Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Black Pilgrims

The Black Pilgrims by Guy Haley. A Black Templars Terminators short story, originally published by The Black Library, September 2014. Approx. 15 pages.

Out of the recent offerings of The Black Library's most recent short story theme, Space Marine Terminators, The Black Pilgrims most appealed to me for two reasons: firstly, it is penned by that whirling writing dervish, Guy Haley (who is churning out quality pages at a frighteningly prolific rate), and also, because it focuses on the Black Templars. What fan of a setting such as the Warhammer 40,000 universe could resist them? The Black Templars are an absolutely perfect symbol of a brutal, belligerent dogmatic regime; take the Lord's Knights and don them in the darkest black.

Essentially,  Deus Vult 40,000.

Well, Black Templars fans, rejoice. This badass Chapter finds itself in Haley's capable hands. I was excited about the news that he has a Templars novel coming out in 2015, and then I took a moment and realized that he had already put out an impressive array of stories featuring them so far (got a lot of catching up to do).

Anyway, without further adieu, on to The Black Pilgrims....

After three centuries of being deemed lost, the Veritas Diras has reappeared from the warp. Considering the length of its absence, it is assumed that all the pilgrims aboard this cathedral ship have been lost. It falls to Castellan Adelard and his Templar sword-brothers to verify, and to ensure that this most holy ark does not fall from the Emperor's Light.

What this most Holy contingent finds is, of course, much more horrifying. There's no reason to really get into it now. This is a very quick little tale, and the enemy rears its head soon enough. The great thing is not in who the enemy is, but how Haley presents them. Haley is a highly logical and analytical author, so he focuses heavily on behavioral nuances, to a highly satisfactory result.

Now, the two areas in which Haley usually excels are in scene-building (especially planet-building), and bringing a rich vocabulary to bear. The Black Pilgrims is no exception. The action does not take place planetside, obviously. But the description we are given of the appearance and interior of a cathedral ship are excellent. The longtime 40K is familiar with the basic appearance of such a ship, that reader simply needs the details to be accurate. The way Haley describes it makes it welcoming to a new reader as well, allowing a 40K tyro to walk away saying "a cathedral ship fashioned out of an asteroid with gargoyle-shaped cannons? Wow, that's pretty sweet."

As for vocabulary, that is here too. This isn't a story where big words are used to impress, it is one where they are simply used well. Sometimes it is nice for a story to send you to the dictionary. Here, in the second paragraph alone, we find "marmoreal" and "albedo".

One last note of merit. Haley always writes good fight scenes, but the primary battle here is done exceptionally well. The blow by blow fight choreography is vivid and effective, and consideration is taken for the fact that some of the Templars go into battle using shield and melee weapon combinations. Also, Haley stresses the functional mechanics of the power armor, focusing on how it accentuates or stabilizes certain actions. This is important because, well, if the suit of armor itself is a central part of the theme, playing up its capabilities is part of the homework assignment.

As for characters, we get a strong central protagonist in Adelard. His sword brothers are realized enough to satisfy their functions and show a diverse array of weaponry. This is perfectly fine considering the length of of the story. The real question is whether or not the mentality of the Black Templars has been properly conveyed. On that note, Haley recently shared his perspective on Templar psychology here. Early on in this story, you don't notice anything in particular, since the Astartes are all business on the ingress. However, once they face their foe, the bombastic verbal fury is pretty spot-on.

All in all, what you have in The Black Pilgrims is one of the more enjoyable WH40K shorts I have read in a while. Slightly jarring is an extremely abrupt ending. Not bad, or incomplete, I mean once one thing is done, the whole story jerks to a complete stop. Still a solid yarn, though.

Here's what it is:
The Holy Knights of Terra face off against and enemy which is a contorted, mocking abomination of all that they hold divine and true. A most sanctified purge ensues.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I like how they credit this: icon by Kevin Chin. Everything I see by Chin I love, and this piece is no different. Why Games Workshop doesn't do much merchandising outside of the tabletop pieces, like shirts, pins, etc., is completely beyond me. Great detailing on this sword icon.

Cover Final Score:


Monday, September 1, 2014

Penumbral Spike & Black Gulch

 Penumbral Spike and Black Gulch by Ben Counter. Two Sanctus Reach short stories, originally published by The Black Library, July 2014. Approx. 27 pages (Spike), and 14 pages (Gulch).

Today, I'll be doing something a little bit different: bundling two short stories into one review. Allow me to explain: I knew all along that I would read and review both of these Ben Counter Sanctus Reach shorts. I opted to go with Black Gulch first, but could tell throughout that it worked better as a follow-up to Penumbral Spike. Therefore, I read Spike immediately afterward.

The fact of the matter is that both of these stories are quite similar (plus, Gulch is pretty short), so they don't really need separate reviews. We'll look at the core elements of both first, and then go into their individual merits.

By this point, when you read a Ben Counter story, you have a pretty good idea of what you are in for. Counter is notoriously weak on characterization, but excels at physical descriptions and battle scenes. One of the Black Library's longest-tenured authors, he is a premier bolter-pornographer.

This short story duology focuses on the incursion of Warlord Grukka as he lays waste to Obstiria, the highly irradiated homeworld of the Obsidian Glaives Chapter of Space Marines. In Penumbral Spike, a massive assault force of Ork Freebooterz lays waste to the Glaives' titular fortress-monastery. And in Black Gulch, Midnias, Chapter Master of the Obsidian Glaives, leads a last-ditch assault against Grukk himself.

First things first. The Glaives have a very interesting background setting, but Counter does not do much to utilize it in writing for the characters here. We get some decent flashbacks to be sure, but nothing in the way of an effective psychology for the Chapter. Things like the eternal penance each Marine endures, we don't get. There are memories, like ghost pains, that each endure, but the notion of it as a core moral tenet is never realized.

The action, however, is done to a satisfactory level. And there is plenty of it. In Penumbral Spike, the forces of Freebooter Kaptin Flamegut wreak merry havoc through the chapter-monastery, until they crash against an arrayed force of all twelve of the Glaives' Dreadnoughts. Great concept, and well done. There is an all-too convenient plot device that forces urgency upon the vitality of the ancient brothers. It is there because it is needed. One side effect is the deterioration of the mental stability of the Dreadnoughts, causing them to suffer memory lapses. In these moments, they feel as though they are the complete Astartes they once were, glorious on the battlefield. Counter handles these moments very well. In Black Gulch, flashbacks are presented in separate paragraphs, here you don't recognize the mental slip for the first few lines. Well played.

As mentioned before, creature descriptions are stellar here. Counter has a lot of fun constructing the orky pirate vision of Flamegut, as well as other special unit types. Strong attention is also paid to the ornamentation on the Dreadnoughts. The one thing I was hoping for is more description on the melee weapons; one Glaive is described as using an obsidian-esque weapon, but how common are they among the other members of the Chapter?

Finally, one thing that I was certainly not expecting here: Spike caps off with a bona fide emotional ending. That was a pleasant surprise I did not see coming.

Fast forward to Black Gulch, and we no longer focus on the Dreadnoughts, but on the last stand of Chapter Master Midnias. The same things that worked in Spike work here, and what didn't work obviously still doesn't. Instead of characterization, we have bombastic battle cries (that were better in Spike). There is also a plethora of bone-crunching action (done a bit better here than in Spike). When you come to a point where you are reading about "stringy pieces of meat" caught in the teeth of a chainsword, you are truly reminded of exactly why you love WH40K.

Instead of the memory slips of the Dreadnoughts, in Gulch, Midnias looks back on his service as a Glaive; specifically on the time he spent in the brig before being offered a chance to join, and on his brutal initiation rite. These moments are not as poignant as in Spike, but it gives us an interesting glimpse at his service.

The single best part of Black Gulch is the description of the monstrous Warlord Grukk, which is nothing short of frightening.

In Black Gulch, there is no emotional ending. What is offered is a furious brawl and a end that is a bit of a shock, even though it is a foregone conclusion.

Here's what they are:
An exciting pair of short stories that give a blistering account of the last days of a unique Astartes Chapter, even if the finer nuances of their behavior aren't presented.

Final Scores:

Penumbral Spike: 73/100

Black Gulch: 70/100

Cover Scores:

Another pair of covers by Alex Boyd, which, I am still guessing, came from one of the gaming supplements. Both are technically impressive, if not outstanding. Both the rendition of the Dreadnought and the ork seem a tad generic for the scopes of the stories.

Cover Final Scores:

Penumbral Spike: 68/100

Black Gulch: 72/100