Cover Image: Age of the Undead

Age of the Undead

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The zombie genre has become a lot like its subject matter – often shambling, lifeless and stale. Age of the Undead, by C.L. Werner, successfully navigates the familiar waters of a zombie apocalypse by mashing up undead infection with a classic sword and sorcery fantasy tale. Based on the Zombicide series of board games, specifically the Black Plague setting, Age of the Undead is an enjoyable and fast paced journey through a world that feels familiar but not overly cliched.

Cover for Age of the Undead by C.L. WernerAge of the Undead hits the ground running in the prologue. Werner could have taken us step by step through the plague’s beginnings, but instead walked us through that build up in a single chapter. While the former would have been a grand epic, Werner instead chose to keep things tight, which works perfectly with the pacing of the rest of the book. The prologue also sets an appropriately grim tone as it takes us through the malign necromantic ritual that unleashes the plague and the lightning spread leading to the collapse of the kingdom.

Age of the Undead is constructed from tropes built upon tropes but rather than feeling lifeless and derivative Age of the Undead makes that work in its favor. Age of the Undead draws inspiration from Lovecraftian horror and D’n’D-esque high fantasy along with zombie apocalypse faire such as Dawn of the Dead and the more recent Army of the Dead. There were a few moments that even reminded me of DC Comics’ DCeased series. The plot holds few surprises, but Age of the Undead is about the journey, not the destination. The characters, while archetypal, are likeable and have personality. There’s nothing new about a knight seeking to avenge his family or a kind hearted rogue, nor is there anything new about a ragtag group pulling together and forming unlikely bonds. Nobody is trying to reinvent the wheel here but that doesn’t take anything away from Age of the Undead’s entertainment factor or the quality of C.L. Werner’s writing.

That said though, what makes Age of the Undead interesting is the strength of the fantasy/zombie mashup along with the new ideas it does bring to the table. Some of those ideas actually come from the Zombicide board game series, while some are the author’s own. Despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, the book still managed to pull off a few “oh shit!” moments that I didn’t see coming. Happily, the last few chapters also took an unexpected “oh shit” detour, concluding Age of the Undead with a tone as grim as how it began.
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Zombicide rides again with this historic Middle Ages zombie plague! This was a super fresh take on the classic zombie adventure that we have come to expect. This story follows rogue necromancers as they attempt to combat the witch hunters tracking them across the land. 

This story felt like it could have been a DND campaign but that made it even more fun to follow! I enjoyed it and I think it has a lot to offer readers of all ages. It was a bit of a slow burn but I have come to expect that with high fantasy books and this story really felt like that. Check it out!






Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
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(Rating: 2.5 rounded up to 3 stars)

To begin with, the strengths. Age of the Undead is a typical TTRPG tie-in novel. It plays off of tropes and stereotypical fantasy character archetypes to build its plot. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I have played TTRPGs and I found myself identifying which characters were ones my friends would play. These things are basic but solid. I have no real complaints about the main characters  except that I would like to see them developed further.

I also liked the dynamics between the characters. Even though many of the party members were relatively basic when it came to their characterization, what was there was serviceable and lead to enjoyable dynamics I would be interested in seeing developed in future installments. A small thing as well, but I was glad that there was no romance plot between Helchen and any of the male characters. I braced myself for it throughout (because female character is next to male character in a fantasy book) but it never came, thank god. 

Having more opportunities for character interaction and back-and-forth conversations that flesh out backstories and relationships would have made the story more enjoyable, I think—part of a campaign isn’t just the combat and dungeon crawling, but also the social moments of visiting taverns and camping. That is what made this book miss the mark for me, I think.

Most of my problems are contained to specific scenes or more personal to me but which marred by enjoyment of the story considerably—had these things not been present or had been improved upon, I think that the read for me would have been a more solid 3 or 3.5. 

To continue with the topic of characterization, the background characters lacked any depth which made sections of the book where the lives of townsfolk were in danger not feel very tense at all. Most background characters don’t feel humanized—they feel like undeveloped background NPCs merely present to die. The only random background character I felt any sympathy for was the schoolteacher who died trying to find help for his students. This lead (for me, at least) to a real difficulty to comprehend or care for the stakes. Like, sure, literally the entire kingdom has likely died and turned, leaving little to no sentient life behind it, possibly leading to the extinction of sentient life, but it is kind of hard to care when they’re all just NPCs, you know? Perhaps that is the point. They’re not supposed to be real people because this is a story about wizards and knights battling a zombie apocalypse. In my opinion, however, if you’re doing to do a zombie apocalypse, then *do a zombie apocalypse,* and one of the main themes any zombie apocalypse story has to tackle is the crumbling of society and the looming possibility of extinction. 

Rapid fire, other, more minor issues I had:

- The fact that no one tries to get Radabrag’s name right and just defaults to ‘Ratbag’. The “this person has a non-english/non-human name so I refuse to even try to pronounce it and instead stick with a nickname or mispronunciation” trope is one that annoys me to no end, especially when said person should be able to handle saying the name. Gaiseric even *speaks* the dialect Radabrag uses later on in the book to call Fang!  Radabrag isn’t even hard to pronounce! It’s small and nit picky but it is a personal annoyance to me. 

- Certain instances of the background characters such as the moneylender. His character felt shallow and lazy, and my knowledge of the trope of the greedy moneylender historically having major elements of anti-Semitism made it even more uncomfortable. He, like almost ever other underdeveloped background character, quickly leaves the narrative so at least there was that small mercy.

- This is a TTRPG tie in book so I know it is limited to published materials when it comes to lore but I felt that a lot of the world building was very basic. It is solid, yes, but plays it so safe and basic that there’s very little originality to it, which means it doesn’t really have anything extremely interesting that makes it stand out.

Overall, I think a major issue with Age of the Undead lies in its debt to the fantasy RPG genre. Many of the issues I discussed above are issues present in the history of tabletop. People far cleverer and experienced than I in the TTRPG genre have discussed the problems with fantasy races and the subtle prejudices often engrained in fantasy world building—this conversation is constantly evolving and isn’t something I necessarily expected to see reflected in this story, but it was something that influenced how I read and approached it. 

Age of the Undead is about what one is expecting when one picks it up. Nothing to write home about, but enjoyable if one really likes fantasy RPGs and wants an easily digestible read that mimics the feel of playing a D&D campaign with friends. 

A final, small note, however--it didn't quite mimic the feeling of playing with *my* friends. Not because the book lacked diversity, but because the basic story structures, pacing, tone, and roles of NPCs in campaigns run with the folks I tend to play with are vastly different than what one thinks of when they think classic fantasy RPG. I'm mostly saying this to contextualize that while I am in the RPG target audience, the particular kind of RPG player I am means that my experiences within the space would lend me more towards the kind of experience reflected in a book like Legends and Lattes.
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Zombie stories aren't given the fantasy treatment enough. Yes, we have things like the undead in the occasional stories based off things like Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer, but thanks to the prevalence of zombie viruses the stories of the undead have moved from the realm of the mystical into one more of science. And that's a big shame. Well, Zombicide is joining other illustrious fantasy stories by adding zombies into tales of swords and sorcery.

Age of the Undead takes readers to a kingdom already in the clutches of a plague of undeath that has been sweeping the lands. In the books prologue we see a practitioner of the dark arts watching on as events unfold, seeing the spread of the plague, the king and his armies marching out to face the monsters rising from the grave, and their ultimate defeat. Rather than leading us through the outbreak of this zombie menace we skip over a lot of the early days of the plague, catching up with things when the armies have fallen, the defences have failed, and only a handful of survivors are all that's left in a nation now ruled by the dead.

We meet Alaric von Mertz, a young knight who has travelled from the failed battle against the undead to his family castle in the small town of Mertz. By the time he has arrived the town has already fallen, the streets silent, the houses empty, and no sign of any survivors. Upon investigating the castle he grew up in he does manage to find a lone survivor, the thief Gaiseric, who was locked up in the castle dungeon when the undead swept through Mertz. Whilst Alaric is at first unsure whether or not to trust this rogue, when the two of them have to work together to overcome the undead a bond of trust begins to form between them.

Unfortunately for Alaric, Gasieric seems to be the only survivor that he's going to find, and he soon discovers that his family did not survive the zombies. Worse still, he learns that they're being controlled by a necromancer; a local wizard named Gogol, whom Alaric had convinced his father to save from execution. Feeling in part responsible for what has happened, and desperately wanting revenge, Alaric and Gaiseric decide to travel to Singerva, a walled city close to Mertz where they believe that they might be able to find safe haven, as well as help to return to Mertz to kill Gogol. 

Along the way the two of them find more survivors, a witch hunter named Helchen, and the wizard Hulmul. Despite having two members in their party who should hate each other, due to witch hunters often killing wizards they suspect could have anything to do with necromancy, the four of them head into the ruined Singerva hoping to find whatever help they can. Unfortunately for them, they will have to fight their way through hordes of monstrous undead before they can find any safe haven.

One of the things that I really liked about Age of the Undead is that despite being in an amazing fantasy world filled with other races, amazing creatures, and literal magic, it never felt too big or too fantastical. This isn't Game of Thrones by any means, it's not gritty fantasy that feels more like a historical, because there are so many high fantasy elements here, but it did feel like this was the kind of story that would be going on in the background whilst other heroes went out and saved the world. This isn't a quest to stop this zombie plague, or to kill the leader of the undead army, nothing here is going to save the world; it was was simply a group of survivors trying to stay alive as long as possible. And I loved that.

Werner is no stranger to fantasy world, having written books set within the Warhammer universe, and you can really see that experience coming through here. He knows how to make a world that feels lived in and real (even if it's currently in ruin), and is able to make the action jump off the page thanks to precise, descriptive language. There were times where it felt like I was creeping through the ruined streets of Singerva alongside out heroes, trying to find the next safe-haven as they fought their way from one desperate confrontation to the next. Werner was able to make it all feel real in a way that some fantasy stories lack.

A big part of this immersion comes from how tense the book is. It might be a fantasy story but it's also a horror, and Werner seems to excel at the horror elements. Because the characters of the book felt like skilled combatants, but never over-powered heroes, you were always a little worried for them, and any fight that they got into felt like it came with risk. Whether it's trying to make their way through tight, winding corridors, escaping from huge hulking monstrosities, or getting away from undead crows that could swarm from any direction, the action scenes always kept me on the edge of my seat.

Having not yet played Zombicide I was unfamiliar with what kind of creatures could appear in the book, other than having a vague idea from other novels in the range such as Last Resort or Planet Havoc. Werner seemed to stick to some of the more common types of zombies from the games, such as the regular zombies, faster runner zombies, and large brutes that cause more damage and are harder to take down. However, Werner was also able to throw in some other undead that I was not expecting, and managed to keep surprising me throughout the book whenever a new creature was introduced.

The real highlight, however, has to be the characters. The group of heroes of Age of the Undead aren't the kind of people that would go out saving the world, and some of them aren't even the kind of folks that you'd really want to be around if you had a choice. But, they proved to be an amazing cast of characters who I quickly came to care for and found that I wanted to read more from them. Alaric is the most stereotypical of the characters, a lordly knight who always tries to do the right thing. This was a good character to pick to lead the group, and to introduce readers to first, because he's the kind of archetype that you expect to find in this type of story. He's a stable, predictable character who feels like something of a comfort to have around.

Gaiseric, on the other hand, is the kind of character you wouldn't really trust to have around you. He's a thief, but seems to be a decent man. He's a great foil for Alaric, but also helps to temper the knight at times too. He's not a coward, but knows that sometimes it's better to run and live rather than make the big heroic sacrifice. He's also incredibly handy to have around, able to sneak his way in anywhere and to get past dangerous traps; something that proves to be surprisingly useful in this particular story. Helchen is the character I initially liked the least. She's a witch hunter, which means that its her job to find wizards who might be involved in the dark arts, and to stop them. She's close to what real world witch hunters were, and her organisation has a very Inquisition feel to it. She's hard, cold, and kind of untrustworthy to begin with. However, getting to see those qualities thaw over time, especially as she forms a friendship with a wizard, makes for some delightful characterisation. 

Speaking of wizards, Hulmul is probably one of the characters that most people would want to spend the most time with. He's a kind, and decent sort of man, who's willing to help others and put himself at risk even when he's out of his depth. He knows that people like him are met with mistrust and disdain, and seems to know how to get around that by showing folks that he's really just a very kind man. It makes him a rather delightful breath of fresh air at times. The fact that he also has a small dragon as a familiar is also a big selling point for him. There are some other characters that join the team along the way, who are some very delightful characters, but I won't say too much about them so as not to spoil some of surprises of the book. One thing that I will say, however, is that with this being a book about trying to survive against the undead, not every character makes it out alive. So be careful who you get attached to along the way.

I had a lot of fun with Age of the Undead, and found myself feeling a bit disappointed once it came to a close. I wanted to spend more time with these characters, to see what happens to them next and if they can keep surviving. Hopefully this won't be the end for them, and we can find out what adventures await the survivors in the future. But if this is the only volume we get with these folks it was a hell of a fun ride.
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It seems like every few months, publisher Aconyte Books – rapidly taking multiple genres by storm at the moment – announces that they have the license to another awesome boardgame or role-playing game that they can use to develop some more of their incredibly high-quality tie-in fiction. They began with stalwarts like Arkham Horror and Legend of the Five Rings, two properties that still form a key part of their portfolio, but the publisher quickly expanded with a wide variety of licenses across numerous genres – from sci-fi games like Twilight Imperium and Terraforming Mars, to fast-paced apocalyptic boardgame Pandemic, and even the popular CCG KeyForge. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing the titles that Aconyte have published based on those properties, particularly the way that the publisher has carefully matched authors with properties, resulting in brilliant reads like Josh Reynolds’ Wrath of N’Kai or Marie Brennan’s The Night Parade of 100 Demons, and am always eager to see what is next in their ever-expanding lineup. So when they announced a range of novels based on the popular Zombicide boardgame, I couldn’t wait to see what they would do with the license – especially since the fast-paced, gory zombie apocalypse boardgame has a variety of spin-offs that send it into space and even the medieval period.   

The first novel in the series, Josh Reynolds’ Last Resort, was a streamlined, action-packed and gore-soaked tribute to the ‘contemporary’ Zombicide setting that I thoroughly enjoyed, which set a high standard to follow. While I missed out on grabbing a review copy of Tim Waggoners’ Planet Havoc novel, which took place in the futuristic Zombicide Invader setting, fortunately I was in time to snag a review copy of the forthcoming Age of the Undead novel, set in the medieval-themed Zombicide: Black Plague and written by one of my favourite Black Library alumnus, C.L. Werner. Werner is the author of some of the best fantasy-themed fiction ever published by Black Library, including the darkly humorous Thanquol and Boneripper series, as well as some fantastic stories involving the Dwarf-like Kharadron Overlords, and of course the cult classic Marius Thulman – Witch Hunter series. Werner is a master of the fantasy genre, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing what he could do with Zombicide: Black Plague as a setting. My intrigue was only heightened by the superbly grisly cover art, and a back-cover blurb that promised a vengeful Knight gathering together a motley band of allies to defeat a sorcerous necromancer responsible for unleashing a zombie apocalypse upon his homeland. I couldn’t wait to see what Werner had in store for me, and dived straight into the novel as soon as I could.  

Age of the Undead opens with a classic Werner prologue, in which he deftly lays out the cause of the afore-mentioned zombie apocalypse and how it spread across the land, banished and defamed necromancers rallying together to uncover ancient and twisted occult artifacts in order to raise an army of the undead. When the undead horde massacres a living army raised to put it down, the corpses of the knights and peasants only further bolstering it, those few survivors flee the battlefield and look for shelter elsewhere. Protagonist Alaric von Metz, a gallant knight, races back to the village of Mertz and his family’s castle – only to find its fearsome defences battered down and its defenders slaughtered to a man. The only survivor is charismatic thief Gaiseric, stuck in the castle dungeons and barely able to outwit the undead infesting the castle; when the two meet, they soon discover that the zombie horde that attacked the castle was raised by the terrifying necromancer Brunon Gogol, and Alaric swears his revenge. But first the two men must escape the castle and its zombie inhabitants and find refuge, gathering together supplies and allies with the ultimate aim of killing Gogol and ending the zombie menace. As they travel through a country now transformed into a land inhabited by shambling corpses, they’ll find themselves fighting a desperate rearguard action to survive in a major town fallen to the dead, infiltrating a secretive facility operated by Witchfinders and guarded by fiendishly complex and deadly Dwarf-built traps, and encounter both necromancers and mysterious wizards with hidden agendas – all of which could spell their death or undeath. 

One of the greatest strength of Age of the Undead are the characters found in the novel, with Werner clearly drawing upon his extensive Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar experience to craft a group of instantly-recognizable, yet distinctive characters that he deftly fleshes out into fully-developed protagonists as the novel progresses. Indeed, one of the most impressive elements of the novel is how each major character feels like they could be the protagonist of their own story within the Zombicide: Black Plague setting, despite the fact that several of them are not encountered until nearly half-way through the narrative. Alaric wrestles with the clashing nature of his duty to avenge the butchering of his family and retainers, as well as the need to protect his new friends and accomplish a mission that could save the lives of those left alive in much of the country, and Gaiseric has a neat arc where his career as a charming yet unrepentant thief finds new purpose in defusing many of the lethal traps and countermeasures facing the group. I think Witchfinder Helchen is a particularly engaging character, and I really enjoyed the way in which Werner had the apocalyptic events of the narrative – and the morally ambiguous and even compromising decisions she has to make along the way – fray at the edges of her iron resolve and monochrome worldview until she’s something quite different in the last chapter of the novel. Without wishing to spoil too much more about the plot, there are some other genuinely original and engaging characters that pop up in the plot as it progresses: the relationship between the wizard Hulmul and his magical familiar is something I haven’t really seen before, and an orcish character and his pet wolf that appear later on provide some amusing comic relief. The characters are supported by a fast-paced, blood-soaked narrative that hurls the small group against unrelenting hordes of zombies, with Werner deftly ensuring that each ‘special’ type of undead the group faces is nicely differentiated from the ‘common’ zombies that constitute the bulk of the shambling corpses, leading to some distinctly hair-raising and action-packed sequences, particularly towards the end of the story. 

Age of the Undead is an atmospheric, blood-soaked & action-packed zombie-fest from C.L. Werner that perfectly meshes with the Zombicide: Black Plague setting, and demonstrates why Werner is such a prolific and popular author. His characters are deftly crafted and well-developed, there’s a carefully-developed atmosphere of quiet desperation and short, violent bursts of undead violence that permeates the entire narrative, and Werner manages to expand upon the overarching Zombicide setting while also imbuing it with his own unique take on the setting as a whole, creating something both unique and original. Age of the Undead ends with some intriguing plot points left dangling tantalizingly in front of us as readers, and I can only hope that Werner and Aconyte work together on future novels in the Zombicide series – and any other I.P.s that Werner might be interested in as well
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I have been a fan of zombie media for a long time, from watching the original black and white George Romero to playing Resident Evil on the PS1 I was exposed to the world of zombies and have enjoyed them ever since. It might seem like a strange thing to say but there is so much more than guts and gore with survival horror. Zombicide is probably one of my favourite board games dealing with this, even more so than The Walking Dead ones. Add to that the Black Plague and they have managed to merge two of my favourite things, zombies and high fantasy! So of course I was excited when I learnt about this entry into the growing Zombicide tie-ins!
 
As always Aconyte and C.L Warner have done wonders at bringing a game to life in the form of tie-in fiction. From the first page of the prologue C.L Warner does what they do best and brings the world to life. All our senses are invoked, including smell! Anyone who knows me knows I have a pet hate of people in horror, especially survival horror ignoring the sense of smell. Thankfully so far both Zombicide titles have done just this to great effect! 
 
I found that the narrative was paced perfectly and gave the sense not only of the game it is inspired from but also a bit like the start of a D & D (or your preferred roleplaying game) party. We meet a mix match of survivors who each bring their own unique skills to the ‘team’. Of course, with these skills come conflict, something C.L Warner manages wonderfully and this is one of the main things I love about survival horror be it games, fiction or other forms of media. You get and find people from all walks of life suddenly having to work together, if they can, to survive. It doesn’t take long for the conflicts to arise and while they may not escalate too far the simmering of them continues throughout in a lot of cases which I found keeps the tension and pace of the plot.
 
Speaking of the characters, they are all wonderful! Each one had a chance to shine and evolve throughout the novel. Of course I was biased to a certain rogue and wizard but all of the characters drew me in. I never like to spoil the story in my reviews but I will say that Warner was able to make me fall in love with the wizard’s familiar in just a few lines! Being a zombie novel it’s safe to say that maybe not everyone will make it but that never affected the characters in the story. That is to say  Warner spent time on even those who may not make it right to the end which in turn makes it all the more emotional (especially if you are like me) when we do lose them.
 
The only downside to this book is there isn’t more of it! I was so invested in the setting and characters that I want, no need, to know what happens next. Thankfully there is an opening for another novel and I will keep everything crossed there is. Honestly, it had all that you could want from a zombie novel! Gore, horror, conflicts of the group, growing tense and more. It is a must read for fans of zombies and horror,  fantasy horror and of course the zombicide games. I just really, really hope there is a second one!
 
I was given a copy of this book for free as part of the book tour and I am leaving this honest review voluntarily.
 
The ebook of this title became available on the 7th June with the hard copies due to release on the 14th. If you love zombies, fantasy, action, gore or zombicide this is one you do not want to miss.
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Age of the undead by C. L. Werner.
A Zombicide: Black Plauge Novel Book 3.
In a fantasy realm shattered by the zombie apocalypse, a bold Knight must enlist unlikely allies while discovering the source of undead corruption.
A good read. Likeable and unlikeable characters.  I loved the cover.  4*.
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I have never played the board game but I have read CL Werner’s black library books and he continues the great story telling in this book, as a newbie to this world I found it quite fascinating and very enjoyable and would recommend this as very good read regardless of any prior knowledge
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Werner has managed to capture the magic of the Zombicide Black Plague board games perfectly, while still creating a story that is original and separates itself enough from its source material. Our heroes are forced to save themselves, protect others they find along the way, and stop the zombie outbreak. The book uses typical enemies from the board game such as runners and abominations.

This book gave me a really good time.
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A Conan the Cimmerian style sword and sorcery style fantasy mixed with necromancers and zombies, what more could you want?

A group of heroes consisting of a knight, a rogue, a witch Hunter, a mage, a dwarf demolitions expert, and an orc with his canine companion team up in Zombicide Black Plague Age of the Undead. A necromancer has spread the black plague causing zombies to rise up under his command. 

Werner has managed to capture the magic of the Zombicide Black Plague board games perfectly, while still creating a story that is original and separates itself enough from its source material. Our heroes are forced to save themselves, protect others they find along the way, and stop the zombie outbreak. The book uses typical enemies from the board game such as runners and abominations. 

Even if you are not a Zombicide fan, this is still a fantastic story with a medieval setting, featuring fantastic and well written characters, action, and betrayal.
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