The Few by Mike Lee. A Warhammer 40K Crimson Fists short story, originally published by The Black Library, June 2014. Approx. 16 pages.
The Crimson Fists. That fan-favorite Second Founding Chapter of tough-as-nails Space Marines which was decimated into almost non-existence during the events of Rynn's World. Recently, The Black Library has released some shorts featuring the Fists, including this title, as well as a follow-up to the Space Marines Battles freshman novel Rynn's World called Culling the Herd (like World, penned by Steve Parker). Mike Lee, who authors The Few, also had a Crimson Fist novella released last year called Traitor's Gorge, which has mysteriously disappeared from the Black Library website. Odd. EDIT: Traitor's Gorge has reappeared in the Black Library Vault. Well, we'll have a review on that in the (hopefully) near future. As for now, let's take a look at The Few.
Two things to consider regarding The Few: tone and length. I recently wrote that with Black Library books, the tone will usually be either character-driven or action-focused. Either way works well with a skilled scribe, and The Few falls into the action slot. As for length; these shorts usually run in the 20-odd page range. The Few is exceptionally lean; coming in at around 16 pages. The good news is that Mike Lee budgets his word count very well. This is no great story; but it is most certainly a good one with plenty of Astartes vs. Eldar action.
As far as characters go, we are presented with three cardboard cutouts; Sternguard Sergeant Galleas, the level-headed resourceful leader, Olivar, the grizzled, one-eyed perennial griper, and Titus Juno, another veteran sergeant. He doesn't have much personality, he's just an all-around good trooper. The three of them are more recognizable by their armor than anything else; Galleas and Juno are Deathwatch veterans, bearing their mark on their pauldrons. Olivar festoons his armor with purity seals and excerpts of the Imperial Creed, and Juno carries a trio of human skulls as a grim memorial.
Let's talk about the plot. Ok, there isn't much of one. You have the Fists on one side, the Eldar on the other, and a handy-dandy Macguffin in the middle. In The Few, the three protagonists are working with a contingent of Chapter serfs to purge the xenos infestation on the world of Parthus IV. The story takes place a mere month after the devastating events of Rynn's World, thus so many wounds remain painful and raw.
That's basically it. Since the storyline couldn't be any more basic, it falls on Lee to make the intangibles relevant. He had to let us feel the need of the Fists to adjust and adapt; since every aspect of their lives have reshuffled, including the execution of the duties that they have been engineered to perform. Lee does a fair job at this; and where he shines is in showing how the small force has to utilize methods and munitions in manners that are both effective and frugal.
The action scenes are well done for the most part. There is exceptional attention to detail regarding the types of bolter rounds used at given times. The descriptions of the physical motions of the Fists, as well as the details of the Eldar armor, are fairly robust. Where Lee loses it is when action scenes degrade to generic moments of bolter-bursts and flying corpses. These are moments where we needed to feel that the Fists were counting every last bullet expended, and the Eldar, as a race, needed to be treated as more than mere bolter fodder. But, as stated, when the action is detailed, it is very good, including one thrilling duel.
As for characterization, that's a tough one. Character development is not the driving aspect here, but as a reader you also need something to let yourself feel invested in the story. From the onset, the team is immersed in a mission, and so, apart from Olivar's complaining, we know precious little about them. Objectively speaking, an Astartes on a mission is like a well-oiled machine, it gets the job done with no emotion involved. And, we do see a little more of what makes these three tick at the end of the story. My recommendation would have been to have some flashbacks on our protagonists, even as little as a page each. Show us what they were doing during the battle of Rynn's World, let us understand the extent of their grave resolve. This would have established our team, and gotten the page count up a little higher. Alas, that is not what you get here.
Don't get me wrong. You will probably like these Fists. Between the action and the interplay at the end, more stories featuring this trio would be very welcome.
Here's what it is:
A painfully small team of Crimson Fists do battle with the Eldar. A lot of fighting ensues. That is literally it.
Very nice cover by Kevin Chin. A lone Crimson Fist stands at stoic attention. Chin incorporates aspects of all the characters' decorations; notice the skull, as well as the affixed scrollwork. The only thing that detracts from the cover is the decision to center the font, obscuring the best details. The title should have gone at the bottom for sure.
Cover Final Score: