Sunday, May 17, 2015

Vanguard

Vanguard by Peter Fehervari. An Adeptus Mechanicus short story, originally published by The Black Library, April 2015. Approx. 37 pages.

Although the Adeptus Mechanicus have been around since the advent of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, this year Games Workshop finally introduced a figure line for the Skitarii (the military arm of the Adeptus Mechanicus). The figures look great, and seem to be generating a lot of positive buzz. Coinciding with the release, Black Library has unveiled a bunch of Skitarii stories. There are some great looking titles there, but of course the one that stoked me the most was Vanguard, a short story that promised a return to Phaedra, that hateful little slice of hell that Peter Fehervari introduced us to in the most excellent Fire Caste.

Things have most definitely changed on the brutal landscape of Phaedra. With the passing of the Wintertide movement, and the death of the Sky Marshall, all that remains (apart from the indigenous, nightmare-fuel flora and fauna) are the tattered remains of the Tau army, and the Adeptus Mechanicus holed up in their fortress, the Iron Diadem (readers of Fire Caste will remember that that book also featured Skitarii, and one rousing fight scene in particular involving them). Within the confines of the Diadem, Magos Caul, the highest ranking tech-priest on the planet, has decided that it is high time his tenure on Phaedra come to a close. However, to get back home to Mars, he needs to retrieve a high-value asset from behind enemy lines, known only as "Skysight". To achieve his goal, he sends out a sizable force of his best Skitarii.

This is a fairly basic, yet direct, premise, and it works just fine for a 40K short. What Fehervari gives us is an excellent story that truly showcases these militant cyborgs. Now, I will say this; Vanguard is a bit of a departure from the other titles in the Phaedra Arc. This title showcases less of the mind-bending, emotional resonance that were the cornerstone of the previous works. What remains is well-rendered armies, superb world-building, and a ton of blistering action.

If it seems that I am insinuating that Vanguard doesn't measure up to other Phaedra stories, allow me to explain. There is, logically, less of a chance for emotion present, as our combatants are the memory-wiped Skitarii and the Tau, who eschew individualism for the perpetuation of the Greater Good. Fehervari still "gets" the feel of the 40K universe in a way that most other authors don't, and it is still rendered well on the pages. Phaedra is still a seething, hateful world that serves as the real antagonist. There is still a strong bleak, grimdark vibe to the whole proceeding.

Readers of Fire Caste will also remember how well the action scenes were presented there. Fehervari maps out some grand skirmishes in Vanguard as well, which move along with a brutal choreography. He incorporates a nice array of the Skitarii weaponry, as well as infantry types. Attention is also paid to cohort hierarchies and troop deployment. It is pretty interesting to see how troops are utilized and expended in accordance with their inherent usefulness. It's so honestly, brutally practical.

Now, just because Vanguard doesn't have the emotional impact of Fire Caste, that doesn't mean there isn't an emotional underpinning susurrating throughout the narrative. At times of stress, we can sneak fleeting glimpses at the people these warriors of the Omnissiah used to be (remember, most of the Phaedra Skitarii were cobbled together from Imperial leftovers). It is in these moments that Fehervari inserts welcome nods to people, places, and things from previous Phaedra works, giving us some inkling of the fates of some of them. These are, by and far, the best parts of the story (too bad we couldn't get an update on the fate of the battleship Puissance and its captain, the odious Sea Spider, but in all honesty it would've been superfluous to the Skitarii vs. Tau narrative).

In the end, the only problems I have with Vanguard are with how it is presented by the Black Library. First of all, there is no way you can convince that the working title of this short was actually "Vanguard". This is not a story focusing on those ultra-irradiated soldiers of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Other troop types play a far more integral role here, including the rangers and the Alpha Primus. In fact, the show is arguably stolen once the Ballistarii lope onto the scene.

Also, this picture makes a horrible cover for this title. It was simply cropped out of the pic used for the Skitarius cover:


I get it that not all short stories warrant custom covers, but nothing about this snapshot sells the idea of  "Soldiers of the Omnissiah on a hellish jungle world".

In closing, Vanguard is a great read. It ties up some loose ends, and gives us a rich portrayal of two great armies in action. Reading Fire Caste is not a prerequisite, but it will enhance the enjoyment immensely.

Here's what it is:
A welcome return to a very unwelcome place leads to a happy reunion with some very changed friends.


Final Score:

9.5/10


Cover Score:

I can't fault this picture by Bagus Hutomo for not matching well with the subject matter. It is a well-enough rendered pic of a Skitarii warrior, although it is the least dynamic portion of a very solid picture.

Cover Final Score:

6.5/10

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