Thursday, August 13, 2015

One Bullet (Deathwatch 1)

One Bullet (Deathwatch 1) by Ben Counter. A Warhammer 40K short story, originally published by The Black Library, August 2015. Approx. 26 pages.

Just when you thought the pickings were slim over at The Black Library, they go and kick off not one, but two series of quick reads. One features the always popular Space Wolves, and the other showcases the mysterious warriors chosen to join the shadowy Deathwatch. This latter them piqued my interest more, of course. Wisely kicking off the proceedings with a tale by fan fave and action maestro Ben Counter, the first installment is One Bullet.

One Bullet tells the story of Vael Donatus, an utterly pragmatic and clinically efficient veteran of the Ultramarine Sternguard. His and some other select companies are tasked with freeing up the manufacturing world of Skemarchus (which, with its lava pools and platforms, is a picture-perfect backdrop for a tale such as this) from the foul clutches of the greenskins. Wow, you cannot get a more classic match-up than that; Ultramarines vs. orks.

Donatus is not the only character of note here, though. One Bullet is also notable in that it features a prominent character from Ultramarine lore, Chaplain Ortan Cassius. Even though a specific date isn't mentioned, we see Cassius in his earlier years here.

What transpires herein is a 26 page action set piece. I can only say it so many times without sounding like a broken record, but the action is choreographed and mapped out so very well. Sometimes people (even myself) might joke that Counter is a bolter porn auteur, but even if it sounds clever, it's kind of a dig. This is real, bone-rattling, blistering action, a step high and above simple "Pew! Pew! For the Emprah!" storytelling.

The characterizations here are strong enough to carry the narrative. There is some fun banter between the Marines. But what carries the story is the contrasting determination of Doantus and Cassius. Each one interprets the Codex Astartes faithfully and fervently, yet their methods of application differ greatly. Donatus pushes for the methodical, bit by bit retaking of high value assets, where Cassius is all forward aggression, his crozius and zeal both ready to smite the xenos horde from the face of the world.

And, of course, somewhere in the tale, you will expect that the titular "One Bullet" motif will come into play. When it did, it was much better than I had anticipated.

On the orky side, Counter makes a wise move by focusing on the dangerous aspects of the orks; their ferocity, their frightening physicality, and their oft under-estimated canniness in fields such as engineering. He doesn't use them for comedic levity, as is often the case with orks. It is enough that are already ridiculous parodies of humanity by nature. Plus, we get to see some formidable orky units at play here. Good stuff.

Put all these components together, and it seems that Counter has achieved the nearly impossible: made a thrilling story showcasing the SmurfMarines.

Wait, what is that you ask? What does this have to do with the Deathwatch?

Excellent question. The answer: it really doesn't.

To be precise, there is technically a member of the Sternguard that is a former Deathwatch team member. However, other than a few observations about not underestimating the enemy, he only really serves as a tertiary character.

What it boils down to is a Deathwatch story almost no Deathwatch in it.

Those buns have more fluff than the entire Codex Astartes.

The only reason I keep mentioning this is because I can understand readers feeling mislead by the advertising. And it would be a shame for One Bullet to be seen as guilty of something it really didn't do. It is a strong story on its own. But I won't lie; the entire Deathwatch angle comes off as "tacked-on", as if the story were on a back burner (maybe as part of a planned "History of Famous 40K Figures" series) and then got retrofitted to shoehorn some Deathwatch material in.

One last thing I really appreciate that Counter does here is to give some quick, expository sentences as background for potential newer readers. I've lauded these types of actions before; since the 40K universe is so expansive and intricate, new readers might feel overwhelmed trying to comprehend it. And Counter is skilled enough to deliver a concise message, being mindful of the economy of his word count.

This line is a perfect example of what I mean, and it sums up the ork mentality oh so well:

‘The greenskins despoil even that which they can turn to their use,’ said Felidus, watching through the gunport beside Donatus. ‘Like some in-built allergy to civilisation, they have to tear it down.’

So, one last time; give One Bullet a read. Enjoy it for what it is; not what it is billed as. It stands perfectly fine on its own merits.

Here's what it is:
The first story in the new Deathwatch series is an excellent, high-octane Ultramarine actioner. That's as honest as I can be.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Not a fan. It's not as bad as the cringe-inducing "Read it because" section on the BL website. The style is somewhat like a graphic novel. which is fine, but the execution is somewhat poor. When I first saw it, I wanted to say, zoom it out a bit, show some more of the Astartes armor, and maybe the pauldron with the Inquisition logo (assuming it was an actual Deathwatch tale). Knowing now how little Deathwatch is here, I have to ask: is that supposed to be Donatus or Cassius? That weird grin reminds me of someone else entirely.....

The comparison no one wants right now....

Cover Final Score:


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