16 November 2010

[40k Review] The First Heretic - Aaron Dembski-Bowden

The Black Library’s Horus Heresy series has become no less than epic. Spanning 14 books thusfar, the Games Workshop Warhammer 40k IP is being worked hard and worked diligently through the Horus Heresy, and for the most part, each book in the series has been a decent addition to the overall story. With Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s (ADB) first effort in the Horus Heresy, we are treated to a story that is arguably the most important in the series so far, the story of the roots of the Horus Heresy itself, the story of The First Heretic.

The First Heretic details the story of the Word Bearers chapter over nearly 60 years of the Great Crusade, continuing through the Isstvan V Massacre. Detailing the events largely through the eyes of 7th Company Captain Argel Tal, we are taken on a journey that details the fall of the Word Bearers legion from the initial setting off point at Monarchia, where Lorgar and his Word Bearers are forced to kneel in deference to both the Emperor and Roboute Guilliman, to the ultimate point of betrayal at Isstvan V. The story reads much like a Shakespearian tragedy; we know the ultimate fate of our players, yet we can't help to hope that, at the eleventh hour, the story will change. As such, it provides a driving narrative that moves deftly through ADB's adept prose.

The prose that drives the story is, much like the other ADB books, gripping and readable. ADB is one of the best of the Black Library authors at varying sentence structure and creating a narrative that has consistent pacing. He has a great feel for establishing an ebb and flow to the narrative structure that allows for slower, more relaxed portions of story to counterbalance the more tense ones. It all works very well, but mostly due to ADBs biggest strength: his characterization.

Rich characterization is a skill ADB always brings to the table. He has a laudable knack for being able to create characters that the reader can both relate to and cares about, and thus is able to draw his reader further into the story. The First Heretic is no different. Argel Tal is a wonderfully portrayed character. He is deeply loyal, but unlike many of his Word Bearer brethren, his loyalty doesn't turn into zealotry. It makes him stand out as character, particularly because it provides such a strong point of internal conflict. We also get a healthy dose of Kor Phaeron and Erebus, characters previously introduced in other Horus Heresy books, and who, unlike Argel Tal, are certainly not conflicted about their conviction of purpose. Suffice it to say that, in The First Heretic, the roles that both Erebus and Kor Phaeron have to play in the greater space opera that is the Horus Heresy come into even greater light. Though we do see much of the story through the eyes of the Astartes, it Is through the characterization of the Primarch Lorgar that ADB's prose really shines.

Lorgar is an incredibly polarizing figure in this novel. Unlike the primarch’s we’ve seen in other books, Lorgar is, and I’ll quote a friend here, “a bit of a douche.” He isn’t Hurculean like Ferrus Manus or Leman Russ. He isn’t magnanimous like Gulliman or Dorn. He isn’t influential like Horus or Magnus. Lorgar is the Golden Primarch and is described as, essentially, a Primarch-sized Egyptian boy-emperor. He’s whiny, he’s petulant, and worst of all, he’s far more naïve than any Primarch should be. In a particularly telling, and poignant scene, Lorgar asks his advisors what his fault as a Primarch is. He is told, “you trust too much, and too easily.” It is a weakness that makes Lorgar far more human than any previous Primarch, and perhaps could make his fall all the more bitter; however, the manner in which his naiveté leads to his downfall makes him appear simply weak. That’s not to say his is a bad, or poorly developed, character—he’s quite the contrary. Lorgar is a really well fleshed out character that is simply hard to like or sympathize with because of his faults.

This is a complicated book in many respects. On one level, The First Heretic is similar to Fulgrim and A Thousand Sons, in that it is a chronicling of the fall from grace of one of the Emperor’s chosen sons. Unlike the other primarchs, Lorgar is a far less sympathetic character than both Fulgrim and Magnus. Where both Fulgrim and Magnus fall due to their arrogance in service to the Emperor despite the best intentions, Lorgar’s fall is much less pitiable as his naiveté and blind faith serve to betray him. That faith, and the nature of faith itself, serves to set this book above as not simply a science fiction novel—as so many Black Library novels are cast aside—but as a piece of literature. We saw a glimpse of this depth in the short story “The Last Church” from Tales of Heresy, but ADB really explores this theme at great length in The Last Heretic. Now, there’s no confusing The Last Heretic for Aquinas, but I really applaud both ADB and the Black Library for tackling these very real and applicable themes.

In The First Heretic, Aaron Dembski-Bowden has crafted a very important book in the scope of the Horus Heresy, the Warhammer 40k canon and IP, and the Black Library. Echoing the epitaph on the novel’s cover, ADB explores the roots of the Heresy and we are introduced to information that is both staggering and heartbreaking. Additionally, The First Heretic marks the first time themes beyond good and evil are explored to such an extent in a Black Library novel. The Horus Heresy novels are quickly becoming the vessel for the Black Library to create ‘real’ literature, to craft stories that examine those universal themes that turn books into literature and movies into films. The First Heretic leads the charge, and Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s work is a wonderful entry to the Horus Heresy series and a superb piece of literature that should not be missed.

9.5/10 Masterful

15 November 2010

[40k Review] Hunt for Voldorius - Andy Hoare

The Space Marine Battles novels of the Black Library are an important an necessary series within the canon of the Warhammer 40k universe. Thusfar, both Steve Parker's Rynn's World and Aaron Dembski-Bowden's Helsreach have served important roles within the grimdark future of 40k; they have fleshed out with great breadth and clarity two of the epic battles that shaped two nominal Astartes chapters as well as the heroic marines that serve them. With that in mind, Andy Hoare's Hunt for Voldorius is the first in the series that falls a bit short.

Battle for Voldorius centers around the White Scars chapter and the hunts in which they embark to slay the worst enemies of the chapter. In this instance, the hunt is for the demon prince Voldorius, an enemy responsible for the death of billions across the Imperium. Led by Kor'sarro Khan, Master of the Hunt and character introduced in the most recent Space Marines codex, the White Scars 3rd company embarks on a quest to slay the aforementioned foe.

While Hoare's prose is strong and his action sequences sufficiently exciting, the narrative falls short. While i really like the idea of the hunts--it fits quite well with the Mongol-inspired heritage of the White Scars-- this particular story feels remarkably less-than-epic and the quest to find Voldorius more of a foregone conclusion than a hunt. Voldorius is found quickly, effectively eliminating any excitement that should have been found in a proper hunt.

While the narrative came up short, Hoare does a really nice job fleshing out his heroes. Kor'sarro Khan is an interesting character and really fits the heroic ideal of a Space Marine captain. Hoare provides a nice contrast between Khan and Kayvaan Shrike, the Raven Guard captain that also appears in the story. Where Khan is brash, Shrike is reserved. Where Shrike is humble, Khan is a bit arrogant. The characters, as well as their respective chapters' combat doctrines, are good foils for one another, and provide a strong point of conflict within the story, but aren't explored nearly enough.

The use of both the White Scars and the Raven Guard as is one of the major issues I had with Hunt for Voldorius. While I was initially excited to read a story involving Shrike and Khan, putting them together in one book left me wanting. While the character of each captain is established well, their personal histories and individual stories are woefully underdeveloped. A previous chapter conflict is hinted at, but is never explained. As a result, the mistrust between the two chapters isn't entirely believable beyond the reader being told that the two have trust issues. It's frustrating because the hints are really intriguing and you want to know more, only those questions are never answered. I think both characters would have been better served with their own books rather than a combined story.

Through all its faults, Hunt for Voldorius isn't a 'bad' novel. Hoare is a good writer (see my reviews of his Rogue Star and Star of Damocles) and his competent prose helps to save an underwhelming narrative. I really appreciate the Black Library's exploration of characters from the 40k codices, but wish in this instance that Kor'sarro Khan and Kayvaan Shrike were allowed the room to develop that both Grimaldus and Pedro Kantor were In their respective books. Hunt for Voldorius is a worthwhile read, but not a must-read. Hoare spins an acceptable addition to the Space Marine Battles series, but, much like an episode of Lost, it is one that ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers.

5.5/10 Mediocre