Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Flesh Of Cretacia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Top 10 for "Best Cinematic Sequence Ever"

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score:

69/100


Cover Score:

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

Cover Final Score:

82/100

Friday, July 26, 2013

Distant Echoes Of Old Night

Distant Echoes Of Old Night by Rob Sanders. Originally published in the 2012/2013 Black Library Games Day Anthology Chapbook (Limited Run). Now available for direct download from The Black Library. Approx. 21 pages.

Distant Echoes Of Old Night is a Horus Heresy short by the very talented Rob Sanders, which centers around the XIV Legion, the Death Guard. In Echoes, Death Guard Brother-Chaplain Morgax Murnau is charged with guaranteeing that no survivors remain on the felled Imperial Fists ship Xanthus, which has been shot out of orbit and now lays sinking in the mire of the blighted planet of Algonquis. Well, to be exact, it is a portion of the ship, however, any amount of Imperial Fists in a fortified area makes for an extremely tough nut to crack.

Purge the ship of survivors. A seemingly impossible task. But Murnau has a trick up his sleeve. In fact, it is the dirtiest trick in all the Legiones Astartes. He is set to deploy a group of Destroyers to finish off the Fists. These Destroyers bring a horrifying array of weapons to bear, most of them high-radiation, or chemical in nature. And not just your run of the mill biochemical warfare, these are tools usually deemed too harsh for most Space Marines to use, and remember, the Spaces Marines are an elite fighting force bred to bring entire systems to compliance. The game is set: the universe's greatest defensive players versus the most nefarious plague marines around. Murnau's instructions: no survivors.

Although Echoes is technically a Horus Heresy story, it, like most recent entries, can be read independently. This is, indeed, more a Warhammer 30K work than a HH tale. Now, I am not up to date on all the Heresy books, so if there are any clever Easter eggs, story arc progression, or hints about certain events, please let me know in the comments section. So yes, if you are not up to date on your Heresy reading, you can still sit down and enjoy these 21 pages of Death Guard/Imperial Fist action.

And enjoy it I did. Sanders brings a flair for vivid imagery to the fore in Echoes. A good chunk of the earlier pages give us a stark picture of the plague that has been unleashed upon the former forest planet of Algonquis by the Death Guard. Where once lush green foliage and tall trees defined the landscapes, all is swamp and insects. "Syrupy waters" lap against Mark III armor, and the buzzing of filthy fauna pervades all. Later on, the descriptive prose gives us an "in-your-face" look at the effects of the Destroyers' devious toys.

It is a good thing that The Black Library finally put this short into general release. I've been wanting to read it since it was announced for the chapbook, and I am sure many others have been champing at the bit to get a crack at it. Like most shorts, 21 pages for $2.99 pages is pretty lean, but Sanders makes it worth it. Here's hoping he gets a crack at a full-length Heresy novel soon.

Here's what it is:
A nasty little tale of of dirty deeds done dirt cheap. Space Marine specialists ask the age-old question, if an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, who will win the day? Can anyone win?

Final Score:

90/100


Cover Score:

Here we have a swampy-green background with the stylized Pre-Heresy Death Guard pauldron sigil. The sigil has some nice staining on it. Not the worst short story cover, but hey, it's just a sigil. What can I say?

Cover Final Score:

30/100

Cover Score: Part Deux

In case you haven't seen it, here's the original chapbook cover, rendered by the amazing Clint Langley:


Now that's a cover!

Final Chapbook Cover Score:

100/100

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hobgoblin

Hobgoblin by John Coyne. Published July 1982 by Berkley Books. 342 pages.

So last night I finished my long-overdue reread of John Coyne's fantasy-horror yarn Hobgoblin, and I will say right now that some aspects of my review will be tainted as it is a work viewed through nostalgia-colored glasses. This compact little terror tale has been present on a bookshelf in my home for the better part of three decades. Being a child of the 80's, as well as being someone raised on Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of the elements incorporated into the framework of the story resonated with me on a personal level. To the casual reader, today, some of the ideas, dialogue, etc., might seem corny and dated. Hopefully this same reader can put aside these biases and enjoy this well-written story.

Before we get into the review, let's take a peek at the description on the back, shall we?

Scott Gardiner is weird.
He thinks the monsters in his fantasy game are real.
He thinks he sees Hobgoblins at the castle where his mother works.
He thinks his girl friend is being stalked by the Black Annis because of what happened to her in the graveyard.
He thinks his high school is filled with blood-spewing Gorfs and flesh-hungry Groundbats from the darkness of Irish legend.
Scott Gardiner is right.
So he's throwing the biggest party of the year. 
On Hallowe'en.

Reading this, as well as the (blatantly false) claims on the front:

The Dungeons are real.
The Dragons are real.
The Terror is here.
you might think that what you are getting is a sensationalist tale (like Rona Jaffe's Mazes & Monsters) playing on parental fears of their child becoming the next James Dallas Egbert.

Point blank; that's not what Hobgoblin is. At all. Back in the early 80's, there was fear born of urban legend, and apparently the opinion of someone's psychiatrist, that some of the introverted youngsters playing these RPG's would become so emotionally invested in them that their already fragile grasp on reality would snap and they would be rendered unable to separate reality from a fantasy world filled with goblins and bugbears. And people fell for this (then again these same people also believed that D&D was promoting devil worship due to the appearance of devils and demons in the original AD&D Monster Manual). And luckily, those same people were punished for their gullibility, in the form of a Mazes & Monsters TV movie 'starring' a young, desperate for cash Tom Hanks:
Not exactly Dr. Langdon's finest hour, but it serves him right.

We've had Dungeons and Dragons, and Mazes & Monsters, so what exactly is Hobgoblin (the game)? Actually, Hobgoblin was pretty ahead of its time. The fictional game that Coyne crafts for the novel incorporates three types of fantasy gaming; the "role-playing" aspect of D&D, the "card" aspect of games like Magic, and a "board" akin to Games Workshop offerings (yes, the use of figurines was huge in D&D, but using an actual crafted diorama to represent scale and events was more in line with British counterparts). Coyne also injects welcome authenticity by basing the lore of the Hobgoblin world on Irish mythology. A hack author might have been tempted to just insert 'made-up' names to pad out their D&D clones, giving us creatures with ludicrous names like "fecalite". By using established lore, Coyne makes Hobgoblin feel like a game whose supplements you would snatch right off the wall at The Compleat Strategist, as well as giving us a primer of some intriguing Celtic mythology.

Now, on to the book. Finally....

In Hobgoblin, we are presented with young Scott Gardiner. Scott is not exactly, as the back cover puts it, 'weird', but he does fit the 80's RPG'er template to a tee. He is introverted, repressive, awkward (especially regarding the fairer sex). He is a high-functioning student. Of course he wears glasses. So yes, the stereotypical gamer. But, stereotypes don't become stereotypes without an impressive track record of accuracy, and, on his appearance, Scott fits the bill. Many readers might find it difficult to sympathize and/or even like Scott. Tell the truth, it's kind of hard to warm up to him. He's not a gregarious kid, he's often sullen and even a bit boorish. But Scott Gardiner isn't mean, or vindictive. And actually, he has some good reasons to be withdrawn.

Early on in the book, Scott's father dies suddenly from a heart attack. At roughly the same time, away at his prep school, Scott's nearly invincible Hobgoblin character, legendary paladin Brian BorĂº, is slain in combat. In the fallout of these two soul-crushing events, Scott and his mother, Barbara, have to move, and find themselves in Upstate New York. This gives Scott an extra helping of stress, as he has to re-acclimate to a new environment and new people. And, honestly, being a resident of Upstate New York for the past three years, I can totally understand the horror he must have felt. Barbara Gardiner lands a job at an old Irish castle, Ballycastle, which was built (actually brought from Ireland stone by stone) by the Gatsby-esque Fergus O'Cuileannain, an Irish tycoon that died young and left a fortune in a Trust. As ominous and foreboding as the castle and the surrounding grounds are, Barbara is smart enough to realize that there is only so far a woman in the 80's can go with an art history degree (exactly the same distance that it goes in 2013).

The medieval Ballycastle serves as ample fuel for Scott's Hobgoblin fantasies, as does Conor Fitzpatrick, the sole holdover employee from O'Cuileannain's days, who gifts Scott with traditional Irish weaponry and regales him with tales of mythology of the Eire. This worries Barbara. She knows how impressionable Scott is. She knows he is dressing up and pretending to be Brian BorĂº. And she knows just how dangerous these tendencies can be.


In all fairness, she may be on to something....

Meanwhile, Scott is having trouble fitting in at his new school. The rural folk of Flat Rock are a far cry from the scions of money families that he was used to back at Spencertown Academy. Worst of all, he has become the center of attention for two malicious football players, Nick Borgus and Hank Simpson. Their level of bullying would be trying on even the strongest of souls, so Scott's misery is understandable.

And yet, things are not all bad. A lovely young lady, Valerie Dunn, has taken a liking to Mr. Gardiner. She can see the good behind the standoffish exterior. Unfortunately for both of them, their burgeoning relationship has caught both the attention and ire of Borgus and Simpson.

Love is also in the air for Barbara Gardiner. The young widow finds another chance at love developing with her boss, Derek Brennan, the executive director at Ballycastle. This poses a problem for her, though. Already facing difficulties communicating with her quiet son, what is perceived as bringing in a 'replacement' for his dead father only makes things worse.

Now, Hobgoblin would have been just fine as being a study in these peoples' lives; watching as they learn to cope with loss and learn to live again. But this isn't a character study; it's a horror novel. And after an opening act where we meet everyone, strange things start happening.

There are weird things going on at Ballycastle. And they aren't only in Scott's head. There is some kind of creature roaming the grounds. It tried to break into the house when Barbara was alone; it comes into the house when Scott and Valerie are spending time together, and, worst of all, it attacks Valerie when she is alone in Ballycastle's extremely creepy graveyard. All three also can agree that this being loping through the forest bears a resemblance to the Black Annis, another creature from the Hobgoblin game, and one of the more frightening nightmares of Irish lore:
Exactly what you want to be visited by while you are making out with your girlfriend.

While this is going on, Barbara is busy trying to get to the bottom of some mysterious happenings in Ballycastle's past. That same graveyard mentioned earlier is not only the resting place of Fergus O'Cuileannain, but also the burial grounds for a slew of young Irish girls that had died in his employ, poor girls that had been brought over from the old country and had passed in the prime of their youth. Will uncovering the truth behind their deaths endanger the future of the estate's Trust, or are the stakes actually much, much higher?

In an attempt to integrate Scott into Flat Rock life, and warm the students to him and his Hobgoblin-y ways, it is agreed for an upcoming school dance to be held at Ballycastle, where the event will be a dance/Hobgoblin-LARP hybrid. Here, Scott will finally come face to face with the truth, with reality, and with himself.

Coyne has created a work that boasts solid prose and remains gripping from beginning to end. This is no small praise; horror novels were a dime a dozen at the time, and most were spat out by third rate hacks. Many of these novels might feature decent writing in one facet of the story, like in the details of violence, or sexual situations, etc. Coyne, however, presents descriptive scenery, believable (even if at times unlikable) characters, and jarring scenes of violence. He is a solid writer of other horror works (The Legacy, The Searing, The Piercing) who is still going strong thirty years later, now writing about another of his passions, golf. I can say assuredly that I will be tracking down more of his horror work.

Coyne structures each chapter around Scott and Barbara, as the encounter situations that are not directly related, but essentially similar. As the story evolves, we watch as they both struggle with their 'new lives'. Scott's troubles have already been covered; but it bears remembering that Barbara is starting over as well. She had married young, and her deceased husband was a powerful, successful man that she was content and secure in following. Now she has a chance to solidify a career on her own, and re-discover romance with a man who is happy to walk alongside her, not just lead the way. By the end of the tale, we can see that Scott and his mother are actually very similar people, making all of their past estrangement unnecessary.

While I personally have no complaints about Hobgoblin, I can understand some readers having an issue with the final act. What Hobgoblin becomes in the end is not a psychological thriller, or a supernatural tale, but rather straight up slasher fiction. I mean, there are implausible scenarios throughout the tale (or maybe not, from what I've seen up here the levels of bullying and sexual harassment portrayed in the high schools might be spot on), but the ending goes pretty balls to the wall. It's handled nicely though.

Final thoughts:
Books like Hobgoblin and Mazes & Monsters caught some flak back in the day for being condescending and dismissive towards RPG's and their players. They seemed to associate salvation with 'growing up' and giving up on playing. Well, maybe that's true for M&M, but not so much here. Scott Gardiner is not at risk of getting lost in a steam tunnel, or in a mentally reclusive fantasy world. He is, however, a kid who is going through some tough times, and ends up a little overly-invested in a game that offers a little more fun that reality. Haven't we all felt that way about something, sometime?

Here's what it is:
Bar none, the authoritative "D&D Panic" novel. A masterful slasher-film in book form, that stands strong three decades after it was unleashed on the world.
Some sexual situations, so a little intense even for young adults.


Final Score:

93/100


Cover Score:
Ah the 80's. Epic VHS covers. Epic book covers. This one is no different. A two-page cover flap design, you can see the outer cover above, with what appears to be Scott trapped in a dungeon behind a portcullis gate (presumably showing how he feels in the 'real world'). Open the first flap and you see....
A beautifully done, vibrantly colorful rendition of Scott doing battle with some of the creatures from the Hobgoblin world. They really don't make stuff like this anymore. Sadly.

Cover Final Score:

90/100

Monday, July 22, 2013

Engine of Mork

Engine of Mork by Guy Haley. A Warhammer 40,000 "Apocalypse" short story. Originally published July 2013 by The Black Library for Digital Monday. Approx. 21 pages.

As I am still only 75% done on my Hobgoblin reread, and I don't want to end July with only 3 or 4 posts, I decided to spend my Sunday with a fun little short story. And since Guy Haley has been churning out quality shorts recently, I decided to jump on his newest release. Haley actually had two shorts come out recently; Mork and Iron Harvest. But being as though Harvest is a follow-up story to Baneblade, which is on the to-read shelf, here we go with Mork...

A trio of ork mekboys (of the Red Suns) have been retained by Boss Grabskab (of the Death Skulls) to help partake in an upcoming Waaaaagh against some puny 'slashfaces' (Tau). The mekboys are led by Boss Mek Uggrim, who is none to fond of the thieving ways of the Death Skull crews. However, he directs his teams efforts towards completing their 'stompa', a smaller-class ork gargant, which projects a quite-imposing figure in the fashion of the ork god Mork.

Like most shorts (and pretty much all one could expect in a 20 page one), the narrative is fairly cut and dry: we meet the mekboys, they have some problems with the stompa to hammer out, "Fat Mork" comes alive at last, there's a righteous scrap with some other boys, and finally, the slashfaces decide to steal the initiative and bring the battle to the orks. So is there anything special the Haley brings to the table in this tale? And is anything lacking?

Haley's affinity for all things orky shows clear in 'Engine of Mork'. The language, dialect, banter, mannerisms, all have a genuine feel. Yes, I know that sounds silly: "genuine sounding made-up creatures. Hurr hurr hurr". But it's true; sometimes in situations like this, the dialogue can be forced; authors write for how they think something of a certain intelligence would sound based on a perceived level of achievement. Haley has immersed himself into the culture of the greenskins; he has become a regular Jane Goodall of the Orkish races, and that is what makes these tales so much fun. A good amount of detail is also rendered to the technology that makes these ork beasts of war mobile and deadly. This detail is conveyed in ork-speak, and, it somehow all makes sense. Then again, in obstinate machines, a few hammer-whacks will usually fix anything. 

As seen in previous works, Haley presents engaging, and exciting battle scenes, be they accounts of ork on ork brawls or in actual battle with the Tau. Ork/Tau conflicts are interesting in nature because they are a study in wanton brutality vs. surgical precision. Again, we are given the ork perspective, as Tau weaponry is scoffed at because it makes a "pop-pop instead of a proper bang-bang". More playful wording as ork pistol rounds "spank off of" Tau armor. Most importantly, battles sing with the bombast of destruction, smashing, and bellowing. All the things that make life worth living for a greenskin.

Unfortunately, for all the good aspects of Mork, there are certain factors hampering it from reaching the whimsical, lofty heights of "King of Black Crag". Of the three central characters, only Uggrim distinguishes himself. The rest just act, well, orky. It is mentioned that one has a sharp tongue, and the other is a bit more intelligent than the average greenskin. And yet, it doesn't really resonate that way. At one point, one of the mekboys loses his teeth (funny stuff), and ends up speaking with a lisp. However, after that one punchline moment, the lisp disappears. And when Haley puts forth the notion that this stompa is a walking, roaring, bellowing fetish of Mork, and the mekboys within are like the organs that keep it moving, he misses on the chance to give Uggrim a real sense of megalomania as he becomes the "head's head", so to speak.

One more gripe, and this is not directed at Haley, is the editing. This is the second time I am finding typos in a Black Library short. This time there were two; an "in" instead of an "on", and a sentence ending without a period, or any spacing before the next sentence. Seriously, there isn't a lot of proofing to do here. I know it doesn't alter the story, but any time the reader has to stop reading to shake their head over amateur errors, it interrupts the continuity of the experience. As mentioned before, typos don't take away from the story's final tally.

All in all, the biggest misfire of the story is that it does not feel like a self contained story, with a beginning, conflict, and resolution. Instead, it feels more like a chapter from a book. A well-written chapter, but not a story.

Here's what it is:
More greenskin fun from the man that is emerging as The Black Library's go-to authority on them. If you are not into orks, pass on this tale. A little too lean for the price tag as well.

Final Score:

79/100


Cover Score:
Definitely not one to write home to Mom about. A silhouette of an Ork Stompa (possibly a pic of a model or taken from a rulebook), illuminated from behind by a burning, orange light (nod to the Red Suns). Not much more that you could expect for the price, but since some of the Digital Monday exclusives have had some pretty decent covers, and given the word count of the story as well, a little more would have been nice. Actually, a lot more would have been better.

Cover Final Score:

15/100



Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fire Caste


Fire Caste by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard/Tau novel. Originally published by The Black Library in March 2013. Approx. 305 pages.

A mad commissar. A doomed company of Guardsmen. An invisible enemy led by a legendary ghost. Visitations of Warp horrors. And a hellish planet, alive and hateful. The debut novel from Peter Fehervari (author of a few Black Library shorts) throws a lot of tasty ingredients into the pot, so how enticing was the finished dish?

Actually it was a pretty succulent meal, although the description on the menu did it no justice. Let's start with the official blurb, and expand from there:

"In the jungles of the Dolorosa Coil, a coalition of alien tau and human deserters have waged war upon the Imperium for countless years. Fresh Imperial Guard forces from the Arkhan Confederates are sent in to break the stalemate and annihilate the xenos. But greater forces are at work, and the Confederates soon find themselves broken and scattered. As they fight a desperate guerrilla war, their only hope may lie in the hands of a disgraced commissar, hell-bent on revenge."

Commissar Holt Iverson has been mired in the nightmarish jungle world of Phaedra for longer than he can remember. His tenure has obviously exceeded his sanity. The Guard unit he is attached to turns traitor, opting to subscribe to the "Greater Good" of the Tau Collective, headed up on Phaedra by the phantom (yet extremely influential) Commander Wintertide. After a battle with his blue-skinned enemies leaves him battered and broken, he is shipped back to high command, presumably to be put to the bolter for his transgressions and drug use. However, he has one thing on his mind: revenge. To kill Wintertide. And it is his hope that he will be allowed a chance to commit to this undertaking.

More bodies are heading to the meat-grinder on Phaedra. The 19th Arkan Confederates have been dispatched from their home planet of Providence. But it is not so simple as that; the Confederates are plagued by creatures from the Warp; not just random horrors, but ones that are trailing them, ones that remember the events of the small town known as Trinity.

On Phaedra, the Arkans find problems at every turn. Imperial logistics are a joke; as a madman rules affairs planetside, and all is 'overseen' by a commander known only as the "Sky Marshall", who has spent the last few decades holed up in a dead ship in orbit.

After an altercation with the tainted Imperium command forces, the Arkans find themselves a rogue unit. Condemned as traitors, they still have to contend with the Tau and the workings of Phaedra herself.

Commissar Iverson is granted his reprieve, but not for his desired mission to kill Wintertide. His mission is to find and 'dispense the Emperor's Justice upon' Ensor Cutler, the Colonel of the 'traitor' Confederates. Will Iverson be the doom of this proud group, or their last chance at redemption?

What we have is a very interesting framework. Yet this book goes beyond a simple bolter-porn war story. What makes this work astounding is the manner in which Fehervari conjures an experience that is so atmospheric and haunting. He utilizes literary, cinematic, and historical references to achieve this. It may come off as odd to some, or off-putting to others, but it is unarguably unique.

The main inspiration for Fire Caste is obviously Joseph Conrad's magnum opus "Heart of Darkness", as well as Darkness' cinematic adaptation "Apocalypse Now". There are some direct comparisons in narrative, as Iverson, in the Marlowe/Willard role, travels labyrinthine rivers in search of a traitorous colonel (Cutler/Brando's Kurtz), and also in pursuit of a mythical genius that holds the natives in a rapturous devotion (Wintertide/Conrad's Mr. Kurtz). Going deeper than that, though, is that they both share the same philosphy; that the jungle is a living, breathing, wild, unforgiving. thing. In Fire Caste, Phaedra has more ways to kill Guardsmen than either tainted brethren or the Tau (one of her more vicious weapons is a disease that allows a fungus to overtake a victim, a la the zombie ant).

To drive this point home, Fehervari carefully chooses his descriptive words when writing about the planet, from "arterial passages" to a "blue-veined sky". These terms perfectly reinforce the 'living planet' motif. In fact, all in all, I would rate Phaedra herself the greatest antagonist of the novel.

That is saying a lot, especially since there is quite a diverse Rogue's Gallery in Fire Caste. Firstly, of course, are the Tau. I've seen some complaints that there isn't enough of the Tau in this book, but I have to disagree (then again, they may be basing this on the fact that it was billed as a "Tau" novel, but more on that later). The presence of actual blue-skinned Tau is at a somewhat low level, but the myriad alien races utilized by the Tau get some love, and Fehervari writes for them very well. We get thrilling scenes with vespid, loxatl, and a very tense scene with some kroot. There are also the human charges that have gone to the blue team. Add to this mix the tainted Imperial forces under Captain Karjalan (suffering from the previously mentioned fungal plague) of the nightmarish ship, Puissance (more wordplay, as puissance means not only power, but it is also an equestrian event involving jumping over multiple obstacles). At his disposal are a brutal force of Lethean zealots led by mad Confessor Gordjief, an imposing and quite deadly figure. The Letheans are a truly frightening lot; there religious tendencies lean towards purification and penance through the rapture of pain and flagellation. Even their blessing is a warped take on a tradition: "The Emperor condemns." Finally, there are the indigenous natives of Phaedra, the Saathlaa, also known as the 'fish', due to their odd appearance. Fehervari makes an audacious move here; Conrad had penned the natives of Africa as "noble savages"; human yes, but undeniably different. Very capable in their own ways, but so strikingly apart from the ways of the Imperium (or Tau, and many have also joined Wintertide). There is no condescension either, as a Saathlaan scout attached to the Confederates becomes one of the more likable characters in the book. Also, the punchline is obviously that on Phaedra, the new guests are usually more impotent to adapt than the 'primitive' natives.

Now that we've talked about the villains, let's get into the treatment Fehervari gave to our Imperial friends. The Arkan Confederates are based on, well, the Civil War Confederate States of America soldiers. They have grey uniforms, they wear kepi caps, they have las-carbines with fixed bayonets. They have a saber-rattling, rawhide jacket wearing colonel. They despise their planet's Nordlanders (Northeners). The affluent ones own slaves. They speak in a manner that most of us associate with the Old West (be it accurate or not). Some people might think it's silly to have soldiers in Civil War uniforms in the 40th millenium; to them I say please remember that the Warhammer 40,000 world features units that resemble Cossacks, turban-wearing Middle Easterns, Zulu Conflict-era British uniforms, and the Ikari Warriors. The Confederates also have some unique units as well; Sentinels modified for para-jumps (these represent Confederate "Cavalry", while at the same time make a nod to the 1st Cavalry helicopter unit in Apocalypse Now), paratroopers with eagle-head helmets, and of course, the Thundersuits. The Thundersuits are steam-powered personal suits of armor, decked out with an array of heavy weaponry. Another vanity of the affluent, they are ungainly in the jungle climate, but make for superior heavy infantry units. They were a very cool addition.

So far we have Civil War soldiers, and suits of armor (representing knights). Add to the mix another unit that has been hit hard on Phaedra (and lost many to Wintertide's army), based upon Spanish conquistadors. It's a nice, diverse mix of soldiers who obviously have no place in the jungle.

Fehervari also utilizes names of troops with colorful uniforms; for example, the Thundersuit units are referred to as "Zouaves", and there are groups of new soldiers termed "Janissaries". This might be a reference to how these bright troops stand out like a sore thumb, or it might even be a reference to the young Russian harlequin in "Darkness". Either way, it's just more fun with words.

Further examples? The ship Iverson rides to Commissar High Command? The Sisyphus. Iverson's name? Well, one of the three ghosts that plague him throughout the book is a young lady that serves as a reminder of his poor shot selection. Her nickname is Number 27, coincidentally the same as Allen Iverson's career PPG average.

I may be haunted by my shot selection, but I regret nothing.

Don't get me wrong. Fire Caste is not just a book of tributes and references, there is a very deep story here. It's a story of two races at a crossroads, and the quest to find the best way to "take the fork in the road", as Yogi Berra would say. Constant motifs reinforce these notions. Duality, bisecting, bifurcation, mirror images, etc. Also, there is the symbolism of the 'shattered mirror'. One tech-priest mentioned briefly has the visage of a shattered mirror, the Tau pathfinder who features heavily is named Jhi'kaara, Tau for 'broken mirror', and, most notably, Commissar Iverson's face is a lattice-work of scars, resembling a shattered mirror. This all supports the theme of shattered lives, broken souls, just the heart-crushing quandary most of the dramatis personae find themselves in.

The real question this novel asks is which race will inherit universal supremacy. Will it be the dogmatic dictatorship of the Imperium, or the benevolent communism of the Tau (remember, the Greater Good is not concerned with individual benefit)? Or, as Ensor Cutler succinctly puts it, "Our evil empire versus yours."

Fehervari writes with a passion and skill that makes it hard to believe that this is a freshman novel. He keeps you invested and engaged throughout the work, even when he completely juxtaposes narrative styles to fit the mood of the story arc. He has a flair for writing action, and the detail of violence rendered matches the tool utilized. Remember, he is writing for a variety of weapons from bows and arrows up to advanced Tau railgun weaponry. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from Iverson's personal journal, and it is intriguing to watch the progression (or deterioration) of his mental state from event to event.

If I were to list any complaint, it would be with the role of Jhi'kaara. She is initially introduced as a formidable counterpart to Iverson, his "mirror image" so to speak. However, she is given less and less page time as the book progresses, and her ultimate point in the narrative ends up in question. She is an interesting character and it would have been nice to see her explored more.

Controversy:
I have been seeing some complaining in reviews of this work saying that it is being falsely advertised, it is not a Tau novel. I didn't get it at first. If you go to the link for the book on the Black Library site: http://www.blacklibrary.com/warhammer-40000/fire-caste.html it even says "the Imperial Guard face off with the Tau". Well hey, that's accurate, so what's the prob?
Oh wait. There are two listings for Fire Caste on the BL site. Here's the other one: http://www.blacklibrary.com/all-products/fire-caste-ebook.html And there we go: "A brand new Tau novel". Now I understand how the Tau-heads could be pissed. Black Library, please fix the description. This is an excellent work, but it is not a "Tau" book.

Here's what it is:
An excellent debut work, that is atmospheric, brutal, and filled with fun puzzles to solve. A gripping tale of a man lost in his own "heart of darkness", and just trying to find his way home.

Final Score:

91/100


Cover Score:
Tough call here. This is an ok cover, but it is not very representative of the work. The man is obviously supposed to be Commissar Iverson, but Iverson should be emaciated, and a lot older, with long, gray hair, and much worse for wear. Also, that glowing eye; I don't know if that is how an antiquated augmetic should look. But it's a decent pic, with a nice, graphic novel feel. The composition is off; the forearm is way too elongated and his thighs are way too big. You get the feeling that the artist completed a face pic, and then was asked to do a full body shot.

The arrangement on the cover is nice too; the title splits the two sides (keep that motif going!), placing Imperial Guard on the left, Tau on the right. Nice work on the Tau suits.

Cover Final Score:

79/100

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Flashback Book Review - Cadian Blood by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Cadian Blood by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. A Warhammer 40,000 Imperial Guard novel, published originally by The Black Library, October 2009. Approx. 320 pages. 

Cadian Blood

Cadian Blood (CB) is a Warhammer 40,000 (W40K) novel, I believe it is the first Black Library novel by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (AD-B), and it showcases the Imperial Guard, notably the Cadian 88th Mechanized Infantry.

CB is the story of an effort by the Imperium of Man to reclaim the planet of Kathur, a planet of significant religious importance which has suddenly fallen victim to an extremely powerful Chaos taint. This taint kills off the inhabitants of the planet, as well as travelling pilgrims and the Planetary Defense Force in record time, a span of about a week. Worse yet, those that died have became a horde of "plague-slain", shuffling undead minions of the Chaos that has lorded over them. Yup, all those Amazon reviews are right! It's W40K with zombies, and honestly, how can that be a bad thing?

Suffice to say, it isn't. It works, and works big time. AD-B is a great writer. To think this is one of his first offerings bodes well for the future of the Black Library. Now like I've said before, I'm still a relative newbie to the W40K world, and still haven't read an entire Space Marine novel yet. I like the rank and file aspect of the Imperial Guard, and the characters AD-B serves up are awesome. 88th Warden-Captain Thade, Darrick, Seth, Osiron, Dead Man's Hand, Jevrian, Caius, Tionenji, you really come to root for (or against) these guys.

Back to the story overview, the 88th is part of the Kathur Reclamation Spearhead force. They are charged with retaking some key landmarks until the main Imperial force arrives to purge the taint from the world. However, something is afoot. Unlike other taint situations where the world would be firebombed to nothingness, they are instructed to leave all artifacts intact, thus making their job more difficult against the plague slain. By why the precaution? Why is the 88th suddenly seconded to an high ranking Inquisitor and assigned a Commissar? And what is the mysterious voice that calls out, and to whom is it calling?

The Good: Like I said, AD-B is a solid writer. He is the most character-oriented Black Library author I've read. And for a "W40K Zombie Book", it's driven more by character interaction than bloody gibbets. There is action, and in no short order, but the cast is the treat here. Battle situations are tactically sound and exciting. Plus, there are three more specifics about AD-B's writing that caught me:
1. Descriptive keywords. Don't you hate authors that drastically go overboard or totally bare bones in their scenic descriptions? Not a problem here. AD-B knows to trust his readers intelligence, and lays out enough detail for them to draw a coherent picture. Hence, no wasted paragraphs, no boredom! Not easy given that he was describing a world full of religious architecture.
2. Quicky character bios. I love when authors do this. Take a minor background character who's about to have their moment, and flesh out a quick bio as to what lead them to this point. Guess what? It makes you care about that character! Take note, writers. Case in point, the captain of the Depth of Fury.
3. Sense of Astartes scale. AD-B's real strength may be in writing about Space Marines. They've popped up in other Guard books I've read, but never with the descriptive scale seen here. They're not just jacked-up supermen here, when they enter a room, you feel yourself looking up to them, hear the armor and augmetics at work. You get a sense of their pride, their own agenda, honor. And his descriptions of the tainted Death Guard, well, let's just say I can still here the buzzing of bloated blood flies. Great stuff.

The Bad: No real complaints, actually. Hate to say it, but Cadian Blood may have bumped off Gunheads as my favorite W40K title. My only complaint is that the Black Library made this title Out Of Print after only about a year (if even) here in the States. As a result, I am forced to report the library copy I read as lost. Or maybe I should report it.......Unbroken.

My Rating, for what it is: 4 1/2 out of 5 Aquilas

Here's what it is:
AD-B's debut novel shows why so many consider him the best writer in The Black Library. This title is not only a great foray for an Imperial Guard Cadian unit, but other denizens of WH40K lore get stellar treatment as well. Chaos minions, Space Marines, tainted Astartes, psykers, even the Imperial Navy. Even if you do not care for Guard novels, this one deserves a shot.

Final Score:

90/100


Cover Score:
Unfortunately, the cover for Cadian Blood is not as stunning as the content. Doing the bulk of the jacket in a steely camo pattern is decent looking, however the cover pic itself is stiff and unbelievable. Obviously the background was created first, with the the characters placed afterwards. But the postures are just random and, odd. To be honest they reminded me of Colorforms. Composition was not at the forefront of these drawings either. For a black and white comic book panel, this pic works fine. For a mass-market paperback cover, not so much.

Cover Final Score:

61/100