Friday, October 31, 2014

Votum Infernus

Votum Infernus by Nick Kyme. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 17 pages. 

We close out this year's Haunted Happenings with the last of the Legion of the Damned short stories, this one a yarn penned by Nick Kyme. So, yeah, that is what scared me the most off the bat. Wasn't I pleasantly surprised that this tale of an Imperial Guardsman trying to escape the sadistic Dark Eldar turned out to be an enjoyable, tense, action packed romp.

The world of Kaeros has been laid to waste by Dark Eldar raiders. One trooper, a man named Hersk, is the last man standing of the proud ranks of the Vostroyan 64th. There is no safety; there is no escape. And worst of all, his suffering has piqued the interest of a sibling pair of Eldar succubi. There are few things worse than being privy to the sadistic tendencies of the Dark Eldar elite.

And yet, on the near horizon, a lone warrior stands, clad in in ebon black and bone. What does this warrior's arrival portend for Hersk and his pursuers?

This is by far the best work I have read by Kyme to date. He utilizes strong imagery, helping to generate palpable tension. There are one or two twists in the tale that I really did not see coming. I like his portrayal of the Dark Eldar as well. It is campy, and lurid, as charged sexually as it is violently. The violence is choreographed well, and he knows well how to write for the Dark Eldars' bizarre weaponry, weaponry designed to maximize infliction of pain.

Kyme's portrayal of the Legion is done in a fine manner as well. The lone legionnaire serves as a stoic rock for the wild eldar to break themselves upon. The reason for introducing the Legion in this story works just fine.

Where the Votum Infernus falters a little bit are in the scenes where the number of characters on the page increase. It works best when we have our core quartet; Hersk, the Legionnaire, Slethial, and Yethanda. The parts where more of the Legion appear, as well as larger masses of the Eldar, the writing feels rushed.

It also seems unnecessary to even mention that Hersk and his comrades are Vostroyan. There are no cultural references, save some made up slang, and there are no special tactics either (to be fair, from the onset of the story, the main plan is "run for your lives!"). This is no big problem, and Hersk remains a sympathetic, if pitiable, character.

And there you have it. Votum Infernus is a solid Legion tale that deserves to be read. Happy Halloween everyone!

Here's what it is:
A lone member of the Vostroyan finds potential deliverance from evil in the form of a spectral warrior clad in midnight. This is my second favorite of the LotD shorts.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Same skull, enveloped in green. This green either signifies the Dark Eldar armor, or the fact that Kyme usually writes for Salamanders (I know it's the former). Not my favorite color.

Cover Final Score:



Undead (Living Dead Omnibus) by John Russo. Originally published in October, 2010 by Kensington Books. Approx. 156 pages (Night of the Living Dead) and 165 pages (Return of the Living Dead).

Back in 1968, a little independent movie went on to become the best horror movie of all time. I am speaking of course of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which is required viewing for Halloween night. And, as we all know, due to the infamous leaving out of a copyright, it can be viewed any time for free in the vast openness of the Public Domain.

But what I didn't know was that there was actually a novelization of the film, penned by co-screenwriter John Russo. Russo would also write the blueprint for a sequel, very serious in tone, called Return of the Living Dead, which would be made into a classic, although not very serious in tone, movie.

Anyway, both of these books have been compiled into a handy omnibus, with a very nifty cover (just look at that ugly mug). Just a not: currently on Amazon, the omnibus is selling as a bargain book for $5.98. So how do these stories fare compared to their film counterparts? Both are quick reads, and reviews vary pretty widely . Let's take a look.

Night of the Living Dead:
This adaptation is the shorter of the two included here. If, by some chance you are unfamiliar with the story, here's a quick synopsis: some mysterious force has caused the recently dead to come back to life in a murderous state. In NotLD, we follow Ben, a resourceful father separated from his family in Western Pennsylvania, as he holes up in a farmhouse to try and weather out the zombie attack. He does his best to reinforce the home, while taking care of another survivor, a young woman named Barbara, who is in a catatonic state since being attacked along with her brother. Later on, they meet some more survivors hiding out in the basement, including a married couple with an injured daughter, and a young teen couple. Unfortunately, as the night progresses, the zombie mass swells, and the outlook within the farmhouse gets bleaker and bleaker.

Russo does a fairly serviceable retelling of the movie here. Novelizations, at best, offer an author a chance to "flesh out" characters from a film, giving fans that precious look inside of their heads which isn't visible on celluloid. Russo opts not to do that. He gives these familiar characters a little extra backstory, but that is about it. In this case, it isn't a bad thing. These characters don't need to be fleshed out even more, they've stood the test of time for effectively conveying personality types you see in a crisis: the calm-headed resourceful one, the one that shuts everything out, the cowardly, griping, malcontent, the youthful, helpful ones that don't think things all the way through. So, what Russo does is assign physical descriptions to the zombies that were not available with the budget and technology that Romero had to work with. This yields satisfying depictions of walking, rotting carcasses, more gruesome deaths, etc. 

The only other additional material here is a little more focus on Sheriff McClellan's posse, giving you an idea of their progress.

Russo has a decent writing style; I really don't get the people who call this work "amateurish". There is amateurish, and there is accessible. This book falls in the latter. It is a novel that can be read with ease by a twelve year old, which might in fact be the best target audience for the book. Some words are used fairly repetitively; Russo does not really use the word "zombie", although "ghoul" is a good substitute, but when he keeps calling the "attackers" or "aggressors", it sounds kind of odd. There are some times where the descriptions are just silly; I believe he was referring to the TV when he described it as "one like those people bought in the thirties". 

All in all, this is a good enough novelization, assuming you ever wanted to read the book version of Night of the Living Dead. At least with Return, there is some new material to be found. So, how did that story turn out?

Return of the Living Dead:
For his sequel to the events in Night of the Living Dead, Russo sets the timeline at ten years after the original outbreak. The location remains the same, and we are even reunited with hard-nosed Sheriff McClellan.

In this follow-up story, the events of the first outbreak are never forgotten, but rarely talked about. A reason for those events was still never isolated, and after the dead uprising was quelled, the government kept all talk of it hush-hush. However, in the areas around Willard, the local church goers have learned to be proactive: with each death, a railroad spike is driven into the corpse's skull, lest it may walk again.

Again, we never learn what triggers this outbreak. Whereas in Night, there was speculation put forward that the cause of the dead rising was linked to radiation from a Venus Probe, in Return the consensus is that it is viral. 

In RotLD, we focus at the beginning on Sheriff McClellan. Once things get off and shambling, the focus shifts to the Miller family, and their dealings with a roving gang, and also on a State Trooper named Dave, as he tries to make sense of a world turned on its head.

Storyboarding itself like a low budget movie, Return has a very "localized" feel. There are good and bad aspects to this. It serves well to stress the immediacy of the danger. But there are some things that just don't add up. For example, the bulk of the book takes place over the span of 48 hours, and, even though it is mentioned that it is happening elsewhere (again), you never get the feeling that there is anything going on outside the area of action. With not too many shamblers afoot, you would think that when someone gets their hands on car, they would bolt 10-15 minutes away to where some serious backup could be acquired. The attempt is made to recreate the same feeling of isolation from help as in the previous novel, but logic quells that argument. Another part that gave me a laugh was when a farmer holed up on a hill told the trooper that they had been "surviving off of canned food since it started". Sir, it only started yesterday. 

One other problem we encounter in Return is flat characters. All the primaries are painted in the broadest possible manner, in what I am guessing is a move meant to create identifiable, sympathetic, screen ready characters. So, while there is precious little development, it is fairly simple to guess each characters core function and guess how they will fare in the end.

On the other hand, the zombies are written with obvious aplomb. Russo again fleshes out some scary looking walkers, infusing them with a sort of malevolence burning behind their ravenous cravings for living flesh. He goes into gory detail when it comes to their feeding sessions. One instance in particular has him adding symbolic rape elements to a death by zombie; a moment that would have translated extremely well to the screen.

Another story angle that Russo wisely explores in this sequel is embracing one of the inevitable results of a zombie apocalypse: the fact that once people learn to contend with the undead, the real danger lies with other people. The people pushing their motives to the fore in a now lawless area. The looters, the rapists, and those with delusions of grandeur. Now, while Russo spends a good amount of time focusing on these miscreants, what he serves up are fairly one-dimensional bad guys (this is where the fact that this was written as being intended for a screen adaptation shows through). So, on both ends of the spectrum (good vs. evil), Return is filled with static characters and cardboard villains.

The final act of Return is composed in an interesting manner. As McClellan and his posse figure into the story more and more, Russo copies chapter from the first novel to the word (just updating a few facts to coincide with this scenario). Obviously this is meant to be a parallel to Night, but it just feels like deja vu all over again.

It's hard to deliver a final verdict on Return of the Living Dead. I don't want to say it's a mediocre book, because there are some very good elements here. But for everything done well, there is something phoned in. And there's no way to avoid that affecting the bottom line.

Here's what they are:
This zombie double-feature boast some well drawn zombies, but poorly realized characters. Both employ simple, easily accessible writing. Perhaps, in the end, they are entirely unnecessary novelizations, but they are still quite enjoyable in their own regards. Whereas in NotLD, the extra bells and whistles on the zombies themselves and their attacks add to the story, in Return is feels like a bit of a rehash. 

Final Scores:

Night of the Living Dead: 72/100

Return of the Living Dead: 67/100

Cover Score:

Very nice cover showing good detail on a zombie's face. What more can you ask for with a cover for a book like this?

Cover Final Score:


Monday, October 27, 2014

Ship Of The Damned

Ship of the Damned by C.Z. Dunn. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 29 pages.

Ship of the Damned is a short story that worried me a little bit from the get-go, from the moment I saw the sub-header "An Agentha of the Fractured Cipher Tale". When I see something like this, I worry that either a) I am about to read the further adventures of a character that I will need to track down previous works for background info on, or b) the author is presenting a character that they created which they believe is the cat's pajamas, and thus that character's appearance in the story is important enough to justify said sub-header. Which would imply that the character really is that good, and ergo, so is the writing. And, not to be rude, but while C.Z. Dunn is not a bad writer, he certainly isn't that good. Rant over, no disrespect intended.

Fact is, Ship of the Damned is a serviceable story, and that's about it. It does succeed in providing an interesting protagonist, one that is strong enough to carry this tale which features the Legion itself in a pretty sparse role. So who is Agentha, and what is the Fractured Cipher? Well, Agentha is a Sororitas of the Ordo Dialogous, which means that her specialty is more in linguistics than ballistics (although she does have serviceable weapons training). The Fractured Cipher is simply her Order. It's always welcome to have a story headed up by the Sororitas, and focusing on the Dialogous is a fresh point of view.

In Ship of the Damned, Agentha grabs some transit on a somewhat dilapidated pilgrim ship named the Herald of Piety. The opening pages detail which steps she has taken to streamline and upgrade worship services and education on this ship, which has gone years without touching planetside, and boasts an ever-increasing population of voidborn. Soon, a cryptic distress call is picked up over the ship's antiquated vox. Unfortunately, by the time Agentha decodes it, it is too late. The Herald is already executing a boarding maneuver on the hailing ship, and what it unleashes is horror from beyond the grave. How can Agentha help to save some of this flock she has grown so close to? And what part will the strange orb, retrieved from a bunch of squabbling youths, play in all of this?

So, what we have here is a fairly decent premise done little justice by the paint-by-numbers writing style. Dunn introduces an idea, a character, a theme, whatever, makes sure that there are sufficient explanatory terms, and moves on to the next checkpoint. The thing is, working within the parameters of a LotD short, there are some givens: we will meet the characters, we will meet the evil, the Legion will arrive, the Legion will eradicate the evil, the characters will enjoy a positive or negative outcome, the end. Knowing these will happen puts the onus on the author to really pack their story with tension, drama, terror, hope, whatever, just so long as they engage the reader. Dunn just isn't an engaging writer.

There are a few ways in which this is evident. First, the opening pages are spent acting as a checklist for all the good things that Agentha has done, as if that will solely endear her to us. No. Think of the universe you are writing in. A bleak, Orwellian, cruel, dogmatic regime. Now, think of what life would be like on a ship full of thousands of zealots devoted to this theological dictatorship. Then, think of how a warrior nun, raised since childhood to be a devotee of the Emperor-God of this interstellar superpower, would act normally. Once you have those parameters set, find a way to show us that the basic goodness of human nature can be extruded through the cruelties, and you have yourself a winning protagonist. Another problem is with the plague zombies. There simply isn't enough of them; not enough detail, not enough action. Dunn throws the children into the line of fire with them in an attempt to force tension (oh no! not the kids!), but, since we really don't care about the kids that much, we don't really worry that they might get gnawed on a bit.

One final question I have regards time keeping on pilgrim ships. Early on, we get mention that Agentha has scheduled classes and scripture in morning, afternoon, and evening blocks. Do they really adhere to those things in deep space? When does morning start? At sunrise?

As for the Legion, I have no complaints. The only original thing introduced in this story is that they are summoned via an artifact (personally, I like their appearance to be a miracle of their own deciding, as in Sander's novel). They have a very low page count here, so if that is a deal-breaker for you, consider yourselves warned.

Reading over the review, it seems I might be raking Ship of the Damned over the coals a bit too much. In retrospect, I will say that I would not be against reading another Agentha story in the future, assuming it is around the same length.

Here's what it is:
A Sororita (of one of the non-militant orders) does battle with plague zombies in a desperate bid to save her flock. Spectral assistance is tendered. This story definitely needed some better authorial chops to be properly realized, but is still readable.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Same skull, now in blue. Basic color association trends cause me to associate this scheme with cold. Nice color, though.

Cover Final Score:


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tomes Of The Dead: Viking Dead

Tomes of the Dead: Viking Dead by Toby Venables. Originally published by Abaddon Books, April 2011. Approx. 345 pages.

Continuing along with "period zombie novels" in Abaddon's Tomes of the Dead series, we move on to a historical figure that I am guessing has not gotten a lot of zombie treatment yet: the viking raider. Toby Venables aims to touch on this very promising subject matter in his debut novel, the matter-of-factly named Viking Dead. Now, while I was stoked at the premise, you can't help but be wary of freshman novels. However, existing online reviews were promising for this title, so I dove in. Upon finishing it, I can say that there is some really good stuff here, some run of the mill things, and a major "WTF" turn that will either be embraced or hated by the reader. Let's read on...

Taking place circa 976 AD, Viking Dead focuses on Bjolf, captain of the longship Hrafn, and leader of a diverse group of veteran viking raiders. We meet them as they launch a raid on a small village, where things do not go as planned. Picking up a young villager in the process (who later becomes a full-fledged member), they then run into a rival (and much larger) raiding party. Escaping catastrophe by the seat of their pants, they find themselves embroiled in a much greater horror.

Strange occurrences begin manifesting themselves soon into the Hrafn's egress. Following the ominous warnings of a terrified villager (the new "recruit", Atli's, father), evidence appears that the dead may indeed walk the earth again. At first, the incidents are small, although still jarring. The crew tries their best to not believe it, but mounting evidence makes that impossible. Soon, desperate for supplies, they find themselves approaching a mysterious land. A land shrouded in mist and mystery, which will, of course, prove to be the epicenter of the bizarre, twisted resurrections.

Within this land is a small fortress, where a ragtag clutch of villagers cower under the continual harassment of a villain named Skalla, a dreaded character who somehow holds sway over an army of corpses, a man who is the most likely key to the pressing questions of "how" and "why". But of course, there is always more beneath the surface. So much more. Let's look at all the parts of Viking Dead and see how they stack up together.

Characters: Hmmmm, gotta be honest here. Pretty much stock characters throughout. I don't know if I should chalk that up to rookie writing or Venables playing it safe. The characters are picked from templates and then written competently, even if predictable. Although written in a third person POV, the focus shifts primarily between Atli (the village boy turned viking recruit) and Bjolf. Atli was a bit of a pleasant surprise; it is very easy for books, movies, etc. to get ruined by introducing a child character that isn't presented well. Venables doesn't try too hard to make him into a prodigy, or make him likable. His is a fairly accurate account, if you take the time to step back and put yourself in his young boots. Unfortunately, Bjolf is a bit more cookie-cutter. He is just right in every facet, and of course, he has a heart of gold. I am not saying that all vikings were ruthless miscreants, but I'm assuming that Bjolf's crew has taken part in some rapings and child throat slittings during their years at sea. So much attention is paid to historical detail throughout (more on that later), that it seems somewhat cheap to forcefully impart 20th/21st century morality sets on these characters just to make them more palatable to a modern audience. But I guess we must do what we must do. Secondary and ancillary characters are punched out of cardboard as well. For example, we have Gunnar, Bjolf's longtime friend and second-in-command. Of course he is the bigger one, a bit socially awkward, and the completely loyal comic relief. Other crew members get fantastic introductions, but then, only a handful remain memorable, leaving the rest idling in the background as zombie fodder. There are friendly ones, and gruff ones, ones that are built around a single skill and no more, and of course, all are reliable at just the right time. These are tried and true tropes, so, while they are easily identifiable, they also make for easy reading. There is a late interlude where we get to saunter around a bit in the mind of our bad guy, Skalla, and in that time we have the set up for a sympathetic baddie (the best kind!), but, alas, not much is done with it.

Overall writing style/Knowledge of material: Venables has a very promising writing style, although there are some rookie missteps abound (we just finished the drubbing based on the characters). One of the main problems is "action for the sake of action during journey scenes". Yes, I get it. Those long walking scenes are pretty tiresome, so I can definitely understand the temptation to punch them up with some excitement, but some of the scenes are so arbitrary that they leave little chance to feel engaged.

However, there is an undeniably robust writing style at play here. Venables paces this novel extremely well. I have read some other reviews complaining that it is too long before the zombies arrive (well, in any considerable number). Yes, that portion of the book doesn't kick in until nearly halfway in, but you don't feel it as such. The story never bogs. The scenes of introduction and bonding are lively and entertaining. The world building is intense, detailed, and immersive. And it is peppered with great action scenes throughout.

One thing I really enjoyed is Venables' grasp of viking history. A hack writer attempting to compose such a period piece might have limited themselves to broad terms like "use the word longship, everyone is blond with beards and axes, etc.". Not so here. Viking Dead is saturated with terms and traditions that give you an intimately accurate experience of what traveling on one of these ships might have been like. The very real urgency of resource gathering, making the most of limited space, when to raid, and when to prepare to barter. The crew, as well, reflects a diversity that was more likely evident at the time than the standard "bearded blond" viking template we are familiar with. The Hrafn has warriors that are Scandinavian, English, Irish, and even Arabian in origin. There is mention of the mixed religions observed. Some revere the old Norse gods, some the "White Christ", some a mixture of both, some none. Again, though, as most of the playersdon't get a lot of characterization, these nice touches aren't as fully realized as they should have been.

Battle Scenes: Excellent. Venables writes robust, rousing action pieces that are complete with berserk rages and flying gobbets. There is plenty of action abound; be it viking vs. viking or viking vs. zombie. The characters use a nice array of weaponry, and it is interesting to see the utilized based on their characteristics (i.e.: there are various types of axes used, all with different blades, and therefore different techniques).

Zombies: Here we are at the most important ingredient in this viking horror stew. I must say that Venables writes some pretty amazing zombies. This is the billed main event, and it delivers. Drawing upon creatures from historical viking lore known as draugr, the author makes them into a truly palpable menace. These are dread figures of the shambling sort, although they can put on little bursts of speed. They are a bit stronger than their musculature might imply, and they can be killed by the traditional head shot. Two things, however, elevate the portrayal of them here. First is Venables' descriptive prose. He does not stop with the physical descriptions of the shamblers, he also gives you a first hand feeling of what it is like to do battle with one. The vile, black ichor that weeps from their wounds, The smells from beyond the grave. Impotent body blows that feel as little more than "stabbing into jelly".He takes it from painting a picture to delivering an experience, and the book benefits greatly from it.

Second, Venables employs a trick not often seen in zombie media, he makes the virus affect all creatures that taste the zombie blood. So, in a few choice encounters, the crew must face off against zombified critters. Nice.

Fear Factor: Fairly high here. There are some real claustrophobic moments, especially aboard the ship as the crew heads to their fate. The moments where our characters first discover evidences of the undead horrors resonate with the reader.

The Trouble With Quibbles: I've already mentioned the lack of unique characters and characterization, so for the time being I'll stop flogging that dead horse.

Ok, maybe just a few more strokes, you magnificent equine bastard!

There are a few more issues regarding some loose ends in the story, so as a warning, this bullet point list contains some SPOILERS:

  • First, what exactly are the ramifications of the scratch Atli receives from the underwater zombie? Is he impervious to the contamination? Does he possess an immunity that a cure can be extracted from? Or did the importance of it just wear off?
  • Second, what was the point of the "experimentations"? We know "the masters" were looking for a cure (or said they were), so why exactly were they stitching together zombie abominations? The scenes with these creatures were creepy, but what was the point?
  • What exactly was the point of the zombie "on and off" switches (the liquid and powder that Skalla carried)? No, I know the literal function of them. But the reasoning behind why they were introduced is never given to us.

Finally, we get to the big issue: the old twist ending (although this one was pretty easy to guess about twenty pages before it happens). I am guessing this turn will really not sit well with some readers, and I'll give Venables credit, it takes a lot of balls to steer your novel in a completely different direction after following the same road for a little over 300 pages. And, in all honesty, if you can swallow viking zombies in your book, well, you should be able to take anything. All I'm saying is, you might hate the ending. I didn't mind the twist.

"And I loved it!"

To the author's credit, it left the window open for sequel(s) featuring the remaining characters, in a new setting, which, given how enjoyable the overall quality of this book was, would not be a bad thing.

Here's what it is:
It's all in the title. Vikings vs. the viking dead. And it's done fairly well too. You get the bonus of historical authenticity and some of the better zombies I've seen in print. Plus, zombie ants. Don't laugh. Imagine your last moments being spent getting stripped to the bones by millions of crazed zombie ants.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I like it, but I don't love it. The color scheme is great, as is the arrangement of the zombies. I love the physicality of the central berserker (ties in to actual creature in the book). The only problem is that he is "too neat". It looks like someone drew a nice, fit viking and then tried to "deadify" him in Photoshop. For the two zombies on the wings, the one on the right is done very well, while the one on the left simply looks like he stepped on a Lego. A fate worse than death.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, October 23, 2014


Remorseless by Josh Reynolds. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 25 pages.

I will be completely honest right off the bat here; even with two more stories in the Legion of the Damned series to go, I don't think any will top Remorseless. This is a story written by an author who "gets" the universe he is writing in. And it is a story in which different types of troops, using different styles of tactics, are written properly. 

On the shrine world of Wayfarer, Hive Coramonde is under siege by the Iron Warriors (for the uninitiated, these are Traitor Space Marines that are the best in the universe in the siege business). On a somewhat brighter note, the residents on the hive are being assisted by the Imperial Fists, best in the universe at defending fortifications. Alas, the siege has been protracted quite a while, and the defenses are withering.

Taking down the hive, however, is not the Iron Warriors only motive. There are treasures on Wayfarer, treasures of a value beyond estimation; the progenoid glands of the Imperial Fists.  These glands are a prize worth fighting a war for.

Remorseless centers on Skaranx, who is what is known as a "gland hound". I don't know if Reynolds coined this term, but if he did, he deserves a lot of credit. The blurb for this story states that it follows a "traitor guardsman", but Skaranx is so much more than that. He has been genetically enhanced to a level of being just below the skill set of your average Astartes. He is pumped full of drugs and stimulants before each hunt, and he is given a retinue of bullet sponges to help him complete his task. 

But on this day, as he is unleashed on a gland hunt, something is different. Very different. As he harries a rather resourceful Fist, he keeps seeing ominous shadows just outside of the vision. Then a ghostly chatter begins to cloud his vox....

Okay, since this is a LotD story, it's a foregone conclusion where this is heading. So how did Reynolds fare in his depiction of the Legion? Wonderfully. This is the closest thing to a perfect representation of them that I have seen since Sander's novel. He plays up their fearful physicality superbly. And just when you start to wonder why their tactics differ somewhat from other appearances, he reveals a nice little twist.

It is not just his depictions of the Legion that I laud here, Reynolds writes with a colorful flourish throughout. He paints a wide horizon of a hive under siege, from the crushing artillery to the cannon fodder advancing through the trenches, to gore-soaked details of the handiwork of chainswords and grenades.

The characterization of Skaranx is very well done; he is given a personality strong enough to carry the text. He is as envious as he is proud; determined, and resourceful. One line in particular stood out to me in summarizing Skaranx's aspirations:

"He wondered what it would be like to be an angel, clad in baroque armour and wading through oceans of blood and eternities of slaughter."

If there is any minor quibble I have with Remorseless, it is that some themes get repeated quite a bit. I can understand that Skaranx might be repeating the same mantras over and over in his head, as a way to psyche himself up for the task at hand, so I won't dwell on it.

All in all, if you plan on reading only one of these Legion of the Damned story, make Remorseless the one. 

Here's what it is:
A genetically engineered super soldier of the Iron Warriors sent out to harvest progenoid glands gets an unforgiving lesson in what it feels like to be prey.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Same as the rest, but with a nice blood red hue.

Cover Final Score:


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dark Wars: The Tale Of Meiji Dracula

Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula by Hideyuki Kikuchi. Originally published in America by Del Rey Manga, 2008 (in 2004 by Kodansha in Japan) . Approx. 250 pages.

Hideyuki Kikuchi could be considered an icon of the horror and vampire genres based simply on the voluminous body of his work. What grants him even more esteem is that his seminal work, Vampire Hunter D, was adapted into one of the greatest vampire films of all time:

Sorry, Youtube doesn't have a full version in Japanese with English subtitles. But this is the version people around my age grew up with, and it's not the worst dub you'll ever see.

A few years back, I wanted to try one of the Vampire Hunter D books, but my local Barnes & Noble of course did not have the first volume. Instead, I opted for Dark Wars as a Kikuchi primer. I wanted to see his usage of Dracula as a central antagonist, plus, the cover (by Katsuya Terada), was more aesthetically appealing to me than Yoshitaka Amano's VH-D covers.

So how was this vampire standalone? I will be honest, this is one of the harder books for me to grade. There is a simple delivery here which might be taken for amateur writing, which it isn't. There are opportunities for some real discourse regarding the changing dynamic of Japan in the Meiji era, but that was not the author's intent, so it is not on me to criticize. What I can say about Dark Wars is that it reads like a novelization of an anime storyboard; and as such, it is filled with as many stale tropes as it is with bold, imaginative moments. There are the touches of Kikuchi's authorial pedigree which transcend this yarn from simple Dracula fan fiction to something that sticks with you a bit. But I will say now, there is a major complaint I have regarding the ending (and I mean the last page), that might be considered a SPOILER when I get to it. So, consider yourselves warned; you might want to scroll past it later.

Dark Wars is structured as both a historical horror-fantasy and a Japanese parallel (of sorts) to Bram Stoker's opus. It takes place in the year 188- (seriously), in post-Bakumatsu Meiji Tokyo (formerly Edo). There is a nice little assortment of characters here, but the protagonist of note is Daigo, a seventeen year old kenjutsu (swordsmanship) prodigy. Daigo is a withdrawn, stoic, handsome type with a secret(more on that in the "tropes" section); and he carries a sadness over the loss of his father, an esteemed samurai who was lost at sea. He is close friends with historical figure Shiro Saigo, a prodigy of the newly founded discipline of judo, Both of them share close ties with sisters Chizuru and Akane, daughters of the Kashiwabara Isanosuke, master of a local koryu school. And how do these martial artists tie into the Dracula mythos?

Well, it turns out that our beloved Count is in Tokyo on personal business. A personal obligation, a promise to a man he met over four centuries ago, who has ties to Daigo's family. As with his expedition into London, Dracula precedes his Nipponese venture with a slew of real estate purchases (setting the stage for some rather convenient scenarios to integrate Kashiwabara's daughters into the proceedings).

Even though the Count's primary motives for being in Tokyo are to settle his debt and take in some of the foreign sights, before long, the tell-tale signs of a vampire in town soon begin to manifest themselves. And when the fangs start to sink close to home, it's time for Daigo and Shiro to go into action.

Aiding them in their chase, providing invaluable insight and help all along the way, is another historical figure; none other than the father of judo himself, Jigoro Kano. In Dark Wars, Kano serves as one of the greatest parallels to Stoker's classic; he fills the role of a Van Helsing type. He is schooled in certain Western cultures, and has dabbled in medical theory (this is admittedly added to further the narrative). So, starting from Kano, it is easy to see how the other characters match Stoker's English counterparts; Daigo is our Harker, strong and resolute although physically diminished, Shiro acts as an aggregate of Seward, Morris, and Holmwood (although his only skill is his judo), Mina and Lucy are represented by Chizuru and Akane, respectively, and later on, we meet Dracula's servant, Renta, who is our Renfield substitute. Well, while I am on the subject of characters, why not just start dissecting the book part by part? We start with...

Characters/Characterization: Weak. Oh so weak. Like I said, Dark Wars reads like a novelization of an anime storyboard. A good part of why I frame it like that is because so many of the characters are stock anime tropes. The two sisters? The depth of their character is that one is quiet and dutiful and the other is gregarious and somewhat tomboyish. Our main character, Daigo? Aloof, painfully handsome, consummate swordsman. But why so withdrawn? Because of pulmonary tuberculosis, which causes him to cough up blood at dramatic moments. the depth of character mined for Kano and Shiro is constant reiteration of their martial arts contributions. I mean, it is a very interesting gimmick to not only name drop famous historical figures, but weave them into the action as well. But that's it; it stays a gimmick. Other characters are relegated to the duty of window dressing. There are the yakuza members with honorable streaks, and a friendly girl who is fleshed out solely in colorful descriptions of how fat she is.

Dracula, on the other hand, fares a bit better. Although Kikuchi mentions some of the various forms he can assume, he spends his time alternately mostly between human form (as a young man, not the ancient he actually is), and bat form. His human form differs from other presentations, this Dracula is extremely tall and muscular. He is still suave and seductive. He is honorable, yet undeniably evil. And, towards the end, he gets a soliloquy that actually conveys emotion. Kikuchi mentions in the afterword that he was shooting for a Dracula that is in some ways weary of an eternal mortal existence. To a satisfactory degree, he succeeds in this.

Action: Lots of action here, and it is all rather well done. The martial arts are a central theme here; and always at play are the fading sword arts, the foreign sword skills, and the "new ways" of judo and evolving gun technology. Of course, people (and vampires) execute physical feats that defy reality, but that's all part of the fun here. The details are technically accurate, and Kikuchi goes to great lengths to attempt to integrate the mental aspects of the martial arts into the scenes he pens.

Fear Factor: There are a few tense moments and creepy creatures, but no screams here. But it is always fun to read about Dracula at Halloweentime.

Other Themes: As mentioned before, there was a great opportunity in this book to broach some themes that were both relevant and uncomfortable. The Meiji era must been an era that was equal levels exciting and terrifying as Japan changed so many aspects of their living. How uncomfortable it must have felt to have lived your life in an isolated country, and then start seeing an influx of foreigners with alien features and customs. Also, it must have been disheartening for many to see so many traditions and cultural institutions dying away.

It is fairly obvious that Kikuchi is using his primary characters as symbols for some of the emotions. Representing the dying art of Japanese sword arts is Daigo, our impossibly beautiful, perfectly skilled, dying young man. Symbolizing "modern Japan" is Jigoro Kano, educated, knowledgeable in Western culture, and creature of the perfect new martial arts style. And representing the foreign visitors and their interests is Dracula, a deadly, calculating, bloodsucking outsider who is threatening to buy all the real estate and seduce all the local women, making them his thralls.

In other news, this picture was found in Kikuchi's Japanese-English dictionary under the word "subtlety".

Writing: As with other foreign language fiction, there is the quality of the original story, and then there is always the risk of a poor translation. This is not the case with Dark Ways. It is immensely readable from the get-go. Due to the content (Dracula in 19th Century Japan), it does not require suspension of disbelief, but outright surrender of it. The prose is accessible, but not amateurish. And there is something about it that sticks with you after you are done with it. I can't put my finger on it exactly, so I'll just chalk it up to Kikuchi's skill.

Gripes: Well, now that I've listed all the things that I enjoyed in Dark Wars, not let's get to the quibbles. I've already punched through the paper-thin characterization. Another peeve here is repetition. How many times must we be beaten over the head with the "perfection" of a sword stroke or judo throw? There is repetition galore in conveying peoples' rationales and thought process. I don't want this misconstrued as a critique of Japanese single-mindedness, focus, or obstinacy (being married to a Japanese woman for a decade, I am more than familiar with all of those). It's just, how many times do you need to hear phrases like "It was so hard for her to believe that a man who created an art with the purity of judo would dabble in Western medicine/believe in people that turn into bats/etc.".

Another gripe that messes with the flow of the story for me are instances where Kikuchi references modern day places/technologies in a story that takes place 130 years ago. I am talking about lines like (paraphrasing): "The ball was held in the So and So Hall, which is on the third street in the Somewhere district in Tokyo, in the same building that is now the Acme Insurance company." or "They knew almost nothing about Transylvania. You know, back then, before e-mail and cell phones, they got their  information word of mouth." I the story was being told by a present-day narrator, this would not be an issue. But it isn't, and so those moments jar you out of a comfortable story flow.

My next to last gripe is a small one, and involves something that doesn't take away from the overall narrative: the arc involving Daigo's father. To be fair, once the Count makes his delivery, that portion of the story can be considered officially closed. However, in the small amount of time devoted to him, Kikuchi introduces a dynamic character, and a pretty cool time-travel element that begged for a heartier word count.

And now, the big complaint, the last page. If you don't want spoilers, scroll down to the final score.

Still here?

On the last page, Kano and Shiro are racing off to the docks, where a wounded Daigo is aiming to meet Dracula for a final showdown before the Count hops on his ship back to Transylvania. Now, I wasn't expecting a ten page, blow by blow account of their duel, but this is what we get (again, paraphrasing):

"They were almost to the dock. What would they find there?"

Yes. Seriously. There is a minor occurrence which hints at what the outcome was, but that is the ending we get. That's kind of a cop-out if you ask me. Ah well, if the Sopranos ending didn't kill me, this won't either....

Here's what it is:
A Dracula in Japan fanfic rises above the levels of forgettable fantasy thanks to the skill of one of the best vampire writers in the business. A fun romp (with a crappy ending), that I was able to enjoy a lot more once I looked at it from the eyes of my inner 14 year old (the point where I think my maturity capped off at). Some missteps keep it from being great, but some nice touches keep it from being bad. Fun vampire reading to leaf through while playing your favorite Castlevania soundtrack in the background.

This one.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I absolutely love this cover. I really dig Katsuya Terada's artwork, especially the way he captures women's faces. Even better, you get an additional 14 black and white illustrations throughout the book. The action poses are a little weak, but some of the others are very nice. I have no problem admitting that sometimes it is nice to have some pictures in your book.

Cover Final Score:


Friday, October 17, 2014

From The Flames

From the Flames by Graeme Lyon. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 4 pages.

The review for From the Flames will be considerably shorter than the other entries in the series, since this is essentially one of those ~1,000 word micro-shorts that usually appear on the annual Advent Calender. Also, it will be graded on the 0-10 point scale, allowing for .5 scores as well.

From the Flames begins near the culmination of a brutal battle on the Eldar Craftworld Idharae. We see a burning inferno of a panorama through the eyes of Seoc, battle brother of the Invaders Astartes chapter. Narrating from a first-person POV, we behold a monstrous daemon, wrapped in fire, wreaking unholy havoc upon his fellow brothers; turning them into kebab with a wicked, two meter long spear (I am assuming this monster is an Avatar of Khaine, and not some Warp-spawn).

At the moment when all seems completely lost, a group of spectral soldiers emerges from a different set of flames, making their obligatory appearance in the story showcasing them.

But everything is not so by-the-numbers as you might guess. It is apparent that with each of these shorts, the authors are trying to add extra facets to the LotD lore, making them more than simply an unstoppable spectral killing force. In From the Flames, Lyon offers a situation in which the servant of the Emperor in need (Seoc) finds a way to communicate with the Legionnaires, and work in tandem with them.

