Quick Review: CASSIUS by Ben Counter (Black Library)

CounterB-CassiusA fast-paced, action-packed introduction to the Ultramarines

When a tyranid hive fleet is detected dangerously close to the Sol system, two entire companies of Ultramarines are sent to find and destroy the aliens. Led by their legendary Chaplain, Cassius, the Ultramarines must stop the tyranids, no matter what the cost. With typical bravery, courage and honour, the Ultramarines set about their task, but faced with impossible odds, and Cassius’s impetuous nature, victory is far from certain.

Another novel in Black Library’s Space Marines: Legends series, it turns our focus on Chaplain Cassius: a dedicated, single-minded champion of the Codex and Imperial mission. This is a pretty interesting introduction to the Ultramarines, a Chapter known for its rigid adherence to rules, and less-than-stellar sense of humour. Continue reading

A Pair of Upcoming Black Library Novels

It feels like quite some time since I read a Black Library novel. Nevertheless, they keep publishing (or announcing) more that I would like to read. There’s more Gotrek & Felix on the way and also plenty more Horus Heresy fiction coming. Below are new novels in two other series that maybe don’t get as much attention as they deserve…

AHRIMAN: SORCEROR by John French

FrenchJ-A4-AhrimanSorcerorI recently read and reviewed the second Ahriman short story, The Dead Oracle. This despite still not having read the first novel, Ahriman: Exile. Nevertheless, I think French has done a great job of bringing this character to life on the page – at least, this post-Horus Heresy iteration of this character.*

Ahriman, greatest sorcerer of the Thousand Sons and architect of the Rubric that laid his Legion low, continues to walk the path towards salvation, or damnation. Searching for a cure for his Legion, he is forced to consider – was the great ritual somehow flawed from the very beginning? The answer may lie within the mysterious artefact known as the Athenaeum of Kallimakus, a grimoire of forgotten lore which is reputed to contain the exact words of the lost Book of Magnus… or, perhaps, even a transcription of the primarch’s deepest and most secret thoughts.

Ahriman: Sorceror is due to be published in early 2015.

* He first appeared in Graham McNeill’s excellent, New York Times-bestselling A Thousand Sons.

***

DEATHBLADE: A TALE OF MALUS DARKBLADE by C.L. Werner

WernerCL-D-DeathbladeMalus Darkblade made his first appearance in the pages of Inferno!, Black Library’s once-bi-monthly magazine of short fiction and comic strips. It was a comic series written by Dan Abnett. Abnett later adapted the comic into prose, which was later taken on by Mike Lee. Now, C.L. Werner, one of BL’s best writers of horror-tinged Warhammer fantasy fiction, has stepped up to the plate. I’m quite looking forward to this novel, despite not reading many of the Darkblade novels. Maybe this is a good excuse to catch up with them…?

Darkblade must decide where his loyalties lie – will he follow Malekith to the death, or will he finally rise up and try to claim the throne of Naggaroth for himself? And either way, will he survive?

It has taken decades, but Malus Darkblade has finally plotted, schemed and murdered his way to power, as the ruler of the city of Hag Graef and general of the Witch King Malekith’s armies. But his position is imperilled when Malekith orders an all-out assault on Ulthuan – with Darkblade in the vanguard. As he wages war on the high elves, Darkblade must decide where his loyalties lie – will he follow Malekith to the death, or will he finally rise up and try to claim the throne of Naggaroth for himself? And either way, will he survive?

Deathblade is due to be published in February 2015.

Short Story: “Crimson Dawn” by C.Z. Dunn (Black Library)

Dunn-CrimsonDawnAn interesting eNovella

In the entire galaxy there is nothing more cursed than a traitor.

Excommunicated, hated and hunted, the Crimson Slaughter turned from the Emperor’s Light and have since carved a bloody trail through the Imperium. But before they betrayed their oaths and turned to the worship of the Dark Gods, they were the Crimson Sabres, stalwart and loyal. This is the story of their fall, as Scout Captain Anzo Riegler, a lone voice of reason amidst Chaos, becomes an unwitting pawn in his Chapter’s demise.

I’m a fan of Dunn’s fiction. His short stories – particularly those focused on the Flesh Tearers chapter – have been great, visceral science fiction stories. Crimson Dawn is another good story, but it doesn’t have quite the punch of some of his previous work. Partly, this is due to the different type of story he’s trying to tell – the main character is a scout captain, so it’s unlikely that his tale will be one of out-and-out “bolter-porn”. Instead, this is a somewhat slower-paced story of the insidious nature of Chaos and the subtle corrupting force it can exert even on those who believe themselves to be pure of heart and mission. I think the story could have benefited from being a bit longer – this would have allowed for a slower reveal and a greater tension. It might also have allowed for more exploration of the Crimson Sabres, too. As an excommunicated chapter, and one that considers itself still loyal to the Golden Throne, it would have been nice to see a bit more exploration of what this meant. True, this is a novella, so there’s only so much soul-searching it can offer before it buries the story. There are hints at the end that this could be the first in a number of short stories detailing the Sabers’ fall. I would certainly welcome more.

There are some interesting elements to the story, but ultimately it didn’t impress as much as Dunn’s work has in the past. In much the same way as his Dark Vengeance novella didn’t really fire my imagination. This is better than that story, though, and I would still recommend it to fans of Warhammer 40,000. I just think he’s done better.

Upcoming: “Fall of Macharius” by William King (Black Library)

KingW-MC3-FallOfMachariusThe epic conclusion to The Macharian Crusade trilogy.

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I’ve been a fan of William King’s fiction ever since I read his first Gotrek & Felix short story (now collected in Trollslayer and the First Gotrek & Felix Omnibus). I’ve fallen a bit behind, though, and I need to catch up with the previous book in the series, Fist of Demetrius.

For decades, Lord Solar Macharius and his loyal forces have crusaded across the stars, bringing the Imperial Truth to uncounted worlds and purging aliens and heretics from the dark places at the fringe of the galaxy. But all things must come to an end. His soldiers are weary, his generals fractious, and the legend of Macharius may no longer be enough to hold them together. Called by a representative of Terra to a council of generals, Macharius fears treachery – but will it come from closer to home than he could possibly imagine?

Fall of Macharius is due to be published in hardcover on July 22nd, 2014, by Black Library.

“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.

Review: BROTHERHOOD OF THE STORM by Chris Wraight (Black Library)

Wraight-HH-BrotherhoodOfTheStormA White Scars Horus Heresy Novella

As word of Horus’s treachery spreads to fully half of the Legiones Astartes, Terra looks to the remaining loyalist Space Marines to defend the Imperium. One group, however, remains curiously silent in spite of apparent efforts from both sides to contact them – the noble Vth Legion, Jaghatai Khan’s fearsome White Scars. In the ork-held territory of Chondax, a bitter war has been raging since the Triumph at Ullanor, and only now do the sons of Chogoris return their gaze to the heavens…

Originally published as a limited edition, Black Library has finally released Brotherhood of the Storm for a wider audience, in both hardcover and eBook. It’s well timed, as the characters within feature prominently in the latest full-length Horus Heresy novel, Scars. And, happily, this does not disappoint – Wraight has really upped his game with his Heresy fiction. While this novella was not quite as good as Scars, it was still a cracking story, filled with a good balance of furious action and away-from-the-battlefront context and character development. Continue reading

“Legion of the Damned” Digital Anthology (Black Library)

Various-BL-LegionOfTheDamnedCollection

A collection of short stories all focused on that enigmatic Space Marines legion, the Legion of the Damned, from some of Black Library’s best up-and-comers and a couple of not-quite-old-hands. The Legion are a peculiar addition to the WH40k lore. I remember when they first made models for them (they were a custom job by one of their professional modellers, if I remember correctly). Since then, there’s no doubt that they’ve fleshed out the background and the story of who and what the Legion is. Sadly, I haven’t been keeping up-to-date with more than the fiction set in Games Workshop’s science fiction and fantasy systems for well over a decade. As a result, these six stories contained some interesting new detail. I still don’t have a full picture of how the Legion ‘works’, but by no means does this bother me. These authors have done a great job of writing tales that tap into the horror and menace of the Legion of the Damned, and their mysterious appearances on the battlefields of the 41st millennium. I’ll deal with each of the stories individually, below…

I read the stories as individual short stories on my Kindle, so I have no idea if I read them in the order that the collection is compiled. I’ve listed them in the order I read them.

David Annandale, THE DARK HOLLOWS OF MEMORY

The sinister limbo of winter is falling on the Imperial archive world of Mnemosyne. A great fog rolls in, one that will not dissipate for months. With it comes unimaginable hell for the planet’s citizens as the Chaos Space Marines of the Company of Misery stage a brutal invasion. But as the defenders of Mnemosyne fall before the Traitors, something moves in the mist. There are phantoms abroad, warriors of darkness and flame. The Company of Misery is now confronted by the Legion of the Damned, and the terrified scribes of the Librarium find themselves caught in a war between the armies of horror and terror.

This was a really good story. It’s peculiar, atmospheric, well-paced and very well-written. I also liked the battle in the library-feel to it. Just right for a short story, I think. A tricky story to write about without ruining the ending. Needless to say, the Legion of the Damned and their aesthetic and tactics are perfectly suited to Annandale’s skills and style of writing – he does a great job of evoking the sinister-spookiness of the Legion. The author continues to impress, with each new piece of fiction. I’ll have to bump his latest Space Marine Battles novella, Stormseer, up the TBR (e-)mountain.

*

Josh Reynolds, REMORSELESS

After a gruelling siege, the Iron Warriors scent victory over their eternal enemies the Imperial Fists. Alongside their grand battalions is a host of Traitor Guardsmen – Skaranx is unique amongst their number, a killer of Angels. As he stalks his singular prey, he encounters Space Marines the likes of which he has never seen before. Remorseless, these warriors are beyond life and death. They are damned and so, he realises chillingly, is he…

This story didn’t start as slickly as I’ve come to expect from Reynolds. It certainly improved tremendously and quickly as the story unfolded, though. The antagonist, who is also the narrator, is sufficiently brutal and twisted. The near-claustrophobic urban battlefield setting is well-written and presented, and adds to the frantic combat and atmosphere of chaos. I imagined this could be filmed with close-focus handicam, all shaky and intense (like a baroque, military sci-fi version of the Jason Bourne movies). By the end of the story, this has turned into a very good, engaging cat-and-mouse battle. If the mouse was a genhanced killing machine, and the cat was just a creepier, more efficient killing machine…

*

L.J. Goulding, ANIMUS MALORUM

Fighting against ork invasion, Fourth Captain Erices and his few surviving warriors are prepared to sell their own lives dearly in the name of the Imperium. However, when dark legionnaires led by the mysterious Brother-Sergeant Centurius emerge from the catacombs to aid in the defence of the city, it becomes worryingly unclear what exactly they might expect in return…

This story takes on a very interesting aspect of the Legion of the Damned’s presence in the WH40k universe. Specifically, what happens after the battle? It’s a nice alternative approach to the Legion: after all, they are only usually presented on the field of battle. I had never read any fiction or background text that discussed what happens next. Animus Malorum is a well-written tale, with a superb, sinister twist at the very end. I didn’t see that coming. Very cool indeed.

*

Graeme Lyons, FROM THE FLAMES

Battle-brother Seoc of the Invaders is alone. With his brothers dead around him, killed by the avatar of an alien war god, he prepares to sell his life dearly and join the Emperor in eternity. Until something emerges from the flames… Spectral Space Marines, their black armour adorned with symbols of fire and death, move to engage the enemy, but can Seoc survive the battle between the bloody-handed horror and the terrible revenants?

This was more a micro-story, really, but it is nevertheless a pretty good one. It’s a very quickly-paced battle scene, which offers an interesting and inspired way to deal with a burning enemy (Eldar Avatar) and what that means for burning saviours (the Legion of the Damned squad that does the battlefield equivalent of a drive-by). It was a very good decision to keep this short, as it gave the story more punch.

*

C.Z. Dunn, SHIP OF THE DAMNED

Far from home, Sister Agentha travels aboard an ancient pilgrim vessel, providing a sacred light in the vast darkness of the void. However, on answering a mysterious distress signal, she soon finds herself with far more to contend with than the ignorance of children as plague zombies flood the decks and wreak bloody havoc on the faithful. Trapped in the belly of the ship with death on all sides, Agentha’s only hope is a mysterious black object taken from a group of refugees… but will it send help, and what will be left of them when it does?

I really liked that this story was focused on a female non-combatant: Sister Agentha, who is effectively a teacher (although, one with considerable faculty for violence, seeing as everyone from her order is still trained to battle the foes of the Emperor). She confiscated a shiny metallic ball from one of her students, something he picked up after the shuttle he was originally on was left adrift, dropped by space marines in black armour. The pilgrim vessel the characters inhabit answers a distress signal that proves to contain… plague zombies! It’s been a while since I read anything about those gribbly beasties. The story is atmospheric and tense. Good stuff.

*

Nick Kyme, VOTUM INFERNUS

Fleeing in the aftermath of a terrible defeat, troopers of the Vostroyan Firstborn are being hunted by dark eldar. A pair of wyches, a brother and sister, plan to make brutal sport of the mon’keigh. But as the mists thicken a strange figure appears on the battlefield, one clad in armour of blackest night. Who are “the Damned” and what do they want with this world and the souls upon it…?

What happens when warriors who employ and embody fear are faced with an enemy more terrifying? This is a pretty interesting story. Sometimes, the description went a bit further than necessary, creating tautologies, but it’s still a solid addition to the collection. It’s perhaps not Kyme’s best, but does the trick. In addition, the twist at the end was unexpected and pretty cool.

*

General Thoughts…

There is a slight feeling of repetition, if you read all of these stories together. This is neither the fault of the authors, nor me saying that the stories are all the same (just see what I’ve written, above). Rather, the nature of the Legion of the Damned and how they “work” in the WH40k setting means there are only a limited number of ways to describe (particulars aside) their appearance on a battlefield and also their physical aspect (for example, from Lyons’s piece, “Hulking black shadows wreathed in witchfire, they are of sinister aspect, ebon armour decorated with arcane sigils made of what looks like bone” – this tells you everything you need to know, and is a variation on what’s to be found in all these stories – and probably the Space Marine Battles: Legion of the Damned novel, too…). Overall, though, I enjoyed reading these stories. If you’re looking for short stories set in the WH40k universe, with a slightly more dark, horror-feel to them, then this collection should suit perfectly.