Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Flesh Of Cretacia

Flesh of Cretacia by Andy Smillie. A Space Marines Battles novella featuring the Flesh Tearers. Originally published November 2012. Approx.116 pages.

Andy Smillie has kind of burst onto the Black Library writing scene with the sudden ferocity of an Astartes drop pod, and has been very prolific in the short story sector. He is also the current authorial authority on the Flesh Tearers chapter, and most of his works have featured them. Now, it can be great if a talented author adopts a Chapter in such a manner; however, in the hands of a less capable author......I'll just say that I am glad that I am not a Salamanders fan.

So far, my experience with Smillie has been minimal. I think he was the fierce looking little bald guy with Aaron Dembski-Bowden when he was doing signings at the East Village (NYC) Games Workshop location in June, 2011. Other than that, I read his "Immortalis", which was his entry in the Black Library 15th Birthday Collection. At around 1,000 words (like all the shorts in that series), it was an intense tale, told with the pacing of a real-time fistfight. It was the perfect way to depict this Chapter.

The question is, was Smillie ready to apply his obvious knowledge of this Chapter to a larger format, with a larger cast of characters, and dialogue too? Andy excels at writing violence, and he seamlessly incorporates the martial, hand to hand aspect that the Flesh Tearers lean more towards. Unfortunately, his efforts at creating dialogue that seem natural, relevant, and believable fall short. In essence, he becomes a bit like James Cameron; a maestro at orchestrating glorious violence, but God help you if he penned the screenplay.

Two points to note at this time; first, this story takes place shortly after the Horus Heresy. This is no time indicator at the beginning of the tale, but there are some references to the closure of the Heresy and the recent introduction of the Codex Astartes. Second, this being a Space Marines Battles title, a story recap is not necessarily a spoiler. So, let us proceed.

Chasing some ork stragglers knocked out of orbit, a group of Flesh Tearers under Chapter Master Amit find themselves on a Death World, a world seemingly malicious and hell-bent on destroying any intruders. Setting up a defensive perimeter, while sending out scout teams, the Flesh Tearers find the the orks are the least of their problems; the planet has already taken care of the xenos filth, and now it aims to take care of them.

Flesh of Cretacia focuses on three central groups; the Flesh Tearers holding their defensive circle, and the hordes of creatures they face, a Scout group, and the planetary horrors they encounter, and a lone Marine, who finds himself negotiating an understanding with the native tribes.

In the end, some of the worst of the creatures are slain, and out of left field, Amit declares that this planet, now dubbed "Cretacia" (Baal for 'Birth of Wrath'), will be this newly formed Chapter's (remember the timeline) Homeworld, a place where they can pluck future aspirants from. The End.

What works in Cretacia is, first and foremost, the action. This is, as already mentioned, brutal, fists flying, knees taken out, wince as you are reading it combat. The bolter action is sharp too. And, as already mentioned, Smillie knows Flesh Tearer lore. Many of their unique ceremonies get detailed treatment; but, like with the dialogue, they feel placed in the story 'just to be there'. It's as if Smillie had a checklist of ceremonies and rituals to include and just started ticking away. In his favor, his depiction of the Black Rage and the hold it takes over those afflicted is chilling and authentic.

Now, what doesn't work. The dialogue. Look, I get it. These aren't friendly, lovable space giants. It's like the scene from the latest (atrocious) Die Hard movie: "We're not a hugging family." But, a lot of the dialogue here comes off as forced; as if Smillie is trying to make the Flesh Tearers sound 'killer-cool'. Maybe it's just me. A lot of the Tearers are essentially unlikable, but again, that's there nature. And again, it's the author's burden to make us care. Especially with Amit, however, once I started visualizing him like Matthew McConaughey's character in Reign of Fire, I warmed up to him quite a bit.

In the Top 10 for "Best Cinematic Sequence Ever"

To be honest, a lot of the characters were considerably cooler once the action heated up. So maybe Flesh is just a slow starter?

Well, matter of fact, pacing was another slight issue for me. Flesh of Cretacia starts off nicely from the point of view of Tamir, the strongest tribesman of the planet's natives. Through his eyes the reader sees the orks make planetfall. We then cut to the battle in space, which sent said orks reeling down with the Tearers in hot pursuit. The entire bridge sequence on the Victus is a bit jerky and forced. The novella would have been more seamless if all the events transpired on Cretacia itself, with any reference to the Victus being in flashback form. Also, in that opening scene, the planet is already referred to as Cretacia, even though the Flesh Tearers are yet to step foot on it.

Another minor niggle is the whole "Homeworld" aspect. Throughout the story, Amit is being a standoffish asshat with all his captains who implore him to give up the ork chase and commit to larger endeavors. His position is that they are there for the fight, they need the release of the fight, so they will stay and fight. Then when all is said and done, he has a near-literal "I claim this land for Spain" moment, and says the Flesh Tearers no longer have to roam the stars without their own world. Even if Amit had his own reasons to keep his plan secret, at no point in the novella does the reader have any notion whatsoever that the Flesh Tearers are homeless vagabonds. So, I mean, great little slice of Warhammer 40,000 history, but the casual reader may have no idea why it is historical.

I really don't want to sound like I am harping on this novella. I cannot reiterate enough; this is what Warhammer 40K action should be written like. However, as Smillie hones the knife of his craft, he has some work yet to do on characterization and dialogue.

Here's what it is:
The Flesh Tearers kick ass. And after a slow start, they do nothing but kick ass for about 80 pages. But some stuff doesn't kick ass. And that comes off the score.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Usually Space Marine Battle books feature covers by Jon Sullivan, but Flesh of Cretacia sports a cover by the excellent Clint Langley. Langley is peerless in rendering Astartes armor, and this is no exception. On the front, Amit strides towards the reader, chainfists buzzing. Looking at the full cover, the placement seems off. The standard bearer (I forget that captain's name) seems there just to occupy space, and it would have been nice to see some image or hint of Cretacia's beasts. Solid, not stellar.

Cover Final Score:


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