Beasts in Velvet
Beasts in Velvet Capsule Review by KM Curow on 10/11/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Jack Yeovil does it again. This is classic Warhammer, while avoiding reliance on the same old concepts that plagues some Warhammer writers. A good source of NPCs for DMs looking to fill out their rosters, as well.
Product: Beasts in Velvet
Author: Jack Yeovil (Kim Newman)
Company/Publisher: Black Library (Games Workshop)
Line: Warhammer Fantasy
Page count: 286
Year published: 2002 (1993)
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by KM Curow on 10/11/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror Gothic
Jack Yeovil (a pseudonym for author Kim Newman) is one of the better writers Games Workshop (GW) has engaged to write novels and stories set in the Warhammer fantasy setting. Beasts in Velvet was first published in 1993 during GW's first foray into fiction publishing. It has been republished under the new imprint, Black Library, with a new cover (and a new typeset?). It is a tribute to the consistency of the vision of GW's line editors that Beasts in Velvet fits seamlessly into the tone of the current run of fiction coming out of the Black Library.
The story is by now a fairly common dark fantasy plot. There is a serial killer, known as the Beast, loose in the Imperial capital of Altdorf (for those unfamiliar with Warhammer, the central state in the low Renaissance setting is loosely based on the culture of the historical Holy Roman Empire—which is to say, Renaissance Germany with a more centralized government). The Beast has already killed a number of people and seems to be stepping up its pattern of killing. Yeovil is not content to follow a single thread or plotline, however. In addition to three or four major characters involved—each for his/her own reasons—in working to catch the killer, there are a handful of antagonists with their own motivations for disrupting life in Altdorf.
None of the main protagonists are after the killer for stereotypical reasons, like revenge or duty. The characters are more complicated and therefore inherently more interesting than what we find in most fantasy novels. One is an Elector, one of the most powerful nobles in the Empire, who spent the better portion of his youth tracking down his brother-turned-Chaos-knight in the wilderness of the Empire. After the miraculous rebirth of his brother as an untainted youth, the Baron von Mecklenberg has years later returned to Altdorf where his brother is now studying at the university. News of the Beast's killings has aroused his suspicions that perhaps his brother remains in the grip of Chaos and is responsible for the murders. His quest to find the killer, then, is complicated by his hope that he will not find his own brother at the end of the trail. Another of the main protagonists is a seer, in service to the church of the setting, who has been assigned to the case by her superiors. She is an empath who received visions from objects that tell her things about the victims last moments. She finds the task unpleasant and her personal, professional, and emotional motivations are a complicated mix, made worse by the interests of said superiors, who really want her to help cover up important leads. One theme, Yeovil examines along the way, is the brutality and corruption of the Imperial Court, where the courtiers all dress in velvet and nearly all come across as cold-blooded enough to be responsible for the murders.
As the investigation progresses, and the Beast continues its killing spree, two things become clear to all those involved: the trail of murders leads back to the Imperial Court and some of those helping the investigation are there to cover up that fact. Complicating this fact is that revolution is brewing in the poorer parts of town, where a rabble-rousing group of fiery-eyed revolutionaries are seeking to overthrow the Emperor. Chaos worshippers make an appearance, as well, encouraging a revolution that—succeed or fail—will surely lead to massive bloodshed.
There are numerous minor members of the cast whose dark desires, bloodthirsty passions, or worship of the Dark Powers make them potential candidates for being the Beast. Yeovil manages to keep the reader guessing and to do so without resorting to cheap tricks by springing a total surprise on the reader at the end. More importantly, who the Beast is turns out to be a less important question to making this story a different take on Warhammer's themes than the question: Why is the Beast?
Readers of the other Warhammer novels may be surprised to find how little direct role the standard evil, Chaos, plays in the story. It is as ever-present as you would expect, manipulating people and events behind the scenes. But the threat of Chaos is only one of many, highlighting the complexity and danger of a setting where the city watch, Chaos cultists, revolutionaries, the thieves guilds, temple knights, haughty courtiers, and drunken prostitutes are all just as likely to try to kill the main characters as the Beast is. To the author's credit, however, this is not simply a case of “let's make everyone evil.” Most of the characters have more facets than that, and many of those who are a danger to the protagonists are not evil, but simply flawed; like a priest obsessed by his lust, or a noble obsessed with honor.
Beasts in Velvet is one of the classic Warhammer novels, thankfully back in print. If you are a fan of the genre or the setting, you cannot go wrong picking this one up. The Felix and Gotrek novels are pure pulp action in comparison to this one, so if you did not like those but like the idea of the Warhammer setting, this would be a good to try if you want to give it another shot.
Role-playing Ideas: I find novels and short stories to be excellent sources of ideas as a GM. Not every story makes a good adventure, of course, and nearly all require major changes to fit a particular setting (or avoid following a story the players may have read). This book provides a couple of lessons we can apply to role-playing. First, characters, whether NPCs or PCs, are much more tangible and realistic if they have conflicting interests. Make them complicated and they will seem more real, even if the players never actually discover what the real motivations are behind the actions of particular characters. Second, it has been said many times before, but it cannot be repeated enough that if you are designing an adventure, it will be much more interesting in the end if those who try to hinder the PCs are not all evil and not even all directly connected to the main thrust of the adventure. Beasts in Velvet provides plenty of material for creating a cast of NPCs or for creating side treks for your players to investigate, be drawn into, or be dragged into.