The Account of a Lifetime

October 15, 2013

Barry of Espandor

Filed under: Uncategorized — xisor @ 10:46 pm
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I recently caved and acquired Mark of Calth (or Barry of Espandor as I know it), the Horus Heresy anthology released earlier this year. It hits a wonderful array of notes with a very pleasingly coherent thread (well, many threads: a rope?) running throughout its stories. Kudos, I think, to Laurie Goudling on putting together a rather smashing anthology. (Though with one totie, teeny misgiving amidst it.)

First up was Shards of Erebus, by Guy Hayley. It’s largely the first of his I’d read, except for some very short-shorts (though I acquired “Death of Integrity” at the same time as “Mark of Calth”).

It had, I felt,  stilted and strange prose. Bolthole forumite, Rob P, mentioned on twitter, it can also be seen as really… austere writing. Stripped down. I think, and I might be wrong, it’s what I really aspire to. I’d only really encountered it in the old hard-boiled noir-y PI books. Bare-bones writing, really cool; definitely how I’d want to be able to ‘switch on’ writing (compared to the long-winded drivel I vomit forth now!).

In that regard, I found it a bit jarring to read, but I think I liked it a lot. Conceptually it had some great little nuggets in it, and in contrast to what followed immediately after, I think it was a very astute move: meant that Guy seemed to focus much more on ideas and characters than on doling out words on a page.

Then came Calth That Was, McNeill at his most tepid. I don’t think I’ve skimmed a piece so quickly and so disinterestedly in a very long while. I won’t go on at length, but it’s sufficient to say: “a really boring fanfic for Know No Fear meets a much less interesting version of his own The Chapter’s Due“. Conceptually, the execution of the setting on Calth was rubbish too. (Spoiler: it’s predominantly above ground. During a war famous for how underground it was. And that’s actual underground, not flying-under-the-radar-of-pop-culture underground.)

In summary: this novella (FFS!) did not appeal to me. (As tepid novella’s go, Kyme’s Promethean Sun is my touchstone for a wasted opportunity. Even it had some great ideas and scenes in it, but which lost out to the tedium of the bolter-porn. CTW perhaps had one eerie scene in the fane, and possibly a sentence or two that got highlighted. Not much more.)

The Traveller, by David Annandale. Now this was a nice little story. Perhaps a touch obvious and predictable, but intriguingly done and the story fit the tone and feel of Annandale’s writing much more comfortably than I found Dearth of Antipasto (which I read earlier this year: pretty grand in its concepts and not badly written, but tonally the whole thing felt jarring and a bit poorly measured). Perhaps not really amongst the best stories of the Heresy, but it’s a story which I think’s both welcome and very much needed in the Heresy: a ‘worm’s eye’ view of things. Powerful, even if not necessarily wonderful. I’m put in mind of Swallow’s earlier The Liar’s Due. Not quite by style or content, but by simple choice of focus. A brave and respectable choice, backed up and thoroughly validated by its execution. But I’m still not sure it’s ‘top Heresy’, perhaps a bit too askance? Or is the Heresy simply too epic in ‘raison d’etre’ to really reward such a piece? Killed by expectations & desired?

(My mind might change as time goes on; Annandale’s writing is, like Guy’s, a bit ‘different’ from the bulk of BL authors. It’s not what I’d fight off crowds to read [unlike, for me, Matt Farrer & Rob Sanders], but I’m thinking that it’s perhaps someone else’s favourite that I’m really happy to dip my toes [err, eyes] into.)

And next: Anthony Reynold’s Dark Heart. It reminds me that I’m not always a huge or raving fan of Ant’s style and choices, but nevertheless get quite thoroughly drawn into it. It’s still a bit dry for my tastes, but this one was up there with Torment and Vox Dominus (his more recent shorts, the first from the WB Omnibus, the latter from Treacheries of the Space Marines) in really (and fully) pulling me in.

Not perfect, but I unsurprisingly appreciate it all a whole lot more than I do overlong tepid epics. (It being focally about Marduk with a sidelong look at Kor Phaeron meant it was also resonated quite strongly for me. I do rather love KP as a concept. He got a very nice run-down herein.)

In contrast to Calth That Was, I was heartily forgiving of the space-based setting for this one. It told an interesting tale (like The Traveller) and was nevertheless actually utilising the nature of the whole gambit for telling the story. I’m not convinced that it should be forgiven for ‘deviating from the topic’ so thoroughly (much more about the aftermath of Know No Fear than about Calth itself), but the quality of the tale managed to keep me overlooking that. Take that as you will!

A Deeper Darkness by Rob Sanders.

Now this is good stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed it. A properly sensible and analytical look at the Ultramarines, but also with a decent amount of introspection and thought to it, without losing a flavour of character and focus. Where Calth That Was aspired to this (with Ventanus being the central character, with the Ultramarines plight being ‘everything’), this actually nailed it.

Intelligent, smart, powerful.

NB: A SLIGHT SPOILER from here on, perhaps best to skip down to The Underworld War below, if you don’t want anything given away.

Now, what’s more atop that, the latter section of the story was gloriously chilling. A proper step, for the Heresy, away from grim-sci-fi-melodrama and into something much more close to horror. That measured up nicely against the Ultramarine/Word Bearer narrative in a way that (of everything) I felt was missed in Know No Fear. A lot of the Ultramarines’ shock and disbelief, but not really an exact sympathy with it. This, a much more personal tale, was exquisite in its juxtaposing that professional and fraternal enmity but backing it up with something visceral and tangible and… well portrayed. (Contrast to the rather more rubbish daemons in Know No Fear [one of the few bits that I thought Fear to Tread really rather excelled in – the ‘weirdness’ of Chaos].)

Now, a mild criticism (though perennial through the Heresy) is that of how the authors struggle a bit to convey the secular-numinous-believer gulf and its crossing. A little too many ‘souls’ and easily-accessed archaic words that don’t, to my ears and eyes, really ring true with the Imperial Truth’s tone as it’d been described. (I’d want to contrast with Sinderman/Loken early on, but I worry that even that niggled a little the wrong way.)

The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. A bit more maudlin and melancholic than I normally enjoy, with a bit too easy a take on possession for the bulk, but ultimately I still enjoyed it. It dealt with some really neat themes and dealt with them in a way that had me reeled in quite heartily. Not trite, overall, which I was very grateful for, but as I say: a little too strongly melancholic. It leads me to support the people who’re clamouring for a ‘big shakeup’ in the Heresy, along the line of “kill off Lorgar!”. I think there’s an almost natural, poetic end and justification to the Word Bearer’s story that, akin to Night Haunter and the Night Lords, could really be served very beautifully by death.

(And tempered, I suppose, by the idea that Lorgar might not be ‘brave’ enough to properly die, a la Night Haunter, in the end, instead lingering as more of a… ghost. Such that he’s technically not dead, but that he’s also certainly not alive or ‘truly’ ascended or whatnot… I sense a deep and meaningful goldmine in that, one that’s so much more interesting than “Lorgar saw that destroying the Emperor wasn’t the plan all along, rather he won and Chaos was rife throughout the galaxy forevermore, so he lived happily ever after…”.)

Athame by John French. Conceptually, really rather lovely. Execution, again: lovely. It’s the sort of story that reminds me I love reading BL work. It draws in a little bit of everything, handling it with a degree of sensitivity and attention to detail (and offering extra concepts and connections) that make it a properly rewarding read. Stylistically, it’s perhaps not what I’d love to read every story, but it worked really well here and as an addition to French’s work, it’s a really welcome one. Very enjoyable, and in contrast to a lot of the stories over the HH, it felt properly seamless in its integration with things. I liked it. Where Calth That Was felt like bad fanfiction (akin to a childhood friend who might be invited round to your house and you feel privileged to let them play with your toys… but then they break them all and ruin the day and don’t even seem too bothered about it, assuming you can just buy more), this felt like a wonderful homage… ‘proper’ and high-grade, utterly without pejorative, fanfiction.

Unmarked by Dan Abnett.

Aha. This. Oll got a good, enigmatic send-off in Know No Fear. I sympathise with everyone who wasn’t satisfied with his inclusion. But it was an anthology-of-one piece, a literary mosaic assembled to be an event rather than a ‘conventional’ novel… perhaps? In any case, stepping out of the space and time is as good a way to exit stage-left as any. Well, a bit of a subversion, I suppose, but understated.

With everything set up through the anthology, it’s a real gem to see this returned to. And Dan Abnett really stepping forth in the territory he’s been setting down over his HH works: Legion, Prospero Burns and Know No Fear happily reveal a glorious ‘long game’ herein that is joyous, for me at least, to feed on drip by drip. Perhaps not too shocking, overall, but it’s delivered in a way that’s utterly delicious. And, critically, it doesn’t close off story-lines for other authors. Rather, it opens massive vistas to explore.

Well, I digress. The actual content of the story is great. It, like a few of the others, is both personal and conversational in its narration: it really works. Where Know No Fear was either a little too vignette-personal or massively cinematic, this intimacy really pays off throughout Barry of Espandor and, by the look of the afterword, Laurie was keen to see that happen too. (And perhaps even, a little like myself, a bit annoyed that this approach wasn’t taken up way back at the time of Fulgrim and the dropsite massacre? Well, this man can dream…)

It’s Dan: it’s a well-written, deeply thoughtful and engaging story. A bridge, certainly, but one that is exceedingly pleasing to cross.

As you might detect, I’ve mixed feelings with the anthology. One one hand, all but one of the stories was somewhere between “hmm, interesting!” and “aha, great!” on my Xisor-scale of ambiguous or amorphous approval. Of course, the elephant in the room is Calth That Was, a bloated bit of rubbish squatting right in the middle to steal all enthusiasm. Like climbing a tedious, rain-swept, windy mountain for a tasty plate of scones. No matter how nice the scones, the slog’ll make you resent it all a bit.

Without Calth That Was, I think I’d rate the anthology very highly indeed. With it, I’m damned if I know. It was… overall really good, except 1/4 of it was dross?

Thematically, the anthology was very well themed and handled things very well. It was… coherent. Perhaps a little tedious and could’ve benefit from being a near-companion release with Betrayer and Know No Fear? Perhaps between Betty, KNF and Barry of Espandor we (the reader) are a bit jaded to the Ultramarine/WB fight now? Add in the audio-books and The First Heretic and Imperium Secundus and Battle for the Abyss and we’ve spent a rather huge amount of time/words on the topic.

Still, the anthology’s up to scratch (except that… thing) and hits a lovely array of both varied yet united pieces. A very fine presentation. Definitely meets with a Xisor seal of approval. (Arf, arf, arf.)

Except for Calth that Was. 👿

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