Monday, July 21, 2014

Faith & Fire

Faith & Fire by James Swallow. A Sisters of Battle novel by James Swallow, originally published March, 2006. Approx. 395 pages.

Ah yes, the Adepta Sororitas, also known as the Sisters of Battle. Those stoic daughters of the Emperor that so seamlessly combine lethal, power-armored soldiery with the "sexy nun" fetish most men harbor. The Sisters have long been fan-favorites in the WH40K universe, and yet, there are a painfully minuscule number of books devoted to them. Sure, they pop up here and there in other works. But so far, the only real chances they've had to shine on their own are in the two novels and one audio book penned by James Swallow. Oh, and the Sisters of Silence audio book penned by Edward Knight. Can't forget that one.

If you peruse online reviews of Faith & Fire, they are pretty mixed. The reviews on the lower end site problems with it such as pacing, characterization, and just being pretty boring overall. I wonder if those folks actually read the novel all the way through. F&F is by no means perfect, and it does get off to a slow start, but it ends up being a pretty decent read all in all. Let's take a look.

Faith & Fire revolves around a Celestian Squad of the Order of the Martyred Lady. This squad is led by a Sister Superior named Miriya.

No, not this Miriya. Although I confess to picturing the protagonist looking like this....

Miriya and her squad are tasked with delivering a particularly dangerous psyker named Torris Vaun from a Black Ship to the planet Neva (which the Sisters orbit in their cruiser Mercutio) and into the hands of the Ecclesiarchy leader there, one Deacon Viktor LaHayn. Things take an inevitable turn for the worse, and the psyker uses his considerable powers to engineer his escape. Turns out the Vaun was quite the successful villain and corsair down on Neva, and he is more than ready to re-engage in his nefarious former activities.

Miriya takes it as her solemn duty to track Vaun down and bring the Emperor's justice to him. Not only for her unjured pride though. Vaun's escape act led to one of her squad dying, and another feeling shamed enough to commit to the Sisters Repentia squad. And so, the chase is on.

Of course, things are not only what they seem. It turns out the Vaun's actions are geared more towards revenge, not base criminality. His actions also bring the attention of the Sororitas to bear on LaHayn himself. Could such a seemingly righteous, pious beacon of the Emperor's light be involved in the heretical happenings on Neva? And, if so, how high are the stakes that Vaun and LaHayn are playing for?

Let's take a look at where Faith & Fire hits the mark, and where it misses...

Kind of a miss here, and that's what ultimately consigns this book to the mid-level of 40K novels.

Yeah, I've been champing at the bit to pepper this review with kawaii Sororitas "Heresy" pics. And you can bet your sweet ass that there are more to come.

The main problem with our main protagonists, the Battle Sisters, is that they are, by engineering, quite possibly even more narrow-minded than the mighty Space Marines. They are groomed for piety, and zealotry, not independent thought or creative interpretation of dogmatic doctrine. Ergo, Miriya becomes quite a rigid lead. Her dogged straight-forwardness is admirable, and her unwavering attitude gives her a strength, but there is little personality. She is given a moral tether of sorts in Verity, a Sister Hospitaller who was blood sister to Miriya's squad Sister that died in Vaun's escape. Verity is a bit more of a sympathetic figure; she possesses a broader spectrum of emotions by far. The problem with her is that everything about her, from her actions to her reactions and line delivery is fairly predictable and rote. Unfortunately, she is relegated to the role of pretty cardboard cutout.

Even as a cardboard cutout, Verity makes out better than the rest of Miriya's squadmates. They are simply extras with names. The other Celestians do little more than show up when the bolts fly, and after a certain point I gave up trying to match the brief physical descriptions with the names (at one point, I was just trying to remember which was the "wounded one"). Canoness Galatea, being the top ranking Battle Sister, is handled decently, striking a fair balance between sternness and care for those under her.

The villains fare slightly better than the heroes. Torris Vaun is fleshed out as a bad guy with every right to be bad (he's been used as a tool and a creature by those in charge since he was little), and that kind of bad guy always gets some sympathy right off the bat. I just pictured him as Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty character from Blade Runner, and it worked well. A little more pathos would have made him a great character, but he gets by on copious amounts of sarcasm and acidic one-liners just fine.

As for Deacon LaHayn, he should have had a handlebar moustache to twirl diabolically from the get-go. Not to raise the spoiler alarm, but most of the duplicitous characters in this book come festooned with red flags, so there are few surprises. LaHayn shapes up to be a decent villain in that there is a valid logic, an actual method to his madness. Although he spends most of the time chewing the scenery with glee, he does present the argument the the end might justify the means, no matter the cost of the means.

Guilty as charged.....

Faith & Fire starts off as a fugitive mystery and evolves into a conspiracy story with a grand finale. No surprises, very standard story template with fairly predictable obligatory obstacles. Nothing bad, but nothing new.

World Building (and adherence to canon terminology):
Here is where Swallow hits it out of the park. I'm guessing he decided to devote the bulk of his creativity into building a truly vibrant slice of Imperium life (too bad it ends up stocked with static characters). Swallow richly blends elements of parochial grandeur and steampunk technology. We also get excellent depictions of the specific technology of the 40K universe (the rankings, etc. of the Sororitas, various weaponry, how they work, what havoc they wreak, etc.). He knows the lore well, and does not make the telling encyclopedic or dry. You get a good idea of the physiology and capabilities of the Sisters, an accurate idea of their appearance and tactics.
Pictured: Miriya in her battle dress. Oh wait, nevermind.....(needs more fleur-de-lis).

Going back to existing reviews, some will lament how boring this book is, and some say it is non-stop action. Faith & Fire is neither, further proving how little trust you should put in online reviews. There is a significant lapse in action towards the beginning, after Vaun's escape. This is where Swallow goes into the many details of life on Neva. There is plenty of action throughout, and well-done too. There are a few nicely staged major set pieces.

Swallow writes some brutal sequences as well. he enjoys describing the effect that 40th Millenium technology has on squishy human parts. He likes to use the word "paste" often in describing remains. Anyone is susceptible to a gruesome death; it was pretty jarring when one high-ranking sister died in a mess of burning, exposed ribs. Also, he does a good job writing for the destructive powers of the psykers. There are scenes where you have witchfire against cleansing fire, and it is pretty glorious. We also get the big ending sequence featuring a literal (not literary) Deus Ex Machina.

And so, there you have it. Faith & Fire ends up being a good title, when it could have been a great title. Yet, I am sufficiently intrigued to slog through the second Sisters of Battle book, Hammer & Anvil, just to see some more Sororitas kicking rear end.


Here's what it is:
James Swallow's first Battle Sisters offering delivers a glorious panorama of an Imperial world, populated with enjoyable, cinematic villains, and tougher than dollar steak protagonists. It's enough to make you root for the nuns and love the psyker.

Yup, sweetcheeks. Delicious, moist, heresy.

Please leave comments if you agree the Black Library needs more Sororitas novels now! Or if you have anymore Kawaii-Sisters memes, leave them too.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Honestly, I am really not too crazy about this cover.

No. Now you are just being a pain in the ass.

The black and white color scheme is nice, but the figure of (Miriya, I guess) is too rigid. The posing should have been done a little differently to allow more visibility of the arms. Personally, I am not a fan of that style of rendering faces. But to each their own. Good detail on the uniform though.

If you ask me, they should reissue these books in omnibus form and slap a pic of master cosplayer Jna (whose Sororitas getup gives me some mightily heretical thoughts) on the cover.

Cover Final Score:


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