Review: AZRAEL by Gav Thorpe (Black Library)

ThorpeG-SML-AzraelPBThe Chapter Master’s ascension, and the secrets of the Dark Angels

The Dark Angels Chapter sprang from the First Legion of Space Marines to fight and die at the Emperor’s side. But over ten thousand years, even the most staunchly loyal warriors of the Imperium can fall from grace, and the Dark Angels guard their own murky secrets most carefully — only Supreme Grand Master Azrael knows them all. A legend among Space Marines, he has fought for centuries and ever at the forefront of battle. Now, with the enigmatically alien eldar as his uneasy and unlikely allies, he must tread the fine line once more between the pursuit of victory, and keeping the Chapter’s past safely buried…

Continuing my new-found interest in loyalist Space Marine fiction, after thoroughly enjoying Guy Haley’s Dante, I dove into Azrael with pretty high hopes. It is, after all, written by Gav Thorpe — a long-time, excellent author of Black Library and, especially, Dark Angels fiction. This novel has a lot to offer fans of the chapter and setting as a whole. Continue reading

Review: DANTE by Guy Haley (Black Library)

haleyg-sml-danteThe history of the Blood Angels Chapter Master

Dante is Chapter Master of one of the noblest but most troubled Chapters of Space Marines in the Imperium: the Blood Angels. From the time of his birth in the rad-scarred wastes of Baal Secundus, he was destined for glory and strife. From his apotheosis to Scout, to the hive cities of Armageddon and the alien menace of the Cryptus system, Dante has waged war against all the enemies of the Imperium. He has witnessed the divine, and struggled against the darkness within all sons of Sanguinius. Longer lived than any other Chapter Master, this is his chronicle, his great and storied legend.

This is a really good novel. I hadn’t read any of the other novels in the Space Marine Legends series before this one (I have since, so keep an eye out for those reviews over the next couple of weeks), so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised, though, and Dante offers a glimpse into the life and ascension of the “oldest living Space Marine”, the Chapter Master of the perennial favourites, the Blood Angels. Continue reading

Short Story Review: “Know Thyself” by Andy Smillie (Black Library)

Smillie-KnowThyselfMore superb Flesh Tearers from Smillie

Sent to meet with Flesh Tearers Chapter Master Gabriel Seth to discuss a recent incident in which the Flesh Tearers and Space Wolves came to blows, Inquisitor Corvin Herrold boards the flagship of the Chapter, the mighty Victus. But when he discovers a shocking secret, Herrold finds himself a prisoner of Sanguinius’s most dangerous sons, and his audience with the Master of the Flesh Tearers proves more perilous than he could have ever imagined.

Andy Smillie has done it again: he has managed to portray characters that should be mindless, ferocious psychopaths in a nuanced, relatable, and not-unsympathetic manner. What Aaron Dembski-Bowden does in long-form, Smillie has mastered in this shorter-format.

It was really interesting to see how the Flesh Tearers’ command deal with the Inquisition, and their extreme means of conveying unto those who deem them heretics and corrupt what lies at the heart of their character. It’s not pretty, nor is it supposed to be. The Tearers are the way they are, a distillation of the more brutal aspect of their originator Primarch, Sanguinius.

This is a superb short story, and I can’t wait to read more by Smillie. I really must get caught up with Flesh of Cretacia

More Flesh Tearers by Andy Smillie: Beneath The Flesh, Torturer’s Thirst

[This story was originally published in the Black Library Weekender Anthology 2012: Saturday.]

“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