The Account of a Lifetime

May 6, 2012

Space Marine Battles – A Series Perspective

Filed under: Books & Media,Reflections,Writing — xisor @ 6:21 pm

This came about thanks to poster Sam Vimes’ thread over on The Bolthole.

Broadly speaking, I read a lot. Perhaps less broadly, a huge portion of it comes from The Black Library. Now, it makes me a very restricted reader in many respects, but I think I’m pretty interested in the writing and ideas; not the mere hack and slash, unrelenting drudgery of the setting.

(Hell, I’d argue that much of that pushing too much of an ‘action focus’ would diminish their product, rather than strengthen it; but that could just be an argument over the choice of words & interpretation amongst the fans and aspiring authors, not the actual philosophy underpinning the publisher’s business – which leads to something I remarked to one of their editors, Nick Kyme, last year: I feel they’ve generally improved over the years; I don’t think the older stuff was bad, oh no, rather – a large proportion of their new publications have been remarkably good.)

Anyway, in keeping with SV’s thoughts, I opened with my views on Steve Parker’s Rynn’s World.  For the blog, I give you an expanded view!


Rynn’s World by Steve Parker

I raced through this novel in an afternoon & evening back in early 2010 whilst in New Zealand. It’s was thoroughly enjoyed. A nice section of characters, memorable sequences and a remarkably entertaining climax to the novel (“You’ve lost an arm…!” etc), all told, I enjoyed it. The trouble is, compared to Steve’s other works, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would’ve thought. Not that it wasn’t good; it was. Perhaps it was due to reading it very quickly in a pub with many pints of ale. Not superb, but an okay start to a series that, frankly, I was very dubious about.

Good, but it dwelt too much on the action, on the race, on the series of events, not on their significance or on the characters themselves. If anything, its focus was perhaps a little too restricted for my tastes. Still, a fine page turner of a novel, though not quite speaking directly to my heart.

The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell

The Gildar Rift had a ton to offer and was very enjoyable throughout.

My favourite scene, a slight spoiler, but early enough on I think I’m safe to talk of it. It has to be around 150 pages in – the three Executioner Grand Cruisers appear. As a firm fan of all things space battle, with novels like The Gothic War sitting almost supreme in my esteem, Sarah’s handling of this was particularly enjoyable reading. Memorable, well handled, and certainly refreshing in tone/focus. The armour-fitting scene preceding it very impressively done. Lots of other strong points to the novel, but that ‘sequence’ was a stand-out success for me, a highlight in the midst of a decent story.

As a novel in its own right, it offers a refreshing outlook on Space Marines – somewhat more whimsical and involved in the day-to-day business. The character interactions are less tied to plot development, the prose much more caring about the characters themselves and their role within events, rather than their specific shaping of the plot of the novel. Arguably this is remarkably similar to Rynn’s World in style: characters reacting to things happening. I think The Gildar Rift runs with that though, it’s got a broader cast of characters, with a lot broader focus.

The Hunt for Voldorious by Andy Hoare

I enjoyed a lot less than the two noted above. Still enjoyed, but it reminded me with what I feel to be the main trouble in Andy Hoare’s writing: he doesn’t push the boat out and be inventive/innovative when he can (for my tastes, o’course). It has one particularly an amazing sequence, early on, when the freedom fighters are trying to sabotage the Teleporter array – wondrously done. But the rest of it, it was all a bit underwhelming. I enjoy his Scars, I enjoy that they’re… pretty damn normal. They’ve got thematic touches, traditions and whatnot, but at their core they’re still Space Marines without all the specialities that other chapters foist upon themselves.

(In that regard, I see the Scars as close to the Imperial Fists, Dark Angels, Raven Guard and Blood Angels – their points of distinction should be nuanced and subtle, not fundamental and overt. That’s in contrast to the likes of the Space Wolves, Salamanders and Iron Hands – each of which really push the boat out on being a bit more odd and fundamentally ‘different’.)

In a broad, somewhat rubbish sense, I think that choice not to delve deeper with the Raven Guard and the Alpha Legion brings about the main issue here, for me. It’s not a simple case of it being a bad novel; as it’s not. But the modern looks on the Alpha Legion (We Are One by John French, for example) really stand out as being a more compelling take on them than Mr Voldorius & Co. here. That said, without spoiling too much, Hoare does a decent job of weaving the nature and legacy of the Scars into the plot in a nice, far from hamfisted manner.


The Fall of Damnos by Nick Kyme

It certainly wasn’t awful, but it’s probably the SMB book I enjoyed the least. As other folks say, it’s effectively one long action scene and the lovely character development, thoughtfulness and curious world-making/invention that marked out Assault on Black Reach and the Salamanders books as being a bit special was sorely missing here. Whilst not especially bad in particular ways, I think it’s safe to say that I was not the most suitable audience for the finished product.

The initial cause for this response & post, SV on the Bolthole, goes on to say he didn’t enjoy it as he felt Sicarius (the captain of the folks involved and main ‘celebrity’ in the book, though a few persist in addition to the core cast of protagonists) was an utterly arrogant twerp. Oddly, I agree, but in on an opposing point: I think Sicarius’ outright brashness holds well in the book, being one of the main strengths in Nick’s writing of the novel. I don’t think it’s propped up so well, overall, but then that’s linked to the book no tickling my fancy so much. The Necrons are interesting, certainly, but in that regard, I’d be very keen to see Nick write a short story or two focussing entirely on the Necrons. He’s got skills, that man, but somehow he’s refused to showcase the ones I like in this novel! *shakes fist*


The Purging of Kadillus by Gav Thorpe

I really don’t like the prologue and epilogue , I think the rest of the book’s pretty damn enjoyable.

I shall  ‘vent’ my ire here a tad more strongly than the book deserves: The bookends here were a bit too much ‘treading on my heart’ that I could cope with: I prefer non-silly orks (though Andy Chambers does silly & Steve Parker does strange both magnificently in The Arkunasha War and Headhunted respectively), Gav went for a strange slapstick. I also have fervently partisan views on what GW should be doing with the Demiurg… Gav did differently. I was sad. (As something of a spoiler, a certain author made me especially happy with their execution of a certain race in a certain The Primarchs…)

However: I did think the rest of PoK works very well. The format works, the individual stories are neat and interesting. Not excellent throughout, but there’s a few bits that were really thoughtful and, across the entire book, it’s an interesting study in how the Dark Angels actually function when the Fallen aren’t even a question. The latter stories in the novel were, in contrast, especially good. It’s nice to see an author apply themselves to doing, effectively, their own one-author anthology.


Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

 It’s a wobbly novel in some respects, you can see a few of the decisions that Aaron has since become a bit more savvy at making, but across the board its bloody interesting and, in many regions, extremely good too. Grimauldus’ end is particularly inspiring and memorable, whilst the take on Armageddon, the setup and the set-pieces used in the novel (plus cameo/incidental characters) were really very well done. I’m not sure if I enjoy the novel more than I rate it, or if I rate it technically better than I enjoyed it. Depends when and what I’m thinking about, I suppose! A fine one, though, definitely ‘top tier’.


Battle of the Fang by Chris Wraight

This was my first experience of Chris Wraight beyond his short Runes.

Deary me, blew me away. This is the first ‘breakthrough’ Space Marine Battle novel that made me think “these won’t only be ‘decent Space Marine novels’, but they can actually just be outright, top-quality novels which happen to have Marine Battles as a focus”. (I should note I’d felt Helsreach, which I’d read prior to this but is similarly decent, was likely to be something of an anomaly; a huge portion of the possible action sequences had simply been skipped over, much to my delight!)

This book, broadly, deals much more intensely with ‘big background themes’, motivations and items which really tie to the fundamentals of the setting. (Though in contrast, I think Helsreach was far smaller scale in its core theme: being a Black Templars Space Marine Chaplain. It was handled very well, but Battle of the Fang really raised the game, in my esteem.)

It’s extremely well written, covers a lot of entertaining characters, pours a lot of insight onto things and really, ultimately, works brilliantly as a third novel in the Prospero Duology alongside Prospero Burns and A Thousand Sons (with Atlas Infernal making for a curiously appropriate Appendix to the setup) It gets into the pathos and all that jazz, really probing at a lot of… issues, and providing very interesting resolutions.

Also, lore nuggets, oh my! It’s thick with background material and references yet all bundled within decent writing and excellent characters.


The Architect of Fate edited by Christian Dunn
(Authors Sarah Cawkwell, Darius Hinks, Ben Counter & John French)

I really should do all of them individually, but I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I often get stuck in a loop, appropriately, when I do. Each of the novellas is very good, in my eyes. All very different, but tie together in strange ways. Each has more’n a few things which are really very enjoyable about them, each does it well and each tells a fine story.

It’s difficult not to enjoy the format and, for me, to get some wholesome enjoyment from authors I haven’t read so much of. (Well, okay, I’ve read a ton from Ben Counter, but what has he done for me lately? [Actually, The Second Sun was pretty awesome. I’ll shut up.] ) Perhaps not quite so full-on-everything as Battle of the Fang, it sits just below that ‘topmost plateau’ of SMB stories, enjoying a place beside Helsreach.


Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders

It should be no surprise to anyone that this is my favourite. Beautiful set-pieces, excellent prose, lashings of lovely descriptions. A magnificent protagonist whose head you really get inside. Some magnificent and chilling vignettes, improbable amounts of highly memorable, highly vivid scenes. Like Battle of the Fang, it has pretty much a bit of everything you could possibly want. But I think it offers a bit more too, a bit more insight, a few more lore-nuggets… simply put, I thinkLegion of the Damned speaks on a lot more levels to a much larger audience. It has not just something for everyone, but lots of something for everyone!

I’d say more, but I’d prefer to try to retain some dignity. A wealth of far superior reviewers have said much more insightful things than my shoddy gushing. Nevertheless – terrific novel.


Kraken by Chris Wraight

Short story, sure, but Chris Wraight’s a delight, still. Simple setup, very well written and, for me, surprisingly emotional. Like The Emperor’s Gift, it paints a very nice view on the Imperium as massively ignorant, even of its own details (that are very well-known to most of us, the reader’s). (Specifically in the local’s reaction to the Space Wolf and their musing on all Space Marines.) A properly enjoyable wee story – I’d strongly recommend it to any/all of you.


Flesh by Chris Wraight

Precursor to what, I hope, will be Chris Wraight’s ‘return fire’/riposte to Rob Sanders’ Legion of the Damned in Wrath of Iron later this year (of which I believe Mr J. Reynolds, amongst others, has already started praising highly). It, like Kraken is a great wee story. Follows the same conceit of ‘small number of Marines show up to solve local problem’, but that’s a good format and it’s really not an issue in short stories, mainly as it offers a rich opportunity for variety of responses, types and exploration of the Chapters/worlds and so forth.

Anyway, simple setup, wonderful execution. More than that, again like The Emperor’s Gift (and something piqued in The Gildar Rift), it offers an insight into the Techmarines/Mars ‘untold story’, of which I’m keen to see a lot more. Flesh is possibly one of my favourite 40k short stories.


Action & Consequence + Cause & Effect by Sarah Cawkwell

Two H&B shorts from Sarah tying into the Silver Skulls; simply put – very enjoyable. They take reasonable conceits of ‘extremely small cast doing stuff’ and work a very thoughtful pair of stories around them. Very enjoyable, especially if you like the exploration given in The Gildar Rift (which I did). Cause & Effect is especially interesting in a slightly dry way, mainly a dialogue exploring options, with strange little glimpses in the side. It works very well and demonstrates the pleasant variety we could (and, to an extent, should!) expect from H&B stories. Certainly, it reminds me I’m always happy to gamble on H&B for a good bit of reading.


The Bitter End by Sarah Cawkwell

Simply a damn good story, again from everyone’s beloved tyrant, Miss Cawkwell. This time focussing on two Chaos Space Marines (one of whom is a particularly well known Tyrant of Badab). A great insight into the shenanigans afoot there, with the benefit of broadly being a damn fine story. Not much to say other than: well enjoyed!


Catechism of Hate by Gav Thorpe

It’s an odd one. Throughout, it’s a surprisingly ‘mundane’ story. Simple setup, unremarkable dialogue, but it carries itself well, carries itself… proudly. It takes a lot of the ideas presented in Purging of Kadillus about being a Space Marine and gives a very neat view of it. I also found Gav’s take on the Ultramarines to be broadly very enjoyable.

It goes further, however, with making Cassius seem like a bit of a roguish fiend. Well, not roguish, but slightly… mad. There was an air of Brother Jorge from The Name of the Rose about him, fiercely fanatical, but impressively intelligent. His seeming fanaticism and obsession driving him to make outrageous decisions, and yet his fanaticism, obsession and faith in his battle-brothers… works.

It’s a very different, much more wholesome, realistic, plausible and, ultimately, satisfactory outlook on the Ultramarines, for me, than Graham McNeill’s stories (‘cept Warriors of Ultramar & his Agemann heavy short). It has a lot to offer, much in the same vein as my positive thoughts onThe Assault on Black Reach but arguably goes off the deep-end in a particularly awesome way towards the end.

That ‘departure’ and dryly exuberant approach really made the investment extremely rewarding, for me. I’ll give you a clue: roughly Page 88. I’ll do a dramatic reading for you all, one day.

It’s very dry, I think, compared to Aurelian and The Bloody Handed as limited editions go, and much less outrageously-bringing-in-everything than Legion of the Damned & Battle of the Fang within the SMB series. Yet it has a wholesome, steady quality that crescendos very well. Dry, but a delight.


Finishing thoughts

In earlier days, when the series was announced, I was something of a cynic on this front. Not even a sceptic, as I knew fine well from the ‘classic’ marine books (Storm of Iron, Lord of the Night, Angels of Darkness) that Marine fiction can be done very well. I felt, however, it was to be a cash cow, a cynical way to up-price and down-grade the likes of the Soul Drinkers or Ultramarines series (which, alas, I’m still quite a snob about; I recognise my failing…).

With a few exceptions, however, I think the series has been of a surprisingly high standard. Totally contrary to my curmudgeonly expectations and, critically, much to my delight. As you can from the above, I’m reluctant to pick through the novels in structural detail. You can hopefully tell from my enthusiasm for them, and from my other tastes, how that reflects from yourselves.

If, however, anyone should be reading who hasn’t dabbled in 40k/Games Workshop here, I  strongly recommend getting started either with Legion of the Damned as a novel, or Kraken as a short story. There’s much more to feast on, certainly, but I think those perhaps work best as introductions, priming the way for enjoyment of the others. Alternatively, check out the blurbs and samples for them and dabble yourself. Much as it’s nice to follow on others’ advice, there’s really something to be said for simply jumping in at the deep-end.

Alternatively, if there’s a chance you’ll see me in person: I should be able to pass some of the collection on to you for a borrowing. It is, afterall, the Black Library.

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