Friday, January 29, 2016

The Walker In Fire (Deathwatch 9)

The Walker in Fire (Deathwatch 9) by Peter Fehervari. A Warhammer 40K short story, originally published by The Black Library, January 2016. Approx. 31 pages.

I have been wanting to get the Deathwatch shorts and review them as they came out, but there was always a reason for me not to. The first story, One Bullet, was a very good yarn, but it only bore a tenuous connection to the Deathwatch. The subsequent entries all looked interesting enough (never mind the covers), but some of the authors are kind of hit-or-miss for me personally.

But, there is always the case for exceptions. And having one of these entries being written by your favorite BL author is definitely one of those exceptions.

In The Walker in Fire, we follow Garran Branatar, a Salamander Firedrake attached to a Deathwatch Terminator kill-team (designated Sabatine), as they embark on a mission to "locate" a rogue Adeptus Mechanicus magos who has absconded with some xenos samples.

I was very intrigued to see what Fehervari's take on the Salamanders would be; I know precious little of their lore as is. When you reduce them to their simplest terms; their gimmick is their fire motif, and in terms of philosophy, they are more concerned with the protection of man than other Chapters. I've never read any of the books, since the Salamanders usually fall under Nick Kyme's purview. Plus, I don't like green as a Chapter color (I know, you can't refute that logic, right?).

Fehervari has truly made Branatar one of his own trademark characters. While keeping the basic tenets of the Salamander code of conduct, as well as the strong senses of pride and duty that are integral to an Astartes, Branatar wrestles with bottomless valleys of shame and loss. Primarily, the cross he bears relates to the loss of a battle brother during an ugly campaign against the Dark Eldar. Forever encumbered by loss and shame, Branatar sees and hears this fallen brother, Athondar, wherever he goes. As a perennial revenant, Athondar follows Branatar down his ultimate path, towards either "absolution or oblivion".

As far as the narrative itself goes, The Walker in Fire leans more towards an accessible, straightforward actioner, much in the way other Fehervari works like Nightfall and Vanguard were. This is not to insinuate in any manner whatsoever that the work is constrained to anything so simplistic as a completely linear narrative. Fehervari weaves masterful twists, turns, and interconnections to all of his other works here. So, even though this is an action-heavy piece, it is still a strand in the spiderweb-like, labyrinthine, Warp-twisted Cat's Cradle of a story arc which he has been working on since Fire Caste.

I need to make a thankful shout-out here: usually I am serviceable at deducing some of Fehervari's riddles and Easter Eggs, but this time, a lot of clarification was provided by frequent blog visitor/poster Lucius Eternal. Thanks as always, my friend!

I say this because Fehervari has outdone himself here, answering many lingering questions, and, of course, positing so many more.

Just a few of the interconnecting elements include:

  • The action takes place on the fallen hive world of Sarastus, the backdrop of Fehervari's debut story Nightfall.
  • There is mention of the secretive work being outsourced to a "backwater world", which, of course, is Phaedra, setting of Fire Caste, Vanguard, and, A Sanctuary of Wyrms (more on that in a bit). In fact, the clever placement of the very word 'sanctuary' nails this as a direct prequel to that story.
  • There is mention of Inquisitor Escher, the mysterious centerpiece in the game being played in Fire And Ice.
  • And, last of all, we have Malvoisin, one of the dreadful Chaplains of the twisted Angels Penitent (from The Crown of Thorns), In The Walker in Fire, we meet him when he still bore the symbol and exquisitely crafted weaponry of the Angels Resplendent.

I'm sure that is just the tip of the iceberg as well. I'm also sure that there are secrets to be revealed in some of the naming schemes as well. I haven't finished researching all of them yet, and I have the sneaking suspicion that there might be some anagrams in there as well. Perhaps the name Thandios has a loose translation of "Immortal God", which reflects the White Consul reverence of the Emperor of Mankind. Immortal also means 'endless', much like a certain fall... I will say naming the Deathwatch Black Shield (who I am assuming was a Carcharadon) "Hauko" was extremely clever. I am also trying to figure out the significance of the numerical designation of the Techmarine: M636 (originally from the Brotherhood of A Thousand). There is nothing coincidental in any of these stories....

In case you were wondering, the original Chapters of the Kill Team members are: White Consuls, Salamanders, Angels Resplendent, the Brotherhood of A Thousand (the character here fulfilling the familiar Fehervari motif of a secretive, character whose face and motives are veiled behind a visor), and the Black Wings. A sublime arrangement of some lesser known Chapters, especially representation by the Angels Resplendent (later Penitent), who Fehervari did so much to give a rich backstory to in the span of a few pages in The Crown of Thorns.

I mentioned before that there is a lot of action in this story. Fehervari, along with crafting twisting, mind-bending storylines, has always been a master of choreographing dynamic action sequences. Near the opening, there is an open battle with some of the ghoulish residents of Sarastus that is reminiscent in tone of Matheson's I Am Legend. We also get some very solid Skitarii skirmishing (which Fehervari did masterfully in Vanguard as well). Also, we get a real sense of the potency of the weaponry in all of their destructive grandeur. Lastly, and very importantly, attention is paid to the details distinguishing the armor of the Kill Team as Terminator armor; for example, specific considerations and compensations.

But, as with all of Fehervari's works, what really stands out here and grabs you by the throat are the emotional and psychological underpinnings. When you read that classic preamble at the opening of most 40K works, that whole "grim darkness" spiel, Fehervari is one of the only authors who so effectively brings that nightmarish hell into tangible being. And he is also peerless when it comes to penning the absolutely bottomless fathoms of true loss, and sorrow.

Little side note: Regarding A Sanctuary of Wyrms, when I first saw that Fehervari had written a Deathwatch story, I was kind of hoping that it would chronicle the actual events that befell the Deathwatch team that Jhi'kaara's party found the remains of. That this wasn't the case is not a disappointment; Branatar's story is extremely compelling. The reader just desperately wants to know what happens next; and, hopefully we will find out in a future story.

Here's hoping that story comes soon. In the meantime, enjoy The Walker in Fire. One of Fehervari's more direct and accessible stories; it is filled with plenty of action, rich characters, mysteries solved and presented, and a deep, dark, emotional undercurrent.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Ah, these Deathwatch covers. Where to begin? Some have been atrocious, some not so bad, and one or two I actually like.

It's been a bold artistic endeavor, to say the least.

I don't dislike this cover; I actually think it is pretty cool in many ways. My only complaints are that the tip of the nose is too dark compared to the rest of the face, making it appear almost canine. I know it's hard to capture the overall ebony Salamander tone, and still highlight all the curves and contours, but the animal nose makes it look more like a classic Universal monster man-beast hybrid. Also, what I am guessing are scars running along the side of the face look more like rivulets of sweat.

All in all, not as bad as some of the others.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, January 28, 2016

HachiSnax Reviews now on Bloglovin'

Not much of import. Just claiming the blog on Bloglovin' and I have to post a link here.

<a href="">Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

Monday, January 25, 2016

Links Of Interest - January 25th, 2016

A quick little roundup of some odds and ends that piqued my interest this past week.

First up, The Coode Street Podcast, Episode 264. Jonathan Strahan interviews Glen Cook and Steven Erikson at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY last November. This one breaks my heart. Saratoga is only 40 minutes away from me, but circumstances beyond my control (read: lack of $) kept me from attending. Anyway, this is a phenomenal podcast:

Next up: Currently high up on my "to read" list is Alexander Wallis' "The Way Knight". You may remember that I recently reviewed his award-winning short "The Sea Between The Stars", an excellent two-page story that you can obtain by contacting him at thewayknight AT As of the time of this post, until I have no idea, you can buy The Way Knight for only 99 cents (Kindle edition) on Amazon. Alright, a great book for a buck! Always a win:

Next up, we have a freebie from our friends over at The Black Library. The most recent Age of Sigmar story, Vengeance Eternal, in the most recent Age of Sigmar series, Bladestorm, is bring offered for free in either .epub or .mobi format over at The Black Library. Look, you all know that I have no love for the Age of Sigmar books, but I'm sure some of you do, and this is free. Plus, it's penned by another new author, Matt Westbrook, and it's always nice to see what the new guys bring to the table. So check it out:

Of course, I save the best for last. In further Black Library news, checking the site this morning, I see that the most recent Deathwatch short has been released. And guess what? It is written by none other than blog favorite Peter Fehervari. So check out The Walker in Fire, Book 9 in the Deathwatch series. There should be a review going up in the next few days.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Quick Look: The Ice Dragon

Back in 2007, GRRM's The Ice Dragon was 'released', hoping in some part to sate the ravenous hunger of ASoIaF fans. It was a perfectly calculated release; it had the name, it had dragons, and it had elements of a hard winter. Westeros it wasn't, but it had enough close elements to sell.

It was also, for all intents and purposes, a children's novel. No, scratch that, a children's story; made into a lovely hardcover with illustrations by Yvonne Gilbert.

I passed on it then. I have no problems reading children's lit; and I was intrigued to see how Martin would handle it. But I read some well-reasoned reviews painting it as a sub-par story to boot, and so I passed.

Fast-forward to the present. I saw the more recent edition of The Ice Dragon at my local library. This is the 2014 edition that boasts the beautiful artwork of Luis Royo (more in line with my personal aesthetic leanings, but this perspective is, of course, the decision of the consumer). And so, I reasoned, why not try it now (especially since it is free)? I left it out on the table to see if it piqued the interest of any of my Hach-lings first. My 11 year old daughter wasn't interested. My 10 year old son took a crack at it. He liked the pictures. He liked a lot of the parts of the story. But, what I got from him was that "not much happened" in the end. Fair enough. I figured at that point I might as well take a crack at it.

First of all, bear in mind that even in 2007, The Ice Dragon was not a "new" story. GRRM did not interrupt his busy ASoIaF writing schedule to pen this children's tale. The Ice Dragon was originally an entry in the 1980 Dragons of Light anthology.

The Ice Dragon tells the story of Adara, a "child of winter", in an unnamed kingdom. She was born during a brutal winter, one so harsh that it claimed the life of her mother during the delivery. Adara has always been a cold, solitary child, most comfortable during the bitter winters, the season of her birthday, and the time when she can behold her very special friend - a noble ice dragon.

Ice Dragons are fearsome beings, even in this land where knights soar in the skies on serpentine mounts. But not only has Adara befriended this one, she rides it as well. Theirs is a strong bond; constrained to those wintry months. For as mighty as the ice dragon is, the climes of the warmer seasons would melt its very body away.

However, there is also trouble brewing. The kingdom Adara lives in has been embroiled in a years-long war with a neighboring land. As they find themselves on the losing end of the skirmish, what lies in store for the land Adara knows; her father's land, where her mother is buried, where she meets her special friend every year near her birthday?

For the most part, The Ice Dragon is a well-written little story. The premise is fascinating, as one would expect from GRRM. It stimulates and grabs your imagination. Martin also shows that he can accomplish thorough world-building with brevity, rather than hundreds of pages of soul-crushing exposition (or at least used to be able to). The imagery is magnificent, and the action is grand and exhilirating.

Where The Ice Dragon falls apart, the true devil in the details, is the lack of an "ending". Great premise. Strong buildup. Outstanding climax. And then, loose ends hurriedly tied into a random arrangement. It doesn't make sense, strengthen, or behoove the narrative. The ideal ending didn't have to be sappy, melanchy, or even preachy. It just had to be there. It had to be something that answered the question "Ok, so what was the point of this story anyway?". And, in that regard, the ending is more incongruous than satisfactory.

All in all, give The Ice Dragon a shot. It is a nice little story, and an excellent primer if you have young ones that you expect might segue to the ASoIaF series one day. Just remember, it is not a 100 page epic. It is a 30 page story, lifted from a 36 year old anthology, bolstered by pictures, with text inflated to help it reach the 100 page mark. It feels, I don't know, unnecessarily extended. There's a familiar taste to all of this....

It's still GRRM, though. Vintage Martin, but still the fingerprints are all over the pages. And I cannot laud Luis Royo's artwork enough.

Final Score: 6/10

Art/Illustrations: 9/10

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Predator, Prey

Predator, Prey by Rob Sanders. Book Two in The Black Library's 'The Beast Arises' series, originally published January, 2016. Approx. 256 pages.

Last month, The Black Library kicked off their ambitious new series 'The Beast Arises' with the solid, but not stellar I Am Slaughter, by fan favorite Dan Abnett. That might sound a tad negative; perhaps I should say that it was Very Good, and not at all bad. For Volume 2, they enlisted the authorial skills of another prose powerhouse in their vast stable, Rob Sanders.

I'm guessing reaction is going to be mixed here; the BL audience is a varied group, and they have a crop of authors with diverse writing styles to match. This is something forever in BL's credit. So, although I can understand the wide excitement over Abnett's entry. I was personally looking forward to Sanders' entry more. To me, he is a defter wordsmith, and his masterful usage of figurative language is the best of all the authors in the Library.

But then, other concerns arise. Those regarding a "Book 2". All the initial framework was laid out in the first volume, would the second be simply a vessel to carry those storylines along until the next installment? Or would Sanders find a way to improve, intensify, and introduce more angles? Luckily, the answer is the latter, and the makes Predator, Prey a superior book to I Am Slaughter.

As far as continuations go, Sanders elaborates more on the initial appearance and immediate effect of the orks than on the progression of their hellish crusade. Where I Am Slaughter focused its narrative primarily between Terra and Ardamantua (site of the utter decimation of the Imperial Fists), Predator, Prey opens with a chapter-long battle report of planets, systems, and industrial sites that were obliterated by the appearance of the attack moon of the Beast. Sanders seems to have some fun here assigning clever names to worlds, and describing them fully in a sentence or two, before snuffing them out entirely.

From there, he splits his book between accounts of different characters, playing their parts in this grand tragedy. Some we are already familiar with (Vangorich, Wienand, and other players on Terra). Others are new faces, including:

Lux Allegra - an Imperial Guard commander on the aquatic hive world of Undine. She begins the story on an escort detail trying to extract the planetary governor amidst the unfolding chaos.

Urquidex - an Adeptus Mechanicus magos attached to a survey team gathering information on this new ork technology. Well, it goes deeper than that, of course. It also involves a nasty little mantra known as the Bystander Paradox, which is a clinic in terrifyingly callous logic.

Maximus Thane - a Space Marine of the Fists Exemplar (a Second Founding Chapter). As a Captain, he finds himself the senior ranking Astartes of his Chapter, and must rally them to hold through the night of impossible odds on their planet of Eidolica.

There are also some other chapters dedicated to characters who play supporting roles in this volume, including the Fabricator Locum of an AdMech forge world, and a Marshal of the Black Templars.

Let's take a look at how each of these arcs fare:

First of all, I enjoyed the scenes on Terra more in this second volume. Vangorich is a tighter, more focused character here; still revealing nothing while simultaneously plotting all options and outcomes. The political intriguing; a real low point of I Am Slaughter, is done in a slicker and more plausible manner. The cogs in some real power moves are beginning to turn; one involving a bold show of force by Naval Commander Lansung, and another regarding machinations and preparations by the AdMech.

The scenes on Undine are where Sanders hits both his highest and lowest points in the book. The world-building here is impeccable; involving socio-economic systems and factors, believable environmental considerations, and imaginative megafauna. The military forces are well-realized and the characters sympathetic. However, the emotional aspects are a little forced at times. There is one scene in particular, where Allegra snatches up a little urchin while squaring off against a greenskin monstrosity that was more than a bit reminiscent of Ripley and Newt evading the Xenomorph Queen. Also, some might feel that making Allegra pregnant (and continually rubbing her belly) is indenturing readers to an emotional obligation predicated on the usage of a growing baby as a convenient prop. Or not. I honestly liked Allegra and felt bad for her plight.

What did bother me were two scenes which were resolved via deus ex machina. Not that there isn't a time and a place for that particular plot device, but what was missed were two opportunities for Allegra to show her mettle in thinking on the fly and under extreme pressure.

Moving along. I really enjoyed the scenes with Magos Urquidex. Now, the less said the better here, due to spoilers and all. But, Sanders proves in these chapters why he deserves top consideration for AdMech stories. He knows how to bring for the best semblances of emotion from a faction that does its best to suppress it. And yet, he does it without compromising the legitimacy of the AdMech. Again, we have a very sympathetic character in Urquidex; one who takes issues with some of his protocols, yet follows his duty well.

This brings us to Maximus Thane. with the Fists Exemplar, Sanders creates another Successor Fists Chapter (his Excoriators, true highlights of Legion of the Damned, get a name drop here). The Exemplars embody Dorn's values, and like with his AdMech characters, Sanders makes these Astartes completely sympathetic, likable, and genuine, without making them any less "Space Marine". The world-building of Eidolica is nice, though not as thorough as Undine. The focus of these chapters is trained more on introducing these characters, and providing the bulk of the novel's high action.

Slight, potential SPOILER ALERT:
An eagle-eyed observation by user augustmanifesto over at bolterandchainsword posits a plausible potential story arc involving the Exemplars. I won't post it here, if you are interested, follow the link to the original post.

Just to round things out, I thought I'd mention that I really dug Sanders' take on the Black Templars. Marshal Bohemond is properly belligerent, surly, and ultimately wise. However, it seemed to be another case of cinematic inspiration that resolves a "who will Bohemond choose to assist" storyline; this time a lift from a certain scene in The Dark Knight.

That does it for the characters of the Imperium. The orks that Sanders gives us do their job well. He captures their manner and physiology well, shows their adaptability, and stresses the menace in their obscene technological capabilities. The Beast himself, however, does not make an appearance. These are still members of the rank and file green tide.

And there you have it. There are no resolutions to be had so early in the series, so we get the advancement of some and the introduction of others. It's a fair balance, and it keeps things fresh. The action is plentiful, and well-choreographed. The dialogue is sharp. The world-building, as mentioned, is a real highlight.

All of this adds up to another slim (but slightly thicker than the last one), tightly paced, solid piece of sci-fi. Whether you prefer Abnett's style or Sanders' more, I think most can agree that this series is getting off to a 2 for 2 start.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Again, absolutely love these covers. Especially the ork ones. You could argue that some of the proportions are stretched to excess, but certain things you just cannot get enough dakka.

Here's the original. That is a print-worthy pic.

Cover Final Score:


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Sea Between The Stars

In a recent post in the Grimdark Fiction Readers & Writers group on Facebook, author Alexander Wallis offered to e-mail to anyone interested in reading a PDF copy of his short story "The Sea Between the Stars". He described it as a prequel story to his book "The Way Knight: A Tale of Revenge and Revolution", saying:

"I wrote the story as a prelude to The Way Knight, exploring the heroine's childhood loneliness and despair. Happy to email a copy to anyone who wants to read something dark and depressing!"

Dark, depressing, and tackling a pretty heavy emotional topic? Sounded interesting. First of all, here's the blurb on The Way Knight, from Goodreads:

"THE WAY KNIGHT is the terrifying tale of a girl’s journey from child, to woman, to goddess. It is a provocative story that will challenge everything you believe.

Daimonia is a wild and impulsive girl, who fears she is unlovable. When corrupt politicians execute her brother, she travels to find her mother — the famous hero who abandoned her years before.

To survive the treacherous journey, she hires the Way Knight — a travelling warrior sworn to protect anyone who pays his fee, no matter how dangerous the journey, or hopeless their cause.

Together they will chance the battle-torn coast, pursued by the champion of the Secret God."

While all of that sounds interesting enough, I was not expecting how powerful this two-page prequel story turned out to be. Dark and depressing turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. Under the veneer of gothic horror (reinforced with stark, gloomy imagery) pulsates an emotional undercurrent of anger, sadness, rage, and despair. 

These are just a few of the feelings to be found on the emotional palette of a troubled young woman. Wallis writes with honest authenticity, neither patronizing nor glorifying his tragic protagonist.

His writing frame of reference stems from personal experience - as he told me:

"Professionally I help young people who are troubled. Some have learning difficulties or disabilities, whereas others come from families that are very disruptive to normal development. I created the character of Daimonia to explore the experiences of young women with narcissistic mothers."

Not surprisingly, The Sea Between the Stars was a winner in the "Write Across Sussex" short story competition. Below is a small sample; just the opening paragraph.

"The girl haunted the old tower after her mother’s departure. Neither the girl nor her mother was dead but, like a ghost, the child mourned their separation. Each night she drifted from shadow to shadow, pale feet on stone, hair black as the sea between the stars. When the skies were benign, she was the storm that racked the steeple, torrential in her cries. When all the villagers were asleep, she was their nightmare unravelling in the dark."

Due to competition guidelines, I cannot post the story in its entirety here. However, Mr. Wallis has offered to e-mail a copy to anyone interested. You can contact him at thewayknight AT or look for him on Facebook, Alexander Wallis.

The Way Knight is available on Amazon.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Blood And Iron

Blood and Iron by Robbie MacNiven. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, Day 15 of the Advent Calendar 2015, originally published by The Black Library, December 2015. Approx.. 12 pages.

On the heretekal forge world of Dementius, warpsmith Ferrix of the traitorous Iron Warriors plans an awakening; one that will tether one of Khorne's most ferocious beasts to one of the grandest machines of war ever created; an Imperial Titan twisted to the whim of the Dark Lords.

That is the succinct overview of Blood and Iron, Robbie MacNiven's second foray into the Black Library 2015 Advent Calendar. It's no secret that I enjoyed MacNiven's A Song for the Lost tremendously, so much so that I fast-tracked this second story to the top of the reading pile. And I am glad that I did. Where A Song for the Lost was a more character-driven story, focusing on the insane Noise Marine Ulix, Blood and Iron shows his versatility in evocative world building.

This isn't to say that the characters in Blood and Iron aren't fully-rounded. Our protagonist, Ferrix, plays his cards very close to his chest until the very end, telling us much by telling us very little. A former Techmarine before his ascension to warpsmith, he possesses a limited emotional palette. MacNiven craftily shows us which outcomes elicit a positive response through subtle emotional cues.

With the secondary characters, MacNiven has fun painting them in the colors of the Gods they have given themselves over to, including an Iron Warrior gone over the deep end to Khorne, and a disgusting, oozing, overly-fawning magos in the thrall of Nurgle.

As mentioned before, a great deal of attention is tendered to the setting. We are given a richly rendered portrayal of this corrupted forge world, allowing the reader a seamless immersion into the tale being told. In fact, as much of the action occurs around a grand arena which serves as a testing ground. This reminded me of the Robeast proving arena on Planet Doom in the original Voltron:

It's saying a lot that I can draw definite parallels between one of my favorite childhood shows (and therefore memories), and a recent WH40K short story.

Perhaps what MacNiven does best in Blood and Iron is properly convey scale. This is integral, given that at the heart of the story is the awakening of a Chaos Titan. Here we get an excellent portrayal of this event; a massive, monstrous release predicated upon a thrilling duel of wills between the warpsmith and a bestial hound of Khorne. Sometimes Chaos and its unrelenting "rivers of blood" motif honestly bores me but here the excess is not in excess.

So once again, we have a wonderful, fun short story from Robbie MacGiven full of vivid imagery and descriptions. While I give a slight edge to Song for the Lost for the twisted beauty of its ending, Blood and Iron is a great build-up to an ending of epic scale, literally. Highly recommended.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Same as A Song for the Lost.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Hunting Season

The Hunting Season by John Coyne. Originally published by Macmillan Books, January 1987. Approx. 245 pages.

Originally released in 1987, The Hunting Season is a horror novel by blog favorite John Coyne which focuses on what I believe to be one of the more fertile horror sub-genres - inbred backwoods maniacs (see Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Jack Ketchum's Offseason, its sequels, and more). It centers on a young woman named April Benard; widowed at the opening of the novel, now remarried and looking to turn a house in the Catskills into a base of operations for a career-defining anthropological study.

After losing her husband in a horrific car accident, and with a newborn son depending on her, April needs to find a way to take charge of her life. Four years later, it looks like all of her ducks are finally in a row: she is newly married to a powerful lawyer, her career as an anthropology teacher is thriving, and best of all, she has her sights set on a career-advancing opportunity.

In her anthropological studies, April has learned of an insular society located in Upstate New York's Catskills Mountains; a community of inbreds that have been, for lack of a better term, "recycling" their genetic stock via consanguineous breeding for a term dating back to the late 1700's, when Dutch settlers first began mixing with the indigenous Indians of the area. Little to no extensive research has been done on this group, colloquially referred to as "Pumpkinheads" due to their bizarre appearances; deformities spurred by debilitating cacogenic reproductive practices. Her desire is to research, interview, and study these people; and eventually get her findings published.

As luck would have it, near this pocket of freakish folk is a region popular with NYC residents for buying summer homes, antiquing, and enjoying the country life outside of the concrete jungle. When an attractive property appears on the market, April persuades her husband Marshall to buy it, and she prepares a summer of intensive research.

Of course, soon after they move in, things do not go as smoothly as possible. Part of the plan included family bonding time, but Marshall finds himself pulled away and tied up in court cases, leaving April alone in an unfamiliar area, and contending not only with her own son, but with Marshall's teen daughter, who has thus far been resistant to accepting her new stepmother.

Then there is also the issue of the on-premises caretaker, Luke Grange. A by-product of the local incestuous stock who has evaded the myriad deformities of his peers, he possesses model looks, an insightful mind, and a moral obligation to his "people". His intentions seem good, but straightforward, honest answers are not always forthcoming from him. He is also filling April's son Timmy's head with frightening legends and local lore, making him believe that he is seeing monsters scampering around on the property at night.

Or, are those actually really there?

Worst of all, Luke's presence is cultivating some considerable sexual tension; not only with April, but pointedly with Marshall's daughter Greta. 14 is old enough to get married among Luke's people. What are his actual intentions in regards to her? Luke already enjoys infamy among the NYC vacationers, who casually indulge in some hedonism while in their summer retreats.

And, there are the pumpkin-heads. They turn out to be more horrifying in appearance than even April had imagined, and there is a palpable sense of danger regarding some of them.

As the summer progresses, the relationship between Marshall and April becomes increasingly strained, exacerbated by his frequent absences. Unable to connect fully with her fellow City vacationers, and growing more and more frightened of the pumpkin-heads, April begins to feel trapped in what was supposed to be her dream home.

But, just when you think that things can't get any worse, they do. Just as it seems April cannot feel more unsafe in her new home, a spate of brutal killings begins. Will April even be able to escape with her children?

I will mention now that there may be some SPOILERS coming. Nothing more than is mentioned on the blurbs and praises on the edition I read, but I just want to be forthcoming. That being said, let's talk about what works in The Hunting Season.

In an era when many a spinner rack was filled to bursting with horror paperbacks, Coyne earned his acclaim due to being, simply put, a good author. This is one reason why he has been so adept at writing across many different genres. And, he brings these skills to bear in The Hunting Season. While part of the climax seems somewhat incongruous to the rest of the narrative (more on that later), the rest of the novel works due to the strengths of people, place, and themes.

People: John Coyne's characters are memorable and enjoyable not for being strong, or "good", but for being well-rounded, actual human beings. His lead, April, is a good person, but like all real people, she is flawed. She makes mistakes, she is presumptuous at times, she compromises her morality, she is petulant and spiteful at times, in addition to being a strong, loving, career-minded woman/wife/mother.

The entire supporting cast is populated with an solid mix of well-rounded characters as well.

Place: All the times that I read Hobgoblin growing up, it always struck me how rich the Upstate locales seemed. It wasn't until I actually moved to Upstate New York that I realized how authentic the descriptions were. This is in play here, as well. The scenes in NYC ring with such an authenticity it is like I was seeing the City of my youth over the span of a few pages. It is not just about name-dropping a few street and store names. It is about capturing the legitimate, tentative trepidation that a young woman in the City in the 80's would feel before going on the subway. It is not just about knowing to stop at Zabar's on the weekend, but that to get the best bike, you needed to head up to the East Side.

The scenes in the Catskills are richly and beautifully rendered as well, with strong attention paid to the local flora and fauna. Coyne writes with an observer's eye put to fluid prose.

Themes: There are some interesting themes abound in The Hunting Season, and Coyne does his fans a great service by not ramming them down our throats. But they are always lurking uncomfortably, just out of sight. One central theme that runs throughout is the difference in class structure. There is a certain, mutually parasitic arrangement between vacationers and the locals in vacation areas. This is normal, and universal. But it is a little more glaring in this New York community. As Coyne mentions in the book, these areas were already declining, with the industries that defined them leaving them. I live in one of these areas now, and it is not a pretty sight. So, perhaps it is a bit egotistical for out-of-area benefactors to come in and expect to be regarded as "better" simply because they have the advantage of disposable income. To be fair, however, the locals can be equally haughty in believing that they have should be respected simply for having the birthright in the area. This comes to the fore in one scene that takes place at an estate auction; while the city folk look down their noses at the "local yokels", the area people turn up their noses at flighty city folk treating their local treasures as novelties. The smartest man in the whole place finally observes that he can use their (the city vacationers) money to get a new pickup truck, and better his life. Again, the themes aren't hammered home; they play out at their own speed, because they are necessary, and because they occur. The moral of the story is that just because two kinds of people can find themselves in the same vicinity, exchanging goods and moneys, it doesn't mean that they like each other.

Finally, we need to mention the fear factor aspect of this horror novel. I'll admit, it is hard to cobble together a visual representation of the pumpkin-heads from the cues that Coyne gives us; they truly are a frightening amalgamation of stunted odds and ends. To be honest, I took some inspiration from the locals around me; I swear that there is some hint of the same kind of inbreeding going on in these parts. A common local trait is a big, round head (like a pumpkin), with very close-set, circular eyes, and a pointy, beak nose. I just reverse engineered this, made them darker (for the Indian admixture), wrinklier, and more stunted in the limbs department, and, voila! Good old fashioned nightmare fuel.

And it is the best, and most frightening, scenes in the story that see these people skulking around. That's the allure of this niche genre, right? Monsters among us.

I can see some people having an issue with the climax of the book, however. Coyne kicks the happenings into overdrive with the initiation of the killing spree (again, not really a spoiler, it's mentioned on the jacket). Perhaps it's because "slasher" isn't really my thing. Don't get me wrong; the violence, as always, is beautifully written. Coyne does not simply paint the walls red arbitrarily. He stages horrific acts of violence with a poetic grace. And when those horrid pumpkin-heads are involved in the killing, the book really feels like a horror tome again.

So there you have it. The Hunting Season is a solid horror title, filled with fully fleshed-out characters, realistic scenery, tense, scary moments, and some jarring violence. The finale might have fit better in a story that was a dedicated stalker/slasher title from start to finish, but it still makes for a blood-soaked climax.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Pretty standard fare. A glimpse of the Benard farmhouse as seen from the woods. There is an odd, ghostly head floating above the residence, and two pudgy looking figures ambling towards it. It doesn't really convey terror. A glimpse of a sinister pumpkin-head skulking in the trees would have helped immensely. And I can't really figure out the point of the stylizing on the "S" in Season. It's more distracting than enriching.

Cover Final Score:


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Song For The Lost

A Song for the Lost by Robbie MacNiven. A Warhammer 40,000 short story, Day 13 of the Advent Calendar 2015, originally published by The Black Library, December 2015. Approx. 13 pages.

To be perfectly honest, my interest was none too piqued by the theme of Chaos that drove last month's Advent Calendar offerings over at The Black Library. One story, however, did stand out, and that is A Song for the Lost by Black Library newcomer Robbie MacNiven. MacNiven recently contributed the story Redblade to the Deathwatch series (his first tale with BL), and I just want to congratulate him on having his first 40K story published.

Now, if you read the description on the BL site, the description of this story is painfully brief and secretive, observing that telling too much will "give it away completely". I'm not a big spoiler guy, but I will say that has to do more with unit types than with a big, shocking twist. Also, MacNiven himself mentioned "the secret" on Twitter, so there's that. But! I will preface this review with a handy-dandy SPOILER ALERT! I won't be divulging plot twists, but I will talk about that other stuff. So, if you want to be pleasantly surprised, scroll down to the end of the post, and see the final score.

Still there?



It's Noise Marines!!!

Well, to be honest, you should have been able to deduce that from the title, at least.

I was really psyched to see a story focusing on Noise Marines. Sometimes, depending on who you ask, they are considered either among the coolest or most ridiculous unit types in the WH40K universe. I place them squarely in the former. But, you have to admit, one does wonder how to properly render these sound assassins properly on paper. How do you convey the auditory assaults of these twisted servants of Slaanesh in pen and paper format?

Succinctly put, MacNiven does it masterfully. A Song for the Lost is a phenomenally good story. It is the tale of Ulix, who we first meet as a young novitiate receiving a brutal beating from the zealos Bishop Eziah for not being able to properly recite an Imperial catechism. Ulix's sole solace from Eziah's cruelties comes from the seductive song of young Sister D'Fey; who visits the boys who leave a candle lit for her. Her song salves his wounds; teaching him to channel the pain into something else...

Fast forward three hundred years, and we meet Ulix again; now a Chaos Lord fully in the thrall of Slaanesh, leading an insane band of Noise Marines. This cavorting gang of murderous minstrels finds themselves tearing through a jungle world on a personal geas for Ulix; a hunt for a special material needed to consummate a now necessary desire.

There are a few factors which make A Song for the Lost such a fantastic read. The first is the "allure" of Choas. For me, the strongest Chaos tales are the ones where you are shown what the Imperium has to offer versus what the voices from the Warp dangle before your eyes. Compared to the cruel, dogmatic dictatorship of the servants of the Corpse Emperor, the siren song of Slaanesh sounds more melodious by the moment.

Second, the character descriptions are wonderful. The physical description of Ulix as a noise marine is one of the best and most horrifying that I have read. Careful attention is also lavished upon the special weaponry of the noise marines. These help set the stage for the imagination for fill in the blanks where the written word cannot describe the audio terror.

The action here is quite excellent as well. In addition to the havoc caused by Ulix and his band, MacNiven gives us a thrilling view of the Eldar in action. He is obviously quite savvy with the workings and mechanics of the weaponry in the established lore; combining colorful prose with a love for the aesthetics of the canon.

This all culminates with an ending which is not only terrifying, but also beautiful, in a decidedly twisted manner.

In short, get this story. Read it. Enjoy it thoroughly. Here's hoping that we'll hear more from Ulix in the future.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

All of these "Call of Chaos" stories have the same, minimalist cover scheme. I just don't understand why BL opted to use the standard Chaos symbol instead of Slaanesh's.

Cover Final Score: