Double Eagle by Dan Abnett. Originally published 2004, approx. 416 pages.
For about a decade and a half, uber-talented author Dan Abnett has been churning out quality books for the Black Library (as well as quality work for other publishers as well). Abnett's work smashes the stereotype that tie-in fiction needs to be poor quality or produced by third-rate hack authors. Then again, if you are reading this and already aware of the basics of WH40K fiction, you already know all about Dan Abnett. If you are new to this stuff, acquaint yourself with Dan Abnett (Gaunt's Ghosts series, Eisenhorn and Ravenor series, Horus Heresy contributions, standalone works). Is Double Eagle a good starting point for reading Abnett, or WH40K fiction? I'm not sure. Is it still a enjoyable piece of military sci-fi? Yes, although don't expect any surprises.
One of the most interesting things about Double Eagle is that it does not fit squarely into any one specific WH40K series. It is not entirely a standalone novel, as it has ties to other series. It is not a Gaunt's Ghosts novel; as they do not feature in the story (save a name drop). However, the story takes place in the Sabbat Worlds, which coincide with a story arc in the Gaunt's Ghosts canon. It is also not an Imperial Guard novel, although the Phantine XX are indeed a Guard regiment (and quite an anomaly, since they are an air regiment which would fall under the Imperial Navy umbrella). Perhaps the best category to place Double Eagle, then, with its strong focus on air combat, is as the only Aeronautica Imperialis novel put out by Black Library.
Look at those beauties soar.
The events of Double Eagle transpire on the war-torn planet of Enothis. As the bulk of the story unfolds, the Imperial ground forces have already taken a severe drubbing at the hands of an incredibly strong Chaos Force. As the land forces stage a retreat from Chaos-held territories, they re-focus their assault maneuvers to air strikes. A large air force is assembled from the remaining planetary wings (Commonwealth fighters), detachments from the Imperial Navy, and the aforementioned Phantine XX (Imperial Guard). While this is conceptually sound, the forces of the Imperium do not hold complete air superiority. The forces of chaos have a drastic numbers advantage, and are pushing their assault via massive carriers (land-born aircraft carriers). They also have a good number of aces, including one notorious, elusive killer that plagues the Imperial forces.
The main action of the book consists of various dogfights and bombing raid. The Chaos hordes increase the ferocity of their push, and the Imperials harry them as they find themselves becoming more and more cornered with each scrap. At the end, it is an all out Chaos onslaught versus the last remnants of the air defenses for the ultimate fate of Enothis. Fairly standard. The rest of the book deals with the cast of characters and their interaction. I would say it focuses on character development, but these are fairly stock character templates. Abnett's strength makes them enjoyable and engaging; yet it would've taken a miracle to make them unique. There are some interesting detours from the normal WH40K fare with regards to characters as well; Abnett gives us strong female Guard members (including Bree Jagdea, the Phantine leader who is that all-too-convenient mix of capable and caring). Also, there is the fledgling romance between two lost souls (the beyond war-weary Viltry and the widowed Beqa).
Abnett offers up an ensemble cast in Double Eagle, there is no clear-cut main protagonist. There is the already-mentioned Jagdea, Viltry, the bomber pilot who has seen too many crews lost, Marquall, the wannabe ace, Kaminsky, a former Commonwealth pilot sidelined by injury, and Darrow, a highly skilled Commonwealth cadet placed in Operations by an over-protective senior officer. The rest of the Phantine pilots round out the supporting cast. I do not even need to make a spoiler section to tell you that as the stakes are raised, the background players fade away first. Stevie Wonder could see most of the plot points coming.
Now, for the storytelling itself, there's a strong WWII feel to this story. It's strongly implied that the Battle of Britain was an inspirational basis for the narrative. And therefore, the book has one of those old-timey WWII movie feels. But, like other 40K books that tap into the vein of a historic conflict (Fifteen Hours and WWI, Imperial Glory and the Zulu conflict), there are times where you might forget you are reading about an intergalactic story in the 40th Millennium. Ergo, when I am supposed to be imagining brutal dogfights between muscular Thunderbolts and sleek, vector-flight capable Chaos Hell talons, I am drawing a mental image of RAF and Luftwaffe fighters and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns (not lasguns and quadcannons). And no, I am not narrow-minded, nor has my imagination atrophied. And this happened fairly often throughout the book. Luckily, it never descends into a tiresome read.
Okay, so with cookie cutter characters and a fairly episodic storyline, will the action save Double Eagle? Now there, we have a definite yes. This book would've been a total failure if Abnett didn't deliver on the air combat. And I have to say, he succeeded in portraying something that I would assume is fairly hard to put into words. You feel the chaotic claustrophobia of the cockpit, the banks, the turns, the G-forces, the fear of an enemy on your tail, and the frustration of a target getting away. The terminology and jargon seems legit, so it is either spot-on or completely convincing malarkey. Well-played either way.
Will 40K fans like this book? Well, if you swear by anything Abnett, that's a no-brainer. If you can really enjoy Imperial Guard novels, then yes. I know I do. But there are no Astartes (Space Marines) here. None at all. And the baddies are, as mentioned, Chaos minions (including a nice appearance by the Blood Pact). But, that's it. No Chaos Space Marines, No orks, eldar, or tau. If any of that is an issue, consider yourselves warned.
Will this work as a standalone for the uninitiated? I think it can. I am not up to the Sabbat Worlds arc of the Gaunt's Ghosts storyline, so I had to read up on the Blood Pact. I had to do some image searching for good pics of the planes involved. There's a Thunderbolt on the cover, but a lay reader might be lost for a good idea of what the other craft look like. Will it even be worth their time to search? I can't guarantee the payoff will be worth it for everyone.
Here's what it is:
The Black Library's sole Aeronautica Imperialis venture is an entertaining romp, with enjoyable, yet completely forgettable characters, and solid depictions of air combat. Another satisfactory outing for Abnett.
Ah, what can I say here. Centered on the cover is a targeting sensor with a lock on.....a Thunderbolt model. Seriously? Look, I get that some of the codexes (codices?) use these mock-up action shots of the models to stir up excitement with the tabletop crowd. Which is fine since those are reference guides for the tabletop players. But this is a mass-market paperback. I love modeling and respect people who can construct detailed dioramas, but I won't buy a Gundam DVD with a picture of a 1/100 scale model on the front. No disrespect intended to Forge World, who are credited with the cover. A subsidiary of Games Workshop, they were distributing the old Aeronautica Imperialis models and continue to make the best quality tabletop miniatures on the market. I mean, at least they tried to play with color effects to make it look like an action shot.
Cover Final Score: