Saturday, December 26, 2015

I Am Slaughter

I Am Slaughter by Dan Abnett. Book One in The Black Library's 'The Beast Arises' series, originally published December 2015. Approx. 238 pages.

The Beast Arises is The Black Library's ambitious project for 2016. It is proposed as a 12 novel (at least) series, centered on the greatest Waaaagh! of all; that of the monstrous warboss known simply as "The Beast", which put the Imperium on its heels in the 32nd Millennium.

At a time when many are complaining that The Black Library is losing it's focus, with too many short stories, audio books, and limited editions instead of just good old fashioned novels being released, The Beast Arises has the potential to be a refreshing throwback. It has a central theme, BL has committed some solid authors to it, the cover art and color scheme are excellent (in my opinion, at least. I've seen plenty of comments by those not so enamored with them). Kicking off the series is I Am Slaughter, a nice, trim little novel (another personal preference of mine. I usually prefer these succinct little novels over bloated doorstoppers) penned by 40K favorite Dan Abnett.

1500 years after the event of the Horus Heresy, there is a sort of "peace" born from laxity throughout the Imperium of Man. On High Terra, a High Council of Twelve, beset by all the expected conniving and power plays of any such ruling body, rules over the universe-wide affairs of humans. And on the planet of Ardamantua, roughly six weeks away from the Terran Core, the Imperial Fists are keeping in the practice of killing by engaging a race of insectoid xenos known as the Chromes.

As the purging of the Chromes progresses, a new anomaly manifests itself: massive noise bursts that accompany disruptive gravitic distortions. Is this a new weapon in the employ of the Chromes, a naturally occurring phenomenon of the planet, or the interference of yet another race?

The frequency and devastation of the noise bursts steadily increases, wreaking pure havoc on the world and atmosphere of Ardamantua, and putting the Imperial Fists - present in the near entirety of their Chapter - at grave risk. Will desperately needed help arrive from Terra in time? Or will the constant in-fighting and power grabs among the High Lords condemn the esteemed Chapter to oblivion?

Well, let's be honest here. We already know from the advertising blitz that there are orks involved. Tons of orks. But it's the hows and whys that matter. Does Abnett get us off to a roaring start here with I Am Slaughter? Or is this a stumbling start to a underwhelming series concept? I opt for the former. This is a very good, though not perfect novel. Let's take a look at the specifics.

Plot/Pacing: One of the things that has always distinguished Abnett is that he is not only possessing of an outstanding imagination, and solid concepts of speculative technology, but he is also a skilled novelist. All the authorial fundamentals are present: accessible writing, engaging characters and wordplay, and a complete story told by the end of the last page (well, to be fair, I Am Slaughter is an introductory novel, so the story threads are left intentionally open. But as an account of some opening moves in a grand chess game, it does its job well). I Am Slaughter moves along at a good clip, with no slogging or boring scenes. I will say, though, one thing that bugged me a bit is that Abnett uses a few too many cliffhanger endings to chapters.

I've seen some scattered dissent complaining that the big baddies - the orks, don't show up until too late in the proceedings. I disagree; Abnett made the best use of his time in establishing an overview of how things were going in the state of the Imperium circa M32.

World Building: An aspect where Abnett excels. He has been defining this universe and its denizens for two decades. Ardamantua, and its progression into decay, are detailed vividly. The images of High Terra are grand. And, best of all, the vessel carrying the ork Waaaagh! is extremely impressive (even though outstandingly ludicrous).

Characters and Creatures: A bit hit and miss here. Let's start with the creatures. The primary antagonist creatures for the first half of the book are the Chromes. With them, Abnett really captures the essence of "giant ant" creatures from sci-fi classics such as "Starship Troopers" and "Armor".

The orks are another big win, even given their limited page time. Abnett brings them to life in gruesome, vivid detail. If the rest of the series afforded them the same treatment that they receive here, then it would be an epic series indeed. That remains to be seen, of course.

As for humans and transhumans (the Space Marines), that is a far stickier matter. In my most recent rant, I mentioned how hard it is for even the best BL authors to make sympathetic characters out of the emotionally stunted Space Marines. Abnett is one of the few authors who can come close to doing so, on his best days. His Imperial Fists are enjoyable enough. Hell, all of Abnett's characters are "enjoyable". The thing is, Abnett has a very "cinematic" writing style. Meaning, his prose moves with the fluidity of a movie. Also, this means his characters are often presented in a manner most palatable for quick viewing, or, as is the case here, quick reading. All of these Fists have a distinguishing point of view, characteristic, or trait. And that is about all. One of the main ones, Slaughter (the Captain whose image graces the cover), is a solid enough character, but could have thrived much more with even two or three pages of solid detail. Another Fist, Daylight, one of the Palace guards on Terra, is a decent character as well. In a later chapter in the book, a moment of regret serves as the most emotional, and best written, portion of the book.

The weakest characters, however, are the humans on Terra. The main focus there is centered on Drakan Vangorich, Grand Master of the Officio Assassanorum. While not one of the High Twelve, Vangorich still weaves some high level of maneuvering and manipulation behind the scenes. The main issue that I have with Vangorich is that he is a prime example of the type of character that Abnett (and AD-B) so often writes: he is always the coolest cucumber in the room. His thinly veiled threats and promises resonate with a well-orchestrated combination of coolness, sarcasm, and snark. I mean, it's fine and believable that he is more efficient than almost anyone he comes across, but the character comes across as such by design, not as the result of a well-created character. The scenes with him become predictable; for example, one chapter opens with a page-long description of all the security measures in place in the residence of an Inquisitor. Before finishing the description, the reader can already predict that Vangorich will, of course, be in the room anyone. Why? Simply, because he is so awesome, I guess.

Something else that falls flat is the depiction of political intrigue. One example stands out glaringly. Vangorich and one of his allies are looking to convince the High Lord of the Imperial Navy to commit ships to the reinforcement of the Fists. Their grand plan? Phrase their proposal in a way that the High Lord will agree, in the hopes of grabbing glory. That's it. I mean,not every writer is effective in describing delicate power plays, but that is just juvenile. But, it all falls into the "cinematic" aspect. In a movie, that's how a situation like that would play out. In actual universe-spanning politicking, I highly doubt it.

The fact is, none of the characters here are well-rounded or thoroughly fleshed out. They all have good dialogue, and get their moments to shine, but that is it.

A few other things did not work well for me, either. I personally did not care for the concept of nicknames for the Imperial Fists. I don't know how long this has been canon, but it was a tad, well, corny to me.

Also, Abnett decides to have some "doubles" here. There are contrasting "Slaughters", both of whom get to utter the titular declaration.
To the detriment of the novel, this Slaughter did not make the final draft..

There are also two "Beasts", both of whom get a chance to "arise". I'm sure this all seemed clever in concept, but it isn't so much in execution.

All in all, I Am Slaughter is a solid entry book for this new series. It isn't Abnett's best (or worst) by any means, but it delivers on every promise that it makes, and it does so in a nice looking, trim novel. If the characterizations strengthen up in subsequent novels, this will be a great ride.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As mentioned before, I really like the cover art for these novels. The human and Space Marine ones are decent, but the ork ones are truly excellent. Lots of detail abound as well. I also personally like the white background with the green trim. A bookshelf full of these titles in hardback would look spiffy on any shelf. Here's a pic of the cover with its original background:

Cover Final Score:


Friday, December 18, 2015

A Review Of John Coyne's Hobgoblin Re-release

From the Peace Corps Writers page....

"Boo! Trick or Treat?

No, this isn’t a Halloween novel with Ghosts, Vampires, and Witches. This is a murder mystery, with bodies everywhere. From Connecticut, where young Scott attended Spencertown Academy to Flat Rock, a rural high school in Crossroads, New York. Scott and his beautiful Mom Barbara have moved south after his father Warren dies of a heart attack. The mystery just gets started as Barbara takes on the position of Historian for a medieval castle known as Ballycastle. Built by wealthy Irishman Fergus O’Cuileannain, who is a rather weird individual, cared for by another Irish Serf named Conor Fitzpatrick. Conor resembles a fast walking Hobbit always carrying on in his Irish Gaelic.

What a setting. Ballycastle is three hours from New York City and built in the 1930’s. Young 16 year old Scott is a master player as his classmates would shout, and his Hobgoblin game piece Brian Borù unstoppable. Brian Borù, a twenty-five level paladin, who had played dozens of adventures in the ancient land of Erin of long ago. The adventure of Hobgoblin is Scott’s life.

Yet when he and his Mom move to Ballycastle, he continues to live out the spirit of the Celtic knight and plans for more battles that Brian Borù could face and win . . . he is Brian Borù himself. Scott’s new and only friend at Flat Rock High is leggy Valerie. She is strong and stands up for her point of view, at times challenging Scott. And sometimes he takes on the Football Neanderthals like, Nick and Hank, who seem to be threatened by anyone with an IQ over 90.

The plot thickens and yes, Halloween is around the corner. Barbara begins to uncover strange events in Ballycastle’s past, where several very young women die within a year upon arriving at Ballycastle. There is even a small cemetery where the young Irish women, some as young as 16, were buried. And the “deathly departed” Fergus O’Cuileannain appears as the Black Annis out of the Celtic past.

I found that I could not put this book down, and later found myself having strange dreams of the little folks that make up Irish tales . . . one great and very special move into a murder mystery from a Celtic game board to a medieval castle in New York. Can’t say more or I give the ending away . . . check the body bags as events begin to roll."

Very nice synopsis there.

I recently got my copy of the new edition as well. All I have to say about it can be summed up in the picture below:

It's beautiful, and it looks very handsome on a shelf. My only complaint is that Dover isn't offering a hardback in the same size as well.

So anyway, if you are looking for a great last minute Christmas gift for the book lover in your life; especially someone that loves horror, 80's tales, RPG stories, or even fantasy lovers, get a copy of this new edition. And get one for yourself too.

Buy it on Amazon here.

What's it all about? Read my review of Hobgoblin here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Non-Review: Cybernetica

This is going to be an odd one, folks. Please forgive the twists, turns, and other nonsense. I needed some time to talk here, and so this will not be an actual review. But some of the things I need to talk about will tie into some of my concerns as I read through I Am Slaughter.


I finished reading Cybernetica a while ago. Why? I'm not sure. Part of it is that I usually like Sanders' stuff. Part of it is because I've been enjoying a bunch of the Adeptus Mechanicus stories that have been released. Also, perhaps I had hoped that a Horus Heresy review would steer some much needed traffic here to the blog. Sadly, I think that was a lot of it. That was the wrong way to approach it.

And so, unsurprisingly, I really didn't enjoy the novella much. It isn't that it is bad, but it really isn't great. More on that as the diatribe rolls on.

I know I've said this in one way or another in almost every 40K review: I'm not as lore-savvy as I should be. I don't read the Codexes, and I don't navigate the tangled web that is the Heresy. I have the utmost respect for those with the time, intelligence, and disposable income to get all the goodies and commit it to memory. It is a commendable feat.

Also, as I've said before regarding the 40K stuff; I find it hard to get into a lot of the Space Marines stuff. No matter how good an author is, and The Black Library has a lot of good ones, it is near impossible to write efficiently for the mindset of these transhuman (superhuman? what is the correct term?) warriors. And for those that do, let's be honest: the emotionally truncated personalities of the Astartes make them hard to be sympathetic with for the duration of a novel.

I personally believe Space Marines work best when you see them in action; reading along with a human lead, and watching the Emperor's Angels do their work. Maybe I'm in the minority there, and maybe that's why I often prefer Guard novels.

Moving on. I had tried long ago to get into the Horus Heresy. I initially held out on reading them, worried that I'd finish them too quickly and end up champing at the bit for new releases. Then, of course, the Great Cash Cow rolled off into an avalanche of short stories, audio books, special whoosits, etc. etc.. And it's too lore-heavy for me. Sorry, that's my fault. I'm getting old, and I just don't have that much reading time in a day anymore. It just got away for me, and I'm not bitching, since, to be honest, I read the first three and the quality dropped like an anvil after Horus Rising.

But still, Cybernetica came along. Ok, novella, so quick read. Sanders is good. I like the Adeptus Mechanicus. Should be a slam dunk.

So why didn't it work? Why did the whole thing feel so, I don't know, manufactured? Well, it was made on Mars....
Sorry, that was bad....

Actually, I'd love to have seen the evolutionary process behind Cybernetica. How did something that began as a novella about a Sons of Horus Techmarine penned by Aaron Dembski-Bowden end up becoming a Sanders-penned retelling of the events of Mechanicum centering on a Raven Guard Techmarine-in-training sent on a covert-ops mission by the powers that be on Terra?

It doesn't really matter. Either take is an interesting tale, if done well. I don't even remember all the details of Cybernetica at this point. A trim novella, it still took me over a week to read. After it was done, I took nothing away from it. And I hate that this all sounds negative, since there are some really good things in there.

But also, something really bugs me about it, and I'm guessing it might have something to do with the editing (again, I might be totally wrong here). There are just too many parts here that don't work, or just don't add up. There is a huge battle towards the beginning that is completely superfluous. It honestly is inserted to showcase Mechanicus unit types. And, being unnecessary, it reads as mundane. The other Techmarines-in-training that appear early on feel inserted at the last minute; as if just there to give some other Chapters some page time. They don't get enough fleshing out in their brief time to justify why it was even those Chapters represented. And, worst of all, there is a subplot with a freed heretek that goes nowhere. This character could have added so much desperately-needed emotional presence to the story, but in the end he gets relegated to a tertiary role.

Other things don't work, either. There is a big twist that can be guessed from the onset, and the dialogue of Lord Dorn and Malcador simply do not fit what one would expect from figures of their importance.

Again, too much negativity. From what I remember, the novel boasts the usual fiercely intelligent writing from Sanders. The panorama of Mars which he paints is so, so, so intricately detailed, almost mind-numbingly so.

Then, came the big problem for me. What killed this novella for me is that it is, in fact, a Space Marine book. That's right. Rob Sanders is one of those authors good enough to portray Space Marines effectively. And where Space Marines already have truncated emotional palettes, those being tinkered with by the Mechanicus are almost entirely bereft of feelings (also, add into the mix that the lead character is a Raven Guard brother who can't be sneaky because of his augmentations, so a central aspect of his persona is gone as well)

Now, picture Cybernetica as a standalone, non-Warhammer 40,000 tale. Make it like Escape from New York on Mars. Let The Carrion be a real cyborg badass, on an urgent, time-sensitive mission, with his cyber-raven and his two sleek, sexy warrior-androids in tow, blasting wild cyber-mastiffs on the blasted Mars landscape. That's a bona fide cyberpunk classic there.

Well, that's about it. I guess this is looking like equal parts rant and review. Maybe what I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that it's getting harder for me to get into some of the 40K stuff these days. I don't even know, maybe next year will tell. I will say, though, that for all of it's merits, Cybernetica has a distinct whiff of corporate control about it. And that undermines the efforts of a solid author.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Battle Of Tyrok Fields

The Battle of Tyrok Fields by Justin D. Hill. A Warhammer 40,000 Ursarkar Creed short story, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millennium: Astra Militarum anthology, published November 2015. Approx. 54 pages.

Rounding out the trilogy of Ursarkar Creed tales penned by Justin D. Hill in the Astra Militarum anthology is this hefty story, which chronicles the famous titular battle (fought on Cadia's holy soil), and finally shows us Creed's ascendancy to the rank of Lord Castellan.

Quick note: The Battle of Tyrok Fields is fairly commonly known canon, so I'll take it as a given that most frequent WH40K readers are basically familiar with it. Therefore, I assume that a synopsis won't necessarily be spoiler-y. For the new or casual reader, however, you might want to either brush up on it here, or skip to the closing comments. You can enjoy this pic while deciding:

The story opens with Creed and Colour Sergeant Kell back home on Cadia. Creed has been named Castellan of his own Kasr, and spends his days butting heads with and eviscerating the poor plans and decisions of the rest of the Cadian High Command (a running motif through Hill's stories is the ever-popular "most of the rest of the brass are incompetent nincompoops").

Creed is losing himself in drink as well; trying to cope with the haunting memories of a shadowy figure known as "The Voice" (if any readers want to clear up that story arc for me, I'd be greatly appreciative). He seeks solace in the advice of his old mentor, Archivist Orsani Rudvald. After this, he prepares for the next mornings festivities: a welcoming celebration for another Guard detachment; the Volscani Cataphrachts.

Unbeknownst to the Cadians, the Volscanis have joined up with none other than Abaddon the Despoiler. The traitorous Cataphrachts unleash their might on the unaware Cadians, and the 13th Black Crusade is now in motion.

Needless to say, the Battle of Tyrok Fields is a momentous event. It is also obvious that Hill has tried to put together a grand spectacle of a story to capture the impact of this weighty milestone. I won't go so far as to say he succeeded in capturing the essence of betrayal, rage, and desperation, but the story is a nice chronicle of a massive battle.

In a way, characterization has been an Achilles Heel for this trilogy all along. Although Hill has added some very interesting fluff for Creed (backstory, personal demons, etc.), we have still spent the time watching him, but never feeling his magnitude. Jarran Kell, who bolstered past installments with some well-needed wit, is relegated mostly to his fighting mode (at which he excels). This is understandable; the whole tone here demands that seriousness. Plus, Hill looks to show us how the Colour Sergeant acts as a pillar of support for the Castellan. We also meet a new character in this story, the young, dedicated Commissar Aldrad. He makes himself noteworthy, but there is nothing groundbreaking about him.

One thing that worked very well was Hill's bringing back two of the Cadian soldiers from Last Step Backwards, Troopers Fesk and Lina. As the battle progresses, it alternates between the scenarios involving different units. These two were always fun to read about, especially Fesk. He is about as honest a character you see in these stories; he has an inner strength and nobility, but he also has definite fears and shortcomings.

As for world-building, there is not much to be said about how the landscape is rendered. Strong attention was paid to two set pieces that demanded it; the description of one of the Kasrs, and the Eye of Terror looming up in the sky.

What really matters most in this story, of course, is the action. As for volume, Tyrok Fields more than delivers. After the opening, which in all honesty plods and stumbles a bit, the remaining 80-85% is pure action. The story excels in this regard.

I can't imagine that it is in any way easy to portray a battle of this size, and still capture the reader's imagination. Hill paces this engagement in a way that you are caught up in the initial confusion, the rally, and the charge of the Cadians.

As I've mentioned before, I am a definite fan of Hill's fight scenes. He has a knack for bringing the bloody infantry battles to life; and here, you can almost hear the blood-soaked ground sucking at your boots. Another treat is the tank battles. I am a sucker for tank combat, and the scenes with Lina's crew are nicely done.

One other writing technique that Hill is pretty savvy with is maintaining the Guard's perspective; and showing how daunting or terrifying some of the unit types must appear to "mere" humans. The scenes with Titans are nearly terrifying, given the size and apparent invincibility of those metal demigods. And when Chaos Space Marines show up, Hill describes them as the huge, imposing boogeymen they would appear to be, to a human who has heard rumors of their existence but never seen them in the flesh.

In fact, if there is any place where the battle scenes falter a bit, it is with the Leviathan duels. Here, I give it a pass. I'd venture that there is no way to make that kind of situation entertaining; there will be no deft maneuvering, or dramatic banking turns. No, a Leviathan duel is just two monstrous mobile fortresses pounding each other until the void shields on one give out. So, in this case, Hill is wise to keep the focus of the battle on the human level.

As the story closes, we find Creed, in his elevated position of Lord Castellan of all Cadia, making some of the tough (and brutal) decisions to try and get some fingers in the dyke of the oncoming Black Crusade. We see how resolute he is in the time of crisis, but also just how shaken all of this has left him.

The Battle of Tyrok Fields is a good close to Hill's Creed trilogy. Hopefully, he has some more works in the pipeline. For whatever issues with characterization I've mentioned, or the jerky pacing that opened this story, these tales are all accessible, readable, and highly enjoyable.

Here's what it is:
A nice, fat short story giving the account of one of the greatest battles fought on Cadian soil. Hill once again makes Creed a thrill to watch, even if he hasn't immortalized him yet.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

See Lost Hope.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Lost Hope

Lost Hope by Justin D. Hill. A Warhammer 40,000 Ursarkar Creed short story, originally appearing in the Legends of the Dark Millennium: Astra Militarum anthology, published November 2015. Approx. 30 pages.

The recent Astra Militarum anthology features a trilogy of Creed shorts from Justin D. Hill, including the recently reviewed Last Step Backwards, and two new ones. Lost Hope is the first of those two.

In Lost Hope, General Creed finds himself in a tough place; Cadian High Command is pressuring him to wrap up his campaign, and he is finding himself low on troops, with no replenishment forces being offered. Conferring with his stalwart aide, Colour Sergeant Jarran Kell, Creed comes up with a plan. In-system is a frozen penal planet known as Lost Hope - what better source for new troops to bolster the ranks? And so, Creed and his command staff head off to size up and sign up their new soldiers.

There is a promethium mining operation on Lost Hope, using the prisoners as labor. This operation is run by a connected family with supposed ties to former rogue traders. As is necessary in a story like this; there is conflict, there is battle, there is a resolution of sorts. It is just that kind of short, fun actioner.

Justin D. Hill is hitting a nice stride in this, his second Creed short. He is really making Creed his own character. All aspects of the story are improved a bit from Last Step Backwards; the dialogue is less silly and awkward, and the two main characters - Creed and Kell, are fleshed out better as they are thrust to the fore. Creed is still a huffing, puffing, stomping, lho-stub chomping 40K Teddy Roosevelt, leading men to their deaths and winning the hearts and minds of hardened criminal by simple act of being himself. Kell snatches all the comedic moments with his dry crankiness, playing dutiful straight man to Creed's roaring, testosterone-charged grizzle bear persona.

The world building is effective, and the depictions of weaponry are accurate and exciting. The action is a high point here. In a situation where the universe's two most abundant sources of cannon fodder - Imperial Guard and Chaos Cultists - clash together, the result is pulpy, juicy, squishy, and visceral.

Secondary and tertiary characters are relatively bare bones. We get a name, a look, and a trait to remember them by. Some of the command staff, and a few of the prisoners we meet look to be interesting.

The dialogue here is a step up from Last Step Backwards, but it is still a stew of motivational one-liners, declarations, battle cries, and threats. Then again, that's all you really need.

Another high point here: in a few well-placed flashbacks, we glimpse a look back at Creed's childhood. These are nicely done moments.

All in all, a nice little action-packed tale that makes for a great afternoon read.

Here's what it is:
General Creed looks to recruit some convicts and gets into a tussle. Great action. That's it in a nutshell.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

A nice little snippet from Raymond Swanland's great commissar print (is that supposed to be Yarrick?). Very, very nice indeed.

Cover Final Score: