Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Baneblade by Guy Haley. Originally published by The Black Library, April 2013. Approx. 405 pages.

I do believe that I mentioned at some point that I belong in a minority amongst Warhammer 40K novel readers in that I prefer stories featuring the Imperial Guard more than those of the mighty Adeptus Astartes. For me, the essence of science fiction is depicting that the core traits of human nature do not ultimately change, despite massive advances or regressions in technology. For a while, Guard novels were coming out with less frequency, so I was pretty excited when Baneblade came out. I prefer Imperial Guard, and I really enjoy tank books (absolutely loved Gunheads). Speaking of Gunheads, I'll be drawing some comparisons between that book and this one; for there are some structural similarities. 

It's been a very busy year or so for Haley, with his tenure at the Black Library starting off with three novels and a slew of shorts. I've already reviewed four of his short stories here (Stormlord, King of Black Crag, Engine of Mork, and The Rite of Holos), as well as one micro-short. They've ranged from very good to great, so I had some pretty high hopes for Baneblade. In fact the only thing keeping me from buying it up until recently was the god-awful cover, as well as the trade paperback pricing for these larger sized books. Alas, during my last visit to Barnes & Noble, I succumbed to that glorious "new book" smell surrounding me and picked it up, along with Skarsnik. So, bad cover aside, how does Baneblade fare? Well, in world-building and mechanics, it knocks the ball out of the park. As far as the human element, however, it is a swing and a miss. Let's take a look-see.

Being as though WH40K novels are based off a tabletop wargame, the author must create a scenario that incorporates a satisfactory macguffin, to stave off questions as to why the Imperial Navy doesn't just virus bomb the planet in question to oblivion. Haley does a great job here; making the scenario plausible for tank-heavy engagement. Behold Kalidar: a brutal desert planet. Torrential winds kick up shards of sand akin to slivers of crushed glass. These winds make air assault/support next to impossible, and limits the ability of troop advancement, as breathing in the open will cause a horrifying disease (with an even more horrifying cure) called dustlung. Now, the reason for the Imperial presence? Kalidar is rich with a green element known as lorelei, a mysterious mineral that enhances and plays havoc on psychic abilities. This has attracted a massive infestation of orks, especially that of a super-powerful witch named Greeneye. The Guard and the orks each control one of two large, subterranean hive complexes, and have been going at each other for a few years. The Imperial position is that the ork purging has been too long in getting done, and on the orky side, a twofold advantage has arisen; first, they have learned to manipulate the lorelei into impenetrable force shields, and second, they have an ultra-devastating Titan-sized Gargant at their disposal.

The Imperial Guard contingent is made up mostly of regiments from a planet named Paragon (with supporting Atraxian forces). Haley has also invested a lot of information into the Paragonian backstory; a planet which provides valuable industrial/mechanical services, they worship both the God-Emperor and the Omnissiah. There are some distinct caste systems there; and we see some of the workings of the extensive aristocrat clans. It is from one of these clans that we meet our protagonist; and, unfortunately, this is where Baneblade's cracks show all too well.

Our hero in Baneblade is Lieutenant Colaron Artem Lo Bannick, a disgraced scion of one of the Paragonian ruling clans. After causing quite a stir back home following a duel gone wrong, he joins the Guard and is attached to a super-heavy group. Following some heroic action in an engagement with the greenskins, he gets a promotion (of sorts) to third-gunner on the revered Baneblade Mars Triumphant, a super-heavy with a millenia of exemplary service. As the crew gets dispatched on a mission to purge the xenos once and for all, they must learn to gel with each other in the cramped quarters of this massive tank.

Sounds good enough on paper, even if fairly paint-by-numbers, right? The problem is, the crew was not fleshed out nearly enough. From top to bottom, it just gets more and more vague. Honoured Lieutenant Cortein is enjoyable enough, but entirely trope as the gruff, stern yet fair commander. Then we get the talkative guy, the shifty tech-adept, a rookie, a guy with a cigar, and then some names. The two most memorable crew members were second gunner Ganlick and tech priest Brasslock (mostly because he gets some of his own chapters. Haley, an admitted orkyphile, invests plenty of detail into the orks, which is appreciated.

Well, enough on the crew, what is wrong with Bannick? There is not much wrong with the concept of his character; the flaws are revealed through flawed execution and problems in the structure of the novel. We know from the onset that Bannick feels emotionally plagued by the duel back home, but his transformations throughout the novel make no sense. What we know of him back home is that he was a lazy, pompous, womanizing, stereotypical "rich boy". Fine. I also mentioned how they revere the Omnissiah. But nothing explains why Bannick is so enamored by Baneblades that he was nearly salivating over one in a loading dock near the beginning of the book. Nothing explains why this former pompous ass is so gifted at piloting tanks, and makes such quick, crackerjack strategic calls on the battlefield (other than the fact that he was involved in a lot of duels back on Paragon). Nothing explains how Bannick achieved the status of pilot of a Leman Russ tank so early in his career (I was guessing family connection, since he enlisted in officer's school from the get-go, plus other family influence. There was still no justification as to why he was such a natural at it, though.).

Another problem in Baneblade is loose ends. As we hear more from Bannick, he comes off as very religious. We know he is straining under the burden of guilt, and that he visited a priest, but we only see of snippet of their interaction. Something feels missed. Two more loose ends are kind of spoilery, so let's skip a few lines here.






First, what happened to the sandscum? We can assume most of them got wasted along with the Atraxian infantry in the final scuffle, but all of them? There is no mention of what will happen with their colony in the final chapter, either. Big changes are coming to Kalidar, so what is their fate?

Second, and this is a small quibble, what was the overall implication of the ominous readouts on Vorkosigen's tarot decks? Was it the effects of the lorelei? I mean, in the end, what happened to the Mars Triumphant and her crew were not Bannick's fault, so was that whole angle even necessary?
Those are the most glaring loose ends. There are also, as mentioned, structural issues. For example, we don't even meet Bannick until around 30 pages in. We do, however, get treated to an amazing prologue centered on the forging of Mars Triumphant. It is a true spectacle, and I almost imagined it as a musical production sung entirely in binary. Truly great.

Another problem is Bannick's friend, Kalligen. When we first meet him, we know almost nothing about his and Bannick's relationship. We have no idea that he has always been the more jocular of the two, and we do not yet realize why Bannick is so dour.

I guess what I am saying is that a little more backstory would have helped a lot. For most of the book, we get a chapter set on Kalidar, then a flashback chapter to Paragon. At the beginning of each chapter are little informative bits termed "interstitials", although these fade away in the later chapters. The flashback chapters focus almost entirely on events "post-duel", and I can only say that some of these should have been used sketch Bannick out a little more.

I hope this doesn't come off as an overly negative review; for there are so many things to enjoy about Baneblade. First of all, there is Haley's rich, intelligent vocabulary, which is one constant that I have seen in all of his works that I've read. Second, you can see that he really did his homework into the mechanics and workings of tanks. The descriptions convey a true authenticity; as there are times when you can feel the sweltering claustrophobia that the crew is suffering. Good stuff. And finally, there is the work that Haley put into creating Kalidar and Paragon as plausible locations. Places you want to hear more about.

Now, remember earlier on that I mentioned Gunheads? Well, let's have a side by side comparison:
Desert Planet? Check
Imperial Guard? Check
Stronger than your average orks? Check
A unique Baneblade as an integral focus? Check
Emotionally troubled protagonist? Check
Looted super-heavies? Check

A lot of similarities, and, as much as I did enjoy Baneblade, Gunheads is the better book. Don't miss out on Haley's Stormlord short though!

Here's what it is:
A lot of great ideas for an Imperial Guard novel that fell just a tad short. Great ideas, great writing, but fairly trope characters.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I've said it before, and I'll say it some more: I hate this cover. This cover does the story, and Baneblades in general, no justice. This cover looks like an FMV still from a computer game, or maybe a two-page foldout from an Imperial Armour supplement book. There should have been some weathering on the tank, some indication of the harsh Kalidarian weather, a change of the angle to an upward one to stress the massive tank size, some orks or infantrymen to show scale, something.

Cover Final Score (as promised): 


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