Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hammer & Anvil

Hammer & Anvil by James Swallow. A Warhammer 40,000 Sisters of Battle novel, originally published by The Black Library, November 2011. Approx. 416 pages.

Last July, I reviewed Faith & Fire, the first book in James Swallow's duology centering on those lovable warrior nuns of the 40th Millenium, the Sisters of Battle. It was a decent book, with great world building, solid action scenes, and spotty characters and pacing. Also, I wasn't too enthralled with the cover.

No no no. This is the alternate cover which I endorse 100%.

All joking aside, Faith & Fire was an enjoyable enough read to warrant the second book, Hammer & Anvil, grabbing a spot on the mountainous "to read" pile. And, it just so happens that its turn came up. So how does this second book work? Is it more of the same, only different? Has the quality dipped down, as is so common with sequels?

Actually, Hammer & Anvil outdoes its predecessor pretty handily. Let's break it down piece by piece, but first, let's look at the story so far:

The Sisters of The Order of Our Martyred Lady are heading towards the planet Kavir to try and piece together the events that transpired which ended in the massacre of every living sister garrisoned at Sanctuary 101. It has taken them over a decade (Terran time) to head back courtesy of bureaucratic obstacles and red tape. The chance finally comes, orchestrated by an Inquisitor with ulterior motives (what other kind of Inquisitor is there?). And so, with an attachment of scheming cogheads from the Adeptus Mechanicus in tow, they head planetside to discover the true horror of what happened. Hint: it's Necrons.

Much better than in Faith & Fire. We have some carryovers from that book, namely Miriya and Verity. Their personalities are pretty much the same, which is to say that they are, hmmm, what's the best word to describe these two?

Yes! Exactly!!!

So while their core characteristics haven't changed much, there is a much more confident stride in their depiction. Yes, they have been hardened, they are a bit wiser, but they are still the same. But again, their is only so much leeway you have in giving personality to zealots. I mean, they're zealots, after all.

I think that one or two of Miriya's old squad members survived as well. They are still window dressing with names. One might be dark skinned. Another might have a specialized weapon. Or are those the background Sisters introduced in this book? Can't recall.

In Faith & Fire, we had the stern but fair Canoness Galatea. In Hammer & Anvil, we have the stern but fair Canoness Sepherina. She's bald. She's tough. She's actually pretty cool.

I should've formed this entire review out of visual aids.

Filling the role of Sister Superior, the position Miriya was demoted from, we have Imogen, who is constructed of 100% anger and absolutely zero common sense or tactical acumen. She still gets some kick-ass scenes though.

Leading the Adeptus Mechnicus is a conniving, snarky questor named Tegas. He excels in his part as "the troublemaker you love to hate especially since he weasels out of trouble as slickly as a greased pig." It makes it even easier to hate him since Tegas spelled backwards is Saget, so if you imagine his vocalizations as sounding like Bob Saget....aaarrgh. But seriously, Swallow gives us an excellent portrayal of the mentality of the cogheads. It provides the bulk of levity throughout the book. Consider your main combatants: Sisters of Battle and Necrons. Yeah, not a lot of personality floating around in there. So, the Mechanicus are a great touch throughout. Trolling in binary.


I admit that I am dishing out a fair amount of ribbing so far, but the characters all gel well for a cohesively enjoyable experience. There is also one very strongly developed character in the book; a broken young woman named Decima, the last survivor of the obliteration of the original Sanctuary 101 outpost. Swallow fills her character with sorrow, anguish, nobility and strength in fairly equal terms. I would say that she is hands-down the best character in the book.

But what about bad guys?
The cogheads are enjoyable villainous troublemakers, but they are not actual "bad guys". The main baddies we have are none other than the dreaded Necrons. It's always a tad tricky writing for Necrons, since there is effectively zero individual personality in your given line trooper. Never fear, Swallow writes for them beautifully.

Well, not that beautifully.....

What Swallow focuses on in writing for these metal skeletons are spot-on physical descriptions, meticulous attention to detail in weaponry, and vivid portrayals of deployments and their basically implacable advances. 

He also gives us two sentient Necrons; a cryptek and a nemesor. There is some discourse between the two, and it is well done, if sometimes a bit too "human" sounding. All in all, of all the 40K stories I've read featuring the Necrons, Hammer & Anvil is far and away the best. I can't stress enough that the average Necron soldier is more fleshed out (hurr hurr) than the average Battle Sister.

Sorry sweetheart. I have no hand in what cards are dealt, I just call what I see.

World Building:
Swallow hits it out of the park once again on this front. Kavir, where much of the action takes place, is a desert world. There are only so many ways you can describe sand and heat, but Swallow does it in a way that you feel it. Plus, he employs a decent vocabulary. For example, I never knew these things were called "ergs":

But what truly astounded me in Hammer & Anvil was the intricate, excellent detail of the Necron Tomb World. I mean, the attention to detail made this representation vivid and authentic to the source material. Enough credit cannot be given.

The other aspect of world building which Swallow did well (as in Faith & Fire) is in presenting canon technologies: the weaponry, tactics of each faction, etc. These are all done exceedingly well throughout. You get a real feel for the different kinds of havoc that can be caused by either a gauss rifle or a melta-gun, and be sure you'd never want to be on the business end of either.

Plainly put: lots of action throughout. Pretty much all of it done very well. Towards the end, there are a few too many "just in the nick of time" instances, but the skirmishes never cease to be thrilling.

And that's pretty much it. I really don't have any complaints this time around. There was some potential, hinted at early on, that the Inquisition might have a more direct hand in all the wrong things going on on Kavir. While we know throughout that they can't be trusted, there was a ripe chance to really cultivate the genuine tension between the Sororitas and the Inquisition.

Ahem...well. I didn't mean like that. Although this would've been a perfectly welcome addition to the narrative....

Here's what it is:
Hammer & Anvil is a riveting novel focusing on the Warhammer 40,000 army that everybody loves but does not get enough love, the Sisters of Battle. If nothing else, this book should be cited as a reason why we need more Sororitas books. Great action, solid characters, and an excellent portrayal of Necrons. 

Final Score:


Cover Score:

While I was none too crazy with the cover for Faith & Fire, I really like this cover, featuring Miriya, done by Hardy Fowler. Even James Swallow gives a special thank-you in the acknowledgements to him for designing it. The composition, pose, detail, everything is good.

Cover Final Score:


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