Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shaggy Dog Bridge

Shaggy Dog Bridge by Glen Cook. A Black Company short story, originally appearing in the Fearsome Journeys anthology, published . Approx. 31 pages.

Just when I thought I had presented a complete synopsis of the legendary Black Company series in 2014, I find out that I let one short story slip through the cracks. Shaggy Dog Bridge, first appearing in the Fearsome Journeys anthology (edited by Jonathan Strahan of Swords & Dark Magic renown), is the third of the (so-far) quartet of short tales that will segue readers into the long awaited, much anticipated Port of Shadows.

In Shaggy Dog Bridge, we find our favorite Annalist, Croaker, attached to a recon patrol scouting ahead while the angry Taken, Whisper, pursues with a clutch of angry Imperials. Along the way, they find a massive glamour (illusion), one of a perfectly mundane chunk of forest. The thing about illusions of normalcy is that they are usually there to mask things markedly out of the normal. Being a recon group, it falls on them to see what exactly that is. What they find are parts of the puzzle which Cook has in store for us in Port of Shadows.

Out of the four Black Company shorts released over the past few years, Shaggy Dog Bridge is definitely my favorite. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, once again, Cook shows us (again) that not only can he still write for "earlier books" Croaker, but he can still capture specific moods and attitudes. In this story, Croaker is pissed off, ornery, and in a generally foul mood, due to being attached to this tedious task (which he himself had volunteered for). The writing is cranky, full of expletives and vitriol.

Another high point of the story is the addition of a few more "grunts". Other stories in this arc have introduced wizards and concepts for "bad guys", but here we can meet a few more personalities of the rank and file. These additions, namely Rusty, Robin, and Whittle, have a lot of potential.

Finally, and most importantly, we get a real whiff of the type of evil that will be faced in the upcoming book. For example, the most intriguing bit of geography mentioned is not the titular Bridge, but a scar on the earth known as the "Rip", a cleft in the landscape possibly caused during a battle between formidable nasties. We also find out about the "Master", who will serve as the Dominator type in Port of Shadows. And, lastly, we get to meet Blind Emon, a "Taken" of sorts in thrall to the Master (the fact that she is a concentrated ball of agony is a great touch).

As in most other Black Company titles, the joy is not in the violence, but in the characters, the dialogue, and the authenticity of the battlefield tactics and situations. There is no clanging of swords, but more of what makes the Company who they are; planning, resourcefulness, sabotage, and a lot of luck.

So, as I've said before, I shall say once more; I am overjoyed that Cook is getting closer towards a new Black Company book, and, while I am happy that he can still write for the crew circa Books 1-3 as well as before, I'd rather see other Company stories. Perhaps A Pitiless Rain, if it ever sees the light of day, will focus on Suvrin, Tobo, and those that survived Soldiers Live. But how about some coverage of the original Company? Those of renown that first marched from Khatovar and put so much fear into the Taglians? Ah well, it's still a business, and I am sure the majority want to see more Croaker. And, as the quality of these four shorts testifies, it'll be a great read.

Here's hoping I'll get a chance this year to review the other titles in this anthology. It looks like a solid one.

Final Score:


Monday, February 9, 2015


Tempestus by Braden Campbell. A Warhammer 40K Shield of Baal novella, originally published by The Black Library, November 2014. Approx. 89 pages.

Tempestus is a novella recently released by The Black Library to coincide with their "Shield of Baal" campaign (I am not sure on the specifics of SoB, but I know it involves a lot of Tyranids, and that is a good thing). This story was made more alluring by the prospect of Stormtrooper-heavy action, and a truly badass cover. So how did it fare? Well, not too bad. Not great, but definitely a solid little actioner. Let's take a closer look.

Inquisitor Ulrich, of the Ordo Xenos, is en route to Lysios, a planet in the Cryptus System with a rather unique climate. The intense pull of its local moon, Ixoi, causes one half of the planet to be perennially waterlogged, with a vertical ocean, while the rest of the world remains parched. Somewhere in the watery depths, there is rumored to be a great, mysterious creature, one that is intertwined with a local heretical cult (known as the Shelsists). Ulrich's mission is one of self-promotion; to find the beast, capture it, catalog it, and enjoy the resultant fame.

Also in the mix are the Sisters of Battle, who toil day in and day out to eliminate the Shelsist worshipers of the Brine Goddess. Their Canoness acts in the place of a Planetary Governor who has absconded in the midst of all the goings on.

So what works in Tempestus and what doesn't? Well, I have issues with a few things, but bear in mind it is still a fun read.

First, this story did not need to be a novella. For the story it aims to tell, it would've best fit in the fifty to sixty page range, longer than most shorts and too lean for a novella. So I feel it was plumped up a bit. And it gives off that feel. You know from the get go who is honorable, who is odious, who is just doing their jobs, and how it will all essentially pan out.

Second, there was little need to make this a Temepstus Scions story. I get that they would be involved by default, as they are attached to the Inquisitor. But the fact of the matter is, they are not the focal points. The Inquisitor, Ulrich, and the Sister Dialogus, Margene, serve better as emotional compasses. The detachment of Sororitas also get strong page time, which is a good thing, as Campbell writes for them very well.

But what hurts the depiction of the stormtroopers is that there is nothing spectacular about their field tactics. This is a problem that plagued another Tempestus story, The Trophy. We see examples of their superior endurance and toughness, and one display of resourcefulness (the Taurox vs. the flood scene). But the battles all pretty much read the same: stormtroopers square off with enemy, let loose the firepower, the guy with the volley gun unleashes merry hell, the enemies die, and we read who has been hurt/killed. Now don't get me wrong, Campbell makes the scenes a bit more exciting than that, and his descriptions of flying gobbets and gore, and brutal injuries are all very good. But there is never a scene where a strong strategy yielded a great response, prompting the reader to proclaim "See, that's why the Tempestus Scions are a force to be reckoned with". No, what this is amounts to traditional tie-in book rote: a commercial in prose.

So, for each strong aspect, a weak facet. The Inquisition and Sisters of Battle are done well, the titular Stormtroopers, not so much. The concept of the Shelsist cult is strong, the execution of the cultists, no. The tyranids are described with disgusting flair, yet there isn't enough of them. Too much time is spent pussyfooting with human opposition that doesn't stand a chance from the get-go.

Tempestus is a mixed-bag for sure. Get it if you are a completist, or tend to jump on all things Imperial Guard. There are good fight scenes, but no memorable characters to bond with.

Here's what it is:

Decent bolter porn.

Final Score:


The Cover:

This is a great cover by Kai Lim that sells the book better than the content. Does this pic come from one of the supplements? I don't know. But I do know it sums up Stormtrooper vs. 'Nid action.

Cover Score: