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