Sunday, June 29, 2014

Soldiers Live (Black Company Book 9)

 Soldiers Live by Glen Cook. The final book in the Black Company saga, originally published by Tor Fantasy July, 2000. Approx. 419 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

Where we left off:
Water Sleeps was a book comprised of two very separate parts: the sneaky, guerrilla war waged by the Company within Taglios, and their journey south and onto the Plain of Glittering Stone.
The Taglios campaign culminated with key Taglian figures being captured and/or taken out of the picture (including the Radisha herself), along with that perennial Company foil Narayan Singh (along with the Daughter of the Night). When a deal was brokered with Singh to retrieve the Nyueng Bao Shadowgate Key (remember the Lance of Passion still lays with Murgen in stasis), Sleepy knows that they can finally make their move.
As the story shifted its focus southward, it was time for some long-overdue exposition. The Captured were finally freed, as there resting place was revealed to be in the cavernous expanses under the throne room of the protector-golem-god Shivetya. Those labyrinthine chambers also yielded vast treasures, as well as the original three Books of the Dead (which Sleepy and Swan later burned). Far below, however, a true terror awaited. Tobo, heeding some inner call, ventured nearly a mile down into the bowels of the Plain, and discovered the sleeping Kina, who made an attempt at awakening. This was only halted by a brave charge by veteran mage Goblin, who sacrificed his life by burying the Lance of Passion into the awakening death goddess, temporarily halting her rise.
Topside, the throne room of Shivetya was revealed to be a diagram of the Plain itslef (actually a diagram inside a diagram). It turns out the the Plain is a major transportation hub, and along with keeping Kina at bay, Shivetya also acts as the eternal air traffic controller. There were many other Shadowgates, and all lead to other worlds (or variations of or different eras of the same world), and groups like the Black Company and the Nyueng Bao have been traveling them for ages, seeking the best way to raise Kina to bring on a universal Year of the Skulls (or something to that nature, this all gets a bit mind-boggling). Currently, the Gate to Khatovar is out of commission, but Sleepy strikes up a relationship with Shivetya, in which the god-golem imparts information at his leisure to key members of the Company (and give us more much-needed exposition).
At the end of Water Sleeps, the Company crosses the only other open Gate, and enters the Land of Unknown Shadows, where they are greeted by a welcoming party comprised of folks that resemble the Nyueng Bao in appearance, as well as dialect. Which brings us to....

Where we are now:
I cannot believe we are already here at the end of our journey with the Company. Or, maybe, I did not realize how emotionally invested I had become with this group. We all know that journeys end. People go. Soldiers Live. And wonder why. That is the mantra here. And, if you have become as close to this crew as I have, this book may stay in a special corner of your soul forever. It is immortality of a sort.

After crossing through the last working Shadowgate at the end of Water Sleeps, the Company finds themselves in a world that is a sort of clone of their own, inhabited by a race resembling ancestral Nyueng Bao. This land is known as Hsien.

It's been four years in this new land. Four years of peace, a complete anomaly to the veterans of the Company. The only recorded deaths in this time are veterans Otto and Hagop, passing on naturally with no fights to fight, and one risk taking recruit that took the wrong risk. Speaking of recording, for this last trip with the Company, Croaker has taken up the quill again. This is only fitting. And, as it should be, what makes Soldiers Live what it is is less the events that transpire, but more how this world looks to this aging veteran, now feeling every bit the antique in the only family he has ever known.

Just a few notes before getting into the actual story: yes, Croaker is again the Annalist. But, there are also a slew of third-person chapters focusing on the events involving adversaries and different locations. Speaking of chapters, not only is this the thickest book so far, it also boasts the most chapters at a whopping 148 (can you believe the first book only had seven chapters?). What's good about the format here is that, like in Shadows Linger, the chapters tell you where the events are transpiring, and are also named (quite cleverly too, I might add).

As mentioned, Soldiers Live opens during the peaceful times in Hsien. We get some needed background on the people and places, the system of government, etc. A lot of focus is on Tobo, and how much he has grown. He has bonded with the indigenous spectral creatures of Hsien known as the Unknown Shadows, patchwork critters reminiscent of the denizens of the Plain of Fear.

There are local feuds and such; everyone in Hsien is wary of the Company as they take no partisan stance. All the Company wants is for the information needed to repair the gate to Khatovar so they can complete the mission Croaker began. Well, not just that. Sleepy (still Captain) is killing some time so that she can keep retrieving all the treasures contained in the caverns under Shivetya's throne. But Sleepy is a conniving, duplicitous little number. Which is what makes her a good Captain.

When there is sufficient cash and a decent army arrayed, the Company begins to move back into the old world to start settling scores. Meanwhile, Croaker has a score of his own to settle. That would be with one Lisa Bowalk, the shapeshifter stuck in forvalaka mode who has finally exacted her revenge upon One Eye (no spoiler there; at the end of Water Sleeps, Sleepy notes that One Eye dies four years after that entry ends). Again, Sleepy has ulterior motives for Croaker's mission as well.

Keep in mind that Bowalk makes her retreat in what lies past the gate to Khatover. I won't divulge too much of what Croaker and his crew find there, but it involves a new race (the Voroshk, a very pale people with a loose family hierarchy system, interesting technology, and limited talents in sorcery). Some of these Voroshk end up traveling back with them once accounts with Bowalk are settled.

Back in the regular world, well, things fall into a regular routine. Some readers might get frustrated or exasperated at this point, since 90% of the proceedings still focus on the logistics of harassing Soulcatcher and Mogaba, and hunting down the Daughter of the Night and her guardian. Seriously. Even with the whole Kina/Year of Skulls angle still unresolved with fewer and fewer pages left, it is still focusing on Tobo and tactics. But there is a reason. There is always a reason when you look at it.

Cook has always been a patient and deliberate author. He is one of the very few that I can truly say rarely puts a word in his stories that does not have meaning. Cook is also known to plant the seeds of ideas that don't sprout until a few hundred pages later, leaving you madly flipping back through pages once understanding hits you.

And so, it is quite possible that some readers will be pretty disappointed with what they are reading as they are reading it. Soldiers Live marks Croaker's narrative return, but, after One Eye's death, his perspective becomes understandably more melancholy. So even though the book starts off with those trademark cynical, clipped sentences, it all lapses into exposition and disenfranchised battle reports. But can you blame him? How many decades has Croaker been soldiering for? At this point, the battles are just sad wastes of life. And for what? The whole Taglios aspect has ballooned, and, we all know that the religious angles are of no importance to him. As he points out, he was just passing through.

Croaker still does his work dutifully, though. He applies due diligence to reporting the tactics used, and makes note of fallen sworn brothers. That is his job as Annalist. This way the Company of the future can reference the victories and losses of the past. But there is no flamboyance in the battle scenes. I doubt that war is very flamboyant for broken senior citizens.

So, the battle scenes may seem anti-climactic. Some say the same for the reporting of the multitudes of deaths. There is no secret, almost everyone dies in Soldiers Live. Name a remaining Company member or affiliate, there is a 90% chance they die here. You almost never see the death scenes. It is mentioned, and recorded. As is Croaker's job. You might feel at first that this is a bit of a disservice to characters that have been evolved over several books, but consider Croaker. At his age, deaths of friends become more common. The occurence can be stated as fact no matter how it tears you apart inside. Plus, many of those that go are simply attached to the Company. He is actually doing them a favor by recording them. It is an immortality of sorts. If you think about it, it is perfectly significant when he gives a lackluster eulogy to a Nyueng Bao that passes. Remember, Croaker never trusted that group, and always considered them an additional burden foisted upon his considerable logistical workload.

And finally, what might be taken as the final disappointment is how so many important loose ends are hurriedly tied up. The Year of Skulls, especially. Don't get me wrong, the final showdown with Kina is impressive, but the Year of Skulls is kind of treated as, "Oh, so that's what it was? Ok, moving on...". This is not lazy writing, to repeat, Croaker is not big on religion. He cannot deny a god when he sees one, but he doesn't need to subscribe to the philosophy. Plus, the Kina stuff was never in his contract.

Personally, I was expecting the Year of Skulls to be the Company themselves. Their little jaunt in the South ended up causing tens of thousands of deaths anyway.

Reading this, you might think, "Well, if you keep saying the exciting bits are kind of boring, and the other stuff is rushed, this final book must suck, right?". It doesn't. Without giving away the very ending, let me put it like this: remember when you were a young student and wanted to go somewhere really badly, and had to finish a report for school before you could leave? That task, although necessary, or even being something you would usually be passionate about, suddenly becomes a mundane obstacle. And that's what happens at the end. There is a huge transition about to take place, and the assumption is that the Annals have to be brought up to date first.

There are parts in Soldiers Live that are written with some real emotion. These are the scenes involving Booboo (the Company nickname for the Daughter of the Night), Croaker's deep love for his aging wife (Lady no longer has the power to maintain her beauty glamours), and the parts regarding Tobo's evolution. This is an interesting aspect; most of Water Sleeps and the earlier portions of Soldiers Live seemingly fawn on Tobo as a sort of all-powerful, all-good wunderkind, but Croaker shows us how easily a wizard can go down dark, scary paths without proper grounding and a moral compass. These scenes are handled very well. A very good reminder that there is a very thin line between being a force for good and becoming the next Dominator. Croaker even manages to find a place in his heart for his enemies, Soulcatcher and Mogaba (remember, he was always more sympathetic to him than the other Annalists). And lastly, the most emotional aspect focuses on friendship. Not just camaraderie, but the true bonds of a unit that is family. There is a touching scene where Croaker reflects on the extents of One-Eye's friendship for Goblin, and wishes someone had cared that much for him. Then he realizes that someone had in fact done it for him as well.

Croaker's melancholy at his own aging sets quite an emotional tone for Soldiers Live as well. Maybe I am just a little more sympathetic to this plight as I am feeling a bit of an antique as well, but you can sense the frustrations of physical limitations. Of being humored rather than listened to. Especially when your observations and gut feelings might be helpful to a Captain who is very capable, but who also forgets the small details sometimes.

And yet, sadness and futility aren't the only messages of this final entry in the Black Company saga. Faces change, but the Company survives. Soldiers Live. And wonder why. There will be new Captains, new lands. New pairs of feuding wizards (I personally loved the Voroshk girls).

Best of all (bit of a spoiler here), Cook manages to come up with the happiest ending conceivable. Not to give it away, but he creates a true heaven for a non-religious man. What better reward is there?

Soldiers Live is by far one of the best "final entries" I have ever read, and I will place The Black Company high on the list of Best Fantasy Series read. Even though some things remain unanswered (like why so many extraordinary things happened to an ordinary man like Croaker), the story is completed and the door is left open for future tales. I know, Port of Shadows and A Pitiless Rain were announced long ago, but I hear varying reports as to whether they will be prequels or further stories.

For now, goodbye Croaker & Company.

Here's what it is:
Glen Cook ends his signature series with a grand finale that rates a hair short of the first book. So many have come and gone, but memories remain. Memory is immortality of a sort.


Final Score:

97/100


Cover Score:

This piece by Jainschigg is easily my favorite of the old covers. The arrangement is nice, and the color palette is truly evocative of the tone. Love the idea of a faceless conglomerate of soldiers fulfilling their natural destiny. If anyone would be so kind as to give a gift to your favorite reviewer, there is an original painting of the cover here. I'll just hold my breath waiting....


Cover Final Score (Swanland):

91/100

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Emperor's Grace

The Emperor's Grace by Nicholas Alexander. An Astra Militarum short story, originally published by The Black Library, May 2014. Approx. 25 pages.

About a month and a half ago, I offered a pretty tough critique on a new Imperial Guard short called The Trophy by new Black Library author Nicholas Alexander. In all honesty, the story was lackluster, and did little to nothing to optimize a can't-miss, simply structured storyline. But although rather dull, it was not a bad story. And Alexander did do some things well, including stressing the atmosphere that there is no safety in the Imperium, neither with friend nor foe. Still, I was a tad wary about reading further works by him. However, The Emperor's Grace was centered around subject matter that I find very interesting: aircraft campaigns. One of the great things about the Warhammer 40K universe is that it so deftly combines elements of futuristic as well as conventional warfare. This gives us not only bold tales of engineered super-soldiers versus aliens and unholy abominations, but also classic combat tales featuring tank battles and aerial dogfights. So, interest sufficiently piqued, I gave The Emperor's Grace a whirl. And I am very happy that I did.

In Emperor's Grace, we have another nice and simple story synopsis: the world of Balle-Prime is suffering under the infestation of the ork hordes. The greenskins have made the starport at Balle-Delta into a forward air base, making it critical for the Imperium that orkish operations there cease and desist immediately. It falls upon the Vordrost 1167th Bomber Wing to do just that.

The Emperor's Grace focuses on the crew of an Imperial Marauder Bomber bearing said name, and their virgin run in the mission to cleanse Balle-Delta. The crew is led by a tough-as-nails captain named Mikal, a scarred former gang-banger. Mikal is a man of few words; he grunts and he glowers. Alexander does a good job establishing how his past formed him into the man he is today, yielding a satisfactory protagonist. The rest of the crew are clearly sketched out in appearance and general behavior; you can tell who's who while never losing site of the real characters, Mikal and the Grace. 

As one can assume when flying into a buzzing hive of greenskins, things can and do go wrong. Massive body counts on both sides quickly rack up. Alexander does a good job describing the aerial battles; and while he doesn't capture Abnett's skill in Double Eagle of letting you feel the g-forces along with the pilot and crew, the claustrophobia of cruising in a flying deathtrap is definitely palpable. Alexander has also done his homework regarding aircraft anatomy, making the technical descriptions authentic.

Another aspect in which Grace shines is with the descriptions of the orks. An author should have fun writing about these merry miscreants. An ork fighter pilot is the epitome of absurdity, cruising along in chunky, ungainly fighters with old-time leather caps, goggles, and streaming white scarves. The planes, the pilots, and the way-beyond-unstable mentality of these greenskinned aviators are all well rendered in this story.

What really won this story over for me, however, was the ending. Following the Pyrrhic victory of the 1167th, The Emperor's Grace ends with a scene that is both emotional and touching. It's a perfect way to cap a story like this; by showing that the fear does not end simply because you made it home. Very well done.

Here's what it is:
An excellent story that tells of a bombing run goes badly for the crew of a Marauder bomber, and then goes the extra distance by showing us the emotional fallout.

Final Score:

84/100


Cover Score:

One of the more simple short story covers here. The main focus is on the a technical outline of a Marauder bomber. The background color of the cover is nice and fitting, but the shade of green used for the bomber outline and font is very off-putting.

Cover Final Score:

20/100

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Cold Steel

Cold Steel by David Guymer. An Apocalypse short story, originally published by The Black Library, July 2013. Approx. 25 pages.

Death is rising from the bowels of the prison colony on the moon of Ixus IX. The soulless, unstoppable necrons have risen from their slumber. Wait a minute, necrons and Ixus IX? This sounds awfully familiar..... Yes, Cold Steel is a companion piece of sorts to David Guymer's nicely done Cold Blood, only with more of a focus on the necrons than on the Traitor Marine Chapter the Bloodlords.

Since necrons are somewhat lacking in what we call personality, Guymer centers this tale around one of the ah, "guests" of the penal colony. Meet Drax, a cheerfully malicious former Imperial Guard tanker, who has earned his stay by murdering his former crew. Be that as it may, he can drive the war machines of the Emperor, which makes him invaluable to the remaining prison crew hoping to make an egress as the onslaught of metallic skeletons continues.

Drax makes for a fun protagonist. He is immediately sold on the idea of grabbing a Chimera and getting the heck out of Dodge, although his version of the plan involves significantly less prison guards joining him. He is the classic wild card; impulsive and unpredictable. He was raised on a tough miner's world, and served across many brutal fronts, and maintains such an easygoing manner that you can't help but root for him, even though you know he is first and foremost a heartless bastard.

Not that the necrons make for much more sympathetic entities. Guymer again writes for them very well. As they lumber through the passageways (the descriptions of the smooth mechanics of their anatomy are done masterfully), I get that same vibe that I felt as a 10 year old watching the T100 skeleton for the first time at the end of The Terminator. They are frightening in that they are both implacable and nearly indestructible. The way the Gauss weaponry of the necrons is explained also stesses their terrifying capabilities.

The atmosphere of this story has a cinematic feel; as if scenes from films such as Alien 3, The Terminator (as mentioned), and even the scary blinky light corridor scene from the first episode of The Walking Dead were cobbled together. It's a premise that generates a panicky urgency when a complex designed to keep you locked in threatens to do that well when it's a matter of life and death.

After an enjoyable opening act of introducing the characters, Cold Steel really takes off as Drax and company find themselves in the middle of the battle we were treated to in Cold Blood. So now, not only is there the undead threat to contend with, but also the Bloodlords in their desperate bid to slake their thirst. This actually lends to an interesting "choking" motif connecting these two stories: in Cold Blood, the Bloodlords had their hearts threatening to explode by not satisfying the blood thirst, while in Cold Steel, when the atmosphere control goes awry, the people inside feel a "cold steel" constricting on their hearts.

Cold Steel, like Cold Blood, becomes little more than a commercial in the final few pages. In Cold Blood, it was for the Lord of Skulls. In Cold Steel, the item being hawked is a Tesseract Vault. Again, I am not knocking these stories for being glorified commercials (I mean that's the point of the entire Black Library). All we want are stories that are good quality commercials, right? And that's what Cold Steel is. Guymer integrates the Tesseract Vault into a grand climax to this story. It's size, scope, and devastatingly destructive capabilities are well realized, and lend to a satisfying payoff for this duology.

Here's what it is:
David Guymer's companion commercial to Cold Blood offers more Necron, Chaos Marine, and Imperial Guard action, with a spotlight on another super unit. This story gets slightly higher scoring for the simple fact of having a more enjoyable central character.


Final Score:

84/100


Cover Score:

Like with Cold Blood, we have a silhouette of the big unit involved, this time the Tesseract Vault. Why not just put a picture of it? Even if it is a picture of the model? Black Library novels have long had pictures of models for sale on the inner back covers. It's not like we don't realize you are using a picture of the model on the cover anyway, albeit blacked out. At least the greenish hue is sufficiently necron-appropriate.

Cover Final Score:

11/100

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Water Sleeps (Black Company Book 8)

 Water Sleeps by Glen Cook. Originally published by Tor Fantasy, March 1999. Approx. 348 pages (Tor omnibus edition).


Where we left off:
After a few books where little progress was made on the road to Khatovar, She is the Darkness saw some major pushes by the Company on the way to the Plain of Glittering Stone. First was a win in the battle of Charandaprash Pass, which was highlighted by the revelation that the enmity between Croaker and Blade was simply a ruse, leading to a large number of Longshadow's forces being taken out of the game before it was even played. 
Past the Pass, the Company began its siege of Overlook. For a good while this went on, and it was revealed the Croaker was working along with Soulcatcher to expedite Longshadow's downfall. Meanwhile, the Howler and Narayan Singh worked to protect their own posteriors. 
On and on it went, with more double-crosses and almost had 'ems. 
The end result:
Longshadow was taken down and brought to Company custody, as was the Howler and Singh.
Soulcatcher screwed everyone over and started helping the Radisha Shah renege on her obligations to the Company. The Prabrindrah tried to double-cross the Company as well, and was taken into their "care".
Soulcatchaer, under the guise of Sleepy (who is revealed to be, in actuality, very much a young woman), infiltrates the Company camp and assassinates Smoke, taking away one of the Company's methods of near omniscient spying. 
In other big reveals, something that was hinted at in Bleak Seasons turned out to be true: Murgen's Nyueng Bao wife, Ky Sahra (Sarie) is still alove, tucked away as a widow in a temple, and pregnant with their child.
She is the Darkness ends with a contingent of the Company, mostly old crew members and prisoners (including Soulcatcher), finally crossing the Shadowgate and entering the Plain of Glittering Stone. A few days into their journey, they happen upon a fortress in disrepair. Within, secured to a wooden throne by a series of silver daggers, is a colossal golem, who the Company figures is Shivetya, a guardian charged with preventing Kina's resurrection.
As the Company tries to make heads or tails of what is going on, it is revealed that even though she has been bound up pretty tightly, Soulcatcher has been able to place everyone in a sort of trance. She traps the Company in a sort of stasis (the caverns of frozen spiderwebs and old men that Murgen often saw in his dreams) in the lower chambers of the fortress and makes off with the traitor Willow Swan, seemingly victorious. Which brings us to now....

Where we are now:
Fifteen years. It has been fifteen years since the group that entered the Plain became trapped in their stasis. The Captured, they are called now. 
After they disappeared, the remaining Company was routed by both traitors within and Mogaba from without. 

Now, the Radisha rules in Taglios, along with an insane dictator known to the people as the Protector. The Protector is known to the reader as Soulcatcher.

But what of the remnants of the Company? 

What remains of the Company, some two hundred-odd members, are scattered throughout Taglios. Leading them is none other than former Company mascot, and Annalist in training Sleepy. Sleepy, like Murgen during the siege of Dejagore, is acting as Captain, as well as maintaining the Annals. She is joined by the last two remaining old crew members not trapped under the Plain, the ancient sorcerers Goblin and One-Eye (although fifteen years later, even One-Eye is too ancient to continue his usual antic feuds with Goblin). Another addition to the Company (though not an actual brother) is none other than Ky Sahra (it is never explained how and when she joined up with them). Sahra and Murgen's son, Tobo, is now a petulant teenager, although one with a proficient inclination towards the magic arts. It is generally agreed upon that he is the "future" of the Company, especially with the resident magicians on obviously limited time.

This reduced shell of the Company has two primary missions; first being to topple the traitorous Taglian establishment, and the second, of course, to free their Captured comrades. And so, the two halves of Water Sleeps are dedicated to the execution of those directives.

The "shadow war" against the ruling class is some of the best stuff Cook has put to paper; he has always had the knack for writing these sneaky battles. Sleepy makes an adept leader for orchestrating moves that sow dissent and fear in the populace and the government. Pyrotechnic charges strategically planted throughout the city flash in crowds, displaying the Company sigil and those prophetic words "Water Sleeps". 

In the meantime, Sleepy and Sahra (serving as a spiritual pillar for all), do their fair share of hands-on spy work. Donning various disguises, they infiltrate the Palace, gathering intel, and recovering pages from the lost Annals which were left in the wizard Smoke's old room. All this is done right under the noses of the Radisha and the Protector, which lead to some truly tense moments.

In the latter part of the novel, we have the journey southward which culminates with our intrepid band treading the same path as their lost predecessors. 

I really can't give away too many of the secrets revealed in this final arc of Water Sleeps; suffice to say they come at you fast and furiously. Many of the answers that have eluded and confused Black Company readers since the Books of the South started are clarified here; and of course, many more are posited. But as to where the Company originated, where is Khatovar (and is it still accessible), what in fact the Glittering Plain is (hint: it's a huge transit hub of sorts), and who are the spectral walkers who tread the Plain at night, we get some closure. There is even a pretty scary face to face encounter with a god, which is handled excellently.

The real question is, as always, how is the narration in Water Sleeps? Here we have yet another Annalist. Personally, I really like Sleepy. She might be Cook's most fleshed-out Annalist (since I am assuming that there is a whole lot of Cook in Croaker). Sleepy is a strong, tough, sharp, and shrewd. You also have to remember that when she was younger, she suffered terrible, prolonged sexual abuse at the hands of family members. You can sense the mental scars even though she mentions nothing directly. She has a high amount of respect (culturally) for her elders, and reveres them accordingly. This leads to some of the most heartfelt moments in this entire series. Another interesting quirk of Sleepy is that she is the most outwardly religious Annalist that we have had. Throughout the novel, she says quick prayers as a mental reassurance, and these become more frequent towards the climax of the book.

The pacing of Water Sleeps is fair enough. Sleepy spends a lot of time chronicling her and Sahra's infiltrations, always recording their names as the false faces they don. It is very easy for Sleepy to become absorbed in the characters she creates, undoubtedly this is a coping mechanism that helped her through her terrible past. For the bulk of the novel Cook retains the first person point of view, with the scenes featuring Soulcatcher and Mogaba being accounts as seen by Murgen's still-detached spirit (he was out of body when Soulcatcher trapped the Company in stasis and his spirit still continues spying). But towards the end of the novel, we get a few random third person chapters showing what is going on in Taglios, not courtesy of Murgen. Also, Sleepy's narration in these last chapters deteriorates into overly expository theological info dumps. Her account up to this point had a very "spoken" versus "written" quality, and so this felt a little off to me. Perhaps the implication is that they were written at a later time incorporating information granted her by Shivetya. 

Bear in mind that this novel is very much the "in between" novel for She is the Darkness and Soldiers Live. For any meandering you may have thought the past few books do, these last three are keeping things moving at a brisk clip. There are no grand battles in Water Sleeps, but also no endless verbal tangents. There is confusion and closure; for as this is one of the most original series going, there is really no way to predict how things will turn out.

Water Sleeps is a solid Black Company novel, but not a distinct one. Just remember it is here to move the action closer to a conclusion. Too bad we couldn't have had another book with Sleepy narrating.

Here's what it is:
We are almost at the end of the journey. A new Captain and Annalist tries to hold the last threads of the Company together as they stay focused on their ultimate destiny.


Final Score:

85/100

Cover Score:
I have mixed emotions on this Swanland cover. To put it plainly, I love the foreground and hate the background. I am assuming that is Murgen holding the Lance of Passion in the front, with an awakening Kina in the back. Now, I had no solid picture of how Murgen looked, and this character looks more as how I imagined former Company member Elmo, but it is still well done. As for the Kina rendition, that looks like an alien. This cover would have worked better for the last omnibus, to be honest.

As for the original cover done by Nicholas Jainschigg, all I can say is that I am not crazy about his covers that feature people/figures. An odd take on the Shivetya character is crucified upside down. good placement, if not accurate, and a nice color scheme though.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):

91/100

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Hour Of Hell (Fellguard Pt. 2)

The Hour of Hell (Fellguard Pt. 2) by Mark Clapham. An Imperial Guard short story, originally published by The Black Library, December 2013. Approx. 28 pages. 

Even though it boasted characters that were barely more substantial than rough outlines, The Siege of Fellguard was an enjoyable, action-packed tale with vivid descriptions of violence, decay, and ichor. The fact that the positives outnumbered the negatives warranted Part 2 of the story, The Hour of Hell, getting a read.

We left off at the end of Siege with the Cadian 39th taking the Fellguard entry point of Bastion Beta-3, suffering terrible losses all the way. With things seemingly tipping in their favor, the cultist sorcerer Mazalai, through the sacrifice of the highest ranking cultists, achieved the pinnacle of potential as a servant of Nurgle. In a mighty expolosion, his corporeal existence serves as the conduit to being something terrible in from the Warp. Something that it will take a miracle for the Cadians to overcome....

I had no idea which way Clapham was going to go in the conclusion of this storyline. One of the things that worked best in Siege was how the action alternated between the Imperial and Chaos forces. Now, with all the Chaos players dead or transformed, there would need to be a new format. With the Chaos side boasting more compelling players the first go round, I was hoping the Cadians would be more dynamic this time around, especially since it was now their time to shine in the face of great adversity. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In Siege, the Cadian focus was centered on regimental priest Vurtch and Castellan Blakov. In Hour of Hell, veteran Lieutenant Rawl and Commissar Chavaria are at the fore. Blakov remains a person of great importance, but here the stress is on how his mettle is judged by those other officers. While Rawl and Chavaria are interesting characters, they suffer from the same lack of characterization the made Siege a good story rather than a great one. They remain painfully static and repetitive. We understood from the first mention that Chavaria relies more on threats of violence than application; and yet the point is hammered home relentlessly. Same with how Rawl and Chavaria realize that Blakov would need to be removed should his leadership falter. We got it the first time, any page space used reiterating it could have been spent more wisely developing some background characters.

Another thing that seemed odd to me was that instead of continuing the action of Siege directly, Clapham opted to retell the events of it, albeit from a different point of view. There were doubtlessly more concise ways we could have been notified what Rawl and Chavaria were doing during that time.

One other thing that faltered where Siege shined was in the description of the main antagonist. The abomination that Mazalai morphed into was none other than a Great Unclean One. Since Clapham reveled in descriptions of all things rotten, viscous, and oozing in Siege, fleshing this fleshy daemon out should have been a field day for him. And yet it seems uninspired. We get requisite commentary on open wounds, dangling entrails, etc., but there was so much more joie de grossness the first go round. Don't get me wrong, there are still excellent, gory death scenes throughout. And when Clapham describes the rot and decay that afflict dying soldiers, he is in top notch form. But just think how excellent it would have been to focus less on flashbacks and repetition and focus more on integrating the taint of Nurgle into the atmosphere, and showing us the true horror of the Great Unclean One.

What saves The Hour of Hell is the post-scripts. Like in Siege, this installment is framed by Imperial excerpts, this time from one of the survivors of the horrors of Fellguard. The closing sentiments of this memoir are honest, sentimental, and fairly profound. It is also followed immediately by a curt reminder of the Orwellian soul of this eternally dystopian universe.

All in all, The Hour of Hell is a slight step down from The Siege of Fellguard, but it still remains a solid Imperial Guard duology very worth a read.

Here's what it is:
The stalwart fighters of the Cadian 39th come face to face with a true horror from the bowels of the Warp in this somewhat anti-climactic climax to the Fellguard story.


Final Score:

73/100


Cover Score:
As in Siege, rather plain cover here. I actually prefer the cracked plaster effect of this cover to the sickly green high school locker cover of Siege. It would have been much better to try and replicate the wall of bones idea of the outer defensive wall of Fellguard, though.

Cover Final Score:

19/100