Between Two Fires – Book Review

Dark Fantasy is an elusive genre, both to define (it’s like fantasy, but darker) and often to find, particularly as bookshops seem to use it to describe their sexy werewolves section. Not to be confused with the very popular Grimdark Fantasy genre, which is just regular fantasy except with swearing and tits, the dark fantasy I am interested is an amalgamation of apocalyptic or dystopian themes, gothic and Lovecraftian horror and y’know, people with swords. Above all, it’s got to be dark.

Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman is a great example of dark fantasy, although, like most books, it crosses into some other genres as well, as it is also somewhat historical, pretty horror-y and occasionally biblical. Set in 14th century France during the Hundred Years War, with the Black Death killing two-thirds of the population there is a real post-apocalypse vibe. There are comets in the night sky and talk of another – final, apocalyptic – crusade to retake Jerusalem. And alongside this are very real demons, angels and monsters, some of which have a Berserk or Kingdom Death feel to them.

There is a distinctly Mordheim feel to the book, particularly in plague-stricken, demon-haunted Paris, or with the groups of insane flagellants. It’s reminiscent of the Carnival of Chaos, always my favourite part of Mordheim, where demons masquerade and walk among the desperate and the diseased. The religious undertones sometimes give a similar feel to classic horror/apocalypse novels like Swan Song or The Stand, with demons plotting to create a new Hell while God is absent.

The hero is a French knight that survived the battle of Crecy, took an arrow in the face and witnessed the beginning of the end of chivalry. He’s leading a child across the wreckage of France, and there are encounters with demons, Lovecraftian sea monsters and (personal favourite) living statues that wield dead plague babies as clubs. 

Something I didn’t especially like about the Old World was that a lot of the time it was just medieval Europe and it just felt too familiar. Indeed I still confuse what came from Warhammer and what came from actual history (the word Norscan for example, is that another word for Vikings or what?). But that does work the other way too, and Between Two Fires feels like a Warhammer novel a lot of the time, albeit darker and more mature. It’s like a Mordheim novel should be, and although I personally enjoy the Age of Sigmar, but for someone mourning the Old World this could be a welcome chance to get in a bit more inspiration.

Which isn’t to say it is perfect, the writing at its very best reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but generally it is not quite up to Steven Erickson or R. Scott Bakker’s standard, as far as fantasy authors go. The pacing is a bit weird too and the ending doesn’t have enough impact, it would have worked better as the first part of some bookshelf-hogging epic. But it is still a great read especially compared to recent Warhammer books which have really dropped the darkness altogether, even if they do have great ideas – I am quite in to the Age of Sigmar setting: cosmic wyrms, living avalanches, land leviathans and all. Now I just need to find books with a similar tone but that incorporate some of the weirder ideas of Age of Sigmar, if anyone has any recommendations!

16 Comments on “Between Two Fires – Book Review

  1. Can’t remember the last book i read that wasn’t a graphic novel! But you have me interested by this review Jake! Sounds like it would make a great movie!

    • I love graphic novels too (and movies) but nothing beats a novel. Unfortunately Fantasy is probably the hardest genre in which to find books you like, it’s genuinely baffling sometimes. Like Game of Thrones is hugely popular and for good reason, but then The Kingkiller Chronicle is like being trapped in a purgatory comprising endless Harry Potter fanfiction.

  2. I’ll have to pick up this book now. Recent audiodrama set in Age of Sigmar really give the Eternals the limelight and a very “space-marine-esque” approach can be seen in their writing and voice acting. I’m looking for that dark C.L. Werner Fantasy that Warhammer was for me. You’ve sparked my interest.

    • I was planning to do more reviews of the Age of Sigmar books but I lost interest after the second (or, during). I like the AoS setting, but the tone of the stories is not for me. I haven’t really found many Black Library books that I really love, although I have read all the Horus Heresy series, really Betrayer stands out head and shoulders above the others. I’d really love for Aaron Dembski-Bowden to write an Age of Sigmar book, and to have some stories that aren’t just fight scenes.

      • I actually haven’t read any of the Horus Heresy series. I’ve read Dan Abnetts Inquisitor series and have listened to other 40k stories while painting in audio form. The Age of Sigmar setting is wonderfully refreshing and I’m both looking forward to seeing what you make of it and delving in to it myself.

  3. Good Morning. First of all, I shall compliment for your amazing job, you are the only one who managed to capture the great potential of the AoS concealed behind the not very promising appearence, I agree with your analysis 100%!
    Anyway, being a fan of the Old World I was instantly intrigued by the book review of Between Two Fires and I immediately looked for it on the web. UNfortunately I couldn’t find any Sony Reader compatible version so I just wanted to ask if somebody knows of one or could direct me to a link.
    Thank you very much and keep writing these great reviews, they are really an interesting read!

    • Thanks for the compliment. I’m afraid I just got the book from Amazon and don’t have a clue how to help, maybe read it in dead tree format?

      • Hehe, I always preferred dead tree format but I am afraid I couldn’t find it in London (weirdly enough). I think will just buy it from Amazon as you did and let you know what I thought about it.

        • yes I think it is not a well known book, I only discovered the author due to him being nominated for a Shirley Jackson award last year and I’ve been working my way through all the award winners and nominees.

  4. Added to my “to buy” list, and in turn, may I recommend “The Vagrant” by Peter Newman. Post apocalyptic fantasy with demonic entities, a mysterious mute protagonist, and a goat.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll add it to my list. I’m pretty keen to get more suggestions and discussion going about books, particularly ones that fit the darker side of warhammer theme and are less well known.

  5. Cheers for sharing Jake :) my first true love was reading alas I don’t have enough hours these days it seems..

    For me I’ve enjoyed the last years China Mieville, Joe Abercrombie constantly re-reading my Neil Gaiman novels. Neverwhere never fails to get me, even the television series. Actually read that book for the first time – the last time I was in London.

    Anyway. Good getting more books on the radar as I’m hopelessly outdated on everything not related to miniature wargaming.

  6. Sounds like an interesting read, I’ll have to give it a go. You might be interested in The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguru, it has a great low fantasy setting and is devoid of traditional heroes, its one of the best books I’ve read in years.

    • Yeah that’s a great book, I like the somewhat different take on an Arthurian legend, it has that slightly unreal Japanese vibe, like Murakami.

    • Thanks for the suggestion – sounds like Jack Whyte’s Camulod series, which I read as a kid. They were good.

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