita.
So where does that leave writers who have been asked to write a novel-length tale about the city, it’s people and the dangers within? If you’re writing the first book about people in the world of Frostgrave and you need to draw new readers - and possibly players – into the setting, where does that leave you?
It leaves you with an unenviable task. Thankfully, Matthew Ward has taken the route of making the characters the centre of the story, not the world itself. And at that, I feel, he’s succeeded.
The story gets off to an action-packed start in the Temple of Draconostra, where the Semova sisters are trying to recover a reliquiary for their master Torik; Mirika is a Chronomancer and can play with time, but her younger sister Yelen has little magical talent except for that gifted to her by the demon Azzanar. The more Yelen uses the power the closer Azzanar comes to taking her body and using it for her own nefarious ends.
The relationship between the two sisters is palpable and you really feel for their plight as the story progresses. All they want is for Yelen to be rid of this demon and their delves into the dungeons and catacombs of Felstad are to realise that end. Mirika, the eldest sister, is hotheaded and rash, confident in her power and ability. Yelen, however, is jealous of her older sister’s abilities but loves her regardless, and this creates a very complicated relationship underlined by the simple fact that they love each other dearly. This leads to dramatic moments in the book where you feel for their plight, and there are times during conflicts where you find yourself really drawn in. It’s the characters and relationships of this book that really shine, and the two primary antagonists are likeable, interesting and enjoyable to read.
The secondary characters are also well defined and interesting so much so that when something happens to them - for good or ill – you do feel it. There are a couple of throwaway characters that are stereotypes to make a scene work, but they don’t last long and are there to serve the encounter. The secondary characters, especially the Knight Kain with her harsh attitude and Cavril Magnis the dashing if somewhat untrustworthy leader of a band called the Gilded Rose, really work and add a layer of depth to the story.
The story itself is a long chase – from the start to safety, then from safety back into danger as every character is given a reason to chase, flee or otherwise make haste away from or towards friends, wealth or salvation. There are plenty of plot twists and turns and sometimes you’re never too sure where the story is going to go, or even who’s side you’re on, and that adds a sense of excitement to the proceedings, pulling you into a ‘just one more page’ situation that may result in a late night or two.
In many books I read I like to feel that the world the protagonists inhabit is a character in itself, defined and with form and structure to make it feel real. With the ‘here be dragons’ proviso and not having a full idea of the larger world I can imagine that defining that world would be quite hard. I did get a feel for Felstad but could never really visualise it, not the way it has been visualised by the excellent artist Dmitry Burmak in this book or in the main game itself. There were descriptions of the locations and the city but more detail was lavished on the characters than the setting; the barrows, the tombs, the settlement they rested at, it was all there on the page but I never really felt it, or could conjure up a proper mental image. It was definitely the characters that held this book together for sure.
It’s a great book with a twisting plot, well-defined characters and great scenes of dangerous/exciting encounters, and although it ends rather abruptly the climax of the story is satisfactory and leaves it open for further adventures – and I, for one, will be in line for that.
And for the Frostgrave players out there, there’s a nice scenario at the back of the book to use in your next wargame session called ‘Corpsefire’. I don’t want to go into detail as it references a part of the book, but it’s a cool encounter with plenty of special rules.