The effect is very satisfying. It also helps that, even in this compact word count, Lyon makes Seoc into a solid protagonist, the epitome of Astartes fortitude (even if this warrior, genetically engineered to know no fear, can get a shiver down his spine at the arrival of his ghostly saviors). Even though the Legion feature, he is still the emotional core of the story.

Other factors in the story are handled to a perfectly satisfactory level. Lyon paints the background with fast, broad strokes of a colorful brush. The action scenes dictate the action effectively. The scope of the size of the Avatar is conveyed.

And that, in the proverbial nutshell, is that. From the Flames is a solid ten minute read that tells a complete story, in which the LotD are used well in a secondary role. I know these micro-shorts are polarizing for some 40K readers, but this one bears a look-see.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Of all these palette swap covers, this drab silver might be my least favorite. Might be.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Very Old Folk

The Very Old Folk by H.P. Lovecraft. Originally published November, 1927. Approx. 4 pages (2,700 words).

The Very Old Folk has long been one of my favorite Lovecraft stories; not because it in any way deviates from his tried and true playbook (setting, rising action, indescribable horrors from the dark recesses of the universe appear), but because it does so in a well-rendered period setting (Spain under the banner of the Roman Empire), and, with its concise word count, conveys the message without meandering.

I am a bit unclear as to the origins of this story; it apparently was not a magazine story entry. Wikipedia chronicles it as a letter sent to Donald Wandrei, a member of Lovecraft's inner circle (Cthulhu Club?). The letter is addressed  "Dear Melmoth", so, I don't know if that was a nickname for Wandrei, or if this whole this tale was a story written in letter form and mailed to his friend.

Either way, The Very Old Folk centers around the author of said letter relaying to his friend a most vivid dream of his, taking place in Roman times. In this dream, the author finds himself in the body of a Roman quaestor, in what is now modern day Pamplona. This official, named Rufus, finds himself in debate with the Roman officials in the area, regarding mysterious, and quite terrible Sabbath celebrations carried out by the denizens of the surrounding hills. These reclusive people are rarely seen, except in limited trading ventures, and bad news usually follows in their wake. Whenever these dreaded masses occur, townsfolk go missing, and a pervading terror envelopes the land. With the Sabbath approaching, the local officials think the best action is inaction; yet Rufus believes it would be best to quell these masses, seeing the benefit to the current masters of commerce and productivity outweighing the heretical celebrations of the indigenous folk.

The vote goes in favor of taking out the troublemakers, a cohort is dispatched, and what makes this story a Lovecraft tale happens. In my opinion, it is executed in a superb manner.

The Very Old Folk is a tale that I think would work extremely well as a theatrical production; it has some of the best rising tension in a short story that I have read. The climax could be executed perfectly on a stage; the lights going out entirely, all sound stopping, then the ear-splitting screams of the guide and the horses. The shapes forming on the hills, all those things that reach in and strangle your soul.

What also works in this tale is a knowledgeable application of Roman terminologies. Lovecraft writes a believable rendition of the local power structure, and a debate within as it might have occurred in those times.

Highly recommended for a ten minute chiller. Since, like most Lovecraft stories, it is in the public domain, it is available to read for free in many places. I read it here, the background aesthetics worked for me. There is also a decent reading of it on Youtube here.

Final Score:


Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Dark Hollows Of Memory

The Dark Hollows of Memory by David Annandale. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 28 pages.

Winter has come to the Imperial world of Mnemosyne. Seems innocent enough; most planets inhabitable by humans have a winter cycle. But winters here are a bit different. On Mnemosyne, a thick fog envelopes the land during those months, forcing a sort of limbo among the citizenry. But the center of Mnemosyne's importance to the Imperium lies in the records kept in a monstrous Librarium.

One scribe out of many, a deaf man named Gosta, senses something is coming to Mnemosyne. Something will be happening soon.

Actually, more than one thing will be happening. One arrival not prophesied is that of the Company of Misery, here to bring their truth through agony and purge the Imperial lies from the cavernous Librarium. But arrive they do, and they soon begin the work of slaughtering the massed congregation as they search out scribes to give them access to the records.

Being as though this story falls in the Legion of the Damned series, it is no big surprise which direction this story is heading. The big question is just how well does the author present it?

Dark Hollows has some real strengths solidifying it as a good story; those being an atmospheric setting, bone-crunching violence, and a decent portrayal of the Legion.

Annandale crafts a real horror-film vibe for Dark Hollows, and it works to the overall betterment of the tale. The fog which envelopes Mnemosyne is a proverbial pea soup, and it stresses the tone of not having a safe haven. If this is to be looked at as a horror piece, than the Company of Misery play the slashers. Their captain, Akror, gleefully chews scenery as he theatrically massacres the innocents. However, beyond the flying gobbets of Imperial citizens, the Company offer little more than posturing and meanness. Their most clever attribute is that their armor is festooned with images of flames, a mirror of sorts to those that stand in the way of the delivery of their message.

Which brings us to the Legion. In Dark Hollows, the Legion act as specters opposing the Company's murderous rampage. Annandale does a great job describing their physicality; how their spectral flames play all across their armor, and the workings of their ghostly weaponry. He does not give them the same gift of gab the Goulding did (much appreciated), but pens for them a sort of collective thought pattern. It is well done and pretty creepy. Another interesting point is that in this story, members of the Legion are not completely invincible. Good way to up the ante by taking them off of God mode.

Where Dark Hollows falls a little short is in characters. The Imperial characters are interesting enough; deaf scribe Gosta and Imperial Commander Keremon. But after a decent introduction, they are relegated to the duty of running around with Death chasing on their heels. The ending is done nicely enough though. There are no Legion protagonists this time out, and as mentioned, Akror is more about catchy soundbites than anything else.

Again, you don't need great characterization to make an effective story. Dark Hollows of Memory offers creepy scenery, a good choice of a traitor Chapter, and some epic, bone-crunching, blood and viscera flying, action. And sometimes that is really all you need.

Here's what it is:
A Traitor Company ends up biting off more than they can chew when they invade a world full of Imperial records. One of the better depictions of the Legion of the Damned in action.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Same as the others, now in a weak orange.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Prey by Richard Matheson. Originally published in 1969. Approx. 8 pages.

If you were going to try and compile a short list of Richard Matheson's most iconic contributions to the horror genre, it would be a guarantee that Prey would make it to the Top 5. Better known for its film adaption: "Amelia", story three in the Trilogy of Terror television movie, Prey follows Amelia, a timid woman who gets trapped in a horrifying encounter with an African fetish statue come to life. Based on how old you were when you first saw it, the segment was either the scariest or most hilarious thing you had seen in your life. I'd estimate, under 10 years old, scary, over 10, or if you just listen to the sound effects, hilarity. If you have never watched it, take 16 minutes and check it out here:

It's kind of required Halloween viewing. I fell into the under 10 category when I first saw it, plus I was terrified by any movie with evil little things running around, so I was scared pretty thoroughly by it.

These being the other little critters that traumatized me. Damn you 1970's made-for-TV horror movies!

Point being, "Amelia" is still effectively scary today, partly because of a great Zuni fetish prop, and more importantly because of its pedigree as a work written and adapted for the screen by Matheson.

So, without that evil little "He Who Kills" doll running around, does Prey deliver on the chills? Very much so. Matheson makes the best of an economical word count here. In the first paragraphs you know all that you need about Amelia; she is something of a pushover, someone easily controlled. Thirty-three years old, still single (essentially a spinster for the day and age), and living under the absolute control of her mother.

Matheson's focus in writing for the Zuni fetish hunting doll, AKA "He Who Kills", is to play up what makes it scary. When writing about a homicidal, seven inch tall living doll, there is an absurdity that cannot be avoided; the author's duty is to make it a horrifying, incongruous nightmare, instead of a laughable oddity. The scary parts the Matheson centers on are all the "sharp edges". The focus is always on the doll's rows of shark-like teeth, and on the appropriated kitchen knife which is always in play, whirling like a cyclone. The comedic aspects of a half-foot tall doll chasing you diminish greatly when it keeps carving your feet and ankles to ribbons. Also, to make the danger of the doll surpass its size, Matheson infuses He Who Kills with the strength of the entombed spirit, allow it to go beyond physical limitations.

There is a brutal chase, punctuated by painful moments which will make the reader wince in sympathy with Amelia plot.

Best of all, the story ends with a solid ending, as Matheson is smart enough to adhere to the theme of controlling forces.

So, if you haven't enjoyed these two horror classics, you can probably both read the story and watch the clip in around half an hour. And there are few better ways to spend half an hour during the Halloween season.

You can read the entire short story here, even though there are some typos. Enjoy!

Final Score:


Tomes Of The Dead: Stronghold

Tomes of the Dead: Stronghold by Paul Finch. Originally published by Abaddon Books, August 2010. Approx. 324 pages.

I had picked up Stronghold back in 2010 on the basis of two merits: firstly, it truly has a "cover that sells the book", and secondly, my interest was very piqued at the concept: a zombie horde terrorizing British knights in 13th century Wales. This seemed a very fresh idea in what is becoming a glut of zombie media. I don't know why it has sat on my shelf for the past few years, but I figured now was the time to give it a whirl (actually I am pretty much interested in most of Abaddon's Tomes of the Dead titles).

In the end, however, how does Stronghold fare? I can honestly say that there are some truly great things here, some solid things, and a few minor quibbles. Let's dissect this zombie yarn:

The year is 1295. A contingent of British forces under the leadership of Earl Corotocus (an infamous elector count and enforcer of Edward Longshanks) has completed subjugating a pocket of Welsh resistance and is moving on to claim their prize; the impenetrable Grogen Castle. However, this subjugation involved a particularly brutal method of brokering: all rebels that have just laid down their weapons are systematically slaughtered. There is a good reason that Corotocus has such a reputation that precedes him; he has solidified it with bloody swathes of brutality across all of his travels.

With the last batch of rebels put to the sword, Corotocus sends the local Welsh royal, Countess Madalyn, back to her people, keeping her recently violated daughter Gwendolyn as a hostage. As the Earl and his small army head to their bleak, yet formidable fortress, Madalyn seeks out to enact a retribution as complete as the treachery her people had suffered.

This retribution takes place, of course, in the form of an army of shambling zombies. This is what was promised on the cover and in the blurb, and it is delivered in spades. Stronghold is indeed about an army of the undead laying siege to a medieval castle (a literal siege, more on that later).

Going in to reading Stronghold, I wondered what device Finch was going to use to initiate the rise of the dead. I should have figured it out when I saw that the action was taking place in Wales (especially for someone who grew up loving the Prydain books so much). In seeking recourse, Madalyn goes to a secretive enclave of druids, who use an enchanted cauldron to revive the many dead bodies that pepper the Welsh lands. This cauldron is of course based on the Pair Dadeni, which featured in the Mabinogion, although here the cauldron is called the Cymedai.

Unfortunately for the Countess, the druids, led by one Gwyddon, have an agenda of their own.

What we have here are some unsavory types calling the shots from both ends of the chessboard, with war-weary knights and restless undead in between. So who do we have to root for in this story?

Our main protagonist is a young knight named Ranulf FitzOsbern, who, along with his father, is an indebted knight in the Earl's employ (a turn of horrid luck left their family destitute, and they entered into a ten year contract to erase their debts). Ranulf is a solid character in Stronghold, while he has a strong set of moral values, he also has a strong sense of duty. He is not a seemingly magically gifted fighter, but a battle hardened veteran of many historical campaigns. Ranulf's interactions with some of the supporting cast (especially some spirited scenes with the captive Gwendolyn) are high points as well.

So now that we've gone over some of the basics, let's examine what elements work and which ones don't:

Overall writing style: This is my first read by Paul Finch, and I really dig his style. It's a rough and tough, blue collar laborer by day/bare knuckle boxer by night style. He seamlessly infuses historical fact into this horror fiction; significant events, people, places, lifestyles, dress, cuisine, etc. He has obviously done his homework regarding the logistics of castle defenses, as well as siege tactics. What could have ended up being a standard zombie tale shoehorned into a random period is elevated by this knowledge.

Characters: Well, as mentioned, there are a lot of unsavory types, but that doesn't mean they are cardboard cutouts. Corotocus is not simply a Snidely Whiplash villain; he is a consummate tactician and commander, who utilizes his resources with the full knowledge that resources are to be depleted in the attainment of a goal. The druid Gwyddon, although intentionally presented as steely and unreadable, reveals the depths of his hatreds through commands relayed to the horde. There is also some great interplay between the Earl's head priest, Father Benan, and his surgeon, Doctor Zacharius. Personally, I would have loved to have seen some more discourse between these two, as they are both committed to saving lives in manners which are polar opposites. For the doctor, the theological tenets must seems fantastical, while for the priest, the new horizons being broach by medicine must have seemed near heretical. Still, what we get is good stuff. There are a few given tropes here though; from the Earl's unctuous, conniving banneret, to his twisted, deformed champion.

Battle Scenes: Excellent. Finch has medieval fighting techniques down pat, and that isn't limited to swordplay. All types of melee weapons are employed, as well as a vast array of siege weaponry (including the many types of projectiles utilized by these early weapons of mass destruction. There is a lot of action here as well. The zombies show up early and are there for the whole book, causing unholy havoc. Speaking of zombies.....

Zombies: Now we get to the meat of the potato. The audience showed up for the creatures, so how were they presented? We all know that there are various methodologies for presenting zombies, and none can really be considered "wrong", but, and I apologize for veering off course here, I have a personal preference for their presentation:

  • A virus manifests itself in deceased humans, reanimating them for the purpose of being a delivery package in spreading the virus.
  • The delivery protocol is through mock eating; the virus itself is already delivered in the bite; it is just the base amount of reinvigorated motor skill that prompts an "eating ritual".
  • The speed and strength of a zombie should be in direct correlation with the remaining musculature, although with limited motor function the articulation would be jerky. Therefore, a zombie could conceivably run, if enough leg muscles were present, but without the presence of mind to focus on maintaining it, they'd probably fall flat on their face. However, a bite should be as strong as the maximum psi capable in the remaining anatomy.
  • Zombies aren't people anymore; they aren't going to talk, evolve, or craft new social structures.

The zombies we get in Stronghold are not these traditional types at all. They are a horde controlled remotely by a "hive mind" (I've seen this a bit in Warhammer Fantasy stories with Vampire lords as the controlling force). Bottom line, they are reanimated by sorcery (the Cauldron), and they are controlled and directed for revenge.

What throws me off is that they are given quite specific tasks, such as assembling and utilizing siege weapons, building siege towers, operating battering rams, and employing missile weapons. None of this is presented poorly, so I can't say it's bad. It just takes a while to get used to.

Another thing about the zombies that threw me is that they all seem to have the same capabilities of strength (which is pretty formidable, by the way), regardless of the individual states of decay. They are also nearly unkillable; that's right, no easy headshot kills, the can still move after being burned, etc. This leads to a problem which I will address in the "quibbles" section.

But on the plus side, Finch portrays these shambling monsters in a truly frightening manner. All types of gruesome depictions are used to convey some of the horrendous wounds these things suffered in their lifetime and now.

Fear Factor: For a horror novel, rather low. There are extremely tense scenes throughout, and there are many moments of potential insurmountable odds where you the despair of the characters becomes palpable. And yes, there are one or two scary scenes.

And now, onto my few minor quibbles:

First of all is something that occurs quite often in books with pitched battles of this size. I'm talking about a force that is near impossible to keep track of the size of. We all know that Corotocus took a sizable force into Grogen, but since the moment the zombies show up, they consistently and repeatedly get their rear ends handed to them. And the way Finch describes it, you get the feeling that with each shot fired by a mangonel, at least 5% of their force is being put out of commission. Then, at one point near the end, they still have over forty men capable of fighting on hand. Maybe I wasn't keeping a proper mental tally, but it just doesn't seem to add up right.

Second, there is an inconsistency problem with zombie endurance. All throughout, it is beaten into our heads how indestructible they are. Lifelong warriors deal killing stroke after killing stroke, and they still get demolished by the walking dead. And yet, when Ranulf needs to get through a cluster of them, he can dispatch half a dozen at a time with a good stroke. Ok, I know he is the hero, and sometimes he needs to get from Point A to Point B. But these moments defy the logic laid down from the start.

Lastly, and this doesn't come up until near the end, is the sudden introduction of zombie longevity. All throughout Stronghold, we have reanimated corpses that run the gamut of recent dead all the way back to things that are little more than skin like parchment hanging off of bones. Yet, they all have comparable endurance. Towards the end, however, Gwyddon has to take into consideration how long they can last, for they may rot away over the course of the next few weeks. Wait, what? Some of these warriors were in the earth rotting for a darn long time, and if the same sorcery is in play in a few weeks, why is deterioration suddenly an issue? This didn't make sense to me. In the end, it takes nothing away from the story at large, but it did make me raise an eyebrow.

Stacking all the positives against a few minor quips, you can see that what you'll get in Stronghold is a very strong zombie/fantasy/historical revision epic written with a bruising, hard style. And with that, you can't go wrong.

Here's what it is:
King Edward's brutal enforcers get a true taste of the horrors they have been dealing out in a grand zombie vs. knight epic.

A few last notes:

I know I often describe books and stories that have a certain kind of pacing, and with battle scenes with a certain kind of flow, as having a "cinematic quality" to them. Stronghold is one of those. Wasn't I surprised when a quick search revealed that the rights to make a movie based on it were optioned back in 2010. Alas, as there are no recent updates, I guess it's not happening now. More's the pity. Done right, it might've been one for the ages.

Also, after reading this wonderful book featuring a legendary Welsh cauldron that reanimates the dead, why not enjoy some cauldron-themed tunes? Until next time, cheers!

Skip to 17:10 for the excellent Pair Dadeni. Or just listen to the whole album. It's a win/win.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Oh, isn't that a beauty? Look at the detail on those creatures. Sure, they seem more monstrous or demonic that zombie-ish, but it is a great cover, well arranged. I know that some volumes have an alternate cover:

Nice, but I like the one I got a lot more.

Cover Final Score:


Friday, October 3, 2014

Animus Malorum

Animus Malorum by L.J. Goulding. A Legion of the Damned short story, originally published by The Black Library, October 2013. Approx. 18 pages.

HachiSnax Note: Just in time for Halloween last year, The Black Library released six shorts featuring everyone's favorite ghost Company, the Legion of the Damned (nice idea). Unfortunately, the roster of authors tapped to contribute was a mixed bag at best. We have Joshua Reynolds and David Annandale (yeah!), Graeme Lyon (first time for me), C.Z. Dunn (might be good), and L.J. Goulding and Nick Kyme (uh-oh). I also feared that a bias would taint my enjoyment of these shorts; that being the belief that none would reach the lofty standard set for the LotD by Rob Sanders in the novel of said name. Recently, however, I gave myself a reality check. It is my sworn duty as a book reviewer to be objective at all times (aren't I noble?). So, even if it is a year late, I'll be peppering this month with these ghostly tales (posting them in alphabetical order). Are they horrifying, or simply horrible? Let's see.... Cheers, Hach.

On an unnamed planet, an unspecified Astartes Chapter is locked in battle with an ork horde of immense size. The forces trying to hold off the green wave are led by one Captain Erice, who is rallying his troops around the Cathedral of the Emperor's Undying Magnificence. Meanwhile, below the foundations of this holy relic, Techmarine Marco has been charged with a grim task; to set charges to detonate the cathedral, along with the xenos scum, but unfortunately also with the withering line of Space Marines.

But, while awaiting the order from Erice to detonate, Marco is visited by some spectral guests. The Legion has come.

The Legion does what needs doing. They are the force that reverses the tide. But, although the cannot be killed, they are not invincible. It has been speculated that gods will die if there is no longer any faith in them. And, for every service rendered, there are debts to be paid. These are the ideas that Goulding tosses around in Animus Malorum. The result is a mixed-bag. Part of my assessment lies with how I responded to his actual presentation of the Legion, and part lies with the overall execution.

Goulding does the scene-building very well. Even though we know neither the world where this takes place, or the Chapter involved, he creates a tense battlefield that sucks you right in. The fight scenes with the orks is well done also, with the highlight being a masterfully choreographed duel between Erice and an ork warboss. Finally, watching the Legion in action is a very satisfactory payoff.

However, after a nice open, Animus Malorum falls apart in the second half. This is where Goulding goes for his "big twist", and the overall crux of the tale. The main moral here regards debts and obligations, and how those obliged to honor them have begun to stray from them. I am going to list the specific issues I have with this portion, but it may get a little spoiler-y, so feel free to skip to the end if you want to avoid them.

Ok, first of all, I understand that by canon, those of the LotD can speak, but I personally hate it. Goulding here presents us with Sergeant Attica Centurius, bearer of the titular fetish, an ominous thing of vast power. It would have had a better feel for Erice to feel or understand the meaning of what Centurius was conveying simply by a resonance of what he embodied. I mean, it's not only that he talks. He talks entirely too much.

Secondly, I hated Techmarine Marco. Absolutely. He is one of the most annoying characters I have encountered in the WH40K universe, and his endless blathering only compounds the issue.

Even Captain Erice, a noble and honorable servant of the Emperor, has dialogue which slides from bombastic to bloviating. Point being, Goulding does not handle dialogue well. This story, with a tone well set, would have benefited from deafening silence.

The ending here is fairly well telegraphed from the moment Erice wakes up after the battle. The best twist Goulding adds is that the Legion was not there to save the Chapter, but to preserve the Cathedral. It is, again, a symbol of the Emperor's Undying Magnificence. As is the Legion. Goulding would have done this story more justice by capitalizing more on the notion.

Here's what it is:
A middle of the road entry in the Legion of the Damned series that benefits from excellent action scenes and the soul of a true cautionary tale, but falters in poorly scripted dialogue.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

All the shorts in the series have the same cover design, with varying color palettes. I might give some colors a nominal edge over others, but in the end, they all feature a variation of the Legion's logo, set against a black background. Simple, but effective.

Cover Final Score: