Our very first review is on a book that was a first in its own right. That's right, Rynn's World by Steve Parker, the first book in the Black Library's Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Battles series.
(For those unacquainted with Warhammer 40,000, or WH40K, these are stories set in a grimdark, Orwellian 40th Millenium, where mankind has branched out into thousands of planets and systems and fight perennial battles with various xenos hordes. Tip of the iceberg lip-service description there, so if you really haven't heard of this property, quickly peruse a Warhammer Wiki first. Also, luckily, many of these books are perfectly enjoyable as standalone novels).
Back in 2010, The Black Library introduced a new series into their vast collection of WH40K fiction. We already had the flagship cash cow Horus heresy series, the long-running Imperial Guard standalones (aka where new authors had to prove themselves), the Gaunt's Ghosts series, plus several trilogies and multi-book stories. However, this new series raised some eyebrows for a few reasons. Firstly, these were larger books, larger than your average mass-market paperback. So, of course, they were also larger in price point. They had some nice color graphics inside, some with maps, or chapter designs. But finally, this new Space Marine Battles series would feature stories about famous skirmishes. Meaning the die-hards already knew the endings before they opened the books. Meaning the authors had better be pretty deft to make a known tale interesting. Hoo-boy.
Honestly, I was psyched. Why? Well, even though the books were more expensive, they looked great. The color inserts, while completely unnecessary, were enjoyed. Also, being not quite a die-hard yet, I didn't know all the outcomes yet. Bully for me.
On to the actual review. First, here's the blurb:
"When the ork hordes of warlord Snagrod lay waste to the planet of Badlanding and wipe out the Crimson Fists sent to stop them, Chapter Master Pedro Kantor prepares a hasty line of defense on the Fists' home planet of Rynn's World. Tragedy strikes when an errant missile destroys the Space MArine's Chapter Monestary, killing most of their warriors. With a handful of Crimson Fists left, Kantor must fight the campaign of his life, to defeat Snagrod's orks and prevent his Chapter's annihilation."
At a cursory glance, there should not be much legend or reknown surrounding a battle between the Crimson Fists and the vile orks. Their battle has been ongoing for centuries. Moreover, no matter the size of Arch Arsonist Snagrod's Waaaaaagh, it should not have posed too much of a threat for the entire Chapter on their home planet. And yet, a mixture a horrendously bad luck on a level near to a comedy of errors, turn this into a battle against the odds for the Chapter's very survival.
As Snagrod's forces approach Rynn's World, the Fists have their forces divided into two main areas; the bulk of the Chapter's fighting force holes up in their impenetrable fortress monastery Arx Tyrannus, while a large force holds New Rynn City, where a large group of the planets' human population resides. After the 'tragic errant missile' blows Arx Tyrannus to smithereens, it is up to the surviving 16 Fists (including Chapter Master Pedro Kantor) to make the journey to New Rynn City to join with the remaining Fists there. The bulk of the story is interspersed with the battles they fight on the way, and with the plight of the Fists within the City holding a defensive line against Snagrod's mighty force.What can be done to stop Snagrod? To save the future of the Chapter? Can anything be done?
So there's the basic gist. But what was good or bad about the story? Well, honestly, there was a good amount of good and a fair amount that should have been better. However, to fully detail it, some plot points will be compromised. So be warned, after the basic critique, some spoilers will follow....
Characters/Characterization: As you start reading Rynn's World, a lot of names will get thrown at you fast. You might get frustrated trying to remember who is who, other than the main characters. Don't sweat it; here are the ones you need to remember: Kantor, Cortez, Alvez, Grimm, Mendoza, and Lady Cagliestra. Kantor is the fair-minded Chapter Master, Cortez, one his captains, his best friend, and an angry ball of fury (think Wolverine in power armor). Alvez and Grimm are the Marines whose POV we witness the assault on New Rynn City through, Mendoza is the stalwart Librarian, and Lady Cagliestra provides the human POV.
Honestly, there is no character development (save Lady C 'toughening up' when times get tough), and there doesn't need to be. Astartes don't have or need a full gamut of human emotions, and the focus here is on the battle. All through the book, Kantor says something leaderly, Cortez grumbles. Alvez says something practical, Grimm, who is more sympathetic to the plight of the humans, counters him. Kantor, unfortunately, is the weak link in the story, as he spends a good amount of time partaking in an internal monologue. Granted, facing the prospect of Chapter annihilation, he has a lot on his mind. But it does get a bit repetitive.
Action: Now we get to the meat of the potato. This is where Steve Parker excels. The action is brutal, exciting, and believable (as I had experienced in the first work I read from Parker, the superb Gunheads). While many may view orks as old-hat and passe, Parker gets the physicality of the creature, the hulking, cruel brutality. He makes his Fists equally brutal, and the results are exciting, knockdown, drag out fights (especially the ones involving Cortez). Bolters blaze, and starships battle fiercely in the space above Rynn's World.
Was there any downside to the action? Well, there was one area that should have been developed more. For the bulk of the novel, New Rynn City is under a vicious siege. This plays out as 'orks make a break through here, Fists speed to the area, fight, losses are suffered, rinse, repeat.' As the Crimson Fists are successors of the Imperial Fists Chapter (historically the best when it comes to siege defenses), shouldn't some of this expertise lie in the stock of the Crimson Fists? Maybe someone with more CF expertise can clarify how adept they are supposed to be at siege defense. I get that they are doughty fighters, but I would have liked to have seen more siege logistics (as brilliantly portrayed in Graham McNeill's Storm of Iron), and less of Kantor asking questions in his own head.
So was there anything less than stellar about the book? Yes, the ending. And a certain plot point. Actually, two plot points. Buckle up, we are venturing into spoiler territory.
Ok, so what plot points just don't work here?
First, Ceres Protocol: Great idea. This mandates that the Fists cannot put the needs of the humans (which they are technically sworn to protect) ahead of the survival of the Chapter. After the tragedy that annihilates most of the Chapter, this is a damn necessity. Both Kantor and Alvez (who at that point believes he might be the highest ranking officer left) invoke it. Both go against it at every turn. Especially Kantor. Yes, I get it that it is meant to show his humanitarian side, but seriously? When he holed the Chapter up in two areas at the beginning of the book, he must have known that the humans in the outlying areas were gonna be toast. But now, with his ragtag group, he is willing to slow down their rendezvous with other Fists survivors just to accomodate some humans they saved along the way? No, the Chapter Master needs to make the hardest decisions. Something more appropriate would have been "Ok humans, we saved your lives. So now pick up some of these stubbers from these dead orks and protect yourselves. We seriously have got to go." Instead we get something like "Alessio (Cortez), I invoked Ceres Protocol, but you broke it by saving these humans. So now we all have to slow down. Because of you. Hmph." That's just how Kantor rolls. I really did not care for his portrayal, but his fight scenes were done very well, including his climactic fistfight with Snagrod.
Second, securing the Spaceport: So towards the end, help is in orbit above Rynn's World. They want to drop a bunch of reinforcements, including some heavy artillery, planetside to help turn the tide. For them to land these goodies, they need the Spaceport secured. So Kantor has to take a commando team and liberate this port, which is a bit off from the City. Now this is fine and all, but wait a minute. Maybe you need the landing pads to bring down Titans and all, but couldn't they have peppered the landscape with reinforcement Space Marines by simply using drop pods? Like in every other book with Space Marines landing on planets?
Now on to the one real gripe, the ending. I had read in some other reviews that this book has a rushed ending, and, sad to say, it is true. Remember how the bulk of the book jumped from Kantor and company to the events in New Rynn City? Back and forth, back and forth. Now, at the end, we have the stage set for another two-fold approach, the last stand within the City walls as Ork Gargants prepare to smash through, and Kantor's Kommandos as they try to liberate the spaceport so help can finally arrive. Sounds great? Too bad. Once the Gargants show, the action only focuses on Kantor's Krew. Now, don't get me wrong, this sequence is very well written. It has a nice, door-to-door, black ops, FPS feel to it. Parker has a knack for this, which is why his Deathwatch novel has been fairly well-received. But essentially, it is just Kantor, Cortez, and some throw-away names, blasting the crap out of some orks. I wanted a little more Gargant action. What a tease.
Of course the landing pads are liberated, which signals one of the most abrupt that I have ever read. It is almost literally; help is here, yeah, New Rynn City is pretty beat up, but we will win this, we will recover, because we are stalwart. The end. Seriously. You know, I didn't need to even see the other Chapters in action. I get it that the focus was to remain on the Fists. But seriously, no last ditch stand in the City? So many minor characters introduced that don't receive closure? Sorry, this was either rushed or revised with a strict deadline.
Here's What It Is:
A decent, pulpy, bloody slice of military sci-fi. Not the best book to start the SMB series with, and not the worst.
Great action scenes. A little too much redundant inner dialogue.
Could've been very good with a decent ending.
Well, if it is one thing that the Space Marine Battles books have going for them, it is the fact that their covers are done by Jon Sullivan, bar none the best artist currently working in sci-fi and fantasy. This cover captures the Fists' last stand very well. These books feature wrap-around covers, so the action continues on the back with a view of the ork onslaught. The Marine faces are a bit too photo-realistic (a trend in covers which I abhor), so that takes it down a notch. A good cover nonetheless.
Cover Final Score: