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