Review: THIRD WAR OF ARMAGGEDON (Black Library)

Various-Armageddon-ThirdWarSome connected WH40k short stories

Armageddon is a world engulfed by war. As the Third War for the planet rages on, the Imperial defenders sell their lives dearly to hold back the near-endless green tide of orks. On this world of battle, legends are forged and heroes made – but against the might of the greatest ork invasion in history, even the Imperium’s greatest warriors may not be enough to triumph.

This is a series of short stories that Black Library released over a single week (one a day) not so long ago. They are all connected to the “Third War of Armageddon”, a major conflict and world in the Warhammer 40,000 sci-fi setting. Black Library have a history of releasing great short fiction, and there were certainly a couple of very good stories in this collection. Continue reading

“Stormseer” by David Annandale (Black Library)

AnnandaleD-SMB-StormseerWhite Scars vs. Orks, with a dash of Eldar…

The green-skinned hordes of the Overfiend of the Octavius system have long been a thorn in the Imperium’s side – and now, with human worlds caught in the crossfire between the orks and eldar, that thorn will be removed. Temur Khan and his brotherhood descend upon Lepidus Prime to cleanse it of the green taint. The swift and brutal hammer to the Imperial Guard’s anvil, the White Scars strike hard and fast – but when the orks reveal a super-weapon, it may take more than just power to win the day?

I’m a big fan of Annandale’s Black Library fiction, and Stormseer is a great example of just why I think he’s so good. This is the first of three novellas in the Space Marine Battles series, all of which are connected to the same campaign. Fast and furious, excellently written and well-paced, this is an excellent novella. A must-read for fans of the White Scars and Warhammer 40,000 in general.

The story starts off with an excellent battle scene, which is a perfect example of the White Scars’ rather headlong approach to warfare. The action on the battlefront is only half the story, however, and we alternate between there and a lone Stormseer’s mission behind enemy lines. Accompanied by some scouts, and driven by a vague psychic vision, he infiltrates and investigates an ork manufacturing plant, joined by some mysterious Eldar. What they find explains the orks’ mysterious ability to be everywhere on the battlefield.

The story was less battle-heavy than I was expecting, but of course Annandale does not skimp on the action, which is well-presented and described (without going over the top). He does an excellent job of providing a proper story, rather than just an excuse to kill some orks in ever more brutal fashion (or “bolter-porn”, as it’s known).

There’s some mystery, and also allusion to what else is going on elsewhere in the wider campaign, with a mention of the Salamanders and Raven Guard (who, I assume, are the stars of the other two novellas). Despite the brief length, Annandale’s characters are well-rounded and believable (as super-humans and aliens go). His prose is fluid and well-constructed.

David Annandale is one of Black Library’s best new(ish) authors. If you haven’t read any of his stuff yet, you really should. Stormseer is a great place to start.

“Armageddon” by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

DembskiBowden-ArmageddonTwo Space Marine Battles stories from one of Black Library’s best young talents.

++ Grimaldus…

They lied to us about the Mannheim Gap. They sent us there to die. You know of whom I speak. We cannot outrun the echoes of Khattar. We pay the price now for our virtue in the past. The Celestial Lions will never leave this world. A handful of us remain, but we know the truth. We died at the Mannheim Gap. We died the day the sun rose over the scrap-iron bodies of alien gods. ++

++ Message for Black Templars Reclusiarch Merek Grimaldus, From Celestial Lions Deathspeaker Julkhara ++

Armageddon collects Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s early Space Marine Battles novel, Helsreach, and a new novella set shortly after the events of that novel, Blood And Fire. Both are quite different, and as a long-time fan of the author’s it is interesting to compare them – in terms of style, confidence, and story construction. (Though, fear not, this review is not a piece of academic literary criticism.) Overall, I think this collection is very strong, and while the novella is much better than the novel, both are highly recommended for fans of the author, the series, and science-fiction in general.

I’m going to address each part of the omnibus separately, before providing a brief summation at the end.

*

DembskiBowden-HelsreachHELSREACH

When the world of Armageddon is attacked by orks, the Black Templars Space Marine Chapter are amongst those sent to liberate it. Chaplain Grimaldus and a band of Black Templars are charged with the defence of Hive Helsreach from the xenos invaders in one of the many battlezones. But as the orks numbers grow and the Space Marines dwindle, Grimaldus faces a desperate last stand in an Imperial temple. Determined to sell their lives dearly, will the Black Templars hold on long enough to be reinforced, or will their sacrifice ultimately be in vain?

Helsreach is a very strong addition to the Space Marine Battles series. It is a novel that is both excellent, yet also slightly disappointing. It is an excellent example of military science-fiction, with intense and fast-paced battle and action scenes, strong characters, and a tightly written plot.

Given the series parameters (which is far more combat-oriented), though, I felt that Helsreach doesn’t really give the author the space or time to do what he’s best at: getting into the heads of his characters, exploring the light and dark of conflict, and the psychological impacts of warfare at any length. This is a pity, as I think he approached these themes brilliantly in the Knight Lords trilogy and also his Horus Heresy novels. Helsreach remains a strong novel, however, and I think he certainly fulfills the brief of the series. There are still some very good observations sprinkled throughout. For example, the PR benefits of certain tactics and well-timed speeches, and also when the strategic council discusses the morale-boosting benefit of having the Black Templars assembling in formation before sallying forth, pict-feeds beaming the imagery around the embattled/besieged planet. (Noam Chomsky and John Pilger would have been proud of these observations…)

Despite the slightly diminished focus on character development, there are shades of Dembski-Bowden’s skills evident throughout. I can pick out quite easily the scenes that some early reviewers didn’t like, as they do break up the action and slow down the novel just a smidge. I welcomed these quieter moments, though. For example, Grimaldus’s face-to-face with the princeps majoris of Invigilata, Zarha. It was an interesting scene, he in his imposing armour, her floating in an amniotic tank, on the bridge of a vast war machine. Though even this scene was too short, truncated by the need to get to the conflict.

It was nice to see some brief cameos from familiar characters (Commissar Yarrick, for example, most recently immortalised by David Annandale in his truly excellent novella, Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha). There were also a higher-than-normal number of strong or highly-ranked female characters for a WH40k novel, which is another nice touch.

Above all, though, there are fierce Space Marines of the Black Templar chapter – one I don’t know a great deal about. I must, say, though, that they do seem a rather dour and ferocious lot. Makes for interesting reading. There are also orks. Lots and lots of orks. As I said earlier, there are plenty of solid action scenes, and the author manages to resist the more florid impulses and tendencies of many of his fellow BL stable-mates, keeping descriptions sparse-yet-evocative. A couple of them were still a shade over-long for my tastes.

Ultimately, this is a very good novel of science fictional warfare on a pretty massive scale (So. Many. Orks.), and if that’s what floats your boat, Helsreach should suit your taste very well. However, having read everything else Aaron Dembski-Bowden has written for Black Library, I must admit to preferring his other, less constrained and more nuanced fiction. He’s still my favourite Black Library author, but this is by no means my favourite of his books.

*

DembskiBowden-Blood&FireBLOOD AND FIRE

In the aftermath of the war for Hive Helsreach, Black Templars Chaplain Grimaldus receives a unexpected distress call from an old ally. The Celestial Lions Space Marines are being targeted by the Inquisition and have been brought to the brink of extinction. Will they regroup and rebuild, or will they choose to go out in a final blaze of glory? That is what Grimaldus must decide…

In contrast to Helsreach, Blood And Fire is far more reminiscent of Dembski-Bowden’s post-Helsreach fiction. It’s less about cramming in as much bolter porn as humanly possible, and more about exploring the characters involved, their temperaments and motivations. We get to know Grimaldus more (always a good thing, as he’s a really interesting character). The story builds to a fantastic, intense battle. There are a couple of elements of the story that I thought weren’t as well rounded-off as I would have liked (the role of the Inquisition, for example), which could suggest that there is either more to come from Grimaldus – or, less charitably, that this should have been longer (which would have been no bad thing). As with Helsreach, this is a very strong addition to the series.

If you have any interest in the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, then I would certainly recommend this book. Both stories give us an excellent glimpse into how the Astartes and their Imperial Guard allies make war together, and also just how deadly a scourge the orks can be, when rallied under the banner of a gifted warboss. Intense, brutal, yet also deftly written, this is very fine military science-fiction.

Also by Aaron Dembski-Bowden: Cadian Blood, Throne of Lies (audio), Shadow Knight, Soul Hunter, Blood Reaver, Void Stalker, The Emperor’s Gift, The First Heretic (Horus Heresy), Butcher’s Nails (Horus Heresy), Betrayer (Horus Heresy), Savage Weapons (Horus Heresy)

Space Marine Battles Series: Rynn’s World, Helsreach & Blood And Fire, The Hunt for Voldorius, The Purging of Kadillus, Fall of Damnos, Battle of the Fang, The Gildar Rift, Legion of the Damned, Architect of Fate (anthology), Bloodspire (audio), Wrath of Iron, Deathwolf (audio), Flesh of Cretacia, The Siege of Castellax, Steel Blood (short), The Death of Antagonis