Monday, May 23, 2016

Kaiju Rising - Part 2

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

Last September I started reviewing some of the shorts in this monstrous anthology which was published back in 2014. I have been pretty remiss in returning to it to read the next batch; but wanted to catch up, especially with Ragnarok's Mech anthology being successfully backed. So, without further ado, here are the next five short stories from the Kaiju Rising collection:

One Last Round by Nathan Black (36pgs):
One of the nice backing options this Kickstarter offered was a chance to submit your own story. There were, I believe, three available slots, and this is the first one.

What Nathan Black offers here is a homage to all the great Ultraman type tokusatsu shows of old. In this story, one can guess that kaiju attacks occur with some frequency. Also, things are at a point where not only are kaiju movies, featuring authentic kaiju response type robots, a thing, but they are also waning in popularity. In this short, a team of robot pilots, taken out of commission by the government bureaucracies that be, reassemble to try and stop a rampant crocodilian kaiju from leveling New Orleans.

Ok, first of all, congratulations to Nathan Black for getting his work published. There is no better reward for a backer than finding their own work in the finished product. Now, as for the story itself, it's pretty rough. The characters are pretty simple, but I took that as intentional, since this reads like a tokusatsu episode. Just like in those shows, most of the team members fall into standard templates. There is a mouthy rebel type, quick with his fists, a tough, beautiful female member, and an overweight one with a heart of gold.

The winning angles are the kaiju, Grimmgarl, and KRASER, the robot that heads off to do battle with her. Black's descriptions of both are very solid, and he has conceived his kaiju very well.

Also in this tale is Colonel Ausum, who satisfies the Ultraman element as the hero who can transform to kaiju size. What we get mostly of him is a vivid portrayal of his uniform, and well-described descriptions of his special attacks. Two things, however, would have made Ausum more, well, awesome. First would have been even a paragraph or two of backstory on him, letting us know who he is as a hero. Second, one of the things that makes Ultraman exciting is that they use professional martial artists in the suits. There is mention of one of his attacks being an ax kick, but other than that, tying his attack combos to an actual martial arts style would've helped a lot.

Now, the aspect of this story that I personally feel needed the most help is in regards to location. I'm just throwing this out there as a reader's observation. In the beginning of the story, there is some commentary on the toughness of New Orleans and its residents. Ok, fine. Great jumping point. However, after this, there is absolutely no sense that this story takes place there. There are plenty of iconic neighborhoods and architecture in New Orleans, an author should have had a field day letting a monster destroy it. The point is; if the resiliency of a certain area is at the heart of your story, then you should show us how the facade can be destroyed, but the spirit never broken.

Even in kaiju and tokusatsu films, specific cities and areas are recognizable in the model work.

Now, this might seem like a lot of criticism, but the story was still fun, and I'd read another story with this group in a heartbeat. Plus, the kaiju was excellent. HachiSnax Note: Just realized that Grimmgarl is, in fact, a creature from the Colossal Kaiju Combat universe.
Score: 5/10

The Serpent's Heart by Howard Andrew Jones (27pgs):
Jones writes pulp-style stories featuring Cossack/Middle Eastern protagonists in the vein of Harold Lamb. The Serpent's Heart is a good example of this. In this tale, we follow the surviving members of a ship sent by the caliph to kill a sea serpent which has been attacking merchant vessels. Told in the first person by the bodyguard of the scholar (Asim and Dabir of Jones' Desert of Souls series) sent to head up this expedition, the story follows the group as they are rescued by a fearsome Chinese alchemist who has plans of her own regarding the creature.

A little bit SPOILER-Y: What I really like about this story is how Jones turns this "olden times" story into a kaiju vs. mech tale. The characters and dialogue are engaging and enjoyable; the scenes with the diabolical Lady Xin and her dread ship are a blast. In fact, the only thing anti-climactic was the sea serpent itself.

All in all a fun little pulp throwback that evokes the adventures of Sinbad.
Score: 8/10

Monstruo by Mike MacLean (17 pgs):
Short but sweet is the best way to describe this tale by screenwriter MacLean. In MacLean's world, the invading kaiju are weapons of mass destruction utilized by aliens. However, they require a form of intellectual remote control, via a human host. Thus, we have creepy little hatchlings a la Alien which infect the unlucky target.

The story is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of Lieutenant Grimes, a tough Marine who specializes in eliminating these hosts, thereby severing the control. The problem is; the monster that arrives in Mexico where he is vacationing has been tethered to a host who happens to be a nine year old boy.

So, for the duration of the story, we alternate between Grimes and Carlito, the young boy. Grimes faces a pretty harsh dilemma; kill the kid or let millions die. This kind of scenario forces itself on your emotional heartstrings with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but you tend to not mind when it is written well. And Monstruo is written well. The characters aren't deep, but they are recognizable and well-written. The action pops off the page. Best of all, the details of the kaiju are excellent and terrifying; from the great description of its terrible shriek, to the stomach-churning description of the smell it emits. Good stuff.
Score: 8.5/10

The Behemoth by Jonathan Wood (31 pgs):
Next up, we have another story that has a tandem theme to it. This time, it is on the side of the mech operators. In The Behemoth, which takes place in Chicago some hundred-odd years in the future, mechs are a defense mechanism against the Leviathans, kaijus released from the melted ice caps.

Piloting a mech in this world is extremely taxing on the body; so, to absorb the brunt of this physical and emotional toll, proxies are used. There is no sugar-coating it; proxies are effectively punishment sponges. There is no skill involved in the job; and, since no one in their right mind would volunteer for the job, a lottery is held.

In the midst of this world is our protagonist, Tyler. This is his story, and it is told in the style of fractured flashbacks. It chronicles his rise to being a pilot, and his struggles with substance abuse. Unfortunately, Tyler is the ultimate functioning drug addict; and the drugs make him a better pilot than he ever could have been on his own.

Tyler also has Lila, his emotional core and support. In love since first meeting in High School, she has always been his rock. This all falls to pieces when she receives her "winning" lottery ticket....

This is another story that packs the emotional schmaltz on with the world's largest shovel, but it is written so damn well. The narration is great; angry, bitter, emotional. The violence is solid, and the mech and kaiju properly awe-inspiring. And, the love that tries to hold on despite all the hardships; if that doesn't evoke a strong feeling, then you probably don't have a heart.

Great stuff, knockout ending.
Score: 9.5/10

The Greatest Hunger by Jaym Gates (13 pgs):
Another short entry in the game here, Gates pens a dark tale of a world in which kaiju started appearing after World War II and quickly became a commodity for greedy capitalists. Now, kaiju fight in battle pits, working alongside a handler. However, the protagonist here, a handler herself, has a dark secret all her own. She possesses frightening powers that extend far beyond the kaiju empathy that those around her can see.

The Greatest Hunger has a lofty, legitimate premise and some poetic, lurid writing. However, it didn't quite seal the deal. The imagery of the time period isn't fully optimized, and it features multiple occurrences of one of my pet peeves - expository parenthetical statements (especially given that this is a first-person POV).

The main character's kaiju, Derecho, is well realized, and there is some real imagination behind some of the other creatures. Plus, some wickedly sensual situations bolster what we have. But, again, take that final reveal; and, in a story as compact as this, that message should have been driven in like a nail into the temple.
Score: 6.5/10


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Echoes Of The Long War

Echoes of the Long War by David Guymer. Book Six in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published May 2016. Approx. 176 pages.


Here we are at Volume Six in The Black Library's The Beast Arises series, which marks David Guymer's first foray into the arena. Where we left off in Book 5, Throneworld, the Fists Exemplar were heading out to gather more brothers for the great push back against the orks (Koorland called on Thane to seek out the Sould Drinkers as well, which should prove interesting), and Koorland was contemplating his next moves as the true challenges of politicking really began to manifest themselves.

I didn't know exactly what to expect heading into Echoes of the Long War. As a middle of the series entry, would this project start showing its fatigue? Would the wheels just spin for 200 pages, going nowhere? Would Guymer take one or two of the established character arcs and push them forward dramatically, or inch forward all of the arcs?

Actually, none of the above. Much to its credit. Guymer has given us a book crafted for the most part around a new character of his own creating; First Captain Zerberyn of the Fists Exemplar. Now, what this means is that there is not a lot of actual progression of what we have seen so far. Does this mean that Echoes is a fumble? Absolutely not, thanks to the level of Guymer's writing. The man is a master of detailing. So, what Echoes of the Long War is, is an immersive 40K experience. Perhaps none of the entries thus far have given me such a personal, visceral feeling of involvement. Let's look at it bit by bit...

Overview:
Zerberyn and his company, aboard the Dantalion, are carrying out Thane's campaign to seek out other battle-brothers to answer the call to take the battle to the orks. Without getting too spoiler-y, they run into a lot of greenskins, including the ones that the Black Templars Marshal Magneric and the Iron Warriors Warsmith Kalkator were evading at the end of Throneworld. They get caught up in some raging battles, then head off to an established Iron Warriors stronghold that is now under, um, new management. Many bruising battles ensue.

This is not to say that the other story lines are simply glossed over. We get to see some of the conniving between the High Lords, as well as uncovering some of the covert goings-on perpetrated by the Adeptus Mechanicus on Mars. We also get a few snapshots of other characters (including Galatea Haas), just to let them know that they are not forgotten.

Characters:
I really like Zerberyn. Guymer has obviously put a lot of though into what the dominant character traits of an Exemplar would be, and he lets his protagonist personify them. Zerberyn has the weight of the book placed on his shoulders, and he undertakes his task well.

Warsmith Kalkator also has a prominent role this time around. I enjoyed Guymer's portrayal of him quite well. He is so ruthlessly calculated and pragmatic; which is more in line with the Exemplar manner of thinking than is comfortable for them. Their agreement to work together is based primarily upon honor; traitors or not, honor given is honor returned. This time around, the tenuous relationship is handled in a more believable fashion. There is begrudging respect given, but it is earned.

Plus, I like how Kalkator kept referring to Zerberyn as "little cousin". When enemies work together, the dagger should still be twisted a little.

In  their limited amounts of page time, the other characters fare well. Koorland and Vangorich are not prime time players in this installment. Koorland is maturing well within his capacity as a Chapter Master, and is displaying the aptitude to make the necessary, difficult decisions.

Vangorich, still keeps a dry wit, but spares us the witticisms this time around. Here, he is keeping tabs on the High Lords, gathering information on what is transpiring on Mars, and extending a guiding hand in Koorland's political maneuvering.

Orks:
Oppressively brutal; which, I believe, is entirely the point in this series. One thing which I cannot emphasize enough how much I enjoyed was how Guymer gives in-depth examples of just how sophisticated these greenskins are. This isn't just "wait, are they using strategy? Orks?" as we've seen in the past volumes. Here we get a comprehensive overview of orkoid logistics and supply chain management. For someone who spent 15 years in logistics and supply chain management, this is a real plus.

This isn't the only way that Guymer excels at writing greenskins. He truly brings them to life in his writing. I had mentioned how he had accomplished a similar feat with the skaven in his Beneath the Black Thumb short story in the Age of Sigmar line. He the type of writer that really goes deeper into the makeup of the creature in question. He doesn't just limit his depiction to the key descriptors, i.e. "big, green, violent". It shows in the writing that attention was paid to what makes these creatures tick, and that yield the brutal, swaggering specimens we read about.

Action:
Tons and tons of action. And we get ship to ship combat, as well as an abundance of melee.

I don't think that Guymer's style of depicting action is for every. This is evident in some of the reviews I've seen for the book elsewhere. At certain times, the writing might seem confusing or disjointed, but this is an intentional tactic that many authors cannot master. Guymer (and I've seen this also with fellow BL author Peter Fehervari and fantasy/sci-fi grand master Glen Cook) pen fight scenes in a way that gives the reader available information in a real-time manner. That is to say, things come out of nowhere; or, you get hit by something, and don't realize what it was until a bit later, although you know for sure, you got hit.

The melee combat scenes here are amazing. This is where you see the absolute brutality and physicality of the orks in all their glory. When they show up on a ship and start tossing crew members around, it is beautiful. There is such a lovely "crunch" factor to it that I could imagine little pop-up sound effects balloons a la the classic Batman TV show. "Thwack!"

World Building:
Details. Details, details, and details about details. I think this was the deal-breaking for a lot of the dissenting reviews. Guymer explains everything in complete detail. This is not something I mind, so long as it is done right. I personally feel that it adds to the story here.

For example, the book opens with descriptions of Zerberyn's ship, Dantalion. Reading it, you see the focus on the aspects of worship and veneration in the make-up of the vessel. This lets you appreciate the importance of the theocratic aspects of the Imperium. Sometimes I feel the stress is put more on the size of the battles, or accuracy in bolter types. This is a good reminder of the specific underpinnings which make WH40K so unique.

When writing about other worlds, such as Prax, the description is more localized to where the action will take place. In this instances, Guymer flexes his writing chops to create industrial landscapes twisted to the orks' needs; harsh and horrifying.

No matter the kind of setting, Guymer truly brings it to life. The sights, the smells, the palpable tang of danger. You experience them as if you are there. You see it in the background setting, and you see it in small details, such as the completely credible manner in which an ork teleportation onto a ship is described.

But what of the overall story?
Good question. This is a true action piece. I will say, though, that there are two major events that occur here (no SPOILERS today, however), upon which I am sure a lot of the events in future books will be predicated upon. And so, for doing it's job of delivering those two nuggets of information, Echoes does its duty.

The rest is a roiling slurry of bolter rounds and gobbets. I personally enjoyed it, but the online consensus is mixed.

Final Score:

8.5/10

Cover Score:

Another winner by Victor Manuel Leza. Love the pose and the detail, but something about the helmet looks a tad, unfinished?

Cover Final Score:

9/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Half World

Half World by Hiromi Goto. Originally published by Viking, 2009. Approx. 225 pages.

At this point, I cannot recall what led me to Half World, but it is a YA book with quite an interesting premise. Let's start with the blurbs; the first from Amazon and the second from Goodreads:

Amazon:

"Melanie Tamaki is an outsider. The only child of a loving but neglectful mother is just barely coping with school and with life. But everything changes on the day she returns home to find her mother is missing, lured back to Half World by the vindictive Mr. Glueskin. Soon Melanie begins an epic and darkly fantastical journey to save her parents. What she does not yet realize is that the future of the universe depends upon her success."

Goodreads:

"Melanie Tamaki is human—but her parents aren’t. They are from Half World, a Limbo between our world and the afterlife, and her father is still there. When her mother disappears, Melanie must follow her to Half World—and neither of them may return alive. Imagine Coraline as filmed by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle), or Neil Gaiman collaborating with Charles de Lint. Half World is vivid, visceral, unforgettable, a combination of prose and images that will haunt you."

The foundation for Half World is that our realms of existence consist of a balance of three worlds: the physical world (where we are living now), the Spirit World, where spirits roam until they are born again into the physical world, and Half World, which correlates with most preconceptions of limbo, where wrongs are righted, regrets worked out, all that kind of stuff, before a spirit ascends to that realm.

The problem is; the balance between the three realms has somehow become broken. And, if this isn't corrected in due time, it will spell disaster for the inhabitants of all three worlds.

Enter into this situation young Melanie Tamaki. Melanie is an outsider; bullied at her school, in a nameless, urban setting. She has a distant mother who grows weaker every day, and falls deeper into an alcoholic stupor. She has never met her father. Her weight and her social status make her a prime target for the gangs of local kids. Her only solace seems to be in books; and a kind of friendship with a local shopkeeper named Ms. Wei.

And then, things go from bad to worse. Melanie's mother disappears, and she starts receiving weird messages and instructions from a mysterious character known as Mr. Glueskin. She is instructed to go to a place called Half World if she wishes to save her mother. Confused and afraid, Melanie sets off on a quest that will change her life, and possibly the world.

What Melanie never knew was that her mother (and father as well) were inhabitants of Half World. Not only that, but they had done what was though to be impossible there: they conceived a child. This posed a danger to those that wished to perpetuate the Half World status quo: because a prophecy stated that the only way to restore the balance was if a human child was born in Half World. However, how this relates to Melanie is uncertain; she is a human child conceived in Half World, yet born in the realm of Life.

These and other discoveries unfold for Melanie as she tries to puzzle together what is going on; and more importantly, how she can save her mother.

So, the rest of the book is all about the journey and the discoveries. I won't get too much into that for the sake of avoiding spoilers. Let's just look at how the book is put together.

The blurb above mentions very well that this book is an attempt to present Coraline through a Miyazaki filter. I have to admit, there is a great deal of accuracy to that assessment . And, unfortunately, Half World fails to hit the lofty standards of either (which is fine, since they are the apex examples of their genres). The thing is, it is fairly evident that they tried to do it; where some aspects of this book are great, others seem manufactured, engineered, or ham-handedly thrust in.

As a central character, Melanie shines. She is well realized and fleshed out. She isn't a convenient hero, with all the right answers at all the right times. She is often afraid, angry, physically weak. She is what a lot of us probably were at that age; not really the right stuff for the hero of the day. And I understand that all the focus is and should be on her. The problem is that the realization of secondary and ancillary characters suffers too much in the process.

Also, given that we can accept that there are fantastical elements to each of the worlds, there are so many questions that are left open-ended and unanswered; or, which don't make much sense to begin with. For example, we get a satisfactory example as to why the harmony between the worlds was disrupted, but how exactly were Melanie's parents able to conceive her (it is a real shame that we don't get more backstory on these potentially dynamic characters). What is the point of the prophecy being what it is? What is the point of Melanie's closeness with crows, both in the realm of Life and in Half World?

Goto creates a fantastic array of outlandish hybrid denizens of Half World. And yet, after the reasoning is revealed, the book would have been enriched so much by a bit of exposition as to what made them create those personas for themselves. For example, the toll collector. It is compelling imagery to have a stone giant that forces you to bite off your pinkie finger as a payment to pass, but what is the basis for this? And apparently it doesn't have to be your own finger either. So, any Half Worlder who wanted to visit the realm of Life and cause some havoc could just kidnap another denizen, bite off their finger, waltz through, and do what they need to. Now, given that Melanie's mother existed in the realm of Life for 14 years as a Half Worlder, Mr. Glueskin could've come over any time and just taken her. But I digress.

Speaking of Mr. Glueskin, to give credit where it is due, he makes a great villain. He is the ultimate vicious bully, and trying to imagine his appearance yields terrifying results.

On the other hand, Melanie's mentor of sorts, Ms. Wei, comes off as a wizened little old Chinese woman version of Yoda. I don't care how well she cooks, or that she was a lesbian, it doesn't make her any less trope-y.

However, the "tools" which Melanie receives to aid her in her quest; namely Jade Rat and the Magic 8 Ball, are very well though out and executed.

This brings us to the world building, which is a big selling point to a book like this. Certain scenes are done extraordinarily well, such as the nameless town in which Melanie lives, the mountain that leads to the gate between portals, and Mr. Glueskin's hotel. However, there was a huge fumble in one of the money shots - the scene in which Melanie first takes in the bizarre landscape of Half World. Here, Goto tries too hard to go for the fantastic, and the obvious attempt at channeling the imagery of Bosch comes off more like the old Wackyland episodes of Looney Tunes.

All in all, Half World is a true mixed bag; some good, a bit of great, and a lot of ok. You can go in for extra points if you are big on diversity checklists; i.e. authors of color, protagonists of color, implied LGBT themes, etc.

I would say just stick with Coraline or Spirited Away for a better world execution. For all the imaginative inputs that obviously went into this tale, it seems the glue that was so desperately needed to hold the narrative together was all used up in constructing the villain. However, I am happy that I got to know Melanie. In the end, Half World is indeed worth reading, if only for a stellar protagonist.

Final Score:

6/10


Cover Score:

Actually, cover score and illustrations. An added bonus to the book is the interior illustrations by Jillian Tamaki. I mean, she just has a great, deceptively simple, yet immensely evocative style. You just wish there were more pictures.

Cover Final Score:

8.5/10

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mech: Age of Steel Kickstarter

It's actually been up for a while now, but just wanted to let you all know that there are only 10 more days left in Ragnarok's Mech: Age of Steel anthology.


Look at that beautiful cover. So, check out the Kickstarter here.

Here is the tentative author/story list. Bear in mind that this anthology is a spiritual sequel to the Kaiju Rising anthology, and some of these stories are carryovers.


  • “Travailiant” by Kevin J. Anderson & David Boop
  • “Easy as Pie” by Jody Lynn Nye
  • Untitled by Peter Clines (Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters tie-in)
  • “Ordo Talos” by Graham McNeill
  • “Rogue 57” by Jeremy Robinson
  • “Toy Soldier” by James Swallow
  • “Birthright” by Martha Wells
  • “A Single Feather” by Jeffrey J. Mariotte & Marsheila Rockwell
  • “J√§egermeister” by Gini Koch (as J.C. Koch)
  • “All for One” by Mark Teppo
  • “I Am the Pilot” by Ramez Naam & Jason M. Hough
  • “All Together Now” by Ramez Naam & Jason M. Hough
  • “The Bonus Situation” by Jeff Somers
  • “Fadem” by Anton Strout
  • “The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey” by Shawn Speakman
  • “Mecha Mishipeshu vs Theseus IV” by C.L. Werner (Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters tie-in)
  • "After the Victory" by M.L. Brennan
  • “The Cold and the Dark” by James R. Tuck
  • “Vulture Patrol” by Jennifer Brozek
  • “Here We Go! Fight!” by Kane Gilmour
  • “The Stars Shine Home” by Mallory Reaves
  • "Battlefield Recovery" by Andrew Liptak
  • “Integration” by Steve Diamond
Again, check out the Kickstarter, or look for more info on Ragnarok's site. Lots of great add-ons and stretch goals to be gotten. 


Ghosts Speak Not & Patience

Ghosts Speak Not & Patience by James Swallow. Two Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy stories, originally published by The Black Library, January 2016. Approx. 45 pages (Ghosts Speak Not) and 5 pages (Patience).

I was perusing the mountainous TBR pile and came across this pair of stories from earlier this year (note: both are included in the new The Silent War anthology). So, let me begin with the usual spiel: I am not caught up on the Horus Heresy, I never got past Galaxy in Flames, whenever I read these shorts most of the content is new to me, etc., etc. I just want to get that out there, since I realize that Amendera Kendel featured in Flight of the Eisenstein, as well as Nathaniel Garro (haven't read any of the subsequent works featuring him).

First things first.

Ghosts Speak Not:

Billed as a novella, but more akin to a puffed up short story, Ghosts features former Sister of Silence Kendel as she embarks on a mission from Malcador himself. She returns to her old cadre base to recruit some members of the notorious Seventy; a group of surviving members of the Death Guard who remained loyal to the Emperor when the rest of their Chapter turned to the Warmaster Horus.

With her retinue in tow, she heads off on her mission: to capture a rogue astropath in the Proxima Centauri system. This renegade psyker has been transmitting messages to the Warmaster; and the proximity of the system to Terra could allow for Horus to stage a mass attack.

Along the way, they are met with some resistance by the pompous ruling class of the capital world of Proxima Majoris. The rest of the story focuses on their detective work. Anything else brings us into spoiler territory.

All the elements in this short story work very well. I am a big fan of Swallow's world building; he vividly paints a plausible background that evokes the universe he is writing for. For a planet that appears in a short story; he puts all the right details into the distinguishing characteristics of that system; including industry, governmental structure, etc.

The characters are well realized, too. Kendel, in what is her first speaking role, is a capable, formidable agent. Swallow also introduces Helig Gallor, one of the remaining Loyalist Death Guard Marines. He injects a good amount of soul into the tale; showing us the doctrines that have identified his Chapter, while shouldering the burden of their turn to Heresy. It must be beyond emotionally devastating, even for a transhuman, to be engineered for a cause, and formed within one specific group, only to have them turn against all that you stood for. To suddenly find yourself without an identity, when your identity was what you were originally made for.

The action is nicely done too. Swallow does not play around when someone gets shot in his 40K books. There is no Hollywood-esque twirling deaths, or Wilhelm Screams. If somebody gets shot with, say, a bolter, suddenly they are "meat". Or "chunks". Or "paste". Or any combination of those. It's beautiful.

In fact, about the only thing that detracts from the story is that the premise: a detective/spy thriller where the heroes are in pursuit of a rogue psyker, is a little too close to that of Swallow's first Sisters of Battle book, Faith & Fire.

All in all, a solid, quick read, that really captures the feel of the Heresy era.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Patience:

Patience is one of those ~1,000 word micro-shorts that most readers either love or loathe. In it, we meet Gallor again, as he is sent to retrieve fellow Knight Errant Garro from an artillery-blasted city. Gallor finds him standing over a slain warp abomination, and receives a vital lesson in patience from him.

This story is all about setting the mood. See the great cover for this duology? This story is the one tied to that. And Swallow brings it to life on the pages. It is just great detailing throughout, with a knockout ending.

Final Score: 10/10

Cover Score: Love it. 9/10

Monday, May 2, 2016

Throneworld

Throneworld by Guy Haley. Book Five in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published April 2016. Approx. 177 pages.

So, here we are at Book 5 of The Beast Arises. Where we last left off, the Proletarian Crusade ended with a true "Last Wall" - moving mountains on the ork moon over Terra which closed shut on the Crusaders which had made it to the surface. Only one survivor is confirmed - Galatea Haas, the Arbiter who served as one of the story's protagonists.

Following this, the near unthinkable happened: ambassadors from the ork moon came down to demand surrender from the High Lords. Yes, orks walked through the hallowed halls of the Palace on Terra. And they made utter fools of the people in charge. As if this wasn't enough of an affront to all Imperial sensibilities, ringing alarms hailed the arrived of new guest within the Palace: the Eldar.

I had equal amounts of excitement and trepidation heading into Throneworld. I was psyched that Haley was finally getting an installment in. My worry? Eldar. Personal taste. All respect due to those who like the Eldar, but I really can't take them. So, I was a bit worried that they would be a focal part of the story; meaning that no matter how well Haley wrote the book, I still wouldn't enjoy it because, you know, Eldar.

Then again, someone recently told me that I worry too much. They are correct.

Haley's Throneworld is a pretty outstanding entry in the Beast Arises story line. I would go so far as to say that it is tops as far as pure authorial quality is concerned. Haley gives us a book that, instead of focusing primarily on one or two of the continuing arcs, while the others inch along, budgets the pages fairly among all existing storylines. He does this seamlessly within the lean page count; giving us what satisfies like a 300 page in a tome that boasts under 200.

But how was it overall? And what of the introduction of the Eldar? Synopsis and my take to follow, with some small spoilers. There will be a major spoiler section, later on, when I list the few complaints I have with this book.

So, it turns out that the Eldar involvement in Throneworld is pretty much contained to the first 20 or so pages. It turns out that the Eldar interlopers dashing through the palace are a Harlequin group, led by one Lhaerial Rey, who has been sent by Farseer Ulthran to deliver a message directly to the Emperor. And so, this merry motley group cuts a bloody swathe through the ragged remnants of the Imperial Palace's defenses.

Meanwhile, Koorland leads the assembled Last Wall on a mission to disable the ork moon lingering over Terra. On the way in, Slaughter receives some very helpful advice from Vangorich regarding the nest of vipers that masquerade as the High Lords of Terra.

Also, we get some more information regarding what is transpiring on Mars under Fabricator General Kubik's watch (Kubik being one of the only High Lords that isn't an absolute moron). Vangorich's assassin/spy cell is uncovering dark and unsettling secrets; but the closer they get to the truths, the more exposed they become. And, again, Kubik is a man-machine that plans well for these contingencies.

Finally, we get a story arc involving Dreadnought-Marshal Magneric of the Black Templars. In a bit of a rogue move, Magneric ignored the call to the Last Wall, opting instead to continue his millennium-long pursuit of Warsmith Kalkator, leader of the Iron Warrior contingent introduced in the last book. Their game of cat-and-mouse culminates on the sand-blasted world of Dzelenic IV, where they must quickly choose alliances in an urgent game of "enemy of my enemy is my....friend or enemy?".

That's the overview. Now, let's look at it element by element.

Eldar:
They've been announced, they're on the cover, and I've already bitched about how I don't like them. Here's the thing, though: Guy Haley is a fantastic science fiction writer; and when you want someone to make sense out of an alien race, and portray them in a legitimate manner, he's your man. A little off topic here: a while back, I read one of his Eldar shorts, Wraithflight. At the time, I didn't compose a review; for one because I didn't have the time; and also because I didn't want to be bothered to look all the names back up. But, there was such an excellent element to that short story regarding the technology of the Eldar wraith fighters. Haley deftly balanced the spirit-powered Eldar ships against the insect-like, organic hulks of the Tyranids, and finally, the primitive ships of the Guard. He really gets into the speculative logic of how each type of ship would work and perform. So much so that by the time the humans showed up, in that story, the reader saw them as the primitive brutes that the Eldar did.

Anyway, back on track. Just wanted to illustrate how well Haley can write for the xenos races. His work in Throneworld is no different. There is such a confident mastery of not only the weaponry and technology of the Eldar (I personally enjoyed the havoc caused by the death jester's shrieker cannon), but their mentality as well. He infuses the sentences that describe their fluid movements with carefully chosen descriptive terms; making the deadly dances that evidence themselves in the Harlequins' every move pop off the page.

Another thing; even though the Eldar don't physically appear in the book a great deal, Haley shows us how their efforts yield great assistance to the Imperium. There are obvious parallels to modern military actions in the "alliance" between Eldar and Man: the Eldar provide logistical support, while the Imperium puts boots on the ground.

It's so masterfully written; I just wish it could've made me a convert (for example, I was not crazy about the Tau until I read Peter Fehervari's take on them in Fire Caste). But something about the overly lofty themes of the Eldar just seems too, I don't know, forced? Tacked on? This isn't Haley's fault; it's the race as a whole. And harlequins are the worst example of it. This is all individual taste, though.

Also, a reminder; the Eldar portion of Throneworld is limited to around 20 pages. And, I can't say enough how well-written and well-paced it is as an action sequence.

The Other Players:
I really enjoyed Haley's take on the rest of the dramatis personae. He keeps Vangorich wittily pithy and utterly lethal; in the correct balance. What we read of the other High Lords focuses less on their ineptitude, and more on their blatant self-serving tendencies, which is how it should be.

Haley also writes very well for the Astartes; working within the parameters of their limited emotional palettes and evoking a legitimate portrayal of these transhuman supersoldiers. Koorland matures as his leadership role in the Last Wall continues, including is new, unfamiliar foray into the politicking aspect of leadership.

I will also list the Iron Warriors here because they aren't bad guys per se, this time around. I prefer Annandale's take on Kalkator more than the one we get here. Part of that is because he had time to establish himself as a protagonist in The Last Wall. Here, he snarls a bit; makes sure that the Iron Warriors show their skills as they dig into a fortification to fend off the greenskin hordes, and engage in some counter-philosophy to Magneric's fervor.

About the only thing that I found slightly off-putting in Throneworld was some of the dialogue. This isn't an indictment of Haley's ability to pen it, though. By this point in the series I have resigned myself to the fact that there is a certain "TV show" quality to the overall series pacing and dialogue. This is why we have overly bumbling leaders; entire societies that follow similar behavioral patterns, etc. It is also why matters of great import have to be resolved in a line or two of snappy conversation, even if that might not be the best manner in which to portray it.

So, Haley writes strong dialogue, especially for the Space Marines. He also livens up conversations with genuinely witty elements. But, there are two scenes in which the dialogue was just, simply put, bad. I'll put those later in a SPOILER area. In short, I'll just say that if I want someone to write a strong sci-fi novel for me, I'd ask Haley. If I need someone to pen dialogue for a weekly series, perhaps not.

Orks:
If you want greenskins done right, you call Guy Haley. End of story. That's why he is the best choice to write the final installment of this series, as well.

In Throneworld, when the orks are involved, they are often more compelling than anyone else on the stage. Haley doesn't just keep the "intelligent ork" theme rolling, he enhances it greatly by introducing a slew of greenskin unit types; including mekboyz, kommandoes, and, best of all, a weirdboy. The scene that features this specimen is by far the very best in the book.

Action (MINOR SPOILERS):
There are some pretty ambitious battle scenes in Throneworld, and those are the ones that work, and well. I've already mentioned the opening battle featuring the harlequins, and also the epic battle with the weirdboy. There is also an all-out scene featuring a massed force of Terminators just unloading absolute hell.

Unfortunately, it is the more "typical" combat scenes which fall somewhat flat. Haley is no "pew pew pew" bolt-pornographer, and there is little engagement in those back and forth scenes.

World Building:
Simply cannot review one of Guy Haley's books without mentioning how he excels at world building. Perhaps no other Black Library author is as adept at bringing imaginary worlds to life.

His realization of the Mars of the Adeptus Mechanicus is a cyberpunk wet dream.

Or, when he desribes the world of Dzelenic IV; a planet where all vitality has been erased by war:

"Craters marred the ground, distinguishable only by their infill of windblown sand. Further cliffs edged the plain, the product of millions of years of geological processes that had been halted in an instant of fire."

Of course, the most vivid descriptions are those that take place within the looming ork moon; as seen by Galatea Haas and other offworld captives of the orks' great assault.

So, those are the reasons why Throneworld is an excellent entry in the series. Now, on to the SPOILER area to voice some dissent.

SPOILERS:

First of all, the Custodes. Yes, these guys. They finally make an appearance in this book....and get cut down like wheat before the harlequins.

Then, when they finally pin down Lhaerial Rey, right in front of the Emperor's Door, no less, they pause with blades at her throat so that their leader can inform her that he is about to kill her....just in time for Vangorich to run in and save her. I'm sorry, but first of all, I'm pretty sure they could've killed her without as much loss as they took, and second, if an enemy got so close to the Emperor's door, I don't think they'd hesitate a moment to press the advantage and carve her to ribbons.

Having Vangorich come in at the second the gun was about to fire was gimmicky as hell, and the diatribe before it did not help.

Second complaint, there is the interrogation (of Rey) scene. On the observation side of the glass, we have Vangorich, Veritus, and Wienand (the latter two coming to the understanding that assassination attempts have failed and none more should be forthcoming for now). As the two Inquisitorial higher-ups spar over the xenos' fate, Vangorich literally steps in to remind them that if they think about it, even if they don't agree with each other, there is merit in each of their opinions. Seriously. This is what an assistant principal says to two teenagers butting heads, not a fanatical old man in full body power armor and a very capable woman that has been capably managing the affairs of the Inquisition on Holy Terra.

Lastly, the "parley" between Magneric and Kalkator totally fell flat to me. I get that the basis for their ability to join forces against the orks was predicated upon their prior friendship. However, this is not a case of two men fighting for the respective causes of their countries. This is a case of two superhumans whose own fundamental ideologies have diverted towards polar opposite, and have been cemented over a period of centuries. And, those that label themselves "Templars" and "Crusaders" are rarely known for their flexibility of though. Therefore, I would imagine it would take more than "Hey, look behind you. See all those orks? If we don't work together they'll get you before you get me." to sway Magneric.

But, those are just a few things that detracted from and otherwise superb read. And again, in all of those instances, the actual quality of the writing and dialogue was still above par. So take from it what you will.

Eagerly looking forward to David Guymer's Echoes of the Long War.

Final Score:

9/10

Cover Score:

What can I say? Even if I don't personally like Eldar, this cover by Victor Manuel Leza is beautifully done. Take a minute or two to take in all of the intricate detail in it. It is a great piece.

Cover Final Score:

8.5/10