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.
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: