Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Cost Of Command

The Cost of Command by Sandy Mitchell. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, Day One of the Summer of Reading 2015, originally published August, 2015. Approx. 26 pages.

Sandy Mitchell's The Cost of Command is the first entry in The Black Library's new "Summer of Reading 2015" batch of short stories. I am pretty psyched about these since, like the annual December Advent Calender program, it taps into a deep sense of nostalgia for me (I think I was one of the only kids in my class actually looking forward to Summer Reading lists).

The Cost of Command focuses on the Astartes Chapter known as The Astral Knights; doughty descendants of Dorn who met their demise against the monstrous Necron ship known as the World Engine. One interesting point here is that Mitchell is best known for his Ciaphas Cain novels, which have a distinct comic touch; whereas the Astral Knights are known as some of the most dour of Dorn's children. So how does the story turn out in the end? Let's take a look...

The Cost of Command opens with a very solemn Astral Knights tradition: a duel to settle a grudge between two battle brothers. The stage is set very well here; we meet our combatants, the taciturn Sergeant Lanthus and the seething brother Aldwyn. We know right away that the duel is predicated upon an affront that is truly festering, due to Aldwyn's setting the terms as "to the death".  At this point, no matter the infraction, we know the result will be too much to bear; Astartes should not kill Astartes, as brother should not kill brother. Alas, the terms are set and the duel begins.

I will say this right out; the blurb for this short is a tad misleading. It promises that the "ebb and flow of the duel will contrast the twists and turns [of what happened]" (paraphrasing). The duel itself actually serves as the bookends of the tale, and perhaps that is for the best. The entirety of the middle relays the backstory of what transpired; from Lanthus' ascension to sergeant up to the mission which changed things forever.

Our primary characters are fleshed out quite nicely. A less skilled author would've fallen into the trap of running solely on their primary character traits and turning them into one-trick ponies. Lanthus is more level-headed, he takes the extra half second to stop and think, and assign resources in the most prudent manner. Aldwyn is more impulsive. But Mitchell makes these tropes into characters, and you can see their highs and lows, how their actions pay off, and how their actions incur costs too high to bear. This is, of course, the soul of the story.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a heaping helping of action in the story. Our primary antagonists here are everybody's favorite greenskin xenos, the orks. Mitchell plays up the comedy in the idiocy of their lifestyle rather than offering up comic ork banter. Their actions, their compulsions, and their physical manner are all done with legitimacy. Plus, the back story opens with a thrilling attack by the Astral Knights on an ork convoy. This was a real high point.

The real proof of Mitchell's authorial prowess is that you know, in the end, it has to culminate with one death or the other. You knew that from the beginning; but by the end, you realize that it will be a true loss either way. And one that could probably have been avoided. Then again, maybe not. It's a moral that justifies the title of the story.

One question I do have though: the Astral Knights, as part of their initiation, have to find their own crystal shard which will serve as their sword for their whole life. Now, do they bring these shard swords into all conflicts? Because, early on in the story, there were two situations where Astral Knights were penned in by ork crowds, and a little deft swordplay would have saved their hides. Instead, however, the potency of the Knights dropped off considerably when they could not use their bolters. So, is there a certain protocol for them using the swords?

All in all, a very solid short.

Here's what it is:
An action packed short that packs a real emotional punch. Maybe this duel was justified, or maybe the mission was. Either way, again, the end cost was too much to bear.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

The Astral Knights sigil over a nice grey background. This is one of the times where simple is still strong.

Cover Final Score:


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