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.
Penumbral Spike: 73/100
Black Gulch: 70/100
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