While the return of the aelves to the timeline was something celebrate, one section of the Daughters of Khaine battletome turned a few heads. Rather than the three direct descendants of the elves of the Warhammer Fantasy world people suspected we would see, instead, we ended up with four. This last one was mentioned only briefly, but those stories grabbed the attention of readers with mentions of an aquatic race of hunters who rose up to assail those on land in raids.
Rather than keeping their readers hanging in a Blizzard style dragged-out affair, the book has instead been printed in record time right after it. Unfortunately, that seems to have been for both better and worse. The book is good to be sure, and it does contribute in fleshing out the new setting, but there are a few odd shortcomings which seem to be borne of a rushed production more than anything else.
The immediate strength of the Idoneth Deepkin stems from the nature of their creation. Like many other books, a great emphasis is placed on their history, development and why we have not heard nor seen them before now. The story is told in a usual manner, informative but with a quality which is trying to still utilise qualities of retold epics. What's interesting in this regard is that Games Workshop has been taking this a step further of late, and making sure that it covers details largely unique to the Deepkin.
The Deepkin themselves were among the first souls to be freed from Slaanesh's captive form, and were taught by Teclis to retake the mystic arts. However, their souls had a few odd qualities to them. The first among these was that they were those tied to the ancient god of the sea, Mathlann and this influenced their creation along with their time while consumed by Slaanesh. As a result, they appeared fine at first only for obvious imperfections and flaws to emerge as time goes by, forcing them to retreat into the depths and part ways with Teclis. This was far from amicable. That's the basic description, but the full version grants readers an immense amount of information in terms of events, actions and how they aelves have been adapting to this new world. The parts surrounding Teclis and Tyrion are of obvious importance, but the book emphasises only the parts the Deepkin themselves would be directly aware of. As such, many of the events surrounding Morathi covered in the Daughters of Khaine Battletome are completely absent.
What makes this such an interesting move is that it leaves several points in question. This isn't quite the whole War of the Beard style unreliable narrator with two intentionally contradictory terms. Instead, it makes it clear that every side only knows so much, and the obvious blind spots are to be delved into by other books. This makes the world much more expansive as a result, because you are not losing anything directly relevant to your faction of choice, but there are certain facts which can be fudged or missed. It also means that, while the book is working to create a single cohesive setting with some variation, rather than having everything set in stone.
Much like a number of previous releases, a great deal of emphasis is placed on establishing the faction's background. As a result there's a real sense of legacy, history and meaning to this faction. They're clearly a well-established part of this world despite their recent release, and the book does an excellent job of working them around many points such as avoiding the previous conflicts. More impressively still, their reveal carries all the impact you would expect. They are drawn further and further into the war upon their discovery and only align with Sigmar's lot out of necessity rather than a true desire to follow his new alliance. What's still interesting despite this is that the book manages to avoid the spiteful or self-serving elements you would expect from this. Several points note that the Deepkin attempt to bury the hatchet with those races they previously wronged, and there is not the inherent sense of malice you would expect to accompany their ruthlessness.
Interestingly still, their background has a storytelling quality to it that most books have struggled to fully capture in many cases. While it isn't the same directly informative works found in many 40,000 books or the overtly stylised versions Fantasy favoured, there is a sense of being a grand epic to it. The discussion of vast figures, powerful sorcerers, fallen gods and reclaimed civilisations really is Age of Sigmar at its best. This is less the low fantasy warfare of the past, and more akin to almost Conan-like works with entirely new concepts to them. It really helps to separate the two, and the style is a type of fantasy that Games Workshop has rarely attempted to examine before now. On the whole, this helps it to stand out, and it makes the Deepkin have a sense of impact to them.
The race itself retains a number of very interesting qualities to them, and perhaps the most prominent among these is how they operate in and out of the water. Obviously trying to adapt any ocean-bound race to land was going to be an uphill struggle, but the writers work around this via a number of spiritual means, which draws a sense of this group being the AoS setting's Wild Hunt. A great deal of thought has been put into many of their powers and methods, and it manages to remain balanced without the typical problems of a single ability being too powerful or underwhelming. It's a good skeleton for the faction to work from, and the timeline offers a multitude of events where this comes into play and reshapes them.
Finally and most pressingly, the various factions here aren't the usual throw-away ideas you would expect. While it's true that more than a few of them still fall into the gimmick angle (one is best at controlling beasts, another has renowned archers etc) others go beyond this. There's a much greater sense of history to them, and it helps to subtly reinforce a few points about them - Specifically, the Greek visuals, in that they are a loose-linked alliance of various kingdoms which have split off from one another. There's more than enough to pick out one a player likes or even to utilise ideas from them to spawn a new kingdom, a-la Adeptus Astartes chapters and their successors. Plus, there's the added bonus of how the artwork depicting them is more than a simple recolour, and effort has been put into each one.
There's no easy way to say this - The great failing of the Idoneth Deepkin is that they are this setting's Dark Eldar. This isn't some general comment on their archetype, role within the setting or even their visual concepts. This is a comment on how they are structured and their defining qualities. You have an army of elves who live far apart from the world of mortals and yet outside of that of magic, across multiple sub-realms linked by a magical gateway network. They emerge on occasion to raid other species, because their link to an ancient god means they must constantly feast upon the essence of other beings to sustain themselves. They are the dark mirror of the other survivors of their race, and their society is heavily divided into a caste system. Those of a natural birth are regarded as having greater prestige than those born with flawed and more artificial qualities. Oh, and then you have the whole beast-master trait as well.
Now, this isn't to say that having the similar sadistic corsair concept with them would be bad. Nor that more than a few elements from the other universes could not be lifted to make use of this. However, the problem lies in the fact that it never manages to push beyond those qualities. It's not so much a homage as a duplication, and while their history is the strongest point which separates them, little else here works. We know nothing of their society short of certain dietary and caste elements. Their nature, traditions, views of the world and many other ideas which might help to further define them are either too out of focus or go completely unexplored. As a result, the Idoneth Deepkin never feel like the Idoneth Deepkin. Instead, you read them and think "Ah, Fantasy Dark Eldar, got it!"
Even accepting the above, however, there are still more than a few other issues. In their own timeline the Deepkin have a noted lack of victories or true accomplishments. In much of their timeline, events either note them hiding from their enemies or losing battles so badly that they need Sigmar's warriors to win. Save for the odd coastal raid or an offer of aid, much of the time they are losing major battles or being overrun by their foes. It's an old issue when it comes of Elf/Eldar equivalents, but for the most part Age of Sigmar has been subverting this. Even with the Sylvaneth, with much of their history detailing a flight from an advancing foe and repeated losses, were given a chance to seriously turn things around and prove their power. The Deepkin lack this specific type of battle or two, and as a result, they come across as irritatingly weak in a number of ways.
Curiously, the book also has a distinct problem when it comes to offering the reader something of an essential aspect in most books: That of an internal perspective. We are told certain things, points known only to the Deepkin are outlined to the reader and the gradual creation of their civilisation is given a satisfying level of detail. With that being said, there are few additional touches or qualities to truly help this seem like an opinionated viewpoint from their own perspective. There are no quotes from their members, no tales of battles from the views of a member of their kind, nor even descriptions of their realms in a manner which makes it feel more real. This creates a sense of odd disconnect as a result, and it lacks a hook to make the work much more engaging as a result.
The issue of a lack of inner viewpoint can be best defined by how the book uses characters. High King Volturnos (the only named Deepkin of the book) is limited only to a small segment of a bigger page, which spends more time outlining his features over any personal quirks or accomplishments, while several are devoted to the Eidolon of Mathlann. One is a member of their species, a figure who can serve as a representation and anchor for a view of the species or civilisation. The other is an arcane creation built out of their history, souls and linked to their dead god, emphasising their religion. One offers a view on their people, while the other tries to comment on their culture. Neither is inherently bad, but the fact that the latter is prioritized over the former, it ends up suffering from the opposite of a usual problem cited in past codices. Were this emphasising an unknown quality such as with the Necrons upon their introduction, the Tyranids or even the Legion of the Damned it might have worked. The problem is that it still desired to make this race sociable and somewhat human, so rather than benefitting from this, it instead ended up stumbling. For a work which needs to make a strong impression from the very start, it misses several vital components as a result.
No matter what you say about any book these days, there's no denying that the artwork is almost consistently top notch. It's rare to truly find a failed book these days, and this Battletome isn't about to break that streak. The art present here is beautiful to behold, capturing the disturbingly elegant qualities of the Deepkin. Effort is clearly made to try and emphasise their distinctive visual qualities and separate them from almost any other army present and, while it typically sticks to more photo-realistic works, it isn't above the odd stylised piece here and there. Equally, while the book shows little of their domains, those which are shown are extremely memorable. From shimmering magical gates to the shadow of a vast creature with a city built into its back, it's enough to keep them in your mind.
Plus, it has to be said, the Greek inspired visual imagery of the army does work to benefit the art in many places. The design department went above and beyond with the design of these models, and many such as their spiritual incarnation (well, Avatar substitute) are perhaps some of the best creations in Age of Sigmar to date. Keep in mind that this is coming from a devoted Kharadron Overlords player.
As a whole, this work has promise but this first impression is deeply at fault. There are more than enough good elements to be found in here, and a number of great ideas which can work as an excellent unique basis. It's also a good depiction of just how to use a marine-based army without limiting them completely to water. However, there's no denying that the core of the work all too closely resembles that of another prominent army, from their driving force to the very way in which their society is structured. Some armies can get away with this for one reason or another, and a few have very closely skirted this territory before. However, the Deepkin are the first to have truly crossed a line, and the next Battletome definitely needs to flesh them out, moving them away from the Spelljammer style Dark Eldar. After all the Sigmarine jokes, it's honestly a surprise to think the company would try this.
So, that's the lore done then. Join us tomorrow when we move onto the rules.