Friday, November 27, 2015

Last Step Backwards

Last Step Backwards by Justin D. Hill. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, originally published by The Black Library, December 2014. Approx. 37 pages.

Is it just me or did this year fly by pretty fast? I read this short not long after it came out, and contemplated doing a review on it, and then opted not too since, well, it didn't blow me away at the time. I am not big on simply writing "a good Imperial Guard short with solid action" and leaving it at that. And now, almost an entire year has shot by.

Now, however, the new Astra Militarum book is out, and there are a few new shorts in it. I might read and review them in the near future, so I figured I'd breeze through the pages of Last Step Backwards again. Honestly, I'm glad I did. I think this story works a lot better on its second reading.

Last Step Backwards is an Imperial Guard short that debuted in 2014's Advent Calendar collection, and focuses on legendary Cadian Lord Castellan Ursarkar Creed as he helps to eliminate the Anckorite cultists from the planet Besana. Besana is a fairly non-distinct world, more notable for being covered in poisonous blue dust than for anything else.

While the headliner here is Creed, the better portion of the story revolves around a group of Cadian Whiteshields (cadets), most notably a youngster named Fesk. Fesk is a likable enough lead; he reminds us of nearly every green private in nearly every war movie.

Speaking of war movies, if you grew up on the great, jingoistic WWII movies of days gone by, then you have a good idea of the tone here. This story is not a passport to see the inside of the mythical figure that is Creed; it is a chance to sweat it out in the trenches against insurmountable odds.

Some of the dialogue is pretty bad here. I was wondering if Hill was intentionally going for a "classic pulp novel" feel here; if that's the case, he succeeded. And by bad, I mean kind of cheesy. So fun bad. There are moments that go something like "One does not simply say 'Oh, that is Creed. That is like saying Oh, that is only Yarrick'!" That's the kind of dialogue you run into in Star Wars EU novels.

But again, it fits the feel. Last Step Backwards falls squarely on the actioner end of the spectrum. It is a fun enough read just as an Imperial Guard piece. The action is nicely done, and the descriptions of the Anckorites are done well also. Just bear in mind; this isn't a case of the myth coming alive. It is more the case of your Castellan Creed and Colour Sergeant Kell figures coming alive.

Don't get me wrong. There are some strong aspects to the story. It's fun to watch Creed stomping around, saying the right rousing thing at the right time, while chomping on his cigar, err, lho-stick. And there is one scene at the end which is honestly emotional and tugs at the heartstrings fairly well.

One more comical note: when I first read this story, I had to put it down for a while after the opening scene. The Cadians are hopelessly pinned down, death is staring them in the eyes.

And then:

"Do you hear it?"

...over the din of men shouting and dying and the rattle of gunfire and las-rounds, came the strains of music.

Major Luka jumped up. "Sing, man! Sing!"

‘Creed,’ shouted Luka. ‘It’s Creed!’


Here's what it is:
A serviceable, enjoyable Imperial Guard actioner, with plenty of las-bolts and gobbets of blood. But what else do you expect from a tale featuring a legendary leader who is such a bear of a man that he has "Ursa" in his first name?

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I'm guessing this is in the Astra Militarum Codex? Nice battle scene with Creed front and center. Perfect fit for the material.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, November 19, 2015

By This Axe I Rule!

By This Axe I Rule! by Robert E. Howard. A Kull the Conqueror story, appearing in The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2: Grim Lands. Approx. 17 pages.

Note: By This Axe I Rule! is one of Howard's posthumously published Kull stories. It was re-written as the Conan tale "The Phoenix on the Sword", which appeared in Weird Tales in 1932.

The burdens of kingship weigh heavily upon Kull once more, making the former slave feel a slave again, bound by grander chains. His free spirit is tethered by bothersome, archaic laws; plus, although he has supplanted a despot, he finds that the fealty of the common folk is easily swayed by well-articulated words of malice....

As Kull toils under the weight of the crown, a quartet of usurpers have cast their lot with an outlaw named Ascalante to hatch a plan to murder the king. 

In a separate sub-plot, a local noble petitions King Kull to allow him to marry the love of his life, a beautiful young slave girls. Kull is again rendered impotent to the mandates of Valusian law, much to his frustration.

Taking inventory of all these ingredients, and knowing that it is Howard penning it, there is little doubt how events are going to unfold. The prose here is purple enough to leave bruising on the pages, but the action excels. The "dramatic" scenes have setups and dialogue that vary from meandering to cringeworthy. However, the opening scene is masterful and rousing, as the plotters solidify their intent and plan. Even though the bad guys are paint-by-numbers tropes (a scarred mastermind, a mad minstrel, a simpering fat lord, a brutish giant, and a dwarf with long arms whose reach overextends his stature - get it?), Howard lends this scene an emotional ferocity. In this scene, the crazed minstrel Ridondo utters what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes from a Howard story:

"My songs are nails for a king's coffin!"

And, of course, for all the peaks, there are the valleys as well. There is one moment, when the assassins are poised to strike, and Howard decides then and there to go into a lengthy expository diatribe as to how Kull knew to get ready for a scrap. What could have been summed up in a line or two, for those split second of action, instead read more like Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge than Kull the Conqueror.

There are also examples here of the unique cultural observations of Howard's day. One prime example of this occurs when King Kull visits the young slave girl betrothed to Seno val Dor, who is distraught over the law's prohibiting her marriage. He extends the courtesy of an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, and, well, let's just let Howard explain it:

"What's the matter, child?" he asked, and because a woman in extreme grief is likely to pour her sorrows out to anyone who shows interest and sympathy she whimpered: "Oh, sir, I am a miserable girl!"

I mean, I think it's a prime example of how hot-blooded youths thrive on the concept of a damsel in distress in dire need of a man's man to save them. It's the pinnacle of escapist fantasy. At its worst, we can chuckle at its cultural antiquity. Sadly, though, in this day and age, dialogue like that needs to come with trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Well, it seems puerile to nitpick on the literary merits of action yarns in vintage youth magazines. The fact is that the characters here are well conceived, as is the standard for Howard's works. In its dormant sections, the story suffers, but when it comes to action, or rousing declarations, there is great stuff here. Stuff that has stood the test of time - eight decades old and still thrilling. 

By This Axe I Rule! has a superb opening, and an exhilarating climax in which Kull makes literal mincemeat out of his would-be assassins. A great way to pass some afternoon reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fire And Ice

Fire and Ice by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Tau novella, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millenium Shas'o anthology. Originally published October, 2015. Approx. 79 pages.

I've been champing at the bit for the chance to tear into this novella since it popped up in last month's (Oc-Tau-ber) Shas'o anthology (which has received a hardback release as well, allowing readers to finally get the exceptional shorts Out Caste and A Sanctuary of Wyrms in print format). The promise of a new story by personal Black Library favorite Peter Fehervari generated a lot of excitement, to say the least. As I'm sure I've mentioned many times before, in my opinion no other author in the Black Library stable puts forward stories with the kind of twisted potential and depth that this created universe allows for. They are brutal, honest, puzzling, twisting, and unapologetically raw.

Fire and Ice takes that standard to a new high.

As a forewarning, I can only say so much regarding the structure and storyline of this tale, since that would compromise some of the wonderful and mind-boggling twists. Let me just say that it is no coincidence that the name of one of the central figures of the story, an assassinated Inquisitor, happens to be Escher. This will give you a good idea of how the narrative of Fire and Ice unfolds.

Set amidst the turmoil of the Damocles Gulf Crusade, Fire and Ice focuses on a meek Inquisitorial Interrogator named Haniel Mordaine. Mordaine is a man that truly finds himself wedged between a rock and a hard place; he is being pursued by the Inquisition's Grand Conclave for his part in allowing Escher to be assassinated, and he is still trying to do his duty by attempting to uproot the Tau influence in the sector. Along this precarious path, he is ushered and guarded by a shadowy man named Kreeger, who, along with providing safety, is preparing Mordaine for a rendezvous with his "contact", a shadowy figure known as the Calavera, who will hopefully provide some insight on quelling the blueskin menace.

His efforts reach a climax on the frozen world of Oblazt, where the Tau-engineered "Unity" revolution is born. As the hive of Vyshodd falls to the newly-minted human subscribers to the Greater Good, Mordaine beats a hasty egress aboard a maglev train (superb technological concept here) on a journey to.....well, let's just say fate.

That summary really does no justice to the the story; and, mind you, the real story begins once all the players are on that fateful train. Here, while convalescing from wounds suffered during the riot, Mordaine will work with the mysterious Calavera (obviously an Adeptus Astartes, but also obviously so much more), and he will attempt to fill the void of the fallen Escher's shoes by interviewing "the prisoner"; a Tau warrior who may or may not be the legendary Commander Farsight.

If you need a straight-forward, linear Tau story, with clearly defined actions and arcs, please refer to my last review, for Phil Kelly's Farsight (no insult there, it is a really good novella). Also, if you are looking for seeing cadres of Fire Warriors lined up, with Crisis Suits soaring overhead, go with Farsight. But if you want a representation of what it would mostly be like to deal with the confluence of Tau socialism, Inquisition dogmatic totalitarianism, and Warp-infused Chaos, then read this novella. If you want a psychological power play, and the formation of grand-scale chess match (both figuratively and literally), then read Fire and Ice. Everything is offered in carefully calculated contradiction. Everything is everything and nothing at once.

There are no easy reveals here. Like all of Fehervari's other works, the reader finds themselves sorting through tangled webs in a house of smoke and mirrors. You will be asking yourself throughout, what is the ultimate point? Why is this character being chosen for these grand trials and responsibilities? And when an answer, of sorts, posits itself, revealing its truly ugly face, it is a true shock (and a nice little nod to one of my favorite movies of all time. But like I said, no spoilers from me).

Assessing the individual parts that make the whole, Fire and Ice is, like all of Fehervari's other works, very strong. If you were to strip away each outer layer, its core fundamentals are still strong. Take away the 40K universe, and it is still strong sci-fi. Take those concepts away, and it is still a strong character piece. Peel that back, and see the dark recesses of the mind. Claw through that, and fall into the blackest valleys of the soul.

There is real strength in the words employed. Every line has structural and philosophical importance. And, like in Fehervari's other stories, there are puzzles and riddles abound. Names are a central motif here; the meanings of them, the importance of them, and the grave missteps of addressing someone by the wrong name.

World building and scenery is excellent too. The technology of the anchor hive pulses with legitimacy, as does the maglev train which serves as the vessel for a trip to Hell. The partisan politics of those who would embrace the Tau'va over Holy Terra is especially poignant given the socio-political overtones so prevalent in today's society. Indeed, there is nothing so tragically comedic as low-information consumers rebelling and fighting for the opportunity to be another regime's disposable assets.

Of course, the most important aspect of such a story as this is characters. We have a fantastic dramatis personae here. Mordaine is an well-portrayed in his role; frayed, emotionally crumbling, and yet capable of an inner strength (bolstered, perhaps, by the inner voices which plague him). His guardian, Kreeger, is also a standout character. He embodies the physical characteristics and nihilism of Fire Caste's Holt Iverson, and yet, I find it hard to believe that they are one and the same....

The real puzzles, of course, are the shadowy pupeeters: the Calavera and the traveler. Their true motives are as well-hidden as their true identities, and even when there are some reveals, their ultimate goals are still out of sight.

Fehervari also shows that he can still craft well-conceived, if somewhat unconventional Imperial Guard regiments. Here we have the Iwujii Sharks, brutal, efficient, and unabashedly more gang-like than regimental. They give us some truly memorable personalities, especially the priestess La Mal Kalfu.

There is also a very nicely done minor arc involving an outcast kroot shaper. Here, as in some of his previous stories, Fehervari has shown a real flair for portraying this alien race. He truly gets their physiology, their bearing, and their base warrior instincts.

The dialogue here is beyond amazing. Sometimes I list a favorite quote from a story, one that resonates with something deep within with its poignancy. Here, almost every line fits that bill. So, for my favorite quote, I will choose these three simple words, which come from the most welcome character in the novella:

"It's a lie."

Fans of Fire Caste will be happy to know that there are some references in Fire and Ice to that classic piece. They are not as obvious, or as directly connected as the ones in stories like The Crown of Thorns or Vanguard (which acts more of an epilogue to Fire Caste than a separate work). It is just another cold reminder of the great story cycle that might have been if the Black Library had given Fehervari another book or two to tell a story that really deserved to be heard.

I'll put forward Fire and Ice as what I believe to be required reading for Warhammer 40,000 fans. This story shows the true potential for a created universe. These stories don't need to be constrained to the depictions of the battles acted out by tabletop miniatures. What makes those stories possible are the schemes and machinations of greater forces, and that is what you get in Fire & Ice. Like Fire Caste, this story might polarize some fans, and isolate those who prefer more clear cut tales. But it is the kind of story that a legend like Farsight deserves - complex, full of deception and obfuscation, calculated and calculating, brutal, and merciless.

Here's what it is:
Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it beings no profit to the wise.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Another Crisis Suit Codex grab, I presume. You won't be seeing it in this story. But this isn't the only story in the anthology. Not a bad pic.

Cover Final Score:


Saturday, November 7, 2015


Farsight by Phil Kelly. A Warhammer 40,000 Legends of the Dark Millennium novella, originally published by The Black Library, October 2015. Approx. 108 pages.

The nice folks over at The Black Library decided to make last month into Oc-Tau-ber, with a month of Greater Goodies, some old and some new. Two offerings definitely piqued my interest; the first is this nifty novella, focusing on the iconic Tau badass (bit of an oxymoron there, no?) Commander Farsight. The other is Fire & Ice, a new short story by blog favorite author Peter Fehervari which appears in the Shas'O collection. I will be reading and reviewing that very soon.

Farsight is an action-packed novella which centers on the actions of Farsight during the Arkunasha War. Before I get into further detail, let me say this: I know that most 40K readers are read-up on the canon and lore, but if you are like me, and only have a cursory knowledge, read up on Farshight's wiki entry first. He is a very intriguing character. The big question then becomes: does the story do justice to the legend? Well, I have to say that I really, really like this novella. But it falls more firmly into the mold of actioner than character study. And I think that was the best choice here; you can't help but get sucked into and thoroughly enjoy this tale.

The Tau bio-habs of Arkunasha are under siege by the monstrous Waaagh! of Dok Toofjaw. The sheer size of the ork assaults, and the placement of the habs is starving each individual location out, as supply lines have been broken, with little hope of re-establishing. To make dread matters even more hopeless, there is a matter of a strange phenomena on the planet: deadly, violent rust storms which seemingly have a mind of their own (and which inflict rather peculiar injuries on those caught in them).

Descending into this seemingly hopeless quandary is the celebrated Farsight and his team. The would-be savior enacts some pragmatic, sneaky, fast-strike attack plans, crafted around existing knowledge of ork behavior. Unfortunately, things do not work out so well. Facing censure from his colleagues, he must re-evaluate his tactics, study the bestial xenos further, and deduce the cause of the mysterious "ghost storms", if there is to be any hope of saving the Tau citizenry.

There are many things that Phil Kelly packs into Farsight to make it a solid read. Let's look at some of them:

Characters: This might actually be the weakest category in the novella. Farsight does not sell the character, but it sells his greatness. This is satisfactory in and of itself, though. There is very little fleshing out of the characters here. Farsight himself is an enjoyable protagonist; although there is little done to make the readers feel as though they have slipped into the skin of a socialist alien. He could just as easily be human. I understand the challenge of writing for a xenos mentality; the onus is to maintain the authenticity of the alien psychology, while still weaving in some characteristics that the end-user can sympathize with. The secondary characters are pretty thin too; Commander Brightsword is a highlight, but mostly he "out-cools" the "cool" lead. Other members of the Tau hierarchy run the gamut of helpful to somewhat underhanded and conniving. There is also a side story focusing on a mentor in one of the habs that sadly goes nowhere. I don't know if the meat of that story got gutted in the editing room to make more space for action, or what.
The tau dialogue is somewhere on the level of Shao-lin philosophy via Kung Fu:The Series, punctuated with expressive hand gestures. It's kind of fun, to be honest. The story is also peppered with quotes from The Art of War, um, I mean the Tau'va. You have to love these moments of Fortune Cookie Philosophy:

Lottery numbers on rear.

Creatures: The orks, on the other hand, are masterful here. These are classic, brutal and comical greenskins. Better yet, Kelly is not just writing for Tau legends here. In Farsight, we get to see some Ork heavyweight bosses as well. Toofjaw makes a fine antagonist, way smarter than the average ork. All in all, I enjoyed this story much more for the orks than for the Tau.

Action: There is tons of action in this novella. It is, by and far, the best selling point. Kelly presents the lore here very well: we really get great representations of the weaponry and vehicles. Some of the best moments are those which involve battlesuits. Here, Kelly alternates between the exhilarating action taking place outside with the split-second decisions being made within the piloting cocoons on the command suites. This "back and forth" technique worked so successfully in the Iron Man movies, and allows the reader a nice sense of immersion.
Kelly also makes sure to incorporate a wide spectrum of unit types in the story, and he makes them pop off the page as well with vivid descriptions. I really cannot give him enough credit on that front.

Other Factors: The pacing in Farsight is nice and brisk. The story does not lag in any parts, or rush matters. There are even some well-placed, clever parts as well. Some of my personal favorite scenes are a Tau-Ork parley (which goes exactly as expected), and a Tau autopsy of an ork cadaver (which goes exactly as expected). Even in these scenes, where the outcome is never in doubt, the ride is just too enjoyable to resist.

In closing, don't pick up Farsight expecting to see the finer nuances of the psychology of the Tau's greatest warrior to be explored. Read it to experience first-hand just how consummate he is in battle, and enjoy each page of this blistering actioner.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

A close up of a picture of Farsight in his custom XV8 Crisis Battlesuit. I'm pretty sure the original pic is from the Codex. They should've just used the whole original pic, instead of this odd crop job.

Cover Final Score: