Friday, November 11, 2016

HachiSnax Interviews: The Second Peter Fehervari Interview!!!

A little over a year and a half ago, Peter Fehervari, who in my opinion is the best author over at the Black Library, in addition to being a real great person (and very supportive to the blog), agreed to do an interview. The first few questions were billed as a "Part I", however, due to some scheduling issues and workloads, Part II never came to be. Now, I am ecstatic to announce a second interview with Mr. Fehervari.

There's only a few questions this time; but I think you can agree, the answers he provides are insightful, thought-provoking, and mind-blowing. It is a rare opportunity to see the workings and plannings of such an intelligent and deep author. 

Well, read on, and I hope you enjoy. I'm sure you will. Please take the time to leave some comments on the way out.

Cheers, Hach.

Hi Peter-
Thank you for agreeing to do this second interview with HachiSnax Reviews. It’s hard to believe that it has been close to a year and a half since the last installment.

At the time of the last interview, I had framed a good deal of questions around your (then) upcoming Adeptus Mechanicus tie-in short story, Vanguard. However, since then, you’ve had a few more offerings come out through Black Library. There was another tie-in short story, this one for the Deathwatch series, titled The Walker In Fire, as well as the dizzyingly brilliant novella Fire & Ice, which appeared in the Shas’O collection (see reviews for Vanguard, Walker In Fire, and Fire & Ice).

Several of your stories feature the Tau in significant roles. I have to say, of all the Black Library authors, I believe your take on them is the most believable. Instead of just focusing on their wide array of armament, you infused them with a tangible air of legitimacy by delving into their philosophies. The way you presented the “Greater Good” is in a way one would imagine it to play out in real life – equal parts appealing and utterly terrifying. As a gamer, and as an author, what was your own history with the blueskins; and, going from that, how did you approach bringing them so effectively to life?

P.F.- I’ve never fielded a tau army on the table-top, however the faction has intrigued me since its first appearance. I vividly recall going into my local Games Workshop (sadly long gone and much missed) when the original tau codex and models were released and being struck by the buzz surrounding them. On fire with enthusiasm, the manager told me these were ‘the good guys’ of 40K – a rational, reasonable, all-embracing culture that was the galaxy’s best hope. Well, that certainly intrigued me. Unequivocal good guys in a world that was all shades of grey running through to deepest black? Really?

If I’m honest, I wasn’t particularly keen on the angular battle suits and overall aesthetic of this new race at the time, but I was curious enough to buy the codex. While I can’t remember the precise details of that early version I know it won me over to their side philosophically. Though this young race was almost certainly out of its depth in a reality where superstition, paranoia – arguably even xenophobia – made sense, I respected its idealism, doomed or otherwise. Since all roads in the Dark Millennium would likely end in ruin I figured I’d rather walk one that somewhat reflected my own view of right and wrong. The tau and I were both young and idealistic back then, so we hit it off!

Bearing this in mind, I’ve found it interesting that many readers feel my take on the Tau Empire is cynical, even condemnatory, because that was never my intention. For the most part I believe the tau are sincere in their intentions towards other species, genuinely recognising that sentient (and sane) civilisations are stronger if they stand together. The Greater Good isn’t just for those with blue skin and hooves – it’s a genuine, all-embracing philosophy that might just work in a broken galaxy.

However later codices and occasionally other sources (particularly Spurrier’s ideas in ‘Xenology’) added threads of shadow to the bright tapestry of these idealists. Considering their fragmented, self-destructive past, I’d argue there’s a potential darkness in the tau that can be supressed, but never entirely excised. This aspect can be played up or down depending on one’s personal interpretation of the ‘facts’. For example, the pheromone control exerted by the Ethereal caste is unsettling because it potentially denies other castes the freedom to choose the Greater Good, which would arguably undermine its ethical foundation. However, there’s plenty of wriggle room here because it’s not clear how pervasive and necessary such control is. One could argue that the pheromones (if they truly exist) are merely a support structure for tau society rather than its basis. As a writer I find such grey areas compelling, hence my fascination with the tau grew as their lore became more textured and their flaws showed through.

Nevertheless, given the countless predatory factions pressing in from all sides (and I include the Imperium here), I don’t regard the tau as particularly dark. Authoritarian? Almost certainly. Ruthless? Yes, occasionally, but rarely spiteful or malevolent. Thus, I’ve striven to present them as analytical, precise and measured in their intent and actions, but with a rigidly controlled, passionate core.

The embittered Fire Warrior, Jhi’kaara exemplifies this tension when it’s pushed to the limit. She is a broken reflection of the tau ideal, twisted out of shape by ambition and disillusionment. This makes her an outcast, more in tune with the toxic jungles of Phaedra than her own kind, yet even she never willingly betrays the Greater Good. Her discipline and respect for social order are too ingrained.

Which brings me to the Water caste ambassador, O’Seishin, who presided over the Phaedran war. Despite his incipient corruption (again rooted in personal ambition), his plan was arguably sound, saving many more lives (particularly tau lives) than it cost. It was harshly utilitarian, but undeniably effective. Rational. Hence the novel’s protagonist was faced with a murky, corrosive moral choice at the novel’s conclusion, which underlined the story’s main theme – complex questions rarely have absolute answers. Which reflects my view on the tau themselves.

I’ll conclude by saying the Tau Empire remains the faction I’d sign up with if I lived in the Dark Millennium and was offered a choice. In fact, given the chance, I’d call the tau in to sort things out in the here and now!

H.S.- Over the course of your Black Library stories, you have given your readers some truly memorable Imperial Guard (sorry, Astra Militarum) units. Take the Verzanate Konquistadores, the Lethean Penitents, and the Iwujii Sharks, to name a few. In your fashion, you have also provided detailed and comprehensive backstories for these units. However, of all the Guard companies you’ve created, the Arkan Confederates are forever cemented in the minds of readers.

Now, it is no new thing for Warhammer 40K Guard units to draw design inspirations from historical or culturally-influenced military units. Reception to drawing inspiration from Civil War soldiers seemed to run the gamut from readers thinking it was great, to some thinking it was odd, and others, silly. The thing is, once you picked them, the presentation was amazingly detailed. It wasn’t just grey uniforms, kepi caps, and a pseudo-Southern dialect. There were references to obscure Civil War era unit types, and authentic representations of social classes (from the upper crust plantation owners to the holy book thumping fundamentalists) and dialect.

My question is, was your inspiration in using that Confederate template born from picking well-known “rebels” and diving into insane amounts of research? Did it spawn from an affinity for that segment of military history? Or was it another clever puzzle piece (i.e.- Civil War – Blue vs. Grey. Blueskins vs. Greybacks)?

P.F.- My starting point for the lead regiment in ‘Fire Caste’ was that it should be strikingly ill-suited to the conditions on Phaedra. I’ve already mentioned that Herzog’s film, ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ was an aesthetic inspiration for the setting – the images of conquistadors hauling cannons through a steaming rainforest were unforgettable and I wanted to capture that sense of absurd striving and misery while going my own way and amping things up for 40K. Secondly, I wanted to push the idea of the old and the new clashing, both technologically and ideologically, so a ‘period’ regiment was appealing as a foil for the tau.

I’ve always been fascinated by the American Civil War – the intensity, the appalling internecine waste of lives, the distinctive and striking uniforms, but above all, the irreconcilable clash of tradition and new ideas – so a Civil War regiment seemed a good template to build upon. I’m far from an expert, but I did my research, which is where I discovered colourful units types like the Zouaves, though I took them in pretty eccentric directions. Other than Colonel Cutler, who is obviously loosely inspired by George Custer, none of the characters are based on historical figures, but many of the names were derived from old regimental lists (though I discovered that a fellow BL writer had apparently been there long before me and snapped up some of the best ones!)

 I’m aware that some people felt the Arkhan Confederates were too literal a take on their real world counterparts, but I feel this criticism was overcooked given how established 40K lore also draws so deeply from human history. In hindsight, perhaps I’d tone down some cultural aspects - the language perhaps - though I tried hard to make it authentic rather than clich├ęd, however I’m not convinced the story would be better for such changes. Besides, I’d argue that the Arkhan’s steampunk slant already goes a long way towards distinguishing them from the reality. Furthermore, in my alternate history, the Confederates (who reluctantly sided with the Imperium) were the victors, so the more conservative side won the war. This was probably just as well for Providence because it would have been steamrollered otherwise, but there’s a pervading sense throughout the book that it was a hollow victory. Many of the Confederates feel like traitors to their own people and have little affinity for the Imperium, let alone the Imperial Cult. They are lost – out of place, time, culture and increasingly, mind. The potential this offered for storytelling was always the most important thing for me.

I must confess that the grey and the blue parallel was pure luck – or serendipity - but it made me very happy when I noticed it.

H.S.- In evaluating your three last offerings, you can plainly see that with Vanguard and The Walker In Fire, there were certain parameters you had to follow in keeping in line with the tie-in story arc/product release. In both of those stories, you also found your way to integrate elements from your twisted, interconnected story threads. However, there is something different about the tone of Fire & Ice. In that novella, there is an almost palpable sense of an author with unbridled control over the story he is crafting; and the end result crackles with intensity. I know that sounds a bit over the top, but that story is immensely powerful. It may not have the haunting, despair-laden overtones of Fire Caste, but it is a solid, strong work.

Not to make the question too broad, but what can you tell us about the “making of” Fire & Ice? What was your original intent with this novella? Did you have any concerns with how the story would be received by readers, being as though it is so fundamentally different from the other offerings in the anthology in both mechanics and tone? And, what was your approach for getting inside the head of the enigmatic figure who may or may not be Farsight?

P.F.- While ‘Vanguard’ is a more direct follow up to ‘Fire Caste’, ‘Fire and Ice’ is closer to that novel’s spirit. Once again the ‘journey into darkness’ is at its heart, but more focused, with fewer action set pieces and a tighter focus on dialogue. Though it is a puzzle without a clear-cut solution its pieces had to make sense and work on multiple levels.

For example, setting the bulk of the story on a train served several purposes. Firstly it struck me as a fresh and unusual environment for a 40K tale. Secondly, it offered a claustrophobic, almost inescapable trap where the horror, both physical and psychological, could play out. But thirdly, I was attracted to the set-up emotionally. This trap, where the roles of captor and captive, hunter and hunted blur, is quite literally on rails, remorselessly carrying our protagonist towards judgment as his tormentors push him on a parallel, arguably more dangerous, journey within himself. This synergy of the aesthetic, the practical and the emotional is what I aspire to when thrashing out a story's location, plot and characters. Which brings me to your question about Farsight. 

Last time round I talked about the sense of responsibility I feel when writing within the 40K mythos - the thrill and the fear. Well, I’ve never felt it so keenly as I did with ‘Fire and Ice’ because this was the first time I was entrusted with one of the lore’s established figures. 

Being drawn to outcasts, iconoclasts and rebels, I was fascinated by Farsight from those first dark paragraphs in the codex, so I jumped at the opportunity to get to know him better. This was before the release of his supplement, so he was still a profoundly enigmatic figure and my brief was to keep him that way. I could hint at his motives and nature, but not pin anything down. Whatever depth and detail I brought to him could not be at the expense of his mystery. After some initial consternation I realized this resonated with my own instincts about the character – after-all it was his mystery that had hooked me in the first place.

I loved the notion that Farsight’s true nature, like the identity of the infamous missing legions, belonged to the imagination of the fans, without ‘official’ answers to constrain it. To some he might be an ideological renegade, to others an opportunist pirate or even a nascent champion of Chaos. My place was to offer evidence for all these theories, but never hard proof, which set the story's tone of subterfuge and shadow play – and indeed the whole puzzle-box structure. At journey's end we can't even be certain whether the Prisoner was Farsight at all. Not even I, the writer, can really know in this case.

To do this idea justice it was imperative never to go directly into the Prisoner's head. His thoughts had to be inviolate. Like his interrogator, all we have to go on is what we see and hear. We are observers, never truly confidantes in this game. 

So what can we be sure of? 

Regardless of his motives, I knew the Prisoner had to be impressive. Without a battle suit or a loyal cadre of followers, he had to be dangerous through his sheer presence alone. The story's title refers to the duality of his psyche, which encompasses both a razor-sharp intellect and a ferocious passion (the inherent tension of the tau amplified to the limit). Each aspect is in thrall to the other, but always threatening to break free and shatter the balance. To my mind, this is the alloy from which a great leader is forged – a warrior lord who has mastered both the detached strategy of war and the up-close savagery of battle. As to whether he’s fighting for good or evil… that’s another question, and not one I wanted to answer about the Prisoner. There’s plenty of evidence on offer, but how you interpret it… well that’s up to you. The answer doesn’t belong to me.

H.S.- Finally, your new novel focuses on the machinations of a Genestealer cult infestation. What drew you to this faction and what was your approach to their portrayal? How did you combine older canon, newer materials, and your own personal touch into making a "religion" that is both simultaneously hideous and inhuman, yet also sympathetic, believable, and, in a perverted sense, beautiful?

P.F.- There’s a grungy bio-punk aesthetic to the Genestealer cults that appealed to me from their first appearance in White Dwarf, back when they were riding around in limousines and making pacts with Chaos like some kind of xenos-tainted mafia. They embodied the rot devouring the Imperium from within, wielding doubt and discontent to subvert the everymen (and women) of humanity from the shadows. The insidiousness – the dishonesty – of their secret war made them more unnerving than the xenos and traitor hordes assaulting the Imperium’s frontlines. And then there was their utterly nauseating modus operandi - a corruption of mind and body that was unequivocally sexual in nature. They were repellent, but fascinating with it, which made them a compelling faction to write about.

When I received the brief for the novel I had some lengthy and wonderfully bizarre discussions with my editor about how far the story could – and should – go into the sexual aspect of the cult. Sex is intrinsic to a Genestealer infestation so glossing over it completely would have done the concept a disservice, but equally we had to be mindful of the readership’s wide age range. Hopefully the balance we struck, with the sexual aspect restricted to suggestion and character reactions, conveyed the horror without ever being crude or exploitative.

Actually, while we’re on this subject I’d like to clarify one…technical…point about hybrid reproduction: my understanding is that first and second generation hybrids infect humans with an ovipositor sting, much like Purestrain Genestealers. Only fourth (and possibly third) generation hybrids are sufficiently humanoid to utilize more conventional techniques of reproduction. While the codex isn’t particularly specific on this matter I pressed for an answer and this is the interpretation we agreed on. Personally I think it’s quite disturbing enough and entirely logical.

So to be absolutely clear about this and end some of the more febrile speculation I’ve read on some forums: the fallen Battle Sister, Etelka, was stung by the cult Patriarch. There was no bizarre monster sex involved, thanks.

Moving on to the character of the cult, I wanted its philosophy and aesthetics to express the biology at its heart, but in an idealized way, hence the imagery of an ever-growing spiral and the promises of ‘cosmic kinship’. From humble human converts to the Patriarch himself, whether it is instinct, intellect or passion that drives them, every member of the sect sincerely believes the infestation is a force for good. How could it be otherwise when it heals, unites and enlightens those it embraces? Within the Great Spiral the doubts and deceptions of individuality disappear and the three facets of existence - body, mind and soul – become harmonious.

The daemonic entity imprisoned beneath the Spires and held in check by the Patriarch reinforces the logic of the cult’s creed: in a malevolent galaxy only absolute harmony can prevail. This is both an inversion of the classic Rogue Trader phrase (‘In a mad galaxy only madmen prosper’) and a more extreme expression of a utilitarian philosophy like the Greater Good. Crucially the creed makes a lot of sense, which is where its beauty stems from.

Of course, we know this is all a lie perpetrated upon the cultists by their own biology, which has doomed them from the start. The Great Spiral is a trap, offering not cosmic transcendence, but oblivion in the jaws, metaphorical or otherwise, of a tyranid fleet when the Hive Mind finally senses them. That twisted tragedy is what I find most compelling about the faction, not least because it rings so true. As the lost Arkan captain, Ambrose Templeton wrote in the preface to his unfinished epic: Beware of easy answers and those who proclaim them, for what glitters is rarely gold and those who flaunt it are never true gods.

Wow. Amazing stuff there. Thanks again, Peter! A reminder, Peter's two Genestealer Cults stories, the novel Genestealer Cults, and the wicked short story Cast a Hungry Shadow (which features Chaos vs. Genestealer cult gang war and a ferocious, Mad Max: Fury Road inspired vehicle action setpiece), are out now. Grab your copies today!



And don't forget, you can go back and read the first interview with Peter Fehervari here.

Legal Disclaimer: The views and/or opinions expressed in this interview and in all articles of this blog are entirely the view of the author and are NOT in any way representative of Games Workshop PLC. All names, insignias, illustrations, et al. are the property, copyright, and/or trademark of Games Workshop Ltd, PLC. All names, titles, and illustrations used without permission, with no challenge to copyright/trademark status intended. All rights reserved by the proper owners.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Cast A Hungry Shadow

Cast A Hungry Shadow by Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Genestealer Cults Story, originally published September 2016. Approx. 31 pages.

Back in September there was much rejoicing as we were graced with not only a full-length novel (albeit on the short side) from personal favorite Peter Fehervari based upon the newly released Genestealer Cults Codex, but we also got a tie-in short story as well.

The events chronicled in the cryptically named Cast a Hungry Shadow transpire between the explosive prologue of Genestealer Cults (during which the former stewards of the soot-ridden hellhole of Redemption, the Sisters of Battle, met their demise), and the rest of the novel, that brilliant chess match between the adherents of the Spiral Dawn and the Guard members of the Vassago Black Flags.

However, instead of the cultists vs. the Guard, what we have in Shadow is a different kind of gang war; one between the Spiral Dawn cultists (furthering their foothold on the planet), and members of an entirely different cult: the Chaos worshipers of the Scorched Creed. The devotees of the Scorched Creed abide by the calling of the teeming currents of Chaos which roil madly below the spires of Redemption, maintaining its liquidity; maintaining its....lie. Is the planet Redemption a lie? Or is redemption simply a lie? Both?

The cultists of the Scorched Creed are led by a fearsome brute named Gharth; a giant, hulking Chaos puritan who lost his eyes and gained true sight. On the side of the Spiral Dawn stands Aziah, a Chosen Claw, bodyguard of the Spiral Father, and trusted son of the glorious Saint Etelka, better known as the Sororita who betrayed her kin. What brings these two factions on a (literal) collision course is a presence of power so potent, so attractive...so useful, that it simply cannot be ignored.

Said source of power is a female psyker; one of such latent potency that it boggles the mind. It is also an amount strong enough to tip the scales of dominance in favor of the faction which retains her first; making it no shock that Gharth and Aziah a jockeying so voraciously to earn her favor.

From that framework, Fehervari delivers what may be his darkest story yet, with some of the most brutal action I've witnessed anywhere in the 40K universe. While it doesn't have as many links and Easter Eggs tied to other "Dark Coil" tales, what it does showcase is PF's immense creative ability in crafting unique characters and factions.

We already saw in Genestealer Cults the legitimacy and authenticity with which this new take on an old faction was presented (which reminds me; I'd recommend that one reads GC before Cast a Hungry Shadow). Aziah makes a fine, sympathetic protagonist here; especially this being a story bereft of "normal" humans for us to root for. He is a devout, true believer, but also prone to rage and fury issues.

But the real show-stealers here are the members of the Scorched Creed. Lifelong slaves to the slab-mines of Redemption, they find purpose and gifts of the flesh through their abominable creed. And yet, as Fehervari demonstrated in the belief system presented in GC, there is a seeming logic, dare I say a validity, to their belief? Gharth, the Blind Pilgrim himself, is so set in his way that until he was named and given a specific background I could have sworn that the burning shell of Audie Joyce had seeped through the Dark Coil from Phaedra to Redemption. Maybe he did....remember, everything is a lie. The psyker, the "Teller", sure reminds me of someone seen in a previous work. There's no telling for sure.

What really excited me in this story was the physical descriptions of the Scorched Creed. For the older readers, remember back in the 80's when people loved attaching the descriptor "from Hell" at the end of anything inherently evil? Well, the Creed is literally a "Biker Gang From Hell". They are haphazard amalgamations of black plating, razorwire, sharp edges, anger, and fury, all astride demonic motorcycles.

When you go back, and think about the things that first excited you about Warhammer and 40K, it was the torchlight to unleash images like this from your imagination that probably first drew you in. And that's what makes this story so fresh, and makes it leave such an impression. When you give an author like Fehervari free reign to create, these are the types of memorable figures you are left with. After you read the climactic battle, go back and reread it, and truly study the choreography of it all. This is some of the best action out there.

And yet, it is not all action and badass characters in Cast a Hungry Shadow. All the other hallmarks of Fehervari's authorial craftsmanship are evident here as well: deep sadness, despair, harrowing regrets, and misguided determination. Perhaps the best element of Shadow is the inner turmoil of the betrayer, Sister Etelka. As she comes closer to the Teller, and to the climax of her own story arc, she is continuously assailed by the gravity of her past actions. It is a form of the Act of Penance, in which she must make her own personal reconciliation.

Dark, foreboding, and crackling with chaotic energy, Cast a Hungry Shadow offers rich characters, a stark setting, brutal action, and bar none the best vehicle chase scene that I've read in any 40K work. Plus, it is all fleshed out with Fehervari's intentional, intelligent prose.

What a great partner story.

Final Score:

9.5/10

Cover Score:

Basically the Genestealer Cult icon with some nice detailing and rendering. Something about this design reminds me of the basilisks from the old NES version of Archon. Fits into the whole chess aspect of Genestealer Cults, too.

One on the left, there, and one on the right as well.

Cover Final Score:

6/10


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tomes Of The Dead: Tide Of Souls

Tomes of the Dead: Tide of Souls by Simon Bestwick. Originally published by Abaddon books, January 2011. Approx. 320 pages.

Over the past few years, I've really been enjoying these Tomes of the Dead titles that were released in 2010-2011 by Abaddon Books. And, with each new one I read, I can appreciate more how they tried to present innovative takes on the zombie genre - they struck when the iron was hot, and didn't cause more gridlock with the same old, same old. These books posit new origin types for outbreaks of the undead, or utilize different historical periods as settings. In short, they were a breath of fresh air.

Tide of Souls kind of got shuffled to the back of the Tomes reading pile for some immature reasons; first, the cover isn't as catchy as some of the other excellent ones (very unfair of me), and two, I have no problem trying new authors, but sometimes I hesitate when reading first novels (again, unfair and uninformed). However, once I did pick this story up, I tore through it with all the enthusiasm of, well, of a zombie at a brain buffet (forgive me that bad joke, please). Tide of Souls is an excellent story, and not just an excellent zombie yarn, for two primary reasons: one, it has the richest characters of any of the Tomes stories that I have read so far, and two, the zombie depictions are great (although the green eyes can be kind of off-putting).

The set-up of Tide of Souls is simple, but horrifying. Succinctly put, the icecaps melt and the world floods. And from these new depths emerge the "nightmares"; innumerable armies of the walking dead. Shambling, persistent creatures in various stages of decomposition with one constant: the glowing, green eyes. That, and a shared malevolence.

The events, as we bear witness to them, unfold in England. We see them through the eyes of a trio of first-person narrators, three central participants whose fates will intertwine and interweave as the truths are uncovered. Be forewarned; even though I try to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as possible, just going over the outline of how the book is put together will unleash some reveals. Feel free to scroll down a bit is that's an issue.

Bestwick does a superb job in structuring these memoirs. The first is that of Katja, a young Polish woman who fell victim to the human trafficking epidemic in Britain. Katja is a strong, intelligent woman, and very capable; as the daughter of a special ops soldier, she possesses critical survival skills. These are the only things that kept her sane and alive during her time as a prostitute; an experience so harrowing that "rising of the dead was....a godsend."

It is important that we see the first events through Katja's eyes. Like her, at this point, we are confused, and helpless. She has to piece together what is going on, and how she is going to survive, especially since she finds herself looking out for a young, fellow prostitute named Marta. The duo has to beat a hasty egress from flooded Manchester, all the while avoiding the undead horrors. Along the way, they fall in with a widowed survivalist named Derek, who reinforces the idea that kindness and goodness are two separate entities.

Katja's tales culminates with them reaching an island (well, a former hilly town), which is currently occupied by a detachment of soldiers.

Here begins the story of Robert McTarn. McTarn is a former standout soldier who gets called up for a special mission in the midst of this most unnatural disaster. As with most situations of this magnitude, the high-ranking government officials have enacted their contingency plans, while the populace, well, drowns. McTarn is charged with coordinating the extraction of a high-value asset along with the RAF. This particular asset is a mentally damaged scientist named Stiles, who just might have some sort of inkling as to what caused this mess; and, hopefully, can concoct an idea of how to stop it.

McTarn's account takes over from where Katja's leaves off; where everything was new and frightening before, it all becomes about survival now. As the original mission becomes impossible to complete, McTarn must rally his few soliders and the local townsfolk to stave off the undead hordes while they try to get a solution out of Stiles.

Stiles. To a degree, he might be the most important man on the planet at this point. And also a complete mess. Physically and emotionally broken, perpetually drunk and strung out on painkillers. What few utterances he makes are incoherent babblings. Somehow, though, Katja is able to strike up a semblance of a rapport with him. Will this yield enough information before the survivors are overrun?

After the action reaches a dynamic climax, with a possibility of some kind of resolution in sight, the third and final (and shortest) account begins. This is Stiles' own account. It is here that we finally learn the beginning, and the end.

Every zombie outbreak needs a reason, or a cause. What online criticisms I have seen of Tide of Souls consider this to be the weak link in the story. I totally disagree, but again, no spoilers here. Bestwick puts forward a solid, original idea here.

Stiles' account might just be the most intriguing of all. Where Katja's juggled notions of fear, strength, and even hope, and McTarn's flew by with the practical, clipped statements of military jargon, Stiles' tale is almost poetic in its own way. Where we had only seen a disheveled shell of a man for the past 150 pages, we now get to see the man that was. Young Ben Stiles was a passionate diver, accomplished marine biologist, and consummate ladies man. This was all until a diving accident left him crippled, and unable to submerge again: a diver who fell from grace from the sea. Soul crushed, and soaking in alcohol and opiates, the visions soon began. Who would have known that those visions were actually portents of the horrors to come?

Let's look at the components of Tide of Souls bit by bit:

Characters: As mentioned, true winners here. If you look at the three narrators on paper, they almost look like stock characters; the beautiful young lady who can kill you with her bare hands, the efficient soldier with a past, and the mentally unhinged scientist. But I can't stress enough how well-rounded these characters are. Katja knows well that the time may come when her womanhood is the only currency that will get her by, no matter how tough or resourceful she is. McTarn realizes that no matter what he tries or believes, there is more of his abusive father in him than he can handle. In fact, inheriting his mother's kindness only benefits him in allowing him to appreciate and hate his darker side. And Stiles, for all his realized passions and achievements, is flawed, insecure, and afraid.

The secondary characters are fleshed out enough for them to be memorable. Some of the soldiers on McTarn's team stay as just names; he only really gives consideration to the ones that stand out in a meritous way.

Pacing/Overall Writing: Tide of Souls flows by at a nice pace. It never lags, and there is nothing superfluous. Bestwick does the first-person POV's well, letting them stand as three very distinct identities. There is a nice 28 Days/Weeks Later vibe going on here, and, even being a native of the States, I could envision the British setting well.

Action: Tons of it. And this isn't a case of all action, no story either. There are no arbitrary action scenes inserted simply to pass time. Also, Bestwick has done his homework (the extent of which is shown in part in the acknowledgements) regarding gunfights; untrained firearms wielders like Katja do not simply become overnight headshot machines.

Zombies: Even though it took me a bit to get used to the green eyes, I absolutely love Bestwick's take on zombies. He describes their various states of decomposition in ways that are truly horrifying. On top of this is the fact that these zombies are operating under the influence of some kind of leadership structure. Some of their attack patterns seem....calculated. And later, it's almost as if they adapt and learn from past mistakes. Normally they shamble, but occasionally they can launch into bursts of speed. And also, how is it that these creatures can stave off decomposition when they are constantly marinating in salt water? At first glance, this seems like their portrayal is somewhat inconsistent; however, when we learn more of the cause of their awakening, it all becomes clear.

Fear Factor: Pretty high, to be honest. It's that combination of the genuinely scary depictions of the zombies, coupled with the fact that you honestly do care about the characters. The initial attacks, at the beginning of Katja's account, are examples of some of the finest zombie fiction I have read. There are no "safe" victims either; we see children being attacked, and we see them shambling with the rest of the green-eyed monstrosities.

There you have it. Tide of Souls is an excellent zombie title, guaranteed to give you some Halloween chills. Kudos to Bestwich for this being his first published novel (he already had a number of short stories under his belt). Grab a used copy of the out of print paperback or buy an ebook from the Abaddon website.

Here's what it is:
One of the accolades on Tide of Souls credits Bestwick's "emotional integrity". I'd like to add "emotional intensity". Strong characters, scary zombies. Win-win.

Final Score:

9.5/10


Cover Score:

Not bad, but not up to snuff with some of the other Tomes covers. The green eye effect is well done. The color palette fits the tone of the story as well. However, occupying the center area with something reflecting the rising water/sea motif of the book would have been a better choice than a huge building. Especially since most of the action happens on rooftops, boats, and hilly villages.

Cover Final Score:

6/10

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Genestealer Cults

Warhammer 40,000: Legends of the Dark Millennium - Genestealer Cults by Peter Fehervari. A Black Library release, originally published September 2016. Approx. 210 pages.

Few things fill me with a true sense of unbridled excitement at this point. One of them, of course, is a new release by a favorite author. So, imagine my elation when I saw that the tie-in book to Games Workshop's new Genestealer Cult miniature line was not only written by personal BL favorite author Peter Fehervari, but that this also marked his second full-length novel. The questions began to run rampant - what would his unique take on the Genestealers be? Which characters from previous works would find their way into this story? Would this story contain narrative elements that intertwine with the bizarre, twisted tapestry that Fehervari has woven over his past novel, novella, and short stories?

To be honest, I did not know too much about the full lore surrounding the Genestealers before the release of the new Codex. If you find yourself in the same boat, I'd recommend a little familiarization here, as well as keeping this chart handy (to keep up with all the evolutionary levels and such:


Now, on to the actual review.

Members of the Spiral Dawn, a religious sect officially sanctioned by the Imperium, are embarking on a journey to the homeworld of the "Spiral Father". For them it is a sort of  "pilgrimage to Mecca". This group of hopefuls is cobbled together from members of all walks of life; from young civilians to former hive gangers and ex-PDF members. All share the common goal of returning to the Spiral Father for the "Unfolding". And so, donned in white robes and various spiral dedications, they are on their way.

It is, of course, no spoiler to state that they have no idea what special kind of hell awaits them on Redemption. We learn from an explosive prologue that there is an evil presence that took hold of Redemption around a century earlier. It was a force so strong that it was able to overthrow the former stewards of the world, the stalwart Sisters of Battle (even going so far as to successfully mentally convince one to betray her order, a task which in theory should be impossible). A force of creatures; daemonic in appearance but matching no priorly catalogued xenos, slaughters the Sisters.

Present day Redemption is a dark and abysmal world. The entire atmosphere is a soot-choked landscape. The only industry of any tangible value is its promethium harvesting. All industry, livelihood, etc. is centralized in an area called the Koronatus Ring. This is a circular landscape, surrounded by seven immense spires (one being the former Sororitas abbey), with a plateau of sorts in the middle known as The Slab. At one point is the only location resembling a "city" any sort: Hope City, where pale, bald workers known as "grubs" slave in the promethium harvesting sector. At the other end is a base known as "The Locker", home of the current guardians of Redemption - the Vassago Black Flags.

The Black Flags are a prime example of another Fehervari construct - the unconventional Imperial Guard unit. For this group, he created a sector known as the Vassago Abyss, wherein one finds the Sunken Worlds. Several of these worlds were mentioned in prior works like Fire Caste, and they include Lethe and Verzante. The Black Flags are a remnant force left to garrison Redemption; survivors of a betrayal on the planet Oblazt (Fire and Ice), and drawing troops from across the Sunken Worlds (as well as taking a tithe from all new arrivals). They are a weary, paranoid group; scarred by the betrayal and consigned to a soot stained world where odd shadows dance on the periphery. Their leadership is unconventional as well - they are led by a reclusive, "holy crusader" colonel, a dying preacher, a pale eyed, enigmatic commissar, and a brutally pragmatic captain.

It is unto this unforgiving world that the worshipers of the Spiral Dawn are delivered; along with a new member of their group - a living ghost who goes by the name of Cross (I won't spoil who this revenant actually is, as it is revealed early on, but the name of the ship he is found on - the Iron Calliope - is a good clue).

What transpires from that point is a tale told in true Fehervari fashion - as the true motives of all the parties in play are revealed, or at least hinted at, tensions and agendas boil to a bursting point.

And so, to avoid any spoilers, let's take a look at the elements of the tale, one by one.

Setting: Oh man, this is great. Tone, imagery, detail. These are all elements that Fehervari excels at, and his usage here bolsters the tale. Again, it's no secret that there is a genestealer cult infestation on Redemption - it's right there in the title. So, what PF does is immerse the reader entirely in this dark, dismal world. The pervading gloominess of this world saps away at the reader emotionally (at least it did to me), leaving you feeling as mentally weary as the Black Flags stationed there. Then, he employs some elements of horror - creatures scuttling and slithering around just out of eyesight; and inherent wrongness of the human yet somewhat inhuman denizens of Hope City (sort of Innsmouth 40K). There is also an otherworldly siren call echoing in the heads of certain Black Flags, tempting and taunting them with promises of truth, hope, and change, and all such lies.

With the framework laid out like this, it is still a refreshing surprise when the things we knew would come actually arrive.

As for imagery, this is PF's specialty. His tone is reinforced by stark imagery, and is enhanced with references to his other tales. The Koronatus Ring itself is a literal Crown of Thorns (and was once home to a garrison of Angels Resplendent). The fact that there are seven spires is significant. Te number seven has been a running motif in Fehervari's works, tying in with the Arkan's belief of seven stars and seven hells. And, as we all know, spires have featured in PF's works since his first BL outing, Nightfall. In fact, iconography of the tormented Emperor runs throughout, as do the incessant corkscrewing icons of the Spiral Dawn.

The Slab itself presents itself as a sort of game board for the proceedings - at first, for the tenuous peace between the Black Flags and the upper hierarchy of the Spiral Dawn, a sort of chess match of wills. Later, it serves as an outright game board for an outstanding climax.

Characters: In many ways, Genestealer Cults is two books play out in a helix formation; advancing their own plotlines and occasionally intersecting. On one hand, you have the events that transpire for Cross, as he brings his more than jaded worldview into dissecting the goings on. When the focus is on him, we can see more of the machinations of those who have a hand in what is transpiring, and who are watching from afar (I really don't want to go into details; but a lot of dots will be connected for readers of PF's previous works).

Then, we have our players in the more linear Black Flags vs. Cultists dynamic. To be honest, the characters who receive the most development on the Imperial side are the enigmatic captain Omazet, and her pilgrim turned protege, Ariken.

Ariken is a fantastic character. She is a character possessing inner strength from the very beginning, and she finds her mental strength tempered by the fires of life on Redemption. If one were to strip away all the extraneous elements featuring Cross and the powers that be, and just leave this a straight up Guard vs. Genestealers novel, she could've carried the weight of strong protagonist on her small shoulders.

Other than that, most of the other Guardsmen/women are relegated to secondary roles. This includes the higher ranking Black Flag officers. In a perfect world, I'd would've loved more background on the mysterious Colonel Talasca (then again, he is mysterious by intent, so...), as well as more scenes of how the friendship between Cross and Lazaro developed. There are a few recurring characters that we root for, especially troopers Grijalva and Jei. And, of course, we all would love an account of Cross' journeys from Phaedra up until now, but that is a story that could (and should) fill its own book.

Genestealers: Well, this is what it really comes down to, isn't it? The minis are out, and this is the first tie-in novel, so how did Fehervari do with bringing them to life?

I love the way the Genestealers are portrayed here. Again, I knew very little of their lore before this, so, it wasn't going to be an easy sell. Then again, I think I've mentioned before that I was no fan of the Tau at all until I read PF's portrayal of them.

Fehervari has a skill for analyzing whichever faction he is writing about, and truly delving deep into what makes them what they are. This is a rare talent which leads greatly to portrayals that resonate with legitimacy and authenticity.

So, he does not simply line his cultists up, describe their appearance, and have the battle commence. He makes the cult of the Spiral Dawn into a sympathetic religion; for whom the impetus of their actions is the propagation of their belief (although at that point they might be unaware that the method of propagation involves turning new believers into creatures like themselves). Also, their acts of violence are not necessarily predicated upon a natural inclination towards violence, but what they perceive to be a reciprocal response to heretical non-believers who would do them harm.

Being a Genestealer neophyte, I had some trouble remember who the different levels and paradigms were. But the descriptions of the cultists and creatures was phenomenal. The more "monstrous" in appearance (purestrains, etc.) were absolutely lethal and terrifying, while those more "human" in appearance had the aforementioned odd balance of normal/abnormal to them (including one freakish trait of retaining a certain resemblance to the original host infected on Redemption over a century ago).

And, along with a realistic portrayal of them, PF also does his duty in incorporating all the current unit types into the novel. Go ahead and look back at the minis on the GW page; you'll see that they are all in here: even the bulky battle trucks and the modified Sentinels.

Action: One can go on and on about the depths, twists, and turns in Fehervari's storytelling, but let's be honest: he does great, straight up action scenes. His fight choreography is brutal and balletic; there are grievous wounds and horrendous deaths. When the fighting zooms in to focus on certain characters/events, Fehervari employs a movie director's eye to render scenes that come to life.

Plus, this is yet another PF book to feature blistering Sentinel action.

Wordplay: Ah, yes. A great deal of the enjoyment in reading one of Fehervari's works is trying to catch riddles, puzzle pieces, and Easter Eggs in names and other word cues. Genestealer Cults is no exception. My suggestion is to keep Google handy and start searching each new name as it comes up. A few of my favorites here include the naming of a Tempestus Scion after Robert Aickman, another author know for narrative magic tricks, "strange stories", and in general twisting readers' brains into knots. The usage of wine-dark as an adjective is another nod to Aickman as well.

Certain words peppered throughout reference others stories as well; a personal favorite being the usage of "puissance", a mention to that dread battleship from Fire Caste (the fate of which I would love to learn).

But, best of all was the laugh out loud moment that arose from naming a certain ship "Obariyon". Great job.

All in all, I think it is fairly obvious that this short novel contains well rendered Guard and Genestealer characters, a complete tale, as well as substantial progression on other story arcs weaving their ways through the book, and riveting action scenes. Plus, stark imagery and a meticulously crafted world enhance the readers' feeling of personal investment. As always, can't wait to see more from Fehervari in the future.

Personal thoughts/observations: Pardon me in advance, since a lot of this might come off as some harsh criticism of the Black Library.

First, I want to stress again how great it is to finally get a second novel from Peter Fehervari. And, it's a great one. This book does not disappoint by any means. But then, you ask yourself, why is it so short? Genestealer Cults does not leave any (unintentional) loose ends, but you can tell that it is a story that is begging for another 50 or 100 pages to stretch its legs a bit more. I wonder why the tight page count was put into effect.

Now, speaking of the title, why the beyond generic title of Genestealer Cults? I was in a Facebook discussion regarding this, and one person mentioned that most of the Legends of the Dark Millennium books get these generic, specific titles. Ok, fine (I don't understand why). So how about the faction type, and then the actual title? Like WH40K LotDM Genestealer Cults: Actual Freaking Book Title. It's just that Fehervari puts a lot of work and thought into his word choices within the novel; so I'm sure he will do the same with the book title. How many more "Fire Caste", "Vanguard", and now "Genestealer Cults" will we get before they trust this man's authorial skills?

Rant over. Hopefully my review of the companion short, "Cast a Hungry Shadow" will be up in the next few days.

Oh, one last thing actually. I cannot stress enough how epic the prologue, featuring the Sisters of Battle, was. So, again, Black Library, please give the Sisters the treatment they deserve. GW, give them a Codex and some badass minis. And BL, get some SoB books churning out. And let Fehervari do one. In just a few pages, he gave a great depiction of them.

EDIT 10/10/16: Just wanted to add something that should have been in the original review. Usually I make the statement as to whether or not prior familiarity with the author's work is necessary to enjoy the book. Genestealer Cults is still an accessible book, on the genestealer side, if this is your first Fehervari outing. I'd strongly recommend reading Fire Caste first, primarily so you can appreciate the appearance of Cross, and begin to postulate what his journey from Phaedra was like, but also because everyone should read Fire Caste because it is just that good. If any story is to be deemed absolutely necessary reading prior to Genestealer Cults, I'd say it is the Fire & Ice novella, available here. With the foundations set in that excellent story, you can better appreciate the advancements in the Calavera storyline.

Final Score:

9.5/10

Cover Score:

Genestealer Cults uses Raymond Swanland's excellent cover for the Genestealer Cults Codex. This is fine and all, but it doesn't really match the tone of the novel. Too bad they didn't opt for another split cover, a la Fire Caste, with Black Flags on one side, and some cultists on the other. Or even an Ogryn Paladin on one side, and a Genestealer Aberrant on the other. Would've been great. But again, Legends of the Dark Millennium obviously means generic titles and recycled covers. Yay, logic.

Cover Final Score:

8/10

Saturday, September 10, 2016

What's going on? What's going on.....

In case any readers have been checking in and wondering what the status of the blog is (close to two months now without a post); allow me to explain....

Or, let me try to explain....

Hmmm. Well, let me put it like this. The blog isn't dead. Not yet, at least. It's more of on a medically induced coma, or maybe it's one of those dramatic life-support situations where the beloved stay close to the hospital bed and pray for the miracle that they all know deep down is never coming.

Probably closer to the latter. Although I doubt that there are too many beloved standing by.

Well, here's what it is. Time is no ones' friend, and that includes me. There just isn't enough of it. I've always stated that I am slow as molasses at both reading and writing, which explained why the reviews were so far and few between to begin with.

Recently some things came up. Nothing bad; just time consuming. New job, going back to school, kids needing more of the time. There's just no more minutes left on the clock for reading and reviewing.

So, if you can still stop by once in a while, it's great to have visitors. I'm going to do my best to get the odd review up.

Speaking of which....

You know, getting timely reviews up on The Beast Arises series was a goal I really tried to achieve. Some of them got held up a bit, but I just had to give up for a while.

It was Book 8 that made me throw in the towel for the time being. Gav Thorpe's The Beast Must Die. And it stinks, because I really want to tear into David Annandale's Book 9, Watchers in Death. I just have that OCD problem with skipping installments. Really don't know what to do, because I can't imagine myself finishing that Book 8.


I should put an EDIT notation here. I had started typing a bunch of my issues with The Beast Must Die, then I stopped. I reread them, and it came off too nit-picky and nasty to me. So I'll just say that as far as pacing, characterization, and portrayal of tactical acumen are concerned, I just couldn't get into it.

Maybe I'll give it another go. Maybe I'll just move onto Watchers in Death, and then Last Son of Dorn, which was just released and boasts an amazing cover....


We will see.

In other news, not much going on. Another reason for the lack of reviews is that I am reading a bunch of fantasy and sci-fi classics (when time allows), and I usually don't review those, since so many before me have done it much better.

I also just finished yet another reread of Fire Caste, which I enjoyed more than all 7 TBA books that I read combined.

One final thing; and I believe that I've mentioned this in passing before, but I am seriously considering eliminating the ratings system on future reviews. The longer I do this, the more presumptuous and condescending it seems. I'm in no place to assume a sort of teacher/student dynamic with authors in which I "grade" the quality of work. Where I get caught up is with sites like Goodreads and Amazon, in which the 5 star system still stands as a legitimate measure by which to rate your satisfaction with a product. Then again, if I am making a review based on a book's meaning, who am I to make the final decree on author's intent?

I suppose what I am trying to say is that an efficient review will balance elements like discussion and judgement. Skewing more towards the latter than the former is a recipe for failure.

That's about it. Thanks as always for stopping by, and feedback is always welcome.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Hunt For Vulkan

The Hunt For Vulkan by David Annandale. Book Seven in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published June 2016. Approx. 149 pages.

Sorry about the delay on this one, folks. I have to be totally honest; I was feeling quite a bit of a mid-season slump with this series. Plus, I was away for two weeks on the closest thing resembling a vacation I've had in years.

I had gotten back, put off reading this installment; picked up one of my favorite sci-fi classics, almost finished the reread, and then decided to get myself in gear and keep the reviews of The Beast Arises going. But it was tough going. Honestly, the beginning of this one was a slog. Plus, I'm not crazy about either the Salamanders or their legendary primarch, Vulkan. There was nothing in this one for me to look forward to. So how did it all pan out in the end?

Before I go into detail here, I'm pretty sure that this is the shortest entry thus far in the series. Also, the entire plot synopsis is right there in the title. In brief, predicated upon the revelation that the Beast is based on Ullanor, Koorland begins preparations to lead a massive Imperial force to kill him. Veritus, the Inquisitorial leader on Terra, prompts him to seek out no less than a legend to aid in the strike. He tells Koorland that the last intelligence on Vulkan's whereabouts were on the planet Caldera; and so, the hunt is on.

The rest of the book deals with the hunt, and with the saving of Caldera itself, which is also beset by an ork moon.

The Hunt For Vulkan is almost entirely an action piece, with little room for character growth. A lot of the enjoyment of that aspect lies in how Annandale presents those characters. He gives us a solid Koorland; troubled, capable, and fantastically wrathful. This Slaughter is a win. Thane is another well-balanced presence; but he is still lacking a special spark to make him truly memorable. There are a number of secondary characters mentioned who fill their roles in a satisfactory manner. One standout is General Imren of the Lucifer Blacks, who Annandale infuses with a vital lust for redemption.

The rest of the familiar dramatis personae are relegated to cameo status, and in their limited capacity they make the best of their minute word counts. A particularly poignant example of this is the brief conversation between Kalkator and Zerberyn.

On the other side of the bolter, Annandale gives us some more ferocious, bestial greenskins to act as perennial foils to the Imperium. He displays a real acumen for constructing devious plots and plans to allow the orks to keep one step ahead of the good guys at each turn.

This is a book that will live or die on the quality of its action scenes. Because of this, I was a little bit worried in the beginning, which gives us a standoff between the Fists Exemplar and the cohorts of Mars as Thane is charged with retrieving Urquidex before Kubik can have his mind completely wiped. This encounter reads like a tabletop battle report, and seems more of an excuse to name drop AdMech unit types. The whole thing seems tacked-on, and it reads as such.

Annandale is a writer whose action scenes only compel when they have emotional or ideological underpinnings to them. So, while that initial scene reads as stale, the events on Caldera are truly rousing. Annandale knows how to cultivate despair, how to put victory within reach, and how to make redemption an attainable goal if the hill is charged with enough fervor. These are savage, bloody action scenes, with a strong attention to the details of unit and armament types.

There are a few other solid elements here, but I don't want to teeter too far into spoiler territory. In short, Annandale does a real fine job cultivating the legend of Vulkan, and that, along with the action sequence which is the entire second half of the book, make this a strong entry in the series.

Final Score:

8/10

Cover Score:

Victor Manuel Leza strikes again with another astounding greenskin.


Cover Final Score:

9/10



Monday, June 20, 2016

Titanborn

Titanborn by Rhett C. Bruno. Originally published by Hydra, an imprint of Random House, June 2016. Approx. 241 pages.

HachiSnax Note: I received an e-ARC of the book from the author in return for a fair and honest review. This is what I plan to offer. My assessment of the book will not be influenced in any way. Thanks for reading!

Almost two years ago I reviewed a book by Rhett Bruno, which was the first installment in an ambitious trilogy. It was called The Circuit: Executor Rising, and it was chock full of great world building concepts and thoroughly fleshed out characters.

So, you can probably understand my excitement at getting a chance to review his newest novel, which promised to be a nice, gritty little slice of bounty hunter sci-fi. Let's start with the blurb:

"In this gritty and innovative science fiction thriller, turmoil on one of Saturn’s moons rattles Earth’s most powerful citizens—and draws one planet-hopping rogue into a fight he never saw coming.


Malcolm Graves lives by two rules: finish the job, and get paid. After thirty years as a Collector, chasing bounties and extinguishing rebellions throughout the solar system, Malcolm does what he’s told, takes what he’s earned, and leaves the questions to someone else—especially when it comes to the affairs of offworlders.


But his latest mission doesn’t afford him that luxury. After a high-profile bombing on Earth, the men who sign Malcolm’s paychecks are clamoring for answers. Before he can object, the corporation teams him up with a strange new partner who’s more interested in statistics than instinct and ships them both off to Titan, the disputed moon where humans have been living for centuries. Their assignment is to hunt down a group of extremists: Titanborn dissidents who will go to any length to free their home from the tyranny of Earth.


Heading into hostile territory, Malcolm will have to use everything he’s learned to stay alive. But he soon realizes that the situation on the ground is much more complex than he anticipated . . . and much more personal."

Ok, sounds great. Let's take a look at the book itself.

Titanborn takes place in 2334 AD, three centuries after a meteorite obliterated most of the Earth. At the time, survivors had left to colonize Titan, Saturn's largest moon. As the colony evolved, they found success in harvesting the gases surrounding Saturn. Meanwhile, on Earth, humanity rebuilt itself, never achieving the same grandeur it once held.

Now, a large percentage of the human race isn't even Earthborn. The descendants of the pilgrims to Titan are now so changed by their environment as to be almost an entirely different race: taller, lanky, near albino-white; the Titanborn. There are other "offworlders" born on Mars as well. There is a system of population control through which reproduction is legislated, leading to the rise of clan families in which arranged breedings are orchestrated. 

There is a palpable level of tension between these different human factions: the Earthers look down on offworlders, and there are also a lot of illegitimate children who have to hustle through life with no identity to claim as their own. The Titanborn have true cause for frustration: recent events on Earth have driven droves of Earther to the fertile gas supply around Saturn. These immigrants find themselves getting plum jobs over the native Titanborn. Also, the Titanborn are so far removed from the Earth population that they can contract life threatening diseases from even the most mundane Earth germs. This has cultivated enough frustration and animosity that splinter resistance groups have begun to form.

There is one group that finds itself thriving despite the unrest - the corporate mega entities reaping the benefits of the gas harvesting. Foremost among these is Pervenio Corp. To maintain the integrity of their galaxy spanning assets, Pervenio contracts a group of bounty hunting/problem solving experts know an "Collectors". Titanborn is the story of one such Collector, a thirty-year jaded veteran named Malcolm Graves.

While cooling his heels on a forced vacation on Earth following a job botched by shoddy intel, Graves finds himself embroiled in a terrorist bombing on Earth's biggest holidar. Although on the outs with the Pervenio higher-ups, he finds himself on the case of finding the culprits - members of a deadly offworld cell known as the Children of Titan. Their motto: "From ice to ashes." And they are hell-bent on realizing that goal.

As the stakes become higher and the severity of the situation unfolds, Pervenio opts to pair Graves up with a partner. This is a first for the veteran, who has never been saddled with an "official" partner. Moreover, this partner is a young man just pushed out of a secretive program called the "Cogent Initiative". This program optimizes all the applicable skills of gifted children to make them essentially purely efficient collecting machines. This young Cogent, Zhaff, has that frightening efficiency, but he lacks any social development. He has no personal desires, needs no bounty, he just collects.

Heading offworld in pursuit of their quarry, while racing a rival Collector and discovering the true depth of the separatist group, Graves and Zhaff find that every step they take could very well be their last.

So, I'll say right off the bat that I really enjoyed Titanborn. This is the second book in a row that I've read by Bruno which combines rich characterization with thorough world building.

First, the characters. As a lead, there are a lot of familiar physical elements to Malcolm Graves: the pistol packing, trench coat wearing, grizzled, worlds weary veteran. However, Bruno makes him very much his own person. Graves is well-balanced; resourceful but with plenty of flaws. He carries a lot of regrets; especially those surrounding his illegitimate, illegal, estranged daughter Aria. He's pretty tired of the collecting life, but doesn't know anything else. And, even though he knows how inherently odious the mega-corporations are, he willingly turns a blind eye to the bigger picture, so long as the checks clear.

Then, there is Zhaff. The Cogent is an interesting, compelling character, especially given that he is bereft of social skills. But picture a lean faced, tightly coiled killing machine and you get a pretty good idea of him. It is the classic case of seeing if being placed with the right partner will coax some emotive aspect to come to the surface.

The supporting cast are well-done, also. What really stands out for me is how real Bruno made the Titanborn; their physical appearance, and their attitudes. There are a lot of strong thematic elements rolling under the narrative, and a lot of them are tied into the residents of Titan.

Next, comes the world-building. This is what Bruno does that I really enjoy. His concepts for mankind's expansion past Terra, shown in both this book and in the Circuit series, are as exciting as they are logical. In Titanborn, he has conceived of a believable presentation of life and the economy surrounding Saturn's largest moon.

And finally, just a quick note: there is plenty of action here as well, and it is done well. There's a bit of cursing too; just as a warning. Nothing overdone; it plays off of the tone of the narrative.

Now, if there is anything that I have an issue with, it's the first-person perspective. I only mention this because it is obvious that Bruno has a huge amount of world-building detail that he wants to paint the background with, but he also wants to tell the story entirely through Graves' interior monologue. This isn't always the best fit; there is simply too much expository description and location detailing. Especially when you think about it; I would think that a veteran bounty hunter would keep his/her thoughts and sentences as economical as possible. 

See, you can tell that while Bruno is telling the tale, he is visually storyboarding it as well. A better structure for Titanborn would've had descriptive paragraphs interspersed throughout Graves' narration.

But, either way, the whole story gets told. It's just that adding all the detail to Graves' monologue sometimes breaks the flow, especially in the moments that need to move at a breakneck speed.

Still a solid story, though. And, it closes with a great ending. Plus, the Titanborn universe is fertile ground for further stories.

Titanborn is available starting 6/21. Check it out. Thanks again to Rhett C. Bruno and Hydra for furnishing this ebook to me.

Final Score:

8.5/10

Cover Score:

Well, to be honest, the edition I received didn't have the cover yet. But anyway, this is a simple cover, but it contains central elements to the story. It becomes more poignant after reading the book.

Cover Final Score:

6.5/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Kickstarter: Evil Is A Matter Of Perspective

There's a new, very interesting looking grimdark anthology over at Kickstarter. This one is titled Evil is a Matter of Perspective, and it is created by Adrian Collins from over at grimdarkmagazine.com. The working theme here is stories told from the antagonist's point of view. Also, this anthology boasts a remarkable lineup of authors, many of whom are tying their stories to their established writing universes. Anyway, I'll just paste the info here; it explains it better than I can. Then, head on over and back this bad boy.

First, the cover art:
And now, the other stuff:

The team at GRIMDARK MAGAZINE want to get fantasy authors into the shoes of their established antagonists and present you with 15+ dark fantasy stories in a beautiful print tome. We've engaged a range of fantasy authors with established worlds including R. Scott Bakker's The Second Apocalypse, Courtney Schafer's Shattered Sigil, Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt, Teresa Frohock's Los Nefilim, Jeff Salyards' Bloodsounder's Arc, and many more.

Wrapped in Tommy Arnold's beautiful cover art, designed by crowd favourite Shawn King, and with a stretch goal to fill it with Jason Deem's interior art, Evil is a Matter of Perspective will be an eye-catching addition to your shelf once you're done seeing the world through evil's eyes.

The author lineup:

  • R. Scott Bakker (The Second Apocalypse)
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt, The Tiger and the Wolf)
  • Michael R. Fletcher (Manifest Delusions)
  • Shawn Speakman (The Annwn Cycles)
  • Teresa Frohock (Los Nefilim)
  • Kaaron Warren (The Gate Theory, Mistification)
  • Courtney Schafer (The Shattered Sigil)
  • Marc Turner (Chronicles of the Exile)
  • Jeff Salyards (Bloodsounder's Arc)
  • Mazarkis Williams (The Tower & Knife)
  • Deborah A. Wolf (The Dragon's Legacy)
  • Brian Staveley (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne)
  • Alex Marshall (Crimson Empire)
  • Bradley P. Beaulieu (The Song of the Shattered Sands, The Lays of Anuskaya)
  • Matthew Ward (Shadow of the Raven, Coldharbour)
Plus, lots of stretch goals and add-ons to be unlocked and obtained. Again, check it out, and back it up.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/155719766/evil-is-a-matter-of-perspective-an-anthology-of-an?ref=user_menu

[UPDATE]

The Kickstarter is almost funded, and stretch goal #1 is already unlocked (350 backers). That is a Year One bundle from Grimdark Magazine. Check it out!

What are you waiting for? Get backing!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Kaiju Rising - Part 5

Kaiju Rising by various authors. Edited by Tim Marquitz & Nick Sharps. Originally published by Ragnarok Publications, Febraury 2014. Approx. 552 pages.

And now we come to the end. The last five stories in this amazing anthology....

Stormrise by Erin Hoffman (26 pgs):
Although this is technically both a mech and a kaiju story, the real focus of Stormrise is self-aware digital intelligence. Erin Hoffman creates a fierce and fun short story in which a digital intelligence becomes aware, names itself Keto, and decides to demonstrate to the organic, human intelligence that she is more qualified to be their steward. A digital, benevolent overlord if you will.

Caught up in this are Keto's programmer/creator Sandra, who is working the damage control angle for the corporation that helped create Keto, and Airi, a renegade flyer person (actually, her job title isn't really specified), who becomes Keto's ward/captive.

Set in 2154, this story nicely highlights a kind of saturation point of human dependence on technology, to the point where we essentially have a HUD of sorts implanted in us. Hoffman effectively postulates how easily this could be used against us should the machines rise; how simple it would be to read our moves and deploy countermeasures before we take a single step. Hoffman does it so well that you don't even care that there isn't a giant monster or robot stomping about.

The concept is great, the characters are great, the execution is great. Hoffman crams a lot of elements, and realizes them fully, without leaving the story feeling overstuffed. In a perfect world, this story could've been stretched to a 50-60 page novella. Also, the ending leaves you begging for the sequel. I checked the Mech anthology lineup to see if one was listed, but alas, there isn't. Here's hoping we see more of these characters one day.
Score:9/10

Big Dog by Timothy W. Long (27 pgs):
Really nice military mech vs. kaiju actionfest here. This story takes place right after the end of World War II as we know it. Here, the Japanese have allied themselves with alien intelligence, the kaijus, and it is up to a united American/European front (included a beaten Germany) to save the day. The action here takes place in Saipan, as the titular mech, a new weapon in the war against monsters, is getting the acid test, and being tasked with retrieving a kaiju biological sample.

Our protagonist here is Commander Katie Cord, a tough and capable Air Force pilot turned mech commander. Long does a nice job in fleshing her out; giving her a deep rooted animosity towards her former Nazi assistant, Glaus (due in a large part to his being a former tank commander, while Cord's fiance was killed in a tank).

Long's depiction of the kaijus, their appearance, characteristics, and weaponry, is effective, imaginative, and bizarre.

The real winner here is his description of working within the Big Dog. This is a clunky, awkward monstrosity, and its primitive technology coupled with the chaos of battle make piloting it a living hell. Long really conveys that feeling of trying to successfully maneuver an ungodly mechanical construct against unearthly monsters.

So what we have is a pretty standard narrative framework, with a fairly predictable outcome, bolstered by great execution, vivid conceptualization, and blistering action. And I always say that even the most trope-y storyline is still fun when done right. Big Dog proves that.
Score: 8.5/10

The Great Sea Beast by Larry Correia (23 pgs):
Now we move on to a pretty dark redemption story from 12th Century Japan. As a boy, Nasu Munetaka survived an encounter with the titular monster, and that was only the beginning of his misery. The injuries he sustains in the incident cause him to grow up small and weak, causing him to be considered useless in a court that refuses to acknowledge what occurred. Instead, the blame is placed on his father, who is labeled in death as a drunken incompetent. Alone and dishonored, Nasu feels despondent. That is, until he discovers one talent he possesses: a deadly acumen with the bow.

Years later, Nasu has a new sense of worth, as a veteran archer of many feudal conflicts with an impressive kill tally. Working from some newly uncovered intelligence, he leverages his clout into an expedition to discover and kill the creature which ruined his life so many years ago.

Correia tells a great tale here. He's done his historical research into the period, and he paints it with a vivid brush. Our 'hero', Nasu, is a driven man. He is not one for kindness, or consideration. He has been galvanized by a life of hardship to a sort of pinnacle of single-mindedness. This might make him hard to like, but I found his utter realness refreshing.

On top of that, you get a fairly terrifying kaiju, and some great, bloody action. I really liked this story.
Score: 9/10

Animikii vs. Mishipeshu by C.L. Werner (29 pgs):
This is a story I was really looking forward too. Not only is Werner a solid and prolific Black Library scribe, he is also a known kaijuphile (check out his Godzilla vs. Cthulhu fanfic). What he presents here is without a doubt the purest example of a kaiju vs. kaiju brawl in this entire anthology.

Following a nifty little intro that sets the scene, and dispatches with the only real human presence in the story (a sleazy corporate type), Werner unleashes two massive beasts from Ojibwe myth: Animikii, the Thunderbird, and Mishipeshu, the Water-Panther. What ensues is some stomping action followed by an all-out monster battle.

With the kaiju being the focus here, Werner meticulously details the appearance of each. With Mishipeshu, he deflty combines the lizard-like and feline traits to craft a lethal hunter-killer. And with Animikii, the physical traits render him something not unlike veteran kaiju Rodan (although with an electricity based beam weapon instead of the fire Rodan employed in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II). I've always loved Rodan, but there was always something about him that didn't translate well in the movies. You knew he could create devastating wind attacks with his enormous wings, but it always just looked silly to see him standing there flapping them. In the story, Werner portrays the enormity of an attack like that excellently.

The descriptions are vivid, and the special weapons are done well. The action itself plays out with a blow-by-blow analysis. All in all, Animikii vs. Mishipeshu is the epitome of what this anthology is all about.
Score: 9.5/10

The Turn of the Card by James Swallow (37 pgs):
The last story in the anthology is also penned by the last of the Black Library scribes. James Swallow's involvement in Kaiju Rising was one of the stretch goals, and it is based in the Colossal Kaiju Combat universe.

This turns out to be another one of those stories that is paper thin on premise, but solid in execution. In Turn of the Card, we follow a London Police helicopter crew as they try to make sense of the sudden appearance of multiple kaiju in the Queen's stomping grounds. The lead character, a tough girl with a troubled part named Hannah Brook, decides to impulsively take the chopper into the city (which has been earmarked to be leveled in an attempt to stop the monsters) to rescue the uncle who raised her. Said uncle is holed up in the British Museum, and may hold a key to understanding what has allowed these creatures to run amok. Also, there is the persistent, underlying feeling that Hannah has some sort of tether to the goings-on.

All of this is just a set-up to letting these monsters unleash hell. Swallow packs a lot of the CKC kaiju into this story. He does a bang-up job describing them realistically as well; especially seeing as though a lot of them look pretty cartoony in the game. That's what he excels at, though. Swallow also has a true director's eye when it comes to staging the action. He gives us a multitude of perspectives; from shaky phone cam footage, to aerial shots, to on the ground views reminding us just how small man is in the face of these terrors.

The human characters are likable and easy to relate to. The kaijus chosen (I believe there was open voting to pick which ones would appear) are interesting, and Swallow does them service fleshing them out. Here's hoping he one day does a full length CKC tie-in novel.
Score: 8.5/10

And that's it! It's been a pleasure finally finishing this anthology!