11 May 2011

[40k Review] Age of Darkness Part 1

Rules of Engagement – Graham McNeill

“Rules of Engagement,” penned by veteran Ultramarines scribe Graham McNeill, is a story detailing the Ultramarines 4th company and their ‘testing,’ as it were, of Primarch Roboute Guilliman’s newly written Codex Astartes. With 4th company captain Remus Ventanus at the helm of the playfully dubbed Troublesome Fourth, the story is written as a series of combat engagements that are ultimately a testing ground to determine whether or not the Codex Astartes will work; each of the engagements serves to provide a different test to Remus and his kin. The engagements are varying battle situations, and each one, while nothing exceptionally gripping, is well written and paced.

We also get to see a glimpse of Guilliman’s character, as he holds a conversation with Remus in very brotherly tones. Surprisingly, it also indicates that perhaps Roboute is not as rigid as previously understood. McNeill’s writing here is good and the action scenes are fun as each engagement is engrossing and well-paced, though there is some purposeful ambiguity as to whether or not the tests are ‘live-fire.’ “Rules of Engagement” is a nice Ultramarines story that gives some additional background on Guilliman and the book that will eventually shape all Astartes Legions, but it isn’t groundbreaking, nor does it offer any revelatory experiences. 6/10

Liar’s Due – James Swallow

“Liar’s Due” marks a return for James Swallow the human world of the Horus Heresy that he so successfully explored in Nemesis. Here, instead of focusing on Terra and the elite humans of the Imperium, Swallow’s focus is squarely on the average citizen. Taking place on Virgir-Moss II, a border-world farming community,”Liar’s Due” follows Leon Kyyter, a youth of the world, as Swallow shows us how the Astartes civil war effects the Imperium, even on a border planet light years away from the bulk of the fighting. Leon’s interactions with the stranger Mendacs are the focal point of the story, as Leon tries to understand the far distant fighting, while Mendacs sows fear and propaganda on behalf of the Warmaster Horus.

Swallow continues to prove that he can ably weave a tale of layered deception. The methods Mendacs employs to corrupt the peaceful farm planet are interesting to see happen, and fall squarely in line with the Astartes legion of which he is an agent. The fear and distrust that slowly brews throughout the town populace is well written and quite believable; it is a credit to Swallow that he is able to create that slow boil in such a short period of time. Like Nemesis before it, Swallow is able to take an ancillary story from the Horus Heresy and make it seem necessary. While Virgir-Moss II isn’t important in terms of the grand scope of the Heresy, “Liar’s Due” shows how Horus’ machine of war is being fought throughout the Imperium through disinformation and fear. 7/10

Forgotten Sons – Nick Kyme

The Salamanders have been seldom discussed in the Horus Heresy thus far, so “Forgotten Sons” is a welcome addition to Age of Darkness. Granted, Promethean Sun will certainly shed further light on the Legion’s actions in the Horus Heresy, but for now, “Forgotten Sons” serves as a basis for our Horus Heresy knowledge of the Salamanders. As such, Forgotten Sons is the story of Hek’tan, a Salamander, and Arcadese, an Ultramarine, and their attempt to sway a border world towards Imperial, not Heretical, favor. The actual story is interesting, as we haven’t seen this appeal to planets thus far, but it pales in comparison to what Nick Kyme is able to do in terms of characterization. Kyme is the Black Library’s “Salamanders Guy,” and his knowledge of the chapter is on display here, and that is where the story is at its best.

We see an uncommon fragility in these two Astartes: Hek’tan, emotionally crippled by surviving Istvaan V, and Arcadese, physically crippled by his near death at Ullanor, and it is in that fragility that Kyme brings the narrative forward. We rarely get to see the Astartes as human, but Kyme puts that very humanity on display here. Hek’tan is shattered, not in body, but certainly in mind, as the horrors of Istvaan plague his dreams. Similarly, Arcadese, though still a proud Ultramarine of noble mind, no longer has the facilities to live up to his heritage, and that deeply affects his character. More of a character study than anything, “Forgotten Sons” does a great job reminding us that the Astartes, while superhuman in both body and ability, are perhaps still very human in other aspects. 7/10

The Last Remembrancer – John French

The Remembrancers have played a huge role in the Horus Heresy series. They were prominent in the opening trilogy, and have continued to be so through Prospero Burns, a novel that is, for all intents and purposes, told from the perspective of a remembrancer. As such, it is fitting that the end of the rembrancers would find its way into short story form in Age of Darkness. This is John French’s inaugural effort for the Black Library and I can unequivocally state that he will be writing more;”The Last Remembrancer” is wonderful. Telling the final story of Solomon Voss, the man that began the remembrancer order and the remembrancer that served at Horus’ side as his turned Betrayer, and through Istvaan V, “The Last Remembrancer” does a lot in a scare 35 pages. While Voss is the last remembrancer in question, the story is equally about Rogal Dorn and his reaction to his erstwhile traitor brother. Flanked by Iacton Qruze (in his newly minted armour), Dorn interrogates—though I hesitate to use the word interrogate, as Dorn is neither severe, nor does Voss withhold information— Voss about the happenings while Voss was with Horus. What follows is a disquieting experience, as Voss brings to bear questions regarding everything Dorn holds dear.

The interaction between Dorn and Voss is what drives the narrative, and French establishes both characters incredibly well. Their interaction is cordial and warm; Voss and Dorn were friends prior to Voss’ station as Horus’ only remembrancer, but the conversations shake Dorn’s faith in both the Emperor and the Imperium. Voss is a man resigned to fate, both to his own, and to that of the Imperium, and he reveals the truth he has discovered to Dorn. Dorn’s reaction to this revealed truth is brilliantly rendered by French; it is a truth that Dorn refuses to accept, yet he can’t help but understand its inevitability. The story is tragic on multiple levels and French probably should have been allowed more than 35 pages to flesh it out. Much like “The Last Church” in Age of Heresy, ”The Last Remembrancer” is an important benchmark for the Horus Heresy series, and I greatly look forward to reading John French’s next effort. 9.5/10

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