Sunday, December 29, 2013

Out Caste

Out Caste by Peter Fehervari. Originally published by The Black Library (as part of their 2012 Advent Calendar Compilation), December 2012. Approx. 6 pages.

Without a doubt, the Black Library book that I enjoyed the most this year was Peter Fehervari's Fire Caste. His detailed, atmospheric writing truly brought that imaginative tale of Imperial Guardsmen vs. the Tau Collective in the bowels of warp-twisted space to life. Yet, as mentioned in my review of Fire Caste, the only issue I had with the book was that it did not feature enough of the Tau warrior Jhi'kaara, Commissar Holt Iverson's shattered mirror image. Luckily, Fehervari had penned a backstory for her that appeared in 2012's Advent Calendar series. Ah yes, love or hate those Black Library micro-shorts, checking the site each morning in December is like opening one of those German chocolate-filled Advent Calendars.

A childhood filled with these was a childhood filled with awesome.

Out Caste is told in a bifurcated narrative; we get a first person POV of the newly minted shas'la J'kaara ('the mirror'), as well as musings on the history of the scarred Jhi'kaara ('the broken mirror').

What I think works best about Out Caste is that it ties so nicely into the themes presented in Fire Caste. Between the Tau and the Imperium, there seem to be more similarities than differences; in fact, to very loosely paraphrase Fire Caste, it comes down to "one evil empire against the other". The Tau have the collective notions of the Greater Good, and the Imperium stresses the harsh dogmatic regime of the God-Emperor, but in the end, it all comes down to control, top to bottom.

The reason I mention this is because it all plays into Jhi'kaara, and the meaning of her name. She is originally named J'kaara because she can "read the hearts of her comrades". Therefore, should anyone be so surprised that she can find respect and nobility in a race that shares more parallels than divergences with her own? This might be the real reason behind the broken mirror moniker; more of a tribute to her ability to read her enemy as well as her own kind than a badge of shame, resulting from the kiss of a chainsword when she stopped questioning the natural deadliness of the gue'la (humans) for a moment.

But of course she bears it as a mark of shame. A reminder that she is no longer the shining phenom that went out, full of confidence, on her first mission. A reminder that life is fractured, hard to look at face on, and never yields a clear answer.

One other thing to mention, beyond the thematic elements, is the prose. The writing in Out Caste is full of juicy, bloody descriptions, especially the savage, avian motions of the Kroot warriors. The philosophies and tactics of the Tau are properly laid out, and the scene with the commissar is a wonderfully gory scene.

And lastly, very clever wordplay with the title. Outcast, indeed.

This is a great micro-short, and further proof the Jhi'kaara is a character that can carry a full novel. Why not? people bitched that there wasn't enough Tau in Fire Caste (although I disagree, but that's me), so why not let Fehervari do a full-on Tau novel?

Here's what it is:
Appreciated backstory on a very good character from an excellent novel. Well worth picking up, even if you don't particularly like these micro-shorts.


Final Score:

9.5 out of 10


Cover Score:
Tough call here. I feel cheap for slamming the cover, it is what it is. These Advent Calender shorts basically take some iconic symbol or logo from the species featured and dot the cover with it. Here, it is a take on a Tau helmet. Looks cute enough, but the color reminds me of cheap dijon mustard. But for $1.25, you aren't getting much more.

Cover Final Score:

1 out of 10. I'm not rating this on a scale of 1 to 100.

Looking back, looking forward

2013 is drawing to a close, and here's hoping for better things for everyone in 2014.

I'd like to thank everyone that stopped by the blog this first few months; readership has been good, but please leave some comments, so we know what to improve.

So, just a few things....

First, I was looking over the Angels of Death Collection reviews. I think, going forward, it'll be best to assign scores of 1 to 10 (with half point increments like 7.5) for those 1,000 word micro-shorts, while keeping the 1-100 scale for short stories up to novels. I'm not going to go back and adjust the AoD ratings though; I am satisfied with the scores assigned.

Second, does anyone have New Year's Resolutions? Well, other than lose weight, quit smoking, etc. I mean literary ones? Shooting for a certain number of books read? Committing to finally finish that novel this year?

What's mine? Well, I am hoping to finish at least one fantasy or sci-fi series each year. I am realizing how many series there are to finish, and I am not getting any younger. And, at my glacial reading pace, series of 10 books or under should take me about a year to finish.

So which series will I tackle in 2014? It was a tough call between Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts (of which I read and enjoyed First and Only) and Glen Cook's iconic series The Black Company. After much deliberation, I opted for The Black Company series. So, look out for those reviews, and share your thoughts.

Other than that, I got more reading done this year than I expected, and for that I am glad.

Again, all the best to all of you in this coming year. 2013 kind of sucked. That seems to be a general consensus. Let's hope to put the bad times behind us.

Cheers,
Hach.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Baneblade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.....

....

...

..

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Final Score:

76/100


Cover Score:

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

Cover Final Score (as promised): 

9/100

Friday, December 20, 2013

Angels Of Death Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Score:

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

Cover Final Score: 25/100

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Orphans Of The Kraken

Orphans of the Kraken by Richard Williams. Originally appearing in the Legends of the Space Marines anthology, April 2010. Approx. 35 pages.

After making a recent post on Richard Williams, I started to reflect on which of his works I had read in the past. This short popped into my head almost immediately, probably my favorite work by him and one of my favorite Warhammer 40K shorts to date. 

Orphans of the Kraken centers on the Scythes of the Emperor, an Astartes chapter which has been utterly devastated by the tyranid forces of Hive Fleet Kraken. So drastic is the decimation that the chapter has lost its homeworld, and now can only field a force of roughly one hundred Space Marines. In a desperate attempt to keep the chapter alive, the current Chapter Master has created "salvation teams", salvage groups which scour dead tyranid hive ships in the hopes of finding any remnant of their shattered chapter; be it in the form of weapons, armor, or, wishfully, survivors. Orphans follows the journey of one such salvation team.

Leading the 21st Salvation Team has never been easy for Brother-Sergeant Tiresias. As an Astartes that witnessed both the loss of the home planet of Sotha and the crippling defeat at Miral, he licks wounds to his pride that can never heal. The group of neophytes under his command are hive-bangers and a savage; with the only fellow Sothan an indecisive youth, the group's weakest link. Like most of his fellow brothers, Tiresias yearns for one last grand assault against the foul xenos. They feel as though there is naught to lose; that the chapter is already doomed. They bridle at the current Chapter Master's frugal tactics of self-preservation over revenge. They feel shame at spending their days picking clean the corpses of their fallen brothers. In a decision of pride versus planning, it is often difficult to err on the side of caution.

However, things take a dramatic turn when the team makes an amazing discovery, one that they had always dreamed of but never actually expected to find......a survivor. Laying entombed, but not yet dead, within the bowels of a dead hive ship is revered Commander Cassios.

Cassios, revived from his slumber, is of a mindset that nothing has changed since his time in stasis, and therefore he is ready to resume his charge against the insidious tyranids. This of course has a dramatic effect on the impressionable neophytes of the Salvation Team. Cassios' actions provide a great moral quandary for Tiresias; for although Tiresias desired no more than to die in a blaze of glory, he suddenly comes to grips with the dire consequences of throwing four pieces of precious future resource into the furnace for a simple, vainglorious charge. In the end, whose voice will hold greater sway: that of Tiresias or of the newcomer hero Cassios?

Richard Williams' prose really brings this Orphans of the Kraken to life. The story, told in the first person POV of Tiresias, unfolds via multiple layers of flashbacks, and truly conveys the depth of loss and melancholy felt by these proud warriors of the God-Emperor. Williams has also crafted a fine backstory for the Scythes; I don't know how much original backstory existed for them other than this old pic from the old GW days when Space Marines either had mohawks and shades or looked like Duke Nukem rejects:


When I was reading Orphans, I could not help but think of the phrase "Waiting for Superman" (as in the title of the documentary). The phrase refers to waiting for some legendary hero to arrive to right a dire circumstance through his own inherent magic; with the implication of course being the reminder that the onus is always on us to enact change. Thus, by the end of Orphans, you realize how fractured is this knight in shining armor, arriving out of the blue, and you truly appreciate the methodical planning of those like Chapter Master Thracian, a master of planning long-term objectives and accepting the concessions involved.

Along with doing an admirable job presenting the psychology of the super-human Astartes, Williams conveys the tyranids in masterful fashion. He understands the physiology of the repulsive aliens, from their tiniest organisms, up to the massive, living hive ships. In this manner he conveys the circle of life in which the role of each participant contributes to the continuation of the monstrous whole.

This is a story that I cannot recommend highly enough. It perfectly conveys emotions that run deeper than can be quantified; shame, pride, loss, and brotherhood. Perfect pacing throughout, with a rousing, emotional climax.

Available in the Legends of the Space Marines anthology, as a single e-book, and as part of the 25 for 25 exclusive. Please Black Library, give Richard Williams a big fat advance to do a few more books!

Here's what it is:
Warriors of a chapter on the brink of extinction get a choice; continue the ponderous task of rebuilding, or go out with guns blazing. A near tear-jerking tale.

Final Score:

93/100

Cover Score:

Out of all the Space Marines anthologies, this one is my favorite cover. Doom Eagles in action! If you look at the hi-res pic, you can see all the amazing detail on the armor. Look at the ornamentation, as well as the nicks and other damage. Love it.

Speaking of awesome covers, I graded this one because it is the book I read Orphans in. As mentioned, however, this story also appears in the 25 for 25 compilation. So, here's the wondrous pic of the cover as well, just in case you haven't seen anything worth drooling over today...



Cover Final Score:

91/100

Sunday, December 1, 2013

More Imperial Glory?

One of my favorite Imperial Guard books of all time is Richard William's Imperial Guard. It is a great piece of Guard vs. Ork action, with well-done orky point of view chapters and an unconventional, but excellently handled ending, all of which inspired by the British-Zulu conflict. It is due for a re-read for sure, and hopefully a review.

Williams currently has no Black Library work in the pipeline right now, which is a shame. So you can imagine how excited I was when I spotted this on his Facebook page:

I was re-reading Imperial Glory the other day and was wondering:

I'll have a small amount of time over Xmas, would people be interested in a short 'unofficial' piece that covers exactly what happened to Blanks between the penultimate and final chapter?

Or is this the kind of thing where everyone already has their own idea and actually you wouldn't want a version that will contradict/may be worse than what's already in your head?



Sounds like a great idea, right? If you've read this title, and if you have a chance, drop by Richard's page and voice your support for this great idea!