Saturday, August 29, 2015

Whiteout

Whiteout by Andy Clark. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, Day Two of the Summer of reading 2015, originally published by The Black Library, August 2015. Approx. 25 pages.

Sometimes I don't know what the heck is going on over at The Black Library. In one week, they release both Space Wolves and Deathwatch series (the first story of which featuring almost no Deathwatch). So, what happens soon after? They release a Deathwatch story headed by a Space Wolf and put it....on the Summer of Reading 2015 slate. I don't get it sometimes...

One thing to mention: Whiteout is Andy Clark's first published short story for The Black Library. So, a hearty congratulations to him, and best of luck in future writings. As it stands, this first outing is pretty solid.

A Deathwatch kill team is descending on the frozen world of Atrophon to take out a high-value ork asset, part of Waaagh! Dregsmasha. Working on a tight timetable, they are to operate on the Eastern side of a mighty river known as the Strakk. Three bridges linking the banks of said river (and keeping orks on one side and defenders on the other) were to have been demolished by Catachan sappers. Of course, obstacles take no greater pleasure than appearing at the most inopportune moments; and so, one bridge still stands. Now, the kill team has a choice; pursue the target or finish the job with the bridge, saving the defenders from utter annihilation.

The kill team itself that we are presented with is handled well enough. Members from fairly classic Chapters were cherry-picked to meet the narrative needs of the story; we have a stoic Ultramarine brother-sergeant, an Iron Hand to tickle any necessary machine spirits, and a taciturn Raven Guard, because we need someone to fly to certain places. Our main character is a brash braggart Space Wolf named Lothar Redfang. And finally, there is a White Scar apothecary, so we have a member with the quiet ferocity to balance again Redfang's bombast.

A nice, standard array to be sure. It might have been more interesting to see a member from a lesser-known Chapter in there, but what we have works. Just because I say "standard" doesn't mean not well done. We get a good enough idea of each character's personality, or at least the importance of their individual contributions.

As a central character, Redfang is enjoyable enough. Let me clarify; since it might be bias guiding me. I am not too crazy about Space Wolves, and find them more annoying than exciting with their "wet leopard growl Wolverine" antics. Therefore, from the first page, Redfang was beginning to annoy the ever-loving crap out of me. Luckily, Clark is sharp enough to make the other battle brothers keep him in check, and remind Redfang that he is the new guy in the group.

All in all, the personal interactions are enjoyable. There is some well-placed humor, nothing overboard. The dialogue has more of a cinematic punch than any real gravitas, but that fits the overall tone.

What really wins the day in Whiteout are the location descriptions and the battle scenes. The world building is done extremely well; especially in bringing the brutal snowstorm to life, or showing the true scale of the bridge.

Whiteout also showcases some of the most wicked combat scenes I have read in a while. Clark really outdoes himself with the ork on Space Marine action. There is a real sense of what it must be like to get mobbed by these monsters; with these orks being capable enough of doing palpable damage to ceramite Astartes armor with just their wicked hand weapons. Some of the action is pretty over the top, but deliciously so.

That's pretty much it in a nutshell. There are no big surprises in the story structure. You have a fairly good idea from the get-go what will be compromised, what will be accomplished, and who will make it. It doesn't really matter; this story captures a lot of the fun of WH40K, without being mindless bolter porn. Give it a shot.

Here's what it is:
A fun and bloody short story from a promising new author. Assign extra points if you are a fan of either Deathwatch or Space Wolves.

Final Score:

8/10

Cover Score:

Nothing really wrong with the picture of the Space Wolf here. It's just that the black background is a poor choice. A wintry background would have been the better choice by far. This blackout adds nothing; worse. it detracts.

Cover Final Score:

5/10

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:

9/10

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:

5/10

Bone Eaters (Black Company)

Bone Eaters by Glen Cook. A Black Company short story, originally appearing in the Operation Arcana anthology, published March 2015 by BAEN. Approx. 25 pages.

As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part.

Ever since Operation Arcana came out this past March, with the blissful promise of a new Black Company story, I've been biding my time until a used copy hit the Amazon $.01 section. As soon as one did, yours truly grabbed it, and promptly devoured the story in one afternoon. Side note: I already started reading some of the other stories in the anthology; they are pretty damn good, so hopefully I can slap together a larger review of all the tales in this tome (then again, this is like the third anthology I've said this for, and I never seem to get around to do it. But seriously, there are some powerhouses contributing in this book).

As for Bone Eaters....

Regardless of what my concerns may have been with Glen Cook adding new stories into old Annals, all of these recent shorts have been superb. Bone Eaters is no different. This is Cook channeling Croaker's younger self seamlessly (no mean feat; since there is probably much of Cook in Croaker, and as the author aged and evolved philosophically, so did the Annalist), allowing the reader to tap back into the vein of the story line that originally hooked them.

Bone Eaters is slightly different from some the previous shorts in that the timeline takes place during around the Shadows Linger arc, with the Company fleeing their former pact with the Lady (whereas most of the other shorts took place while the Company was stationed at Aloe, still in the Lady's employ). If I remember correctly, Shaggy Dog Bridge would directly precede this.

There are two major points of interest in this short. First involves the Company picking up some would-be brigands/would-be Company members. Of note in this mob is a young girl named Chasing Midnight, who shows portents of being a budding witch. The interactions between Croaker and her are reminiscent of his dealings with sisters Shukrat and Arkana in Soldiers Live. Part parental, and part predatory. There is no other way to put it; Cook is a master at capturing the way that (some) older guys lustfully leer at nubile young girls like the Big Bad Wolf of fable, no matter how much of a nurturing facade they offer as an excuse. Heck, the older I get, the more I see the truth in it. That's why you love to read Cook's works; there is no B.S. allowed; he's got your number and he's holding up his as well. But there is a lot to Midnight; the undercurrents of fear, anger, and manipulation. At one high point Croaker makes an observation about the beginnings of the evil mages in dark towers. It stands as some decent food for thought.

The second point of action is the obligatory conflict that needs to be resolved. In Bone Eaters, Cook introduces the idea of "Hungry Ghosts"; spirits that inhabit an entire town. They emit a perpetual siren call to lure hapless passersby into becoming vessels for them to occupy. The general consensus is that Lady is steering them towards a demise here so that her hunting dog Taken (namely Whisper), can recover a bit from what has been an exhausting pursuit of them. 

The ghost town idea is done very well. The high point is not in the monsters themselves, but in how the Company approaches resolving the problem. To be 100% frank, this whole portion of the story is somewhat superfluous; in fact this would have been a winning story just focusing on the inter-Company exchanges in light of the new faces among them. But the "hungry ghosts" are nicely realized; Cook, in typical fashion, makes sure to guarantee that there is a cause and effect, and limit to their powers, in order to give them legitimacy. The scenes where some Company members enter the haunted town is pretty tense, and it shows how the characters act under actual pressure. 

As always, it is great to see old friends again. There aren't any real complaints I can list regarding this short. The only thing that caught me a little off guard was the insinuation that the feelings between Silent and Darling may have been somewhat mutual, instead of one-sided (of course, I might either be remembering wrong, plus all the Annalists have been notoriously unreliable narrators). Cook also does a lot with his new characters as well. As already mentioned, Midnight and her gang are done well. Malicious bully Rusty, introduced in Shaggy Dog Bridge, is given some strong moments as well.

All in all, this story alone is worth picking up a reasonably priced copy of this book. 

Here's what it is:
On the run from the Lady, Croaker and Company pick up some urchins and get steered towards a literal ghost town. A strong conflict is upstaged by stronger characterizations.

Final Score:

9.5/10

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eye Of The Storm (The Realmgate Wars: Call Of Archaon 2)

The Realmgate Wars: Call of Archaon 2 - Eye of the Storm by Rob Sanders. A Warhammer: Age of Sigmar short story, originally published by The Black Library, August 2015. Approx. 28 pages.

HachiSnax Note: Apparently the full title of this series is The Realmgate Wars: Call of Archaon. When the first installment, Beneath the Black Thumb was released, it was billed as simply Short Story 1. Still haven't decided if I am going to change it, but I wanted to clarify. Cheers.

To start this review off, I have to admit one thing: not being up to date on all that transpired during The End Times (other than everything ending), I am not 100% sure why Archaon is "calling" warriors in this recent series. Well, I am assuming it is to cause some trouble, but I am not sure of the specifics.

So, in the last installment, we focused on Copsys Bule, Champion of Nurgle. In Eye of the Storm, we meet Orphaeo Zuvius, aka The Prince of Embers, who basks in the favor of Tzeentch. This was pretty exciting, since the first few Age of Sigmar shorts were Khornate overkill, and I wanted to see how a talented author like Sanders would portray a champion of the deceptive and treacherous God of Change.

I'll say this: the best part of this story is at the very beginning, encompassing the first three pages or so. We meet (again) the Many-Eyed, Tzeentch's watcher, and see things as he sees them. These opening paragraphs play out in a way that is both poetic and lurid. This is followed up by an excellent backstory that Sanders crafted for Zuvius.

From there, we follow Zuvius as he travels with his entourage to what he believes is his destiny: to traverse the Blasted Plain and prove his mettle on the Beaten Path before Archaon.

Sanders pens this short very well; one of his best skills is delivering rich detail through brief, figurative terms. He makes sure to keep a running motif of contrasts in the narrative, as befits a Tzeentchian tale. And he inserts the right amount of wit into the dialogue, especially in the interplay between Zuvius and his avian familiar Mallofax, who speaks in cryptic terms such as "Death?" and "This storm has teeth."

Also along the way, Zuvius manipulates Skargan Fell-of-Heart, a Khornate deathbringer, into bringing his retinue along on the trip (The Prine of Embers most potent weapon is his figurative and literal silver tongue). This leads to some more interesting interactions between the deceitful champion and the brutal one.

There are two aspects to Eye of the Storm which drag it down a bit. First is the fact that a journey is often only as interesting as the road it travels. You can write a whole book about walking around in NYC or Tokyo and never be bored, because those places have a vibrancy as strong as any fleshed-out character. But this is more of the same old, redundant Age of Sigmar scorched earth: barren, and always raining blood. It gets real old, real fast. Luckily, Sanders uses these moments to insert some of the winning dialogue, and a great action scene with some daemon spawn.

Then there is the second problem. Sigmarines. For no good reason, in spite of the fact that the Chaos champions are carrying the story fine on their own, we get the mandatory battle with some Stormcasts, because I guess Games Workshop felt the need to see the Judicators (archer units) get some page time. Although, I must admit, there is an excellent duel in that portion between Skargan and the Lord Castellant. Trust me, this is more a testimony to Sanders authorial talent than any inherent awesomeness in Sigmar's Reforged.

I mean, all the action scenes are pretty good. Some of the descriptions are deliciously over the top. My only issue with them is trying to keep count of how many troops are out there. You might read that one of the Champions has a very finite number of a certain troop type, then have 'swathes' of them cut down, and yet always have enough to put into a formation for the next clash. On the other hand, when the units are being portrayed so well (especially Zuvius' sorcerers, The Unseeing), you don't mind as long as the action keeps going.

In the end, it all ties up nicely. The ending scene is handled in a superb manner, if not as spectacular as the opening pages. But so far, in two Realmgate Wars stories, we have two very likable Chaos champions to root for.

So far this series is two for two.

Here's what it is:
Focusing on a devious mind rather than a brutal one, Eye of the Storm gives us a villain that is easy to love to hate. Handled by one of The Black Library's better authors, it makes for a solid, most enjoyable read.

Final Score:

8.5/10

Cover Score:

What's going on here? Who is that supposed to be? It isn't Zuvius, going by the story description. I don't think it is the Many-Eyed, even though it has many eyes. It looks like some bastard offspring of a Monsters, Inc. reject and the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth. No bueno.

Cover Final Score:

4/10

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:

8.5/10

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:

4.5/10

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Beneath The Black Thumb (The Realmgate Wars: Short Story 1)

The Realmgate Wars: Short Story 1 - Beneath the Black Thumb by David Guymer. A Warhammer: Age of Sigmar short story, originally published by The Black Library, July 2015. Approx. 30 pages.

Needless to say, I've had my fun over the last two reviews roasting some of the inherent silliness of the Age of Sigmar concept. Regardless, whatever I thought of Games Workshop's poor decision making habits, the two stories had their merits, and both had tons of blistering action.

Beneath the Black Thumb, the first short in the new Realmgate Wars series, caught my eye from the get-go. Look at that cover. What a great rendition of a Nurglite warrior. Plus, after nearly 150 pages of Khornate blood-fetishism, I was ready roll around in some of Grandfather Nurgle's foetid landscapes.

Boy, was I happy I did. Third story in. Third time's the charm. This story is excellent.

Except for one thing.

Seraphon.

More on that in a moment, though.

Beneath the Black Thumb opens with an arrangement being ironed out between Lord of Plagues Copsys Bule (a corpulent mass of rot and malice) and Kletch Scabclaw, an envoy from whatever realm the Skaven now scurry around in (I am still working out how this whole Realm system works). This opening scene is painted so well, I quickly fell in love with this short. The way Guymer integrated and wove a garden motif into Bule's rotted lands was masterful. He didn't just insert gross-out scenery; he makes it move, makes it flow in a natural manner despite it's unnatural origin. Outstanding stuff.

Guymer also knocks his portrayal of Skaven out of the park. He really gets into the psychology, the physicality, and the dialect. There is a delicate balancing act in writing for creatures like the Skaven; to not make them too comical, too cowardly, etc. Guymer juggles these factors with aplomb.

This being a short story (albeit one with a nice, fat word count, and nicely separated into 9 small chapters), it is imperative to usher in the big action scene nice and quickly. Up to this point, Black Thumb was already rolling along perfectly (there was even some brief, but excellent action featuring some orks, I mean orruks, and a horde aligned to Tzeentch). However, after an ominous warning, we see a pristine gateway in the middle of all the ruin. 

Oh boy, here come the Sigmarines.

But no, it was worse. Much, much, much worse.

Maybe I should blame myself for this. Maybe, once I saw the first lizard emerge, I should have gone to Google to see just how bad the new lizardman, err, Seraphon, fluff was.

I'm sorry, I have an imagination, and I have a relatively strong threshold within which I can suspend disbelief. But Starlight Lizards is just too damn far. That's right, in case you, dear reader, are like me, and not already read up on this, the Warhammer lizardmen are now space creatures, that come in via stargates, and have hollow bones and star magic inside of them. Star magic. Because we all know how well received sparkly vampires were (I was tempted to insert a picture of Robert Pattinson all sparkly in Twilight here, but I figured that would be too rude to a talented author like Guymer). And Blogger note: I am aware that there is a difference between well-received and lucrative.

What ensues is a vicious (and viscous) battle between the Rotbringers and the lizardmen. And, just approaching this from the mechanics of the fight choreography, it is awesome. When describing Bule in action, Guymer does an excellent job showing his trident in play. It's that weapon-specific kind of detailing that you really appreciate from an author. Even the lizardmen are handled very well. Just don't stop to dwell on the fact that you are reading about interstellar swamp dwellers that on one hand can forge meteoric rock into melee weapons. And on the other hand still use blowguns. Yes, we have traveled the stars to get into a protracted land battle, in which we will employ blowguns. The darts of which can fell Nurglite blightkings, no less. Plus, space pteranodons. Space pteranodons that drop meteor bombs. Make it stop. Please.

Take all that space nonsense away, and you have a beautiful battle between Nurglites and lizardmen. I cannot say enough how well-rounded this short is. But to be honest, and not to insult all the hard work that went into the Big Battle, the ending falls back into the same tone we opened with. And the story works so much better this way. The inter-Chaos politicking. The subtle, menacing power plays. It makes the battle scene, no matter how well-written, seem arbitrary and thrust in to name drop unit types. And that's what it is, because there are models to sell and all.

One thing I'd like to ask the readers to help me with is a spoiler-free, quick explanation of the possible Archaon aspect of this story. I still need to read Sander's duology, and the End Times books. A subtle sentence or two letting the less-informed reader (like myself) know a bit about what the mysterious watcher portends would have been a huge help. But even without knowing, this story is a slam dunk.

Then again, a very good reason why this story is so enjoyable is because it reads like traditional Warhammer Fantasy. 

But as much as I dislike the AoS aspects, I refuse to take any points off for the stardust lizard fluff, even though the concept is atrocious.

Here's what it is:
It is more than telling that the best Age of Sigmar story yet has exactly zero Stormcast Eternals in it. If the rest of the Realmgate arc maintains even a bit of this quality, it will be a great series. Get this short. Great job, David Guymer!

Final Score:

9.5/10

Cover Score:

Look at that bulbous lump of rot. Every aspect of this picture sells the idea of a wicked Nurglite warrior. The stance, the color scheme, the swollen, distended abdomen and protruding innards. Grandfather Nurgle would be proud.

Cover Final Score:

8.5/10


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Assault On The Mandrake Bastion (The Black Rift Of Klaxus: Part I)

The Black Rift of Klaxus Part : Assault on the Mandrake Bastion by Josh Reynolds. A Warhammer: Age of Sigmar short story, originally published by The Black Library, July 2015. Approx. 30 pages.

In our last post, I reviewed the freshman Age of Sigmar novella, The Gates of Azyr. Obviously, I am not too crazy about all this Age of Sigmar nonsense, and the story wasn't the greatest to boot either. I had my fun, but realized in all fairness I should give another AoS title or two a chance, just to see what some of the other authors could do with it.

I've really enjoyed the other stories I've read by Reynolds (there are a few shorts by him I need to get reviews up for). I don't know how best to describe it more succinctly, but he writes very well for how you would imagine your miniatures to move. He also describes specific attacks/spells within the Warhammer canon well. He choreographs decent enough action scenes. And his characters are usually approachable enough on a cinematic level (but no real emotion or pathos).

That's what readers can expect here. The rather long title perfectly summarizes the plot. I wish I could add more, but I can't. Once again we are assailed with numerous geographical names and specific unit types. I really cannot get myself to care enough about anything in this setting enough to memorize or care to differentiate. 

This isn't to say that there isn't anything of merit in this installment. It is written well enough. The Sigmarines are more enjoyable this go-round. The leader, Orius, has the same past-life memory hiccups as Vandus in Gates of Azyr, so I guess this is officially motif. These are interesting to read about. There is obviously a bit of a puzzle to sort out regarding Orius and Anhur, the Khornate warlord (who, in a nice twist, seems to be suffering the seeds of doubt regarding his life choices). Other than that, most of the good guy dialogue is barking directions, formation orders, and some sardonic one-liners (which work more or less). I couldn't keep up with the names. Two characters, Kartus and Tarkus, I kept confusing, and the fact that their names have the same letters, just rearranged, didn't help. They were both pretty cool, I won't lie. One didn't talk. There is also the Chaplain type unit. I remember his name - Moros, simply because he is somewhat morose.

The topography is detailed fine enough: it's red, ashy, and bloody. The concept of the Black Rift is realized very well.

The significant action scenes are done very well also. There is one scene where the sky units (whatever they're called) are assailing the Mandrake Bastion (btw, the mandrakes themselves are a great feature in this story). This whole scene was executed in a pretty exhilarating manner. Matter of fact, I was waiting for Brian Blessed to fly in and bellow "Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiivvvvvve!!!!!"

Some weird looking Bloodreavers in this scene....

In the other fighting scenes, Reynolds does a good with the physical descriptions and fight choreography. He just suffers with some arbitrary action events between plot points. I can't really fault him for this; there isn't much to do between plot checkpoints. There will be some walking and skirmishing. But what to do? None of these characters are fleshed out enough for poignant interactions, there is nothing remarkable on the landscape, and we all know that the lower-echelon baddies don't have much more than primitive javelins to hurl at these gold-clad hulks. And yet, those pages need to be filled.

I have a feeling most of the future Age of Sigmar titles will suffer from these same dull parameters that seem to handicap creativity rather than inspire it.

Here's what it is:
The first part of an entirely unnecessary sequence sets up a major confrontation between two somewhat interesting, rather powerful fighters. Orius and Anhur have my interest piqued just enough to maybe stick around for Part II. Other than that; decent dialogue, exciting fight scenes, nothing else. Not great, not bad.


Final Score:

6.5/10


Cover Score:

One of the flying units. Not the best detailed picture of one, either. And nothing about that bright background screams "Black Rift".

Cover Final Score:

4/10