Sunday, June 30, 2013

Doom Flight

Doom Flight by Cavan Scott. A Warhammer 40,000 Doom Eagles short story by Cavan Scott. Originally published April 2013 by The Black Library for Digital Monday. Approx. 21 pages.

As I make progress on the so-far spectacular Fire Caste, I wanted to make sure to squeeze in one more review before June drew to a complete close. Here's a review on yet another Digital Monday short. Cavan Scott is not a new author by any means, doing extensive work in the Doctor Who universe, as well as other titles. I believe (unless he has some other anthology contribution) this is his first work for the Black Library. So, will the Doom Eagles Chapter get a moment to shine? Will I get my three bucks worth? Find out below. Cheers, Hach.

The filthy hordes of the orks have taken the hive city of Quadcana Prime. The xenos have saturated the city with their filthy essence, and are now amassing stockpiles of weaponry to hold it. Sergeant Kerikus and his company of Doom Eagles Space Marines are given succinct orders; reinforcements are a few days out. Purge the xenos scum or make Quadcana uninhabitable for them.

This is a fairly standard premise, and it sets a scenario that can be satisfactorily resolved within the 20 page confines of the work. But short stories are notoriously hard to write. Yeah have to make a complete story, with build-up and resolution, and you (obviously) have less time to get your readers to care about the characters. There is also another angle while writing WH40K short fiction; you need to properly represent whatever Chapters/units/races, etc. that you incorporate into your tale. This is why not everyone is successful as a Black Library writer. This is why Cavan Scott, although a capable scribe, should not write any more work for the Black Library.

The action of Doom Flight follows Sgt. Kerikus as he tears through the skies over Quadcana in his Stormtalon gunship. Believing himself the sole remaining member of his force, he is blasting away ork land targets and evading ork dakka jets (fighter planes), doing his best to maximize enemy casualties, all while accepting the fact that his life is already forfeit (Chapter doctrine). After a few brief aerial scraps, Kerikus finds out the some of his comrades are still alive. Together, they seek to complete their mission; purge, or annihilate.

Let me start by saying that the action in the tale is pretty riveting. However Scott diagrammed his dogfights, be it with thumbnail sketches or playing with Games Workshop models, he put it to paper very well. As in Abnett's Double Eagle, you feel the banks, turns, dives, and g-forces. The Stormtalon gunships bring a diverse variety of weaponry to bear, and you can hear the rickety roar of the orks' patchwork jet fighters. To top it off, Scott puts in a nice, albeit too brief, ground tussle as well. These action scenes are communicated with a crisp, cinematic fluidity. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are the only merit-worthy parts of the yarn.

The characters in Doom Flight are not very well realized. There is nothing noteworthy about our protagonist, Sgt. Kerikus. I get it, Space Marines are engineered fighting machines; there isn't much room for character growth. They don't get scared, they don't fall in love. Yet, the better writers in the Black Library stable can take existing Chapter doctrine, and carve out a character that both exemplifies it and distinguishes himself. It doesn't happen here. We get a few references to the belief of the Doom Eagles that they are 'already dead', but as a deeply ingrained philosophy that has spanned thousands of years, you should feel it in the pulse of the story. A lot of detail was put into Doom Eagle lore, but as I've mentioned before, I shouldn't need to go to a WH40K wiki to complete my reading experience. The way Scott has portrayed them, any Chapter could have been name-dropped interchangeably At times, Kerikus does not even seem to be a Space Marine, as he is tossed about his cabin like a ragdoll and harried so easily by lowly ork pilots.

For the designated bad guys, the orks fare little better. They bellow, they are impulsive to the point of critical stupidity, they are undisciplined, and, that's it. If you are in the hypothetical minority that has never seen an ork (I know, highly unlikely, but it's part of the job to play devil's advocate), then you would be out of luck as well. But you probably wouldn't be reading this story either. It's still fun when the orks are blasted to gobbets though.

My largest gripe with Doom Flight lies with the dialogue. First of all, 90% of it is unnecessary. Kerikus talks to himself a little bit too much; especially when we are led to believe that his piloting requires such a level of precision that a microsecond of distraction would have him smashed into a hive tower. The quotation marks should be scratched. An inner dialogue would be much more appropriate. Most unfortunate of all is the fact that Scott tried to insert a few moments of levity. Humor is fine, and great in dark situations. But what I am talking about are a few cornball one-liners that the editor should have snafu-ed from the get-go. Speaking of the editor, there was one grammatical error which slipped by his/her eye. Come on, in a 20 page story you can't catch that?

I said earlier in the review that Cavan Scott shouldn't write anymore for the Black Library universe. Maybe that was a tad harsh; let me revise that to say he shouldn't be writing Space Marine fiction for the foreseeable future. An Imperial Guard offering might work better within his range. Again, the action is well done, and the finale was much better than I was expecting. But this was supposed to be a story, not the storyboard for a comic book.

Here's what it is:
Some brutal aerial combat paired with some brutal characterizations and dialogue. If you need a pew-pew fix, this one's for you. Not worth the $3.

Final Score:

52/100


Cover Score:

Not a bad one at all. We have a picture of a Stormtalon flying through an explosion and unleashing some holy hell in His Name. Actually, if you look at the faded black title bar, you can see a second Stormtalon. Double the fury, double the fun. I don't know if this is an original cover, or a snippet of an existing action shot. Since the Stormtalons are fleshed out in the story in a better manner than the Doom Eagles, it is only fitting that they get the cover glory.

Cover Final Score:

78/100

Monday, June 24, 2013

In Memoriam - Richard Matheson


The world has lost one of its greatest, most influential authors. Richard Matheson passed away yesterday, June 23,2013. It can be argued the he had the strongest influence of the last 50 or so years in the realms of horror and suspense.
Matheson's creations include the iconic monster on the wing in Nightmare at 20,000 feet, the Zunti fetish hunting doll, and of course, I Am Legend (a story with the best incorporation of the title into the text, hell, one of the best endings as well). And that is very much only the tip of the iceberg.
For me, his best work will be his first, the haunting "Born of Man and Woman".
R.I.P. Richard Matheson. Thank you for the memories, and even for the nightmares.

More here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/06/richard-matheson-passed-away

Down Amongst the Dead Men

Down Amongst the Dead Men by Steve Lyons. A Warhammer 40,000 Death Korps of Krieg short story. Originally published March 2013 by The Black Library for Digital Monday. Approx. 17 pages.

Down Amongst the Dead Mean (DAtDM) is a short story that has been flirting with me from across the room for a little while now. I am a sucker for Imperial Guard stories, but my sole experience thus far with Steve Lyons' work was the lackluster Imperial Guard offering Ice Guard. And even though the Death Korps of Krieg look fearsome, intimidating, and completely badass in their WWI-styled German trench uniforms, they are also notable for being completely without personality. No, literally. They only know to fight. So at a glance, it seems like there is not much potential here; a bland author writing on an emotionless faction. This trepidation has kept me from purchasing Lyon's full-length Death Korps novel, Dead Men Walking, as well; that novel proposes emotionless soldiers fighting emotionless Necrons (I get it, that's the point, like the ending of Animal Farm, can't tell the pigs and the humans apart, etc.), with an emotionless cover. But maybe this story has a shot; billed as a battle between a Korps reject and a xenos horror, maybe there's a spark of hope for Lyons yet.

Honest word of advice; if you plan on reading this short story, and are not already acquainted with the Death Korps of Krieg, familiarize yourself with them now. They have a fairly interesting backstory fleshed out for themselves, and of course so snippets of their philosophies (if that's what you can term them) and history are mentioned in the story itself. Long story short, the Death Korps live on an extremely irradiated world, Krieg, the atmosphere of which was decimated in an atomic apocalypse which quelled a heretical uprising centuries ago. Driven to underground hives, the people of Krieg live to breed soldiers to die for the Imperium in their seemingly never-ending quest for forgiveness.

The framework of the story is simple enough; a young Death Korps trooper is holding a line against an unstoppable force, and, when his position is compromised, he heads to re-group and stumbles upon an even more insidious, xenos foe. Should he stick to battle doctrine, or go in pursuit of the new horror? With such a basic premise, it is up to the author to make the character(s) stand out somehow. That will not happen with a Death Korps trooper, as they have no personalities. Therefore, it was up to Lyons to incorporate Korps philosophy into the troopers' actions. Honestly, he did an ok job with it.

The 'story behind the story' in DAtDM is that the young trooper is actually a Death Korps reject, and as a reject (the reason for rejection on Krieg can be either from aptitude or genetic flaw), his sole purpose in life is to serve as a target for live ammo training exercises for the troopers that did make the cut. That unstoppable force advancing on his position are all his peers that he was raised among and trained with. But again, there are no bonds of affection or comradery, our young trooper does not even have a name, simply a number stamped onto his dogtag. As a planet soaked in radiation, Krieg has no resources to offer the Emperor, save soldiers. Advanced breeding programs churn out cannon fodder at an exponential rate, and the soldiers are simply taught to go and die, trying to minimize loss to the Imperium while maximizing opposing damage. This is demonstrated at one point in the story when the trooper realizes that, in losing his position, he expended only a few lasgun shots, but cost the opposing side heavy stubber ammo. If he had died in that manner, it was a worthy death.

But our trooper does not die at that point, and instead runs into a tyranid genestealer, another soulless creature whose primary objectives are breeding and killing (see, Lyons picked another example of the human and the creature mirroring each other). This obviously poses a perplexing choice for the trooper; Krieg doctrine leaves no room for independent thought, and his mission is to die in an exercise which he cannot win. However, he was also taught that the xenos is the greatest threat to the Imperium. In the end, he decides to follow the genestealer.

Is the troopers' choice one of weighing priorities, or a hope for recognition and/or glory? There is no way to ever know, and Lyons adds many questions like this along the way. It's an interesting method, to insert these inquiries, based off of the personal and moral traits that we possess, exhibit daily, and quite honestly, take for granted.

As a protagonist, we cannot say the young trooper is likable. He is faceless, a dour soldier in a greatcoat and rebreather mask. But through his situation and subsequent actions, he is both noble and pitiable. At the beginning of the story, I was trying to see the face behind the mask, trying to see if Lyons was going to find a way to push a little personality through a culture that suppresses it. At that point, the perennial questions were an annoyance; don't ask us if he's feeling this or that, the reader can deduce that on their own. But a different approach worked better; instead of standing next to the trooper, trying to peer through the lenses of his mask, I began to watch him from a distance, as if I were watching a nature show. I watched him scamper along the ruined landscape, between a rock and a hard place, like some forlorn little creature with jaws too weak to fend off either of two predators that present themselves. The questions became the commentary of a phantom narrator, who asks them in spite of the fact that he knows it is ultimately inconsequential. We already know this little critter is toast one way or another.

Lyons fares well in the action scenes too (this was the only saving grace in Ice Guard). When shots are fired, you feel the booms, and when it gets physical, you hear the crunches. There is a well-written scene reminiscent of the Perseus/Medusa encounter in the original Clash of the Titans.

In other facets of the story, Lyons' prose falters a bit. The landscape could have used a little more descriptive touch. Also, I did not care for the description of the genestealer. At first, it is only described as possessing a globular head, with six legs. If Lyons was trying to keep it as a mystery to us, as it surely was to the trooper, he blew it when he used the term 'tyranid body'. I don't think tyranid is an adjective. There are two types of readers that will be reached here; those who know what a genestealer is and those that do not. Those that do, would appreciate descriptive writing that reinforces the horrific appearance of this dread predator. Those that don't, will probably need to Google an image of one either during or after reading this story. That shouldn't be necessary.

One final thing to mention; I have stated in previous Black Library Digital Monday short story reviews that it is ultimately up to the reader to decide if the price matched the product. For the other two stories that I have bought, the cost averaged out to 10 cents a 'page'. But the text here is an anemic 17 pages, so close to 20 cents per. I cannot say that it is 'worth it', however I will not let the the perceived value affect the final score.

Here's what it is:
A decent little tale of a born loser proving his worth. A glimpse at a mysterious fighting force. A story that was not as bad as expected, but could've been a bit better.

Final Score:

68/100


Cover Score:

Here we have a pic of a Death Korpsman. That's it. It looks like a Linkedin profile pic of a soldier of death. I am pretty sure that they dressed up a head section snippet from a pic like this:

Then again, who is going to complain? Those uniforms are epic. The Death Korps takes heavy styling cues from classic German military uniforms. And, setting aside what they stood for, in Word Wars I & II, the Germans were undoubtedly the best dressed guests at the party.
Nothing spectacular about the cover, but not bad either. At least you won't feel a bit ripped off by it.

Cover Final Score:

74/100

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The King of Black Crag

The King of Black Crag by Guy Haley. Published June, 2013. Approx. 25 pages. Warhammer Fantasy

Last month, I reviewed the superb Stormlord, an excellent short story by Guy Haley, a man who is not a new author, but is relatively new to the Black Library stable. Now, Stormlord is a companion to Baneblade, which I desperately want to read but refuse to pay $7.99 for an ebook, or $11 for a paper version, especially given it's horrible cover (seriously, I can tell you right now the cover score will be about 9/100). Now, in his introductory blog, Haley mentioned that he loved writing about goblins, and lo and behold, he has a full length goblin novel coming out, titled Skarsnik (which has an awesome cover, just look at that beauty). And luckily for us, a companion short story was recently released on Digital Monday. How do these two stories stack against each other? Stormlord was a gloomy, somber little slice of trench-war hell. Will Haley apply the same style of prose to a story featuring a bruising ork king and a goblin sycophant? Orks are a fixture of the Warhammer Fantasy and 40K worlds. When they are depicted solely as an adversarial force, it is standard to just focus on the horror of the horde mentality. Some of the Black Library's better authors will give them limited POV from time to time, however, and in those cases they are usually given a slight comedic touch. Sometimes a little humor helps a grimdark atmosphere. The King of Black Crag is the first work that I have read that stays completely in that ork/goblin POV, and I will say that Haley has done a good job with it. This story is a nice little treat; obviously not as harrowing as Stormlord, but solid evidence that he will be able to pen an interesting full-length novel about our favorite greenskins. And let's be honest, the Warhammer Fantasy segment could use a good shot in the arm.

King is about the hulking Gorfang (Troll-Eater) Rotgut, an ork lord who currently holds dominion over Black Crag, a mountain stronghold won from the "stunties" (dwarfs). He loves fighting, and gold (which he acquires from the toll roads his holdings host). What he doesn't like is thinking; and unfortunately thinking is an integral part of being a king. Luckily for Gorfang, he can delegate all that painful junk to his overrunt, Gabble. Gabble is a fat, crafty little goblin, and it is this shrewdness and sneakiness that has helped him hold his position as Gorfang's long-suffering overrunt for as long as he has. Which is either a blessing, a curse, both, or neither.But he's a fun character. He's fun to root for, and he's fun to watch suffer. Which I'm sure was Haley's point all along.

The story behind King is fairly simple, as befitting its length. King Gorfang, edgy and bored, debates whether or not he should kill the upstart goblin warlord over in the neighboring Eight Peaks territory. This little bugger goes by the name Skarsnik, which is pretty offensive, given that that is an ork name. But this Skarsnik is good at holding off skaven and dwarfs as well, which is good for Gorfang, except when it isn't good since he loves killing skaven and dwarfs. Hell, he loves killing goblins too. See how this thinking business can become a painful nuisance?

Gorfang decides to saunter off to meet with a local ork shaman, Zarrgakk, to pick his brain on the matter. He drags poor Gabble along for the trek. They have some encounters along the way (violent ones, of course). And that's it. That's all there needs to be. There is a shady night goblin wizard conducting some sneaky business, and some hilarious interplay with a bunch of taunting goblin guards at a defensive wall. But yes, this story is about the walk from Point A to Point B, and any satisfaction you will get from the story depends on how much you enjoy the interplay between the panicky, complaining Gabble, and Gorfang, with all his brutal joie de vivre

In case you are not familiar with how orks and goblins sound, enjoy this song that incorporates some soundbites from the Dawn of War: Dark Crusade Warhammer 40K game. Actually, you can enjoy this song without tying the voices to the story, simply because it's awesome as heck...


I cannot say there is anything that I do not like about this short story. At the end of the tale, I felt a slight bit worried, because I hope that Gorfang and Gabble will pop up in Skarsnik, even if only as supporting/background characters. Otherwise, it will seem kind of a waste. If this story was their one moment to shine, then it would have been better to assign them a definite fate in the story, and given it a comic, gruesome twist. There's no way to know for sure until I read Skarsnik, so more on that later.

Here's what it is: 
A nice little story, filled with playful prose, that shows that Guy Haley is perfectly capable of writing a full-length novel centered around those lovable little greenskin gobboes. As mentioned in the Stormlord review, it is up to the consumer to decide whether or not $2.99 is a fair price for 25 pages of story. Once again, for me, it was.

Final Score:

84/100



Cover Score:
The King of Black Crag is graced with a great cover. I do not know the name of the cover artist, but there is a signature of A.Smith on one of the sharpened stakes. This is the type of artwork that usually graced the Warhammer Fantasy rulebooks, and it features a huge ork (presumably Gorfang), and part of a goblin host. Like the classic Warhammer artwork, the detailing is amazing, but the final product is a creature that it is hard to believe would be able to move with any dexterity. But it serves its purpose of sparking the imagination regarding these fearful monsters. A great piece with nice colorwork, although the green skin seems a tad darker than I would imagine it to be.

Cover Final Score:

88/100

Looking Back At: Legion of the Damned

HachiSnax note: The "Looking Back At:" segment will focus on books that I have read at least one year ago, and although exact details may not be fresh in my mind, I will try to comment on the impact or impression that it left on me, good or bad. Today's post focuses on a Warhammer 40K Space Marines Battles entry titled Legion of the Damned. I cannot stress well enough how epic this book is, and no kidding, it is my fave WH40K book to date. And yet, this book catches a lot of flak from fans. Even more strange, most people who complain about this book still laud Rob Sander's writing style. So what is the issue? Well, most take umbrage with the fact that the titular legion gets title and cover creds, but only features in a few pages in the book itself. So, what's the final say on LotD? Is it a decent read with a deceptive title? Or is it a solid, rousing read, with a completely appropriate name? I say the latter. Let me make my case.... Cheers, Hach




Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders. Published 2012. Approx. 416 pages.

The Cholercaust is coming. Like the wrath of a mad, angry god, it travels on the tail of the blood-red Keeler Comet. Emerging from the Eye of Terror, driven by the psychotic motives of the vicious World Eaters, what chance does the small cemetery planet of Certus Minor have? The 5th Company of the Excoriators Space Marines, under the command of disgraced Chapter Scourge (Chapter Master's Champion) Zachariah Kersh, are the planet's last hope. What can one Company do against a Blood Crusade of World Eaters, crazed cultists, and the horrors of the Warp? And yet, after the battle is done, both sides lay dead. The Cholercaust has been stopped. As for the Excoriators, one sole survivor draws breath. How did one Company stop this remarkable force of Chaos? Could it be that in the most dire of situations, sometimes miracles do occur?

Now, before you rake me over the coals for putting spoilers in the first paragraph, hear me out. Remember that the books in the Space Marines Battles series are based on skirmishes already established in the WH40K canon. So we already know that there was a monstrous battle for Certus Minor, and that the phantom Legion of the Damned came to turn the tide for the Imperium. The book kicks off with a prologue set in the aftermath of the battle, which ends with the sole combat survivor being found. See, as mentioned in the Rynn's World review, the challenge of the SMB series is whether or not the author chosen can make the events preceding a known outcome both readable and enjoyable over the span of 400 pages. Can Rob Sanders handle the task?


No higher authority.

Simply put, LotD is an outstanding book. Rob Sanders crafts a tale that is atmospheric, cinematic, and creepy (I will not say scary as in making my lose my sleep, but the horrors that the warp vomits forth are well presented). The battle scenes are intense, brutal, and real. This is no faint praise; LotD is not bolter porn, but the way fighting techniques are conveyed is integral to the character of the Chapter. The Excoriators are attrition fighters, always battling at the epicenter of Chaos. During the Feast of Blades (a ceremonial battle early in the book), it is stressed that Kersh is "a killer, not a fighter." During physical confrontations, you can hear the flesh tear, and rip from skulls, you feel the crunch of the gladius against bone. Fierce realism.

LotD opens with the previously mentioned prologue, which finds an Imperial approbator surveying the war-scarred landscapes of Certus Minor. A survivor is found, and.... we go back to the beginning of the tale. We meet Zachariah Kersh, who is suffering from a blight that afflicts his Chapter. This grievous disease affects only the Excoriators, who are successors of the Imperial Fists. When afflicted, an Excoriator blacks out from a sudden onset of grief. This grief is the tragic feeling of Rogal Dorn seeing the Emperor lying near dead, critically wounded by the traitor Horus. In that moment, Dorn thought the God-Emperor dead. That moment of grief, at seeing one regarding as divine, strikes them essentially comatose. Unfortunately for Kersh, he suffered one of these attacks during a battle with the devious Alpha Legion. He therefore failed in his duty as Chapter Master's Champion, and the current Chapter Master lies sick, victim to an unknown poison, with no  known cure. In his 'absence' from the battle, the Chapter banner, the Stigmartyr, was lost as well. Suffice to say, when we meet Kersh, he is not well-esteemed by his peers. He is chosen to represent them at the ceremonial Feast of Blades (a sort of intramural battle royale for Fists successors for the rights to bring home Dorn's blade), and the pressure is put on him to win (as all the other Excoriators have failed), while the odds are intentionally stacked against him. No matter what he does, he is screwed.
After the Feast, Kersh is put in charge of the 5th Company (who are none too happy about it) and dispatched to guard the seemingly unimportant cemetery world of Certus Minor. The world has some importance as the remains of a person of historical importance are interred there, but other than that, it is basically a way for the Excoriators to shoo off the unwanted Kersh with the Cholercaust coming. It is implied (at least I took it as so) that there is some scheming by some religious types to have Excoriators dispatched there to protect, I am assuming, the financial interests of the world. Burial space is leased out, and being buried there is very vogue. As to whether or not this was the exact reason for their dispatch, or if there was a more nefarious plot at hand, is never revealed. Honestly, this is the sole gripe I had with the book.
We go through the motions when the group arrives on Certus Minor. There are personality conflicts, characters evolve, and the taint of Khorne affects some of the locals.

Then comes the assault.

First comes the Warp-Spawn, those creatures of Chaos that kind of revolve around the Comet. These scenes reminded me of the horrors in The Mist (one of the better movies of the past few years). Then come the cultists and finally the World Eaters. Kudos to Sanders for making the cultists interesting by name-dropping various gangs, different affiliations and gang-attire. It could have been presented in a generic manner, but that upped the ante. Nice touch. The Excoriators fight tooth and nail, not yielding an inch without fighting like cornered rats. It is there way. They had held the lines in defense of Holy Terra. But the numbers of the Cholercaust are too great, and in the end, all is lost.

Or is it?

All throughout the novel, Kersh is visited by a phantom apparition. A dead legionnaire, his broken helm revealing a leering skull, one blazing red eye, teeth always rattling as he keeps his spectral counsel. Kersh's watcher is ever-present, surveying as Kersh becomes acclimated with his new position, his one glowing eye matching Kersh's dead, stainless steel eye. And in the end, after the Legion has unleashed their unstoppable fury, the Phantom stands above the broken Kersh, offering a silent testimonial of validation.

That's the story in a nutshell. As I've said, that is a spoiler-free assessment. You will get similar info in any blurb or book description on this title. So it really comes down to whether or not Sander's prose resonates with you. I've never read a review on a Sanders work that says "yeah, the book was alright." It is usually either "I love his work" or "I really don't care for his style." The few other things by Mr. Sanders that I have read, I truly enjoyed (allow me to recommend his stellar 1,000 word short 'Army of One' from the 15th Birthday Collection). But assuming that you find the story line interesting and you enjoy Rob Sander's writing style? Then what makes this story great? Well, for one, even though the outline of the story is well-known, there are a few surprises and curveballs which are pretty well-executed. Two in particular stand out (one being a paragraph on the very last page), and they really add to the work. Secondly, there is the detail that went into fleshing out the Excoriators Chapter itself.

I have no idea how much information was established on the Excoriators prior to this novel. Maybe they were a name and a color scheme, no more. I am assuming the Sanders did most of the fleshing out of the Chapters' specifics. In addition to being tough attrition fighters, they are a devout bunch as well, and constantly strive to achieve a oneness with the purity of the revered Primarch Dorn. Members of the Chapter engage in ritual self-mortification, known as "donning Dorn's Mantle". This mortification is administered through flagellation, and each Astartes has among his attendants one to wield the whip. A punishment for an Excoriator would be to actually withhold purification by lash; and scouts are deemed unworthy to bear the Mantle. The flagellant aspect may make for uncomfortable reading for some, or a cheap gimmick for others, but I believe it serves to establish their devotion. Another trait of the Chapter is the treatment of armor. Excoriator armor is a stunning ivory color, and it is kept clean to a pristine level, however, all nicks and evidence of battle damage are left intact, and artificers record in the markings details of how the damage was earned. Another noteworthy attribute is the change in rank titles. Kersh, in a role usually termed "Champion" is known as "Scourge". Squad leaders are referred to as "Whips", and so on.

All in all, you would take it that this was rock-solid entertainment. So why does this book get so much hate? Well, there is the controversy surrounding the name. Common is the argument that the book is titled "Legion of the Damned", members of the Legion grace the cover, and yet, they only feature in the last 20 or so pages! False advertising, boo, hiss, grab the pitchforks and so on. I fancy myself an objective fellow, so is there any credence to this outcry? Perhaps, if you only approach it at a literal level. But Rob Sanders is a crafty fellow, and being an English teacher (in some capacity which I cannot remember offhand), it is his prerogative to utilize word tricks. Yes, the book features the actual LotD (and much more than in the last 20 pages, since Kersh's phantom watcher is present through the whole book). But it is very obvious (and I believe mentioned in fact on Sanders' own blog) that the Excoriators are a damned legion as well. Damned to fight at the Eye of Terror for eons, damned with the blight of seeing one revered as a god in a state of apparent death, damned with the prospect of a Chapter Master who lays poisoned to a mystery ailment. And just for arguments' sake, it can be said that the hordes of the Cholercaust are a damned legion as well, those damned for their heretical choices. So actually, what we have is a title that is valid on not one, but three levels. Well played, Mr. Sanders.

Now I can understand why there would be excitement surrounding action with the LotD. As far as power-armoured supermen go, they are every 13 year old's wet dream; jet black with skeletal parts, festooned with skulls and flames. Silent, lethal, unstoppable. But they are ghosts, ghosts traveling through eternity. There is no room for development, for personality. How can you expect them to carry a novel that isn't entirely bolter-porn? How can the reader feel invested for over 400 pages when there is no threat of danger to the 'good guys'? I've been a Godzilla/kaiju fan for three and a half decades, and I accept the fact that even though his name and image dominate the posters, he usually appears in less than 10% of each film. Yes, I've seen and agree with the argument that the best novel for the LotD is one in the 'Godfather II' mold, half with their current exploits and half with their time as the Fire Hawks. But, remember, this is still a Space Marines Battles book documenting the battle for Certus Minor. Maybe I am missing something on the current lore and interactions on the LotD, but I am satisfied with this presentation; that they are a spectral reserve that can be tapped into by faith, need, and merit.

Kersh and the phantom legionnaire are an interesting study in contrasts, one in ivory white, one in jet black. White for life, black for death. Both with broken armor, one alive with a dead eye, one watching from beyond the grave with a burning, live eye. Positioned across the planes of the corporeal and spectral planes like opposing chess pieces, like yin and yang, completely opposite yet entirely equal.

And that's what it all amounts to. If you can get past any assumptions you might draw from the title or cover art (remember, this is a novel, not a box of miniatures), and if you can enjoy Rob Sander's engaging, yet non-linear storytelling, you are in for a treat.

Here's what it is:
A thrilling, atmospheric retelling of the massive assault that struck a small, insignificant world, and the miracle that manifested itself to save the day. An examination of two interesting Astartes Chapter. Further proof that the Black Library retains the best stable of writers in current tie-in fiction.

Final Score:

97/100

This is, without a doubt, my favorite of all the Warhammer 40,000 books that I have read. It slightly edges out my prior fave, Helsreach (although I'll say my copy of Helsreach signed by Aaron Dembski-Bowden is my favorite Black Library item).

Cover Score:

Jon Sullivan does it again! The best artist in the biz homers again with this cover featuring the vengeful onslaught of the Legion. Apart from his cover for The Siege of Castellax, this might be my favorite cover by him. Excellent. On the Black Library's site, there are wallpapers available to download of the full cover. Do yourself a favor and check them out!
Also, LotD was lucky enough to have a promotional commercial made for it. Just some decent music and panning shots of the cover to be honest, but I like when Black Library makes them:



Cover Final Score:

95/100




Sunday, June 16, 2013

Flashback Book Review - Star Wars: Republic Commando - Triple Zero

Hi all- New content still seems to be stalled in coming. Took the day off to enjoy Father's Day, and working on a few posts simultaneously, and, well, I guess I should actually try to read some new stuff to eventually review. So, just to keep some blog traffic moving, here is another flashback book review(and I better hustle with the new stuff as I am running out of these). This one is on a steaming little pile of such and such from the Star Wars expanded universe. In fact, this little turd is what broke my habit of finishing anything I had started reading regardless of the content. No wait, scratch that. I did finish A Dance With Dragons. Ugh. Painful memories. Anyway, enjoy Triple Zero. I sure didn't.... Cheers, Hach (this review was originally posted 08/20/10)


Star Wars Republic Commando: Triple Zero by Karen Traviss. Published 2006. Approx. 448 pages.

Star Wars: Republic Commando - Triple Zero

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I finally read a SW:EU book cover to cover without busting a seam laughing. That book was SW:RC-Hard Contact, and despite it's many shortcomings, was a fun, fluffy read. What can I say, I like books that give a face to the rank and file, and I made a mental note to continue the series someday. In March, I figured, what the hey, and went back on a trip to Cloneland.

For a quick recap, in Hard Contact, we met Omega Squad, made of Clone Commando survivors from other groups. There are, Niner, the de facto leader, Darman, explosives specialist and sentimental mush, Fi, wise-cracking sniper, and Atin, sullen computer/tech specialist. They met up with newbie Jedi Etain Tur-Makin (I just mentally refer to her as Etain Tur-Ducken), on their mission on some mining planetoid to counter a germ agent that ONLY affects clones (howsabout some butter for that slab of corn?). It was cut and dry, like the video game adaptation it was, and while there were too many 20th/21st Century military terms, it was fun enough. Darman and Etain (SPOILER!) fall in love, and in the end, everyone goes on their next missions. **1/2 out of ***** stars.

Now we have Triple Zero. Before the basic review, keep in mind that the Dramatis Personae has increased since Hard Contact. In addition to Omega Squad, and Etain, we also have Bardan Jusik, the most annoying Jedi created, Delta Squad, that squad upon which the RC game was based, Ordo, the Null-ARC, and finally, Kal Skirata. Ah, Kal. Well, let me just say that this book is a Kal Skirata book, not an RC book in any way. For those of you lucky enough to not know who Kal Skirata is, it's like this: When the Jedis decided to use Jango Fett as the sperm donor to create their clone army, apparently Jango was supposed to stay on and train them, and also bring in some people he recommended to help train. He recruited a bunch of old Mando merc friends, two of which were the cold, calculating Walon Vau (also in the book) and Kal Skirata, the tough drill sergeant with a heart of gold. He was referred to in Hard Contact as the one who snuck them sweets and tried to give them a little of their Mando culture, and it was fine at that. Apparently, Ms.Traviss has fallen so in love with this character that he straight up hijacks the book.

Now, onto the story. We start with a flashback to Kal's first day on Kamino, where he meets and "adopts" the Nulls, early test clones that are a little too Jango-y for mass-production. Instead of letting them be terminated, he takes them on as sons. The lead one, which he dubs 'Ordo', plays a big role in the book. Flash forward to the present, the Omega boys are working a checkpoint in space, doing ship inspections. Scenes like this showcase Traviss' good points, hell, if the whole book were the Omega guys doing ship searches, I'd be happy. Also, Etain, now a general, is leading clones on other fronts. Now a confident, skilled warrior, she is tolerable, unlike the unconfident Padawan she was in HC. Then, there is an explosion on Coruscant that blows a Clone barracks to bits. Since Kal does love his clones ever so much (and you will be reminded of this in nigh every page of the book), he forms a super-secret team to investigate what he assumes is a Separatist Splinter Cell and kill them before they can kill more clones. To do this, he pools Delta and Omega squads, Etain and Bardan Jusik, the two-fisted hot-rodding Jedi upstart (oh puh-leeze), and his rival, Walon Vau. There are many stake-outs, much research, and a resolution. Also a short story at the end which really blows.

Praise: When she sticks to the military stuff, Traviss is a good writer. Her action scenes, when she includes one, are decently choreographed. She has tried to flesh out Mando culture and language. And honestly, the Omega boys were interesting. However, in this book, they are seriously only background filler.

Complaints: Kal. He shouldn't be the main character. He doesn't need to think and fret like a woman. He doesn't need to try and get girlfriends for 'his boys' One Amazon reviewer stated that it got so repetitive, that you could read up to page 150, skip to 400, finish the book and not miss anything. So sad to say, it's so true. Also, still too many current terms. I don't care if the Coruscant Security Forces wear blue, calling them "the boys in blue" is modern terminology, not SW-lingo. Also, the showcasing of Kal relegates Omega to the background, and including Delta was unnecessary. The characters are just renamed versions of Omega. Fi, supposedly the comic relief, is just painfully unfunny. Bardan Jusik is a weak character. Towards the end, he dons Mando armor for the final battle. This fact is presented to us in a manner that suggests it's as shocking as your daughter coming home married to a dog. It's not. No one cares. And poor Etain; just as she was getting interesting, she (SPOILER!) gets pregnant and spends the rest of the book seeking Kal's paternal acceptance and approval. Yeah, seriously.
Finally,
(MAJOR SPOILER)
Ok, I can accept that there is almost no action in the book. It's commando work, not frontline firefights. But, after all the black ops work, you'd think the group they're chasing would be something special. No. Actually, the final fight is wrapped up in like 5 pages, and it's just a standard Separatist group looking to kill Republic troops. This is a shame, since the book begins with hints that the Nulls are prone to go rogue, well at least Ordo. I was kind of hoping to find one of them behind it all, see if Kal could live with taking down one of his "sons". At least it would have been compelling. Also, all the planning work for the operations is done by Kal and Vau, making you question what amount of commando-ing the commandos are left to do.

To sum it up, Traviss is best left to writing military fiction. Maybe I'll read her Gears of War work someday. I'd actually like to see her write a G.I.Joe novel, based on the 80's toyline. The next Republic Commando installment, True Colors, lays in wait in the book bin. I may give this series one more try, but if it turns into another Kal-fest, sorry Charlie.

Triple Zero, for what it is: *1/2 out of ***** stars.

Here's what it is:
Could've been, should've been. But for what it is, I hand the podium to my old friend Joel:





Final Score:

29/100



Cover Score:

All of the Republic Commando covers (save Order 66) have great artwork. I personally prefer the poses rendered on the cover of Hard Contact slightly more than this one, but it is nicely done. The highly detailed, but still sketchy and somewhat unfinished look remind one of an expertly done colored pencil work. Great cover, crap book.

Cover Final Score:

83/100

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Double Eagle


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.

Final Score:

74/100


Cover Score:

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:

21/100

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Flashback Book Reviews - Armor

HachiSnax Note: As it is taking a bit longer than expected to finish up Double Eagle, I am re-posting another old review. Today's is for Armor, by John Steakley. This is a book that always seems on the periphery when people discuss military sci-fi classics, but there is some great stuff in here. Alas, Armor 2 will never see the light of day in its entirety, as Mr. Steakley passed away on November 27th, 2010. I posted this review originally on August 18th, 2010, and I hope you like it. Maybe one day I can get a chance to read Vampire$ and put up a review on that as well. Cheers, Hach.




Armor, by John Steakley. Originally published 1984. Approx. 432 pages.

Armor 

Armor was the second book read this year, after the W40K pulpy masterpiece Gunheads.

When you are looking for good military SF to read, certain names and books invariably pop up. Orson Scott Card's Ender Books, Heinlen's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Forever War, Scalzi, Weber, Drake, Abnett, Zahn, etc. And sure enough, if you check any Amazon Listmania! list of Military SF, you'll see a little book called Armor by John Steakley. Read some of the reviews, you see some serious accolades, a few claiming 'overhyped', and, a few "eh"'s. Some people claim that that battlefield depictions are the most realistic they've ever read. Let's see what all the hype and hate is about.

Steakley is a good writer, no doubt about it. He only has two published books, Armor and Vampire$, upon which the supposedly shitty John Carpenter's Vampires movie was based. Also, Armor 2 is rumored to be in the works.

Armor is primarily billed as the story of Felix, a talented grunt in Earth's battle against 2-meter tall ant-like aliens named, creatively, Ants. Be forewarned, the book actually has two completely separate storylines, with two protagonists as different as night and day, linked by one suit of armor. More on that later. As it is, Armor is broken down into 4 basic parts; the first records of Felix, our introduction to Jack Crow, the last records of Felix, and Jack Crow's stand to defend Sanction.

Sorry, can't complete this review without some spoilers. I'll try to keep it minimal.

Armor opens with Felix, a seemingly typical grunt, preparing for his first 'jump' onto a hostile, Ant-infested planet called Banshee. Banshee is named so for it's howling winds, poisonous, frigid atmosphere, and acidic waters. Not a nice place to say the least. Earth soldiers going into battle go wearing battle armor, with formidable blaster, high explosive grenades and an additional, nasty, last-resort goody. Felix has apparently performed so well in tests that his superiors want to put him on officer duty. When he declines, they stick him with an even more dangerous duty, that of a scout; a lightly armored, recon unit. (Personally, I imagined the battle armor as looking like Halo armor, and the black scout armor as looking like Dr. Calico's henchmen in the movie Bolt). When the soldiers land, there is of course more resistance than they expected. At times Felix finds himself alone, other times, he finds himself the most capable of his peers.

At all times, during battle, Felix, who normally appears apathetic about the war's cause and his life in general, allows his natural skills and instincts to take over. All independent thought stops, as he terms it, the "Engine" takes over. This engine mode carries him through the first jump, and all the subesequent jumps. Even though all laws of probability dictate he should die, he keeps surviving jump after jump, sustaining broken limbs, getting patched up and sent right back out.

Through this all, Steakley's prose shines. You feel like you are running behind Felix, desperately trying to find safety, not knowing where the next group of Ants will appear from, knowing that even if you survive you are still just a battlefield commodity to your superiors. Honestly, it's mentally exhausting.

Part 2 of Armor introduces us to Jack Crow, a smooth pirate rogue type. Actually, he's what Han Solo would have been if George Lucas could write worth a damn. Jack's portions of the book are written in first person, and he is a clever, funny, interesting character. So just prepare yourself as a reader, since it's such a jolting 180 fromthe tone of the first part. We meet Jack as he is breaking out of a prison mining planet. Aiding his escape is the notorious space pirate Borglyn, who 'insists' on Jack's help with a mission. Borglyn's ship is in the vicinity of a privately-owned planet called Sanction, which the military finances and runs a research center, as well as providing living facilities for refugees. Jack is to go to Sanction, meet Borglyn's contacts, made buddy-buddy with the military folk so that he can lower the shields for Borglyn to gas up and go.

As payment for his help, Borglyn gives Jack an abandoned ship he found, as well as some cash. On the ship however, Jack finds a suit of black scout armor, which he gives to the head military scientist, Holly, as he works to make buddy-buddy. Holly becomes obsessed with finding the secrets of this armor, and finally, he finds a way to link himself, his girlfriend, and Jack into the armor's archives. It should be a surprise to no one that this was once indeed Felix's armor.

This brings us to part 3, which shoots us back to Banshee and Felix. The Earth forces are getting confident now, and have gone so far as to create a bunker type base of operations on Banshee. Also, a ghost from Felix's past arrives, and we finally learn his backstory. In the end, overconfidence on the part of the Earth Forces and a crop of new recruits and scientists start poking around in places they shouldn't touch, and guess what happens. Part 3 ends as Felix's suit recording ends.

Part 4 brings us back to Sanction. Jack & Co. are understandably psychologically numb, they've been living Felix's memories through the suit. It affects every facet of their day to day lives. Finally, in the end, Jack has to help resolve issues with Borglyn, who is still hovering outside of Sanction with his plans. All the loose ends are wrapped up nice and tidy, and concluding with a few of the corniest lines I have ever seen in print.

But is it good? Yes, well, part by part, I'd say it's great, very good, very good and good.

Criticisms: Felix's backstory, first and foremost. The man you are reading about in part one is someone you can relate to. You feel his pain, his fear, his hesitance to connect to others, the notion that instinct takes over in horrid situations. After they shoehorn his backstory in, it turns him from a sympathetic character into an action figure. Big fumble. Second, the edition I got has a lot of typos, so not Steakley's fault, it's just annoying. Plus, if you like extensive backgrounds and explanations, look elsewhere. When they say the lakes on Banshee are acid, that's it. No reason, no contributing factors, nada. That's acid, don't swim there.

Overall: Like I said before, Steakley can write. The verbal exchanges are believable never corny or forced. People are flawed and fucked-up. They are scared, insecure, just like real people in wartime. Jack Crow is a hoot. Over the course of the book, his personal regard for different characters changes, and Steakley keeps his perspective constant. It just works. Like most said, a better ending would've been nice. Actually, I think the ending worked, except for the last few lines. You decide for yourself.

Armor. One suit of armor unites two different story threads.

For what it is: 3.5 out of 5 stars ***1/2




Here's what it is: The military sci-fi book that coulda' been a contender. If only Steakley hadn't dropped the ball with Felix's history. Still a solid read with some of the most jarring battle scenes I have ever read. R.I.P. Mr. Steakley.

Final Score:

72/100

I know I am being a bit harsh with that, but the low points of Part 3, some corny dialogue, and even the typos took their toll.

The Cover:

There are at least three covers for Armor that I have seen floating around. The original fashions the suit like a medieval knight about to bash an ant. I like that one. The most recent is more stylized, and in tune with today's technique. The one I got (pictured above), was from that awkward stage when cover artists hadn't mastered drawing tough military types without making them into 'roided monstrosities. This picture of Felix looks more like Guile from Street Fighter after a few too many trips to the Chinese buffet. The suit looks more like an astronaut suit, and the gun is an ungainly beast that is even a stretch as a design for a 99-cent store water gun.

Cover Final Score:

43/100

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Shipwrecks


Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura. Translated by Mark Ealey. Approx. 160 pages.

A national treasure in Japan, Akira Yoshimura is famous for his lean, evocative prose. Luckily for us in the States, some of his works are seeing the light of day here with fairly decent English translations. Shipwrecks is one of the first works by Yoshimura to make that jump.

The events of Shipwrecks centers on a boy named Isaku, and takes place on a small, isolated, unnamed coastal village in Medieval feudal Japan. The environment only offers a sparse, and often harsh life for the villagers. As with most coastal dwellers, their survival in contingent on the bounties yielded by the ocean. Surrounded by hills and mountains, the available soil only yields the most meager of crops. The only means that they can barter for necessary goods is with the closest village....a mere three days walk away. And without crops to trade, their considerations for barter slim as well, usually with goods made from the bark of linden trees, salt gathered from boiling pots on the shore, and with human capital. There is a broker in the town that arranges terms of indentured servitude, usually at five or ten years at a time. It is not unnatural, then, when seasonal catches are lean, that strong young members of families will have no other choice but to go into bondage to provide any form of money for their households. This can become even more dangerous if stingy fishing seasons outpace financial considerations. Mortality rates in the village are rather high as a result of this.

It is due to these harsh living conditions that we find our young protagonist, nine year-old Isaku, quite literally the 'man of the house'. His father has just left for a term of indenture. On a positive note, his father is particularly strapping and healthy, meaning that a) he has a better chance of returning home (many others die in their servitude), and b) he was able to command a good price for a shorter term (three years vs. five or ten). Unfortunately, he leaves behind his wife and four children (including a newborn), making Isaku sole provider. Isaku has to master being a harvester of the seas, with each season's catch requiring separate techniques. He also has to help with gathering any local, viable resources for use or trade. Psychologically burdened by the weight of not wanting to let his father down (who tasked him personally with the safety of the family), as well as his desire to earn the respect of the village, and also his burgeoning feelings for a young lady, it is easy to see there is a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Try to step back and appraise Isaku's position; understandably at the time most children already had more responsibilities than the youth of today, but who can imagine these obligations at the ripe old age of nine?

Now, this all sums up daily life pretty nicely, however, we all know that within all societal circles and enclaves, there are traditions. And secrets. This village has a tradition as well; the worship of O-fune-sama (OH-foo-Nay-sah-mah). O-fune-sama is the deity that the villagers pray too; the salt pots burn through the night in his honor, offerings are made to him. He has no set schedule for his visits; every few years he visits and brings his bounties of food and other treasures to the villagers. Tales of the last visitation are recalled with unabated joy. With times recently so difficult, catches so lean, and so many of the village's strong members away in bondage, will O-fune-sama bless his loyal believers?

Normally I would list the following content as spoiler territory, however, the information is all in the open. Any of the Amazon starred reviews, heck, even the back cover of the print version, give the details I am about to go into. But, consider yourselves warned nonetheless.

O-fune-sama is not, in the end, an actual god. The gifts that he yields are in fact shipwrecks of passing vessels damaged among the treacherous rocks surrounding the village. From these wrecks, the villagers harvest rice, alcohol, timber, and other luxuries (fancy clothing, sugar, etc.). And while some of the villagers naturally indulge in a little excess (a little overeating, enjoying the liquor a bit too much), a visit from O-fune-sama means, at the very least, that no one will starve to death for at least a year.

But, of course, there is a twist. The offerings to O-fune-sama are not simple devotion. The villagers know well the role that the rocks play in handicapping ships that drift too close. In fact, the nighttime boiling of the salt pots is no more than a ruse to lull sailors into false hope of safe harbor. When, perchance, a ship does crash, along with raiding the cargo and dismantling the ship until nothing remains, any surviving sailors are killed by the villagers. A necessity, Isaku's mother assures him. And the villagers are shrewd as well; they know to check the sails on wrecks before they begin to pillage. A previous experience involving a ship belonging to a noble (I believe a daimyo, although it may have been a shogun) has taught them this diligence. For them, however, a lost merchant ship is fair game. Long story short, for the villagers, they stave off starvation, and the end justifies the means.

It takes a while into the book for the first visitation. This gives Yoshimura time to recreate the world, ripe for the reader to immerse themselves in it. Isaku learns to catch sardines, saury, etc. The seasons change. The visitation comes, and it is a boon. Then things take a tragic turn. Or, you could say that karma pay a visit to collect on some debts. That is all a matter of perspective.

Almost miraculously, O-fune-sama makes a second visitation within a year. Although the villagers are elated at what seems like hitting the lottery twice at the same newsstand, this second ship had a much smaller yield. No real foodstuffs are to be found (luckily the previous ship was loaded to the brim with rice), but there is still the timber of the ship. Also, the clothing of the deceased sailors (no survivors on this one), is made from some luxurious red cloth. Therefore, some regal outfits can be made for some of the ladies and girls of the village. It does seem strange though, that all the passengers were already dead, their faces scarred and horribly pockmarked.

Not long after, a good number of villagers start becoming ill. What begins with fevers and blinding headaches leads to bodies completely covered in ugly, pus-filled blisters. Many who contract this ailment die horrible, pain-wracked deaths. Some weather through it (including Isaku's mother and brother, who becomes struck blind by it), and some, like Isaku himself, are completely unaffected.

SOME SPOILERS COMING

.................................

............................



All those that have survived the disease (obviously smallpox) are banished from the village into the mountains outside the village. Included in this group are the village elder, Isaku's mother and brother (his last remaining sister having succumbed to the disease), and the girl that was his romantic interest.

In the end, Isaku still has to do his part in the decimated village, and while out fishing, he sees his father coming home. The End.

What will happen next, we just have to imagine. Will his father understand his effort? Hopefully. Will he resent or blame him? Who knows. Will they do their best to keep the village thriving or leave their lives to be with their banished loved ones? Your guess is as good as mine.

.........................................

.....................

END SPOILERS

So, what exactly was the point of this tale? Is it a story that indicts religion as a premeditated fraud through which we seek to gain our own good fortune even by inflicting misfortune upon others? Perhaps. Is it a novel that extols the purity of diligence and virtue of hard work as the most most noble enterprise? Very likely. Is it a cautionary tale that reminds us the karma is always watching, taking score, and making notes? Absolutely. Those that were not infected only end up facing a more difficult life. Not all that died or suffered through the disease were killers. But, before one mourns their plight, they should be careful to ask if they also mourned for the sailors that pleaded for their lives earlier in the novel?

The book itself: As mentioned earlier, this is a short novel (only around 160 pages). The translation, by Mark Ealey, is, for the most part, exceptional. This is no faint praise. I have read a few pieces of Japanese fiction translated for English release, and it is very common to see either bland interpretations (as if they directly translated through a Japanese-English dictionary) or works that try too hard to replicate conversation through American jargon. I cannot say how Yoshimura's tone matches its English counterpart, but this work is accessible and completely readable/enjoyable.
There are, however, two issues that I had with the translation. Towards the end, there is a scene where a local plant is mentioned, and the Japanese name is given, along with a definition in parenthesis. This (a mentioned in the Kattekoppen review) breaks the illusion of immersion and reminds me that there is a writer lurking somewhere directing action. My opinion; if you are going to mention indigenous items that might be unfamiliar to the reader, add a definition list or glossary at the beginning or end. Or trust the reader to Google it themselves. Second, at one point at the very end, Isaku and a villager are talking, and one of them responds with "y'know". This is one of those forced colloquialisms that is a potential dealkiller. This is a medieval island village, I don't think any language at the time used that term. But I am not an historian either.

On a final note, assuming you have not read the spoilers section, I can see some readers having an issue with the ending. I can tell you, it is a very open ending. My opinion is that Yoshimura wants to leave the reader with the same kind of worrisome knot in their stomach that Isaku must have at the end. Others might demand closure, they will want it spelled out for them in plain view. Those people will be upset and feel shortchanged. I am fine with the ending, others might want to knock my rating down a few points. But I believe that the story that needed to be told was told.

Closing thoughts: As well written as this novel is, it is undeniably bleak. It is very difficult to be sympathetic towards many of the villagers, although you will find yourself rooting for Isaku the whole way through. This novel shows well that although a people may seem primitive, or quaint, it doesn't mean that they are stupid, naive, or necessarily good-hearted. Given their harsh living conditions, are their actions understandable or criminal? Or is it justified under life's pecking order? The villagers' own best resources are continually exploited by the broker in the next village; how much nobler or villainous is that compared to the worship of O-fune-sama? In fact, all it does it validate my favorite quote by Bertrand Russell, that "life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim".

Here's What It Is:
A lean, mean little postcard from medieval Japan. A well-written, well-translated novel about karma's fury that will get zero votes for 'Feel Good Novel of the Year'.

Final Score:

81/100


The Cover:

There are two covers that I know of floating around for this title. The one depicted above is a simple illustration that sets the tone of the novel well. A lone ship traverses choppy waters under a cloudy sky, much like how Isaku weathers his stormy life alone. The piece looks to be rendered in charcoal and conte crayon.

Cover Final Score: 

79/100

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Flashback Book Review - Gunheads

HachiSnax Note: The Flashback Book Review sections will feature reviews that I had previously posted to Facebook, or other sources. It's mostly a way to get some content on the blog while I compose new stuff. And also, hopefully promote some good books. This one here is for Gunheads, by Steve Parker (originally posted 8/17/2010). I cannot tell you how much fun this book was. I know Mr. Parker is focusing on his Deathwatch books now, but I wish we could see even a short story featuring Wulfe & Co. again. Great stuff! Cheers, Hach.






Gunheads

Gunheads had been taunting me for a while before I read it. Countless times I've been suckered into a shitty book by an awesome cover (haven't we all), and Gunheads does indeed have an awesome cover. You've got bitchin' retro-style tanks and orks in dune buggies. However, at time of release, Mr. Parker's other W40K offering, Rebel Winter, had only garnered middling reviews. Luckily I had a brain fart and in the end reserved it from the library. Good move on my part.

Gunheads is a Warhammer 40,000 stand alone book, showcasing the Imperial Guard (no Space Marines here kiddos). It focuses on a Cadian tank group, the 81st IIRC, who are being sent on a fool's errand to recover a Baneblade tank (The Fortress of Arrogance, how awesome a name is that?) from the desolate, ork-infested desert planet of Golgotha, for Yarrick to use in his uber-war on Armageddon.

So our set-up is Imperial Guardsmen in tanks vs. millions of orks. Sounds pretty standard, right? So what makes it work? Characters, and Mr.Parker's writing style.

The story is billed as centering around one Sgt. Oskar Andreas Wulfe, although honestly, the entire cast list gets their fair share of screen time. This is all for the best. Wulfe is a great character. One Amazon reviewer compared him to Sgt.Nick Fury in the Howlin' Commandoes days, and it's true. This book reads like an awesome WWII pulp novel. Wulfe is real, a hard-nosed, gritty grunt, who knows enough to question the logic of the Imperium and keep it to himself, and who genuinely cares about his tank crew and the unit in general. He worries for his men to the point of overprotection, which is what managers in hostile environments have to do. He also has the frustration of dealing with an upstart newcomer to the unit. Unfortunately, this royal bastard, Cpl. Lenck, can back up his trash-talk on the battlefield. You just know a sweet showdown with these two is coming. Other characters include Lt. Van Droi, who leads his men from the front, and tries to balance his caring for them with his mandated adherence to beaurecratical B.S., Major General Bergen, a born leader, who is forced to lead his men on a glorified suicide mission, and General DeViers, an ancient, image-obsessed leader who takes on the mission in the hopes of one day having a statue erected of himself somewhere, someday. But don't get him wrong; his resume includes plenty of decisive victories and he still is more than happy to participate in the firefights. Also along for the ride are some representatives from the Adeptus Mechanicus, who have their own agenda on Golgotha; and it's no major spoiler to say that it doesn't involve a pimped-out tank.

Mr. Parker's writing style is superb; world building is descriptive without being encyclopediac. The planet Golgotha is sinister, the atmosphere itself is sickening the men, poisoning their lungs, reddening their skin and eyes. Parasites threaten to infect at all turns. As for the characters, the banter between men has an authentic vibe, and the depiction of orks is on point. These Golgothan orks have been conditioned by their environment, they are bigger, leaner, stronger, their skin a leathery brown. Smarter too, in that they actually try to utilize basic concepts of human warfare strategies. Plenty of times in the action scenes you could feel their presence, smell them closing in, feel their hot steaming breath as they get ready to bash you to bits. The Adeptus Mechanicus are written well too; creepy, haughty, calculating, cold. Yikes.

Are there any criticisms? Very few. Sometimes that battlefield deathtoll becomes hard to envision. You'll be told ten thousand men are squaring off with 2 million orks, then you are reading about "scores" of Guardsmen being blown away and "piles" of dead orks. It makes it hard to keep score of how many Guardsmen are left at any given time, and if millions of orks are dying, are the tanks really riding over small hills of ork corpses? Other than that, the book is solid. No boring spots, no unbelievably ridiculous "bad-ass" characters, and especially, unlike other Guard novels, the commanding officers are not portrayed as simply blundering idiots, wimpy sycophants or cruel tyrants(like in the novels Fifteen Hours and Ice Guard). Everyone has their merits, their faults, their time to shine and their time to die. Oh yes, the death toll is appropriately high for the mission involved. Don't spend too much money on Christmas cards for the 81st, you have very few to send out in the end.

Gunheads. Buy it, read it. After I returned it to the library, I bought my own copy. It's good stuff.

My review, for what it is: 4 out of 5 stars.

P.S.- A good intro to Sgt. Wulfe and Co. is the short story Mercy Run, available in the Planetkill compilation. Pretty standard stuff, but if you're a completist, go for it. It also explains the secret Wulfe is trying to keep the other men from finding out.


Here's what it is: 
Everything an Imperial Guard novel should be. A knock-down drag out brawl between tanks and orks. A WWII-style, pulpy, action-packed read.

Final Score:

87/100


The Cover:

Oh, man. As I had said in the old review, I loved this cover. I know it might look like a Codex or module-type cover, but I love it. Tanks vs. dune buggies, 'nuff said! Alex Boyd captures the spirit of the Imperial Guard like few others!

Cover Final Score:

90/100

Yes, I'm biased. Sue me.