Friday, December 20, 2013

Angels Of Death Collection

Angels of Death: The Digital Collection by various authors. Originally published by The Black Library, September 2013. All stories approx. 1000 words each.

Readers can be decidedly opinionated regarding short stories (often they love them or hate them), but, you have to admit, for a universe as vast and rich as the Warhammer 40K one, short stories have an invaluable benefit. They serve as a testing ground for new authors, and, as evidenced here, can provide exposure for some of the lesser known Chapters. Now, the micro-short (roughly 1000 word per tale) format is very challenging; authors are compelled to tell a story in its entirety, while also capturing a Chapter's unique characteristics, in 3 pages. How did they fare? Of course it's a mixed-bag. There is a great assortment of writers involved here (but before you start drooling, Abnett and Dembski-Bowden sat this one out). Each has their own fans, of course, so maybe for some of them, their style just didn't gel for me, or, gelled a lot. Some of these writers represent the Black Library "Old Guard"; McNeill, Thorpe, Swallow. Some are the "New Guns" that have upped the literary value of the Library's offerings in recent years; Sanders, Wraight, Haley, Fehervari.

Be warned, many of these stories are "bolter-free"; they focus on ceremonies, character studies, etc. These make for interesting topics, and are, in my opinion, a good way to budget a tight word count. However, I can also understand that some people expect loud bangs and bloody gobbets when reading about super-human space warriors. Fair enough.

For these micro-shorts, I will be assigning a score of 1 to 10. I will list the story, the author, the Chapter involved, and then my 2 cents. You can buy the collection in its entirety or a la carte at the Black Library website.

Codex by Graham McNeill (Ultramarines):
By naming this Codex, I assume the metaphor is "by the book" (or, as the Black Librarians say, "buy the book". Sorry, no more bad puns. I promise). McNeill kicks off the collection with his go-to character, Uriel Ventris of the Ultramarines. I'll be honest, I've never read any of the Ultramarines books. I like McNeill's work to a degree; while he is a master choreographer of action, his dialogue often comes off as stilted. Such is the case here. A by the book setup, the boys in blue have to assault an ork stronghold to rescue a person of importance. It starts with some bad dialogue, and, in McNeill fashion, some affront is taken, there is a tense moment with a terse warning, and then the action starts. There is no character advancement, and none needed. There is an intentionally annoying Adept, who takes it to a new level by referring to himself in the third-person. But goddamn it, when the bolts start flying, it is beautiful. I would love to see how McNeill storyboards his action sequences. You get some bang for your buck here.
Score: 5 out of 10

Death Speakers by Andy Smillie (Executioners):
The Death Speakers, a trio of morbid Chaplains, are making the account of a fallen Executioners sergeant, culminating in his last deeds. We then flashback to that sequence. Smillie really impressed me with his brutal, visceral action scenes in the otherwise lackluster Flesh of Cretacia. This holds true here. A sufficient mood is not evoked for the ceremonial part of the tale, but the action is great, especially in Smillie's rendering of a wretched, Nurgle-infected Death Guard warrior. His descriptions of the vile, disgusting afflictions that permeate through Lebbeous Scara are perfectly stomach-turning. Not bad at all.
Score: 6 out of 10

Skin Deep by Sarah Cawkwell (Silver Skulls):
Lord Commander Argentius of the Silver Skulls comes home from fighting to get a tattoo. And his tattoo artist is dying, which makes him sad. That's it. I haven't read anything by Cawkwell before (and probably won't in the future), but I am assuming the Argentius was featured in her Space Marine Battles title "The Gildar Rift". So, I am further assuming that prior knowledge of this character going into the story might arm the reader with some emotional attachment. I had none, and this story did nothing to create it. I know nothing of Argentius, other than that he is muscular and handsome. And tattooed, obviously. But what really gets me in this story is the dialogue. It's not just bad, it's forced emotional writing. It tries so hard to be endearing, meaningful, and just ends up cloying and false, like a spoonful of Equal.
Score: 1 out of 10

Final Journey by Guy Haley (Novamarines):
There is not much to describe here. This tale is about the ceremony of tendering fallen Sergeant Voldo to his final resting place. So the word count is devoted to setting the scene, which Haley does very well. Haley is very descriptive, and uses fiercely intelligent prose to convey his ideas. This story is one that you can completely immerse yourself into for 3 pages; and feel the somber tone. Well done.
Score: 7 out of 10

Judgement by Mark Latham (Doom Legion): 
The Doom Legion is a Chapter I would like to hear more about. They are one of those Chapters which are under the microscope of the Inquisition, their ultimate affiliation and loyalty to the Emperor being under question and investigation. So, in this tale, which sees an Inquisitor being sent on his way before more important business was attended to, there was a lot of potential for tension and drama. Unfortunately, instead of craftily veiled threats and accusations, what we get is basic sarcasm. And, the three main characters doing the talking all use that same level of sarcasm in their dialogue, despite their vastly different affiliations. Point being, Latham did not alter his dialogue for different speakers. Pretty bush-league fumble, in what should have been a good story. I will admit, I would really like to know what happens after the final line.
Score: 3 out of 10

Bastions by Rob Sanders (Excoriators):
I have been jonesing for some more Excoriators action since the excellent Legion of the Damned. I was pretty psyched when I saw that Sanders put this tale out. When a Chaplain and his contingent board the watch-fortress Semper Vigilare to read charges of dereliction against the Castellan, they find the cause of the infractions, and it is a greater horror than they could have imagined. There is some great, blistering action going on here, bolstered by Sanders' trademark rich descriptions and cinematic style. Proper service has been given to the Excoriators, from mention of their maintaining and reverence of battle-damage, to their style of attrition fighting, maximizing enemy losses while minimizing ally loss. Even better, this story is more than double the length of most of the other stories in the collection. Please, let Sanders put out a full-length Excoriators novel!
Score: 10 out of 10

Iron Priest by Chris Wraight (Sky Warriors):
Wraight brings us a tale of a boy, and the man he will be. Young Olvar is making his way on his journey to become an Iron Priest of the Sky Warriors of Fenris. But something is watching him. Also, the grown Iron Priest, now known by a different name, does battle with a champion of Chaos. Wraight is one of the strongest writers in the Black Library stable, and the bifurcated approach he used here paid off well. This is a nice, solid tale of the bonds we forge in our journeys, and how they affect us. Well done.
Score: 9 out of 10

Iron Soul by Phil Kelly (Iron Hands):
While billed as an Iron Hands story, most of the plot focuses on a Space Wolves Wolf Priest. Wolf Priest Leatherhand is making his rounds in the aftermath of a tyranid/Iron Hands battle. While going about his business harvesting progenoid glands, he engages in some discourse with a dying Dreadnought. It's nice to watch the priest at work, and there is a bit of a twist at the end with a knee-jerk finale. This one was well-written through and through.
Score: 8 out of 10

Mission:Annihilate by Gav Thorpe (Deathwatch):
I don't know why it is so hard for me to get into Thorpe's books. I can see that he strings words and ideas with precision, and yet, nothing he writes ever pops off of the paper and grabs me. I've tried starting a lot of his books and stories, and yet the only one that I finished was his enjoyable, if not very memorable, dwarf book Grudgebearer. Mission:Annihilate is another case of this. There was absolutely nothing engaging about this tale. None of the immediacy or urgency that should drive a Deathwatch tale, especially one with stakes this high. The baddies here are the necrons, who get no real screen time. I couldn't even be bothered to commit to memory the names of the Deathwatch team members, or even care what Chapters they had been cobbled together from. If you want good Deathwatch action, pick up something from Steve Parker.
Score: 2 out of 10

The Judges, in Their Hunger by David Annandale (Carcharadons):
Lord Nathaniel Bellasun of Sendennis is in crisis mode. The Flawless Host has taken the planet, and he must now find the best way to supplicate and ingratiate himself to his new lords so as to insure his continued survival. And then, a miracle. Salvation! Annandale has crafted a juicy little tale here, with a very clever, fitting title. It is easy to see that sharks have stunning smiles which become terrifying when they turn to you. Finishing this story, you find yourself wanting to hang around for another page or two to see the true judge dispense real justice. It would be nice to see some more shorts featuring the Carcharadons.
Score: 8 out of 10

Duty's End by Robin Cruddace (Howling Griffons):
Cruddace's freshman short story finds a lone Space Marine holding the line against a rampaging horde of orks. Already reeling from his injuries, the Griffon still deals out death in a manner as natural as breathing. Cruddace does well in capturing the motions of an Astartes in action, the violence being relayed well. However, some small thing is missing. There is nothing to distinguish this lone Marine as a Howling Griffon. He could have been a member of any Chapter, saying it is the Griffons just prompts you to imagine him in a certain color scheme. But then again, in a story like this, isn't that enough? You'll have to decide that one yourself, as the reader. Well done overall.
Score: 7 out of 10

Cadre by Josh Reynolds (Mentors):
Now Cadre, on the other hand, makes the Chapter's characteristics the driving point of the plot. The Mentors Chapter act as sort of Astartes consultants, working with resistance fighters to make them more self-sufficient. In Cadre, Tutor Manse helps a pocket of fighters strike back against some cultists. Another thing that makes this story stand out is that Reynolds injects a little more levity into his prose than the other authors. It feels....odd. But, oddly, it kind of works. Kind of. In the end, a good short story. Not great, totally different. Which is admirable. Honestly though, I don't need anymore Mentors stories in my life. This one was more than sufficient.
Score: 6 out of 10

Setting the Stage by C.L. Werner (Emperor's Warbringers):
Warhammer Fantasy cornerstone author Werner has done some work in the 40K universe (his Siege of Castellax is floating on the "To Read" horizon), and this tale is his second featuring the Emperor's Warbringers (his first appeared in the Victories of the Space Marines anthology). What makes the Warbringers special is their truly practical approach to warfare. This story focuses on Feralis IV, a planet that has fallen to the ranks of traitor guardsmen. The Warbringers' plan is to cause chaos and foster confusion among the traitors before they make planetfall. Tasked with this special ops endeavor is a contingent of Warbringers scouts. Setting the Stage recounts their maneuvers as the scout squad fishes for a big catch with a very special piece of bait. This is another of the few stories in this collection that fully integrates the spirit of a chosen Chapter with a complete story. Werner's descriptive prose is top-notch as always, gory, harsh, brutal, perfect for the medium.
Score: 9 out of 10

Honour of the Third by Gav Thorpe (Dark Angels):
Thorpe's second offering in this collection focuses on the Dark Angels, a Chapter he has done considerable work with in the past. Legendary Sergeant Belial helps lead an explosive egress from a Temple, and the forces of arch-fiend Furion. Some explosive action culminates in a nifty duel. It's exciting, fast-paced, but not as visceral as some of the more recent authors. But in all honesty I enjoyed this tale immensely more than Mission:Annihilate. The Dark Angels are a compelling Chapter, the duels have a brutal balletic grace to them.I don't know if the Belial/Furion dynamic branches into any other works, but their encounter here is well done.
Score: 7 out of 10

The Fury by James Swallow (Blood Angels):
Here we have another classic Black Library author weaving a tale with their iconic, go-to Chapter. What The Fury focuses on is one aspect of the Blood Angels' persona: the Black Rage. The blood fury of mental instability that warriors of the Chapter can fall to. And in this short tale, we watch a brother succumb. The Fury is paced brilliantly, and its first person POV allows the reader to truly step into the ceramite armor and watch the goings-on. And there is blood; oh so much blood. This is how you put 1,000 words into brutal, blood-soaked use.
Score: 9 out of 10

No Worse Sin by Joe Parrino (Brazen Claws):
I was thoroughly impressed by Parrino's Witness a while back, and hoped that future works would maintain the same level of quality. Well, the strengths that he exhibited in Witness; setting mood and tone, are definitely evident here. No Worse Sin is one of the stories in the collection that does not see a single bolt fired; although there is a nice, nasty twist at the end. At the tail end of a failing twenty year crusade to avenge their fallen home world, Chapter Master Engentre summons his legion. Those who answer, severely decimated and depleted, finally confront him on the folly of the venture. It is a tense story, and Parrino does well in capturing that emotion which is so strong, so prevalent in the Emperor's Angels: pride. Injured pride, acceptance of wrong and loss. Very well done. Please tell me Parrino is going to get a full-length 40K novel out soon.
Score: 9 out of 10

Visage of Zeal by C.Z.Dunn (Black Templars):
Christian (C.Z.) Dunn has been editing at the Black Library for pretty much forever. However, in the past year or so he has started churning out some shorts and novellas. To be honest, I really didn't think much of Easy Prey, his entry in the 15th Birthday Collection. Even though I did not expect much going into this tale, I ended up enjoying it well enough. Fun, but forgettable. A Black Templars Chaplain peruses a field, looking for a certain trophy from a fallen brother. Flashbacks serve to relay the last moments of said brother Chaplain. Nothing reaches up from the pages and grips you, but the battle scenes are rendered well enough.
Score: 6 out of 10

The Third War by Ray Harrison (Mortifactors):
A Chaplain of the Mortifactors Chapter engages in the near-death meditation and sees events to come on Armageddon. Such a basic premise, but it fully focuses on a unique aspect of this Chapter. And Harrison's descriptions of the surroundings, and the orks in particular, are masterful. Not much else to say, but it is a rousing three pages.
Score: 8 out of 10

Final Duty by David Guymer (Hospitallers):
Can't really say what's going on here. The Hospitallers are one of those mystery Chapters that even the Warhammer wiki describes as "not much is known about...." This essentially gave Guymer carte blanche to make what he would with a malleable Chapter. The final result is a competently written (never read any of Guymer's stuff, so I have no frame of reference), yet quite vague tale. And I'm sure that mystery is what he was aiming for. In Final Duty, Imperial Guard Lieutenant Caleb is falling in and out of lucidity as he dies upon some razorwire. In moments of clarity, he finds himself recuperating in a medical bed, hearing soothing assurance from a beneficent giant in white. My personal take, I am guessing Guymer fashioned the Hospitallers as an ethereal Chapter, like the Legion of the Damned, but a Chapter that ushers honored fallen into the Emperor's Light. Maybe I'm wrong. All I know is that Guymer was handed a mystery and, in turn, served a mystery. Props for obvious trolling.
Score: 6 out of 10

The Ghost Halls by L.J. Goulding (Grey Knights):
In this tale, a group of Grey Knights wait patiently in an eldar dome to speak with a revered seer. Okay, I'm sure this all ties into some larger storyline. But even though I have no idea which one, that isn't the reason why I didn't care for this story. The writing just didn't work for me. At all. The writing seemed patently false (yes, I understand it is hypocritical to claim falseness regarding dialogue between genetically engineered super-humans and ancient alien races), and is completely bland. Pass.
Score: 1 out of 10

The Tithe by Ben Counter (Imperial Fists):
Long time readers seem to have a love or hate relationship with Counter, so, with the only offering of his that I have read being Galaxy in Flames, I came into this expecting some nice, easy, mindless fun. The Tithe follows an Imperial Fists brother, and his relationship to an Iron Warrior that he slew in combat. Counter's style focuses less on poetic descriptions, and more on which pattern bolter an Astartes uses, or which version armor they don. He also tries to go for a surprise at the end, which aspires to be shocking, but comes off as corny.
Score: 3 out of 10

Rite of Pain by Nick Kyme (Salamanders):
I'll put it bluntly, it is a chore for me to get through anything by Kyme, and this tale is no different. Someone is being tortured throughout the story, and then a Chaplain fights him. Maybe if I read Kyme's Salamander books, I would know who some of these folks are, but I don't, and I don't care to know. Here's the challenge to the author: if you are writing a story that requires some previous knowledge to understand, make your writing interesting enough that established readers are satisfied, and also engaging enough to pique the curiosity of potential readers. It's not easy to do, I understand. I couldn't get into this; for Salamanders fans only.
Score: 2 out of 10

Trophies by Cavan Scott (Death Spectres):
I did not much care for Scott's Doom Flight, so hope were not high going into Trophies. The same problems which plagued Doom Flight are evident here as well; I just don't think Scott "gets" the Astartes mentality. However, once again, the action scenes are well done, and the tale never lapses into being boring. In Trophies, we have a Death Spectre engaging in a hunting expedition, under the guise of purging xenos in the name of the Emperor. The protagonist is a real jerk (well hey, no one ever said Space Marines were nice). Again, good action, bad everything else. Side note: this is one of the longer stories. About five pages where most of the others are around three.
Score: 4 out of 10

The Thrill of the Hunt by Anthony Reynolds (White Scars):
Whereas some of the tales in the collection focus on ceremony, Thrill of the Hunt centers entirely on action. Action, and how the Scars relish harrying their prey from their mighty bikes. In this story, the prey is eldar. There is nothing earth-shattering or game-changing in this story, you are just watching a chase in motion. Fun, forgettable reading.
Score: 6 out of 10

The Crown of Thorns by Peter Fehervari (Angels Penitent):
Peter Fehervari's Fire Caste blew me away earlier this year, and so I had some high hopes for this story, especially since this would be my first exposure to his handling of Space Marines. Crown of Thorns is another absolute home run for him. The Angels Penitent are an intriguing Chapter, being formerly named the Angels Resplendent. However, the entire Chapter falls under the sway of an eerie, spectral martyr figure, and they now operate under a brutal, dogmatic regime. With the ascendancy of this new ruling order, books and art are now forbidden (doesn't sound like too much of a stretch from most militant religious orders, now does it?), and the Crown of Thorns, a panel of Chaplains acting as judges, metes out cruel punishments for perceived infractions. In the story, a sergeant prepares to bring a neophyte before this kangaroo court, knowing full well the extents of how much wrong is going on around him. Now, Crown of Thorns is another five-pager, but the amount of Chapter backstory (along with the main narrative) that Fehervari packs into it is nothing short of amazing. Bravo!
Score: 10 out of 10

By Artifice, Alone by George Mann (Raven Guard):
George Mann has been putting out a bunch of Raven Guard shorts recently, that I unfortunately missed out on. I was glad for this story so that I could get a sampling of his work. What we have here is Raven Guard Captain Koryn having his mental mettle tested by Chaplain Cordae prior to a major engagement. As Koryn prepares his armor, he resolves himself to his probable fate and engages in the wordplay. This story is written well enough, although it strays somewhat towards melodrama. It would be great to read a novella of the engagement itself, Raven Guard paired with Brazen Minotaurs. One can only hope, right?
Score: 6 out of 10 

Bitter Salvage by Nick Kyme (Marines Malevolent):
Kyme strikes back in this collection. This time, he has Marines Malevolent (a very interesting Chapter to write about) squaring off with some Black Templars over the spoils of a tussle with some orks. After some insults are traded, a duel ensues. However, unlike most duels, honor is not the only motive here. Salvage stands head and shoulders above Rite of Pain in terms of quality, but it still is not a "good" work. Points for an original story concept, and decent duel choreography. If only Kyme could craft some more clever wording, and not focus on telling the audience what he is implying so as to ensure that they "get it".
Score: 5 out of 10

Vigil by James Swallow (Doom Eagles):
Yes! Now this is a great story! Brother-Sergeant Tarikus of the Doom Eagles is waiting. For other a Terran standard month, he waits. And as he waits, he reflects on his philosophy, his cause, his purpose. This is how you summarize the psychology of the Doom Eagles, that death is inevitable, it is the point of service to the Emperor, and that the only thing of importance is to make sure that you inflict as much death on the enemy as possible before succumbing to your own. And it all culminates in a rousing finale as well. Swallow really steps it up here, and the payoff is huge. Like I said, he has perfectly depicted a Chapter philosophy in the span of three pages. Great work!
Score: 10 out of 10

Blood Calm by Guy Haley (Blood Drinkers):
With their Chapter Master dead, Captains Castor and Sorael, of the First and Fifth Companies (respectively), will duel for the right to don the mantle of stewardship. Squared off, swords drawn, it seems a perfectly typical duel, except, the victor will be the one that displays "Blood Calm", a mental state of mind in which the blood thirst so integral to the Chapter's internal programming is harnessed as the task at hand is completed. Under the blistering sun of their homeworld, and denied the sanguineous nectar they so crave, who shall emerge victorious?
Haley is in great form here. He deftly uses the motif of the oppressive heat to accentuate the thirst that must be suppressed. Even if the outcome is never really in doubt, the tension builds, with a payoff as satisfying as a burst vein rupturing forth for these frightening warriors.
Score: 9.5 out of 10

Reclamation by L.J. Goulding (Scythes of the Emperor):
Boy oh boy oh boy. What can I say here? I have never hidden my admiration for the short story "Orphans of the Kraken" (it being, actually, the first story I ever read focusing on the Space Marines). I can't say that the Scythes are my favorite Chapter, but their decimated situation provides the potential for great storytelling. In the hands of a good storyteller. Which Goulding, unfortunately, is not. More's the pity, there's a chance that he may pen the full-length Scythes SMB novel, if it ever sees the light of day (please, Black Library, just let Richard Williams do it).
Anyway, enough complaining. What's going on in this story? Not much, to be honest. Some neophytes show their Forge Master some salvage (as the Scythes are reduced to being scavengers), and he gives some trivia regarding it. Then there is a nice piece presented. The problem is that Goulding does nothing to evoke emotion here. Either a paragraph at the beginning to really draw a picture of the surroundings, or some work with the dialogue to capitalize on the range of emotions circling this rebuilding Chapter, would have worked wonders here. Goulding knows the lore, but the soul eludes.
Score: 1 out of 10

Obsidian by Graham McNeill (Sable Swords):
The Sable Swords are an interesting Chapter, formed to replace the decimated Astral Knights. Obsidian deals with the transfer of ownership of the Astral Knights' fortress monastery to the Swords, who will assume stewardship and garrison it.
McNeill is another writer that isn't your best bet for character-driven work. He maps out masterful battles, and he can paint vivid backgrounds. But his dialogue has a generic movie-script feel to it, and you can bet sooner or later someone will either reach for a sword (or other weapon), or seriously contemplate doing so. Spoiler Alert: it happens in Obsidian.
Obsidian isn't a bad story, but there was so much potential here. You have the dynamic of the older inhabitants that bridle at being put out to pasture, and the resentment they naturally feel for their replacements. Replacements that bear them no ill, and who have their own tests to face in the future. But it is definitely readable, and good subject matter.
Score:5.5 out of 10

Here's what it is (Final Thoughts):
Well there's not much to add here. It is what it is; so if you are one of those that do not care for the micro-shorts in general, just pass. The good is that one of you favorite Black Library authors probably has an offering here, and some really interesting Chapters are getting to see the light of day. I will say this, while I appreciate the directions that some of the authors took here, I would have loved to see a little more; say an epic short poem, or an account in the form of a distress transmission. You know, something a little different. Oh well, maybe next year.

Cover Score:

The cover of each story in this collection is essentially the same; the basic color scheme characters you usually see on the Warhammer wiki, adjusted for the unique heraldry of the showcased Chapter. For a slew of $1.99 shorts, I guess no one could expect unique covers for each short. The collection cover is just an array of such pics with the text in the middle. Nothing special.

Cover Final Score: 25/100

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