Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Rite Of Holos

The Rite of Holos by Guy Haley. A Blood Drinkers short story, originally appearing in Hammer & Bolter Issue 24, September 2012. Approx. 35 pages.

As has been previously mentioned, this has been a busy freshman year for new Black Library author Guy Haley. I've already reviewed three of his shorts here, and all have been very good. So I was surprised at myself that I had initially overlooked this short, tucked away in Issue 24 of the late, great Hammer & Bolter e-zine. So while I wait until I have enough disposable income to pick up Death of Integrity, I figured that Rite of Holos would be a good introduction to Haley's treatment of Space Marines. Not only that, but Holos features none other than the Blood Drinkers, those successors of the Blood Angels that are prone to the "Black Rage", and who slake their blood thirst with, well, blood. So how does Holos fare? Hmmmm, honestly, it's kind of a mixed bag. It goes from good to average. Not bad, but average. Which isn't bad, but then again, it also isn't very good.

Horror has come to the planet of Saint Catria. One of the most foul races of xenos to plague the Imperium, the genestealers, have corrupted the world and wreaked havoc among the Imperial Guard unit stationed there, the nearly all-female Catrian Praetors. As the story opens, Colonel Indrana, leader of the ragtag remains of the Guard forces, is welcoming a force of Blood Drinkers, which has come in response to her distress call. They undertake the dissecting of a genestealer specimen, and make plans to assail the heart of the xenos-based rebellion, which is centered in a large reliquary. So far, so good.

The opening scenes of Holos are excellent. Haley writes exceptionally well in the short story format. He is capable of being very descriptive with a very small word count. He captures very well the duality of the appearance of the Blood Drinkers; from their statuesque comeliness to their absolute ferocity. His account of some of the more 'warped' genestealers is effectively evocative as well.

Where the story unfortunately teeters off into tepid normalcy is after the titular Rite is performed. The assault on the Reliquary focuses on Chapter Master Caedis and his honor guard, interesting characters all. However, the actual fight scenes are telegraphed in a standard manner; swords slash up, down, parry, riposte. There is very little tension, and I don't think that the intensity of the Black Rage was written in lightning, as it should have been.

Colonel Indrana, despite a nice introduction, does not partake in the bloody festivities. This is a shame, since it is always nice to see all-female guard regiments.

Also a bit of a letdown, I don't know if the idea was to have a 'twist' or 'shock' ending, but it doesn't pan out that way. After reading a few WH40K works, you come to expect that while the arrival of the Astartes might mean the end of a problem, it also means the end of some innocent people as well. All for the greater good. The Emperor Protects. If anything, it feels like some of the bite was taken out of the ending.

All in all, Rite of Holos is a decent story, with a good, if not spectacular take on this Chapter. I would not suggest paying the $2.99 to buy it on its own, but luckily there are a few purchasing options:

By itself for $2.99 (don't buy! don't buy!).

Get the entire Issue 24 of Hammer & Bolter for only a buck more!

In the Best of Hammer & Bolter Vol. 2 compilation.

Here's what it is:
The Blood Drinkers attempt to quell a genestealer infestation on a compromised planet. Really, that's it.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Okay, I am cheating a little bit here. I used the ebook cover for this story, since I think it's really nice. I actually read this from the Hammer and Bolter Vol. 2 compilation, which has a nice cover as well:

But honestly, I couldn't resist this great take on the Blood Drinkers insignia. Very simple, very effective.

Cover Final Score:


Monday, September 23, 2013


Wulfrik by C.L. Werner. A Warhammer Fantasy "Heroes" novel. Originally published by The Black Library, December 2010. Approx. 416 pages.

"A man may forge his own doom."

Perhaps no words in Wulfrik are more appropriate, more accurate, than these. spoken early on by an ancient seer to our titular anti-hero. An ominous proverb indeed, yet one that sums up the protagonist, a Champion of not one, but all four Gods of Chaos, and words that should be well heeded by all those who fall within his dread orbit.

C.L. Werner's brutal entry into the Warhammer Heroes fantasy series showcases a man who found himself privvy to the old Chinese blessing/curse "may you come to the attention of those in authority". Wulfrik the Wanderer is a brutal Norscan (Warhammer take on the Norse raiders) champion, who, after slaying an opposing king in the legendary Battle of a Thousand Skulls, boasts that he could best any warrior, even those chosen by the Gods. The four Gods of Chaos either took umbrage, or great humour, in this boast (I'm betting on both with stress on the latter), and decided to take him up on it. They blessed him with some bodily "gifts" (more on those in a bit), and charged him with tasks: namely, to kill a person or creature of their choosing and make gruesome offerings from the remains. These labours take Wulfrik to all the corners of the world, hence his title, Wulfrik the Wanderer.

To accommodate Wulfrik on these travels, he chooses from a pool of prospective reavers in his homeland of Ormskaro. These men undergo a dangerous selection ritual to obtain the glory of traveling with the legendary hero. Best of all, to expedite the journeys to these distant lands, Wulfrik has obtained a magical ship known as the Seafang; a longship with the ability to travel through the nether-world and come out at the chosen destination. So, essentially, a Warhammer Fantasy character possesses a ship capable of Warp travel. How cool is that?

Going into reading Wulfrik, I did not know many of the particulars of his lore. Knowing that this was the basic gist of his existence, I was a tad worried. Even though I have full confidence in Werner's writing skills, the thought that the book would be naught but a sequence of designated assignments had the potential to become very rote, very fast. Luckily, Werner added a very personal aspect to this tale. 

While Wulfrik is a brutal, heartless marauder/killer, he does have one person that serves as an anchor for his humanity; his beloved Hjordis. Hjordis is the daughter of Viglundir, King of Ormskaro, and overall scheming and duplicitous dirtbag. The hand of Hjordis was due Wulfrik for his part in slaying King Torglund in the previously mentioned Battle of a Thousand Skulls. However, the new destiny that has been dealt Wulfrik ruins his chances at marrying her, raising heirs, etc. This, of course, has not ended their love for one another. It has, however, prompted the King to find alternate suitors for his beautiful daughter, suitors that would solidify his interests for the realm (and mostly himself). Chief amongst these is the Aesling prince Sveinbjorn, a truly odious, gutless lowlife.

Upon returning from a 'task', Wulfrik is approached by Zarnath, a Kurgan sorceror with an offer seemingly too good to be true; a way out of bondage, a way to be human again. The means to attain the tools to accomplish this are almost assuredly fatal, and the asking price for the service is astronomically high. However, for Wulfrik, no price is too high for a chance at normality and the woman he loves.

Without wading into spoiler-rich territory, the rest of the work deals with Wulfrik's gambit, and the eventual fallout from it. What it all adds up to is a greatly enjoyable read.

To start off with, there's Wulfrik. There is no sugar-coating it, Wulfrik is every bit a mean bastard. He was a consummate warrior before gaining the Gods' "favor", and his "gifts" make him all the more nastier. To start with, he was bestowed with some distinctly lupine qualities; heightened senses of sight and hearing, as well as an elongated jaw full of terrible fangs. His second endowment is the "Gift of Tongues", the ability to understand and speak with (and occasionally pick the thoughts of) those he encounters.

In regards to his first gift, Wulfrik uses his enhanced capabilities for obvious battlefield advantages. To be honest, I would have loved to see him use his fangs more in battle. To go from chewing out some creature's innards to giving Hjordis a loving peck would have been a delicious nastiness.

For the Gift of Tongues, you might think this is a wasted one, especially since Wulfrik is a) not reknown for his diplomacy, and b) on a mission to outright kill those he meets, so conversation is not necessary. So how does he use it? Well, in the same way any bruiser whose job it was to travel the world kicking tail would; and that is to call all of his opponents "sniveling whoresons" (and other colorful terms) in their native tongues. It's a lot of fun, trust me. And just admit it, you'd love to do the same in a fantasy world.

Like I've mentioned, some might find Wulfrik irredeemable to the point of being a total lout. There is no soft center under all the crusty exterior. He is not the lovable rogue that will disembowel his foes, but then pick up a stray kitten and bring it on the ship. In all likelihood, he would punt the nine lives out of the cat and call it a "mewling inbred cur" while doing so. It's actually pretty amazing that so many would be so foolish as to try and double-cross someone that looks like the bastard offspring of Yosemite Sam and the female Tasmanian Devil, but lacks the charm or patience of either....

They weren't kidding about the "Looney" part....

Another great thing about this book is the sheer amount of creatures and races featured in it. Some of the various offerings include yetis, hobgoblins, fire dwarves, lammasu, and Chaos forsaken, as well as Imperial army units and elves. And Werner has captured the driving personality traits behind all of them; from the malicious cowardice of the hobgoblins to the calculating cruelty of the Sons of Ulthuan. I couldn't pick a favorite creature, but I enjoyed the fire dwarf arc the most. It's really good to get some more residents of the beastiary out there, not just the usual suspects.

Fans of Werner's narrative style will not be disappointed; his prose is as descriptive as ever. There is fiery dialogue, some wry humour, and fighting scenes that have a boxing-announcer vibe to them. As always, he carefully chooses his descriptive words, so that one never loses track of scale or size. This yields a nice payoff when some spectacular feats of magic are in play. There are fun references and Easter eggs (look out for a CrackerJack toy reference and a part that pays homage to a scene from Hawk the Slayer).

I cannot say that there is any part of Wulfrik that I don't like or find sub-par. The pacing is on point; there are no dull moments, there simply isn't time for them. This book also had one of the better final acts and epilogues that I have read in a while. The characters are fleshed out as much as they need to be for their respective roles. Personally, I'd have liked to see a bit more backstory or point of view from his marauders, at least the ones that had seniority. But, then again, some readers might complain that that would take away too much from Wulfrik himself in a book named for him. Therefore, the book rests upon his shoulders, and, in the hands of a less capable author, the entire work would have been a complete wash.

All in all, Wulfrik comes highly recommended. It is a nice, fun piece of true fantasy; something that sparks the imagination, not something that is trying to be alternative history but with swords and sorcery. Here's hoping for some short stories featuring Wulfrik undertaking more of his "tasks".

Here's what it is:
A bruising tale of a Chaos "hero" who is no hero in the classic sense. A stern warning to neither test the humour of capricious Gods, nor to trifle with those teetering on the precipice of sanity. More solid work by Werner.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I know, I know, I made the corny jibe about Wulfrik's appearance above, but this is a damn nice cover. Great composition, rendering, excellent detail on the skulls. I had actually imagined more elongation on Wulfrik's jaw, but the snarling expression is great. The color scheme of the background matches the tone of the book marvelously.

Cover Final Score:


Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Crucible by John French. A Warhammer 40,000 Grey Knights short story. Originally part of The Black Library Weekender Anthology (Saturday), now available in general release as part of Digital Monday. Approx. 21 pages.

Today's review will be on another Black Library Digital Monday short (that was also previously an exclusive). This one is Crucible, a Grey Knights tale by John French. I was excited to read this one, since I was looking for a chance to read something from French ever since all the applause I've seen for his "The Last Remembrancer". Also, I am enjoy Grey Knights reads ever since my appetite was whet by the excellent "Witness" last month, so, here we go.

Crucible follows the tale of one Istafel, a lone knight sent by a triumvirate of his order to battle a greater daemon on a warp-afflicted ship named the Crucible. For some reason, Istafel is a kind of counterweight for this daemon, and so it must be he that goes alone to fight it.

That is a brief summation, yes, but it sums up the gist of the tale. Crucible is told in both the first person POV of Istafel, as well as the mental 'communion' of the three who dispatch him. Much of the word count is dedicated to scene-building and description, which is fine, since French more than excels at that. Writing for Chaos gives authors the free range of a hyper kid with a fistful of acrylic paints and a room full of canvases. All of the unbalanced, uncomfortable, nonsensical mayhem that is vomited forth from the Warp needs this.

French utilizes this to show a battle that is fought on three fronts; the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. There are the clever ways that Istafel focuses and creates a tangible image out of a warp-twisted ship. There are the brutal descriptions of the Grey Knight's fierce weapons brought to bear. And there is also the sickening display of a daemon born, a slithering, squishing live miscarriage.

As for what works against Crucible, there are a few minor points. First, I don't believe that this is a story for the WH40K uninitiated. Even though most of the books that I have read in the past few years were 40K books, I was still lost as to who this bird-daemon was. Is it a hint to some character or event from another work? Is it one of the higher agents of one of the Chaos gods? I can't place it, nor could I find anything on a WH40K wiki. It still is a great story of a Grey Knight fighting a daemon though, if just taken like that.

Secondly, while the scene-building was excellent, and the physical and spiritual duels were superb, that battle of words between Istafel and the daemon was a tad subpar. It's just a bit of text, and it's not bad, it just could have been a bit more chilling and soul-piercing.

With only a few things hampering it, Crucible is a great Grey Knights tale, finally made available to the general public. This is one of the times where the 20 page count is actually worth the $2.99 price tag.

Here's what it is:
A tale of a holy knight that must battle the daemon inside himself, and in fact, inside us all. A great story that reminds us how high the price of victory often is.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Crucible re-uses a Clint Langley classic; the cover from the Grey Knights omnibus. While I can understand that they didn't want to use the exact image and background color scheme, I can't help but point out that the new white background not only takes away from the figure, but does not match the tone of the story. Also, couldn't they have re-sized it a bit to make sure that the full blade of the halberd was included? Another case of a great pic suffering from poor cropping.

Cover Final Score:


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Blow The Chinks Down!

Blow the Chinks Down! by Robert E. Howard. A "Sailor Steve" Costigan boxing short story. Originally featured in Action Stories, October 1931. Approx.14 pages.

Sometimes you really need to step back and appreciate the full spectrum of work the Robert E. Howard brought to the world in his brief 30 years. While best remembered for his iconic fantasy characters (Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, etc.), he also penned a vast amount of boxing stories (being a big fan of the pugilistic arts himself). The best of these tall tales of fisticuffs feature "Sailor Steve Costigan", the hard-hitting seaman from the Sea Girl. With the last story I read featuring Costigan being the pretty good "Champ of the Forecastle", I wanted to see how this Far East tale would pan out.

Sailor Steve is getting himself properly sauced after docking in Hong Kong when he runs into none other than Bill McGlory, a lug headed foe from the rival Dutchman, who matches Costigan in height and weight. Barbs are traded, and after they both start vying for the affections of the lovely Kit Worley (a governess for local mercantile magnate Tung Yin), fists are about to fly. However, their righteous roughhousing is cut short by the appearance of British Secret Service agent Sir Peter Brent, written with "Pip-pip cheerio" aplomb. His dating and fighting both so rudely interrupted, Costigan heads off to find the lovely Ms. Worley. What follows is, of all things, a far-fetched caper involving a stolen royal diamond, a black market crime syndicate, and other wacky shenanigans.

I'll admit, the reason that I picked this story is that I expected some bruising fighting scenes with either Chinese gangsters or some kind of Hong Kong fight club. The whole diamond caper slant is fun and all, and it bears remembering that this was most likely penned for the younger set, a generation of kids that did not have Scooby-Doo (or TV for that matter) to bring them silly scenarios like this. What carries the story, as usual with these yarns, is Costigan's first person narration. His dialect and vernacular is always fun, bringing such classic lines as "You'll eat them words with a sauce of your own blood." I mean, seriously, you can't find quality dialogue like that anymore.

What takes away from the tale? Well, first there is the lack of boxing in this boxing tale. There is one decent scrap, and it is written well enough. Also lamentable is that Sailor Steve's trusty bulldog Mike sits out this tale with a bout of distemper. Furthermore, besides the plot being ludicrous (although it's assumed to be a tall tale), the plot twists are telegraphed like a punches of an amateur boxer, and the whole shebang is wrapped up with some long-winded exposition by one of the criminals.

I will also make mention of this: some of today's more easily offended PC types will be put off by the language in this story. Please remember the era that this work was penned in. Then again, if you can get past the title of the story, you can deal with a few 'slant-eye' and 'yellow' cracks.

Here's what it is:
Sailor Steve does more nosing about than fighting during some leave in Hong Kong. One of Howard's weaker stories is still a lot of fun today.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

No specific cover for this one, it was bundled into a big omnibus. However, I added the cover of the Action Stories issue that it premiered in above. That pic was found at this great site. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Poppet by Mo Hayder. Book 6 in the Jack Caffery series. Originally published May, 2013 by Atlantic Monthly Press. Approx. 400 pages.

I had first heard of Mo Hayder when I was searching on Amazon for books on The Rape of Nanking a few years back. One suggestion that popped up was for her book Tokyo (released Stateside as The Devil of Nanking). Digging through her past works, my interest was piqued by her Jack Caffery detective series. Most descriptions focus on how shocking and gory they are, and obligatory comparisons to Thomas Harris were made. Now, I personally despise when people feel that a comparison must be made to establish a point of reference, and I do not find it particularly anomalous that a woman could compose sinister, disturbing reading fare. I tucked into Birdman (Jack Caffery, Book 1), and found it to be a good police read, with some of the nasty bits a tad forced. Not reading any of the subsequent Caffery titles, I was still drawn to Poppet by that creepy-ass doll on the cover.

The good news is that you can read Poppet as a standalone novel, or without having read all the previous volumes. The bad news is that Poppet really isn't a very good book.

Poppet focuses on one AJ LeGrande (yes, you read that correctly, focuses meaning that he, not Caffery, is the main character). AJ is the senior nursing coordinator at Beechway, a mental institution with some seriously messed-up guests. Strange goings-on are afoot at Beechway, and they seem a little too far-fetched even by the standards of the residents. While surreal fantasies are the norm, it is when the visions become universal that there is a cause for concern. And what is happening at Beechway doesn't involve only visions, but episodes of self-harm as well, and, quite possibly, two deaths. It is up to our intrepid middle-management crime solving duo of AJ and his girlfriend, Melanie Arrow (his supervisor), to see what is going on. Oh, and by the way, the alleged, possibly supernatural, perpetrator? A former, sadistic dwarf matron known as "The Maude".

Going by that description, what Poppet might have been is a solid, supernatural and/or serial killer novel. The pieces are there; there is the shiny new institution built upon the bones of an old workhouse. There is a nice, sympathetic character in AJ. Hayder's mastery of descriptive prose is on point, the English landscapes dance off of the pages and into the readers' head. Wait, did I just say her writing is solid? Why yes I did. So what went wrong?

I have to wonder, was this book really meant to be a Caffery novel, or did the publisher insist on getting another jug from the cash cow? To be frank, Caffery has a secondary role; and that role is not even integral to the story. For the bulk of Poppet, AJ tries to decipher the goings-on himself, so as not to bring outside investigation that might compromise Melanie's job. So what does Caffery have to do in this tale? For the first 75%, the chapters with him deal with a previous case, and another officer. The case involves one Misty Kitson, which was the subject of the previous Caffery novel "Skin". The other officer is Phoebe "Flea" Marley, a police diver. I was a little worried that she was going to be a stereotypical "tough as nails little woman", but she was a solid character. Hayder infuses her primary characters with depth and baggage, it is the supporting cast that is relegated to rote formula, right down to AJ's "sassy black woman stereotype" Aunt.

To summarize: Jack Caffery's role in this Jack Caffery novel is to recap the events of a previous Jack Caffery novel, meaning that if you already read that novel, then you are just re-reading a good chunk of it, and if you haven't read it, you probably have zero motivation to now that you know how it all pans out. Don't get me wrong though; Caffery makes some obligatory inquiries later on, but he is not central to the resolution. Sorry if that is kind of spoiler-y.

As for other aspects of structure and plausibility, they suffer as well. I really don't want to go too far into spoiler territory, but you know off the bat that The Maude is neither Caffery, Flea, or AJ. And, unfortunately, since most of the ancillary characters are so one-dimensional, the serial killer pool is dreadfully small. Matters are not helped by a slipshod, unsatisfactory climax (wrapped up with a downright corny ending). It's not even the fact that Poppet is not as gory as one might expect from Hayder, it's just that the violence, when there, is arbitrary, and not contributory. Again, the whole thing smells of one thing that was repackaged at the last minute to be something else.

I've mentioned some of the positives of this novel already; I would like to add to these Hayder's attention to detail. I am not solely talking about descriptive prose, but the amount of research she has obviously done regarding law enforcement and mental health institutions. The environments, procedures, and protocols have a definite authenticity to them. This is also very obvious in Flea's diving scenes, we feel ourselves being wrapped in that diving suit, and suffer the same body aches as a result, compounded by a harshly cold British October. Hayder peppers her prose with brand name drops; and while these make certain scenes more tangible, it also dates the novel out of the starting gate. I also liked the short chapter format; it worked well to switch POV's, and the chapters were cleverly named (taking terms from within the chapter itself).

It really is not fun to come off like I am doing little more than dumping on this novel, but the fact it, this is a work with excellent set pieces and characters that gets lost in poor execution.

Here's what it is:
A novel by a solid author that you want to go somewhere, you hope it goes somewhere, but it ultimately goes nowhere.. A Jack Caffery novel with a painfully small amount of him. A police procedural that would have been better off as a horror/suspense work.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

If nothing says 'creepy' like a doll, take a look at that soulless, feline doll that adorns the cover. It's a deliciously disturbing cover choice. If only the content of the novel matched the tone of the cover....
The only downside is the font style/color of the word 'Poppet'.

Cover Final Score: