Review: ‘Eye of Medusa’ by David Guymer

—- An overview, in brief —-

I loved the actual science and efforts at serious sci-fi-ing of 40k. In depiction of characters and factions, Guymer works in some brilliant examinations of psychology of people, of astute insights on the human condition. It’s terribly compelling speculative fiction, through and through.

—- Anyway, on with the show —-

Some weeks ago, I picked up the first of the in-flight Iron Hands trilogy: “Eye of Medusa” by David Guymer. This is coming off the back of a year’s worth of Space Marine and Inquisitorial stories (which is also still underway), amongst some other fiction too. By the cover, I wasn’t entirely enthused (mainly as the art style’s not to my tastes, but you know what they say). Similarly, I had reservations about reading an entire novel on the Iron Hands and Adeptus Mechanicus. To put it mildly: they’re ostensibly quite boring, or at least at the inhuman ends of the continuum. Both factions being machine-obsessed, war-obsessed perfectionists whose central tenet might be summed up as “things that are human and humane are weak, the machine is strong”.

So, to my joy: I was wholly wrong in my misgivings. (And wholly correct in my disposal towards David Guymer as an author – I’d recently read his “Thorgrim“, which is a tremendous novel, albeit one of many tremendous Warhammer Fantasy novels.) In any event, I was very pleased with this turn of events.

In short: it was hugely creative, deeply psychological, and forged an excellent ‘hard SF’ edge to the mad baroque fantasy that 40k ought to be. Not by distracting asides into the nitty-gritty of real science, nor by invoking mindless streams of technobabble – rather, by seeding and decorating the world with what to me felt the right ideas and right observations, to make the setting not only be vile, but alive and vivid. Being fairly interested in both science and sci-fi, it’s pleasing to read a book that’s fairly relentless in its dedication to seeing the genre being done well.

As an aside: you may hear the phrase bolter porn bandied about; I prefer to chalk it up to the same bad name that’s given for a lot of women-targeted fiction: dick lit. Suitably disparaging. The idea being fairly simple: lasers and guns and bombs and explosions, not a huge degree of exploration of the human condition. Much of the Black Library fare is all-too-often written off by the online commentariat (even by myself, at times!) for being too heavy handed on focussing on action and not sufficiently deft at tickling my taste buds for character journeys, depictions, and plot. I digress.

In that regard: this is most assuredly not bolter porn, nor dick lit. Indeed, it has music! And kissing! And romance! Not integral to the plot in a overwhelming way, but neither were they casually disregarded or overlooked as irrelevant to the topics at hand.

Indeed, the psychology of this novel is in principle very simple. Ostensibly at the foremost of the story, you have the ambitions of a man proceeding with his job in the face of competent but questionable senior management, and difficult, but not entirely unhelpful co-workers. A companion plot is the ambitions of a woman proceeding in her job, in the face of competent but questionable senior management, and difficult, but not entirely unhelpful co-workers.

In essence, it’s fairly relatable. So to speak…

Within the lore of the setting, these two are further distinguished: one is a transhuman “Space Marine” – a genetically and technologically enhanced supersoldier, interfacing with his new duties. The other is a transhuman “tech priest” – a religiously and technologically enhanced supercleric, interfacing with her new duties. Should they be depicted on screen, I could envision they’d be easily interpreted as ‘inhuman monsters’ by audiences, is perhaps no insignificant detail. (And that exploration of humanity is never lost throughout, for my tastes at least.)

As you can see: there’s no shortage of dovetailing or rooms for literary comparison. My take, here and above, is deliberately trivialising: instead of being a “mere two-hander” depicting two similar-but-not-identical-strands, Guymer manages to weave these (and additional oddities, both in the lore, in the background, and in the narrative structure itself) to play with some incredible concepts and tell an absolutely staggering tail that sits in equal parts ‘slice of life’, ‘action scene’, and ‘psychological conspiracy thriller’.

It’s tense, mind-boggling, huge in scale and scope, yet also deeply personal and utterly compelling. It covers bias, it deals with the propagation of ideas (both figuratively, and also in terms of literal memes – “We should consider a purge of his meme-core.”), it looks at the causes, expressions, and impacts of anger, of abuse, of discipline.

It’s not mild in its take, yet it also manages to be exceedingly mature in its depiction – neither trivialising nor glorifying.

On a point of personal taste: I found it to be dense in detail. Not casually so – breathing life into strange decisions, making curious aspects of the IP’s setting dance with life in a way that previously seemed awkward and offputtingly peculiar. (Google the ‘Clan Raukaan’ supplement to see some brains dribble from the minds of some of the internet’s… finest?)

Indeed, there’s some brave (and in my esteem: very well-executed) structural choices in the prose. Flash-backs that aren’t explicitly explained, changes of opinion that aren’t adumbrated. These choices are ones I can imagine many writers struggling with (and, alas, editors! [Let alone readers…]). Yet, the limited use of them, the tact with which they’re applied leads them to be very effective. They illustrate the points they’re intended to, without being so intrusive or obscure that casual readers will be left outraged at the author’s time-wasting.

These elements of discontinuity, disjointedness, in retrospect are a large deal of my fascination with the book – it is not merely telling a story, but it is telling a convoluted story in a suitably uncomplicated way, something that should be lauded. (Such is the temptation to go the other direction: to overcomplicate relatively simple stories). This non-linearity (in a mathematical sense, in addition to the literary), isn’t such a curious choice, given the plot, but it is a brave and laudable one: the capacity to get it wrong, or execute it less than elegantly presumably haunts many authors.

(Perhaps the outrage or irritation at a perceived lack of elegance only really manifests in the minds of harsh and self-appointed critics who’ve been banging the same drum for many decades; a cohort that I certainly wouldn’t ever fall into! In any case, I’d encourage authors to disregard it, in the main…)

I mentioned the Clan Raukaan fiasco. That can be summarised as follows: some games developers wrote some new fiction to accompany a game supplement, one that introduced a huge new element to the lore, but that also diametrically opposed much of what had been written before. This inconsistence was vexing, for many. (I’d attest to it myself; it seemed needless contrarianism.) It introduced a whole new dimension of religiosity seemingly borrowed from elsewhere in the stories.

In context of this novel, if you set yourself the challenge of reconciling these two inconsistent accounts, I would attest that you couldn’t do this simply by telling a simple story in the conventional sense. Your usual bells and whistles not only wouldn’t be good here, but it’d end up propagating the inconsistency and perhaps even exacerbating the problem. (See also: Protocols For Sleeping Canines, Pedestrian Impacts Against Vespidae Nests etc.)

In the novel that Guymer’s actually written, in the moderate concepts and modest use of some structural conceits, he’s managed something astonishing. In parallel to the philosophies described within his novel, that are central to the variety of conflicts throughout, he’s literally lived and worked an aspect of his own story: a story that might as well be about breaking and fixing things that angry idiots on the internet are furious about.

In telling that story, I’d contend he’s managed to fix a thing and leave it far stronger and more detailed than it was before.

Hell, he’s told a hell of a story in amongst doing that. I loved it.

It’s one of the most intensely bleak and horrifyingly brutal books BL has published, yet it steered well clear of being stomach churning in its graphic imagery. With institutionalised abuse as one of the main concepts dealt with in the story, alongside genocide on a terrifying scale, and bizarre technocratic dogmatists front and centre… it’s easy to see where an author might go wrong. Intellectually, so many of the things herein are deeply repugnant, and yet Guymer gives categorically no warmth to the idea of rehabilitating or emulating the ideas in any way. What he does manage is something absolutely compelling: a hellish nightmare that nevertheless tells a deeply compelling story, being intellectually revolting without actually turning the stomach of the reader.

It’s not an easy book to sing the praises of, but it absolutely deserves praise!

Malodrax by Ben Counter – advance review

Today’s review is by Liliedhe and it’s book number fourteen in the Space Marine Battle series. The review isn’t for the faint of heart. Enjoy!

Not all the stories told in a Codex are necessarily true. Some are propaganda. Some are distorted. Some are just half the picture. Once one starts to compare a Codex story to the novelisation of it, differences are bound to crop up. I guess that is what makes writing novels out of three paragraphs from a Codex interesting. Because, where is the fun in telling what everybody already knows?

I guess that is the only thing I can think of that might be mustered in the defence of Malodrax. The Codex story of the First Captain of the Imperial Fist is a fantastic tale, of time travel, of impossible strength of character and body, of vengeance and retribution, endurance and of a capacity for forgiveness that might simply be superhuman. It is the story of the one awesome character the Imperial Fists have. The one claim to glory for that much maligned Chapter whose only purpose all too often seems to be playing redshirt to the heroics of others.

I guess that was why it could not be allowed to stand. Warhammer 40k is after all a setting without heroes, without good guys, without happy ends. A story like Lysander’s, a story of greatness in the face of adversity and horror thus could not be expected to stand. What other challenge was there for an author who was tasked to write about something so epically impossible?

And so it is revealed it as a lie. What happens in Malodrax not even bears a remote resemblance to the story told in the Codex. Its main character has no resemblance to the miniature on the tabletop. It is propaganda. It is a lie.

Malodrax thoroughly takes its premise and rips it to shreds. Basically, the only thing that remains from the Codex’s narrative is the time-travel. Yes, Lysander is from a thousand years in the past. Yes, he was on a place called Malodrax. And there it ends.

I did think the story of Malodrax was impossible to tell in a novel. At least, in a novel not on par with American Psycho where its graphical gruesomeness is concerned. Now, there are certainly gruesome scenes enough. Chaos isnt pretty, after all. That it does utterly lack the expected terrible torture scenes has to do with the fact that, as pointed out above, pretty much nothing of what you would expect to happen actually does.

Ok, that is unfair. It happens. Just not on screen. Or to the character you would expect it to happen to. And the true victim does not carry his fate with as much grace as Codex Lysander does. So I guess deconstruction was the intention all along. Nor has anybody as much patience with him as they do with the famous first Captain. I guess the universe is unfair and Space Marine brotherhood is just a lie among all the others.

I will not recount the plot. I don’t need to. You all know it. No, not from the Codex, from the Hammer of Daemons by Ben Counter.

Yes, this is a lazy book. The author falls back to what he does best and likely likes best, crazy descriptions of chaotic societies we have seen before. There are only so many ways to describe “impossibly beautiful yet disturbing” or “bloated, mutated, diseased” things before they become repetitive.

Like Alaric the Grey Knight, Lysander runs around making bargains with one freak show after the next, when he is not musing what an Imperial Fist does. I guess that is meant to show that the thought processes of a Space Marine are truncated and banal. Just like the thought processes of the occasional chaos thing. Hm, so maybe it was not deliberate?

I have always maintained that Ben Counter is an uneven writer, brilliant in flashes, uninspired and phoning it in when a scene was not to his liking. His phone bill on Malodrax must have been impressive. But then, since he was just copying himself…

Space Marine Battles has always been an uneven series, in turns awesome and flat. This is a new one, because it is infuriating. The quality middling, but unoriginal, the plot one a fan can but cry “ruined forever”. I do not know why Counter chose to not only invalidate the Codex, but also his own extensive flashbacks to this event in the novella Endeavour of Will, which bear no resemblance to this book.

Probably, because Imperial Fists are not allowed to have nice things. Not even a Chapter hero who isn’t a lying, pathetic fraud.

Thanks to Liliedhe, regular Read in a Rush contributor and part of the moderator team at the Bolthole forum.
Malodrax is out on December 14th.

Book Review: “Death of Integrity” by Guy Haley

Death of Integrity, by Guy Haley.

Death of Integrity, by Guy Haley.

Today we bring you a review of Death of Integrity, by Guy Haley.

It had been a long time since I’ve heard a good Space Hulk tale. Stories of claustrophobic space ship horror immediately hook me. Just like Dead Space or Alien, it is a weakness of mine. Every Space Hulk is a collection of dozens of horror stories, congealing into a ripe treasuring hunting tale buried in the terror.

And it never gets old. There’s always some new abomination, some new surprise you couldn’t foresee coming, be it alien or Imperial, heretical or daemonic. Or even simply the physical aspects of the hulk itself. There’s no finer way to extend the vast 40k universe then with the derelict and sometimes xeno-technologies present in these behemoths, as they lug their morbid and terrifying cargo across the galaxy.

“The novel moves to its own rhythm, properly paced to slow down and let the sinister feeling of the hulk ebb in, before rushing head first into battle.”


The genestealer filled Death of Integrity has thwarted the efforts of the Blood Drinkers for far too long. A second founding chapter descended from the Blood Angels, they have pursued the hulk for ages, destroying the infections but never getting at the source.

Novamarine Terminator, click to check out the painting notes from the blog "From The Warp".

Novamarine Terminator, click to check out the painting notes from the blog “From The Warp”.

But after realizing a pattern in the hulk’s warp trips, the Blood Drinkers close in for the kill. A call for aid summons the Novamarines, who arrive to assist their cousins in destroying the hulk once and for all through bombardment.

But just as they engage the hulk, Magos Explorator Plosk arrives in system and stops them. In the resulting diplomacy, it is revealed that there is some lost technology of great value in the heart of the Death of Integrity.

The deal making sets up the three to rid the genestealer threat the hard way. But Novamarine Captain Galt discovers that every side has their own secrets, hiding facts that threaten the outcome of the operation.

Each mission that happens thereafter has its own twists and surprises. The novel moves to its own rhythm, properly paced to slow down and let the sinister feeling of the hulk ebb in, before rushing head first into battle.

And there are collisions between the two Space Marine chapters, as they discover the impetus of the Blood Drinkers does not mesh well with the stoic and disciplined approach of the Novamarines. Haley introduces ideas details to Space Hulk missions that add intrigue and dimension to the classic.

An example of a Space Hulk, image taken from Dawn of War 2.

An example of a Space Hulk, ‘Judgment of Carrion’ from Dawn of War 2.

Between the fighting, there is more story to tell. The only mentionable weakness of the novel lies in the prayers of the Novamarines, a slower affair observed out of respectful necessity. But the following ritual of the Blood Drinkers is far more interesting, drawing upon the history of the chapter and tying into the plot well. I highly suggest you avoid Lexicanum if you don’t want spoilers.

Haley finds a few new ways to challenge one’s perceptions of Space Marines. While there are plenty of the existing preconceptions and stereotypes, he isn’t afraid to reach for the lingering, primitive cultural identities they possessed before becoming Space Marines, giving them some depth where other authors might stagger.

One talking point has to be Captain Galt. It’s interesting to watch a Space Marine charged with keeping a secret from a fellow brother. During a meditation while receiving a chapter tattoo, Galt sees Veteran Sergeant Voldo in a mystic place revered by the Novamarines.

Death of Integrity continues the Black Library’s fine efforts to up the quality of the Space Marine Battle novels.”


In this, the chaplain forewarns Galt that this means Voldo will die soon. Galt is senior to Voldo only in rank, for in truth the veteran sergeant trained Galt since he was a neophyte, and Galt sees the man as a father figure. It’s intriguing to watch this stoic affection unfold as Galt tries to protect Voldo from his fate.

Another character worth mentioning must be Chapter Master Caedis of the Blood Drinkers. Despite his rank, Caedis at first proves quite honourable, handing command of the overall mission and all his forces to Captain Galt.

But as it turns out, this too includes self-serving reasons, as Caedis feels the cry of the Black Rage finally taking him. Caedis adds a very personal, spiritual side to the Blood Drinkers, the impact of his final quest having profound effects on the plot to both the aid and detriment of the mission and his chapter.

Space Hulk, the classic board game available at Games Workshop.

Space Hulk, the classic board game available at Games Workshop.

But Death of Integrity isn’t over until it’s over, as the ending unveils the truth of several secrets all at once. These twist together in such a way that satisfies and shocks the reader. Even the jaded will walk away with something a little new.

The overall tale concludes with two unfinished threads, but Haley seems to sympathize with his audience, adding a historically minded epilogue that acknowledges these loose ends. And hints at more to come.

Death of Integrity continues the Black Library’s fine efforts to up the quality of the Space Marine Battle novels. And with Haley’s latest as proof, no true 40k fan can excuse themselves of ducking this quality work.

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. Guy Haley can be followed @GuyHaley.

Book Review: “Lords of Mars” by Graham McNeill

Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Forum moderator LordLucan brings us a review of Lords of Mars, by Graham McNeill.

Graham McNeil’s Lords of Mars, much like the preceding Priests of Mars, is a relatively slow book. Now, I know as an opening remark ‘slow’ doesn’t tend to bode well for the book about to be reviewed, but in this case I consider this far from a negative trait of this novel series. Too often, I think there is an unspoken compulsion with novels set in Warhammer 40,000 to keep up the pace as much as possible, like a breakneck roller coaster or a great big blockbuster action thriller.

“McNeill makes many wonderful asides throughout the novel; passing references to the deeper lore of the setting. These references are generally not related to the main plot, but show a deep love for the setting and a willingness to play around with knowing readers.”


Lords of Mars takes a much more leisurely approach to the overarching plot it is relating to the reader. Think of it more like an indulgent journey through the rich universe established by Games Workshop; a chance to take time to really see the Mechanicus in action at every level of its operation; from the lowly bondsmen to the ArchMagos, to whatever we’d class Telok and Galatea as. It is somewhat sedate, but when the scenery is so pleasant, the characters so rich, who wants to go too fast? If one wants to go on a sightseeing tour, you don’t take the bullet train.

Now, that is not to say the novel lacks for action. Indeed, there are several major battles that keep this novel firmly in the military science fiction genre. The action scenes are built up well, as the novel takes its time to set the scenes and ramp up the tension, before the sudden, frantic bursts of action erupt. There is no continuous rise towards a climax or crescendo, but more like multiple peaks of action occurring between the main focus of the series; the characters, and the lavishly detailed setting.

Tech Priests, from the art contained with Inquis Exterminatus.

Tech Priests, from the art contained with Inquis Exterminatus.

It is clear that McNeill delights in describing the outlandish and sublimely gargantuan alien vistas and structures the exploratory team encounters. McNeill effectively communicates the wonder and awe of the characters by invoking it in the reader. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than with the Speranza itself, the Ark of the Mechanicus and a true leviathan of a vessel.

Too often, science fiction writers are very blasé about the vast scales of their ships; bandying around terms like ‘multi-kilometre’ and ‘miles-long’ as if these terms are to be taken for granted.

But here, Speranza is a tremendous presence, a true floating industrial city, with vast regions where characters can simply vanish, where titan’s can be billeted like infantry, where worlds can be built within worlds, and where its gravity influences other vessels. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much detail on Speranza’s cognition this novel, but I fully expect the third book to remedy that.

“It is interesting that McNeill delves into the minds of these figures, and while superficially their thought processes seem inhuman, their underlying emotions remain very much in evidence, despite their efforts to quash emotion.”


McNeill makes many wonderful asides throughout the novel; passing references to the deeper lore of the setting. These references are generally not related to the main plot, but show a deep love for the setting and a willingness to play around with knowing readers. For instance, there is a sly reference to the ‘face of Mars’ which I won’t spoil, along with a great flashback to a period of Warhammer 40,000’s history we seldom get to see. As I said in the beginning, it is scenery and tangents, but they are pleasant and in no way detract from the overall effectiveness of the work.

The tech priests of the novel are delightfully strange and outlandish; most of them are ungainly chimeras of technology and biological matter, sculpted and fashioned into truly bizarre forms. It is interesting that McNeill delves into the minds of these figures, and while superficially their thought processes seem inhuman, their underlying emotions remain very much in evidence, despite their efforts to quash emotion. Kotov is an idealist and excitable, Braylock is ambitious, the two bridge tech priests (with two of the most fantastically unpronounceable names I’ve encountered for a while) act like bickering old men. But it is the Tychon family which provides the emotional heart of the Mechanicus characters, and their precise relationship is nicely developed through this novel.

A standard Enginseer, available at Games Workshop.

A standard Enginseer, available at Games Workshop.

Surcouf and the crew of the Renard prove to be an excellent foil for the bizarre and oft times deranged, Mechanicus characters. They are arguably the most grounded and ‘modern’ of the protagonist factions.

For outsiders to Warhammer 40000, they are the perfect reader identification characters, and I can see why McNeill uses them in the opening chapter first. They are funny and ready with quips and in-jokes at any opportunity; reminiscent of Firefly in many ways.

That said, I also enjoyed the bondsmen storyline and its mounting importance. It is not very often you get to see the mundane, unremarkable characters in 40K rise up from anonymity. Abrehem Locke and the gang are not the outlandish, larger than life heroes flooding the tabletop game setting of 40K; they are fallible and, individually, weak.

Their fortunes change during the novel however, as Locke challenges the infamously ‘grimdark’ status quo of this setting. It is good to see the perspective of the lowest rung of 40K society. However, I feel Locke’s everyman stance is marred by his implants and the ‘chosen by destiny’ plot line McNeill seems to be setting him up for. Julius Hawke, in my opinion, is a far better candidate for the everyman of 40K. He’s not particularly heroic, except when forced into it, he has a dark sense of gallows humour. He is selfish, but is no villain, and even his most heroic acts will never, ever be acknowledged by the powers that be. Julius Hawke is essentially the perfect representation of the majority of the lowly humans of 40K.

“My main gripe is one of structure rather than content. Lords of Mars feels like a middle segment of a continuum, rather than distinct fully formed novel in its own right.”


I often feel the Cadians are underused in these novels, but what little we see of them is always entertaining; their casual professionalism and easy humour makes them very endearing.

The Black Templars, on the other hand, I feel aren’t really necessary. They are often used by McNeill to initiate and drive the actions scenes, but otherwise, I don’t find them particularly compelling as characters. We have seen this all before in countless Black Library novels; the intensely honourable warrior monks, constantly introspective and ruminating upon courage and brotherhood.

From the cover of Priests of Mars, the first installment.

From the cover of Priests of Mars, the first installment.

Space marines always seem to draw attention to them, and I feel this is wrong here, as this is the Mechanicus’ time to shine. McNeill tries to spice up their storyline with more prophecy and future visions, but it is a wasted effort to me. I would have ditched the Space Marines in favour of more scenes with the Cadians. The novel does not need space marines present.

As for the antagonists, they are quite underwhelming and underused. The main antagonists have little explanation, and little to no character. The secondary antagonists get virtually nothing to do in this novel until the very end, other than menacing throwaway tertiary characters. Both these issues may be remedied in the next novel, but frankly after three hundred and fourteen pages, I don’t think it was expecting too much for McNeill to do something in this novel. In fact, this criticism ties into my only real, major issue with the book.

My main gripe is one of structure rather than content. Lords of Mars feels like a middle segment of a continuum, rather than distinct fully formed novel in its own right. It is obvious that this Adeptus Mechanicus series was conceived as a trilogy from the beginning. This is three volumes within a singular, huge novel, and I don’t appreciate it being divided over three releases.

The endings of each novel don’t seem like conclusions or climaxes in themselves, but as yawning cliffs, where the novels abruptly stop. It makes me want to read on of course, but in the most infuriating fashion. Though on reflection, this criticism is not quite the stinging barb I suggested it is; ‘This McNeill is so terrible; he makes me really want to read the next book… the monster!’

So overall, this is a slow, indulgent novel, which examines events, locations and characters with pleasing and exacting detail. Much like the Mechanicus Explorers themselves…

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. Graham McNeill can be followed @GrahamMcNeill.

Book Review: “Headtaker” by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Headtaker, by David Guymer

Today, forum moderator Ath brings us a review of Headtaker, by David Guymer.

The Skaven are well-established in Warhammer fiction, their first appearance dating back to the classic Skavenslayer stories in the early 1990s, and their portrayal has remained relatively consistent since then. They are a darkly comedic bunch, on the one hand horrifying monsters intent on devouring the world of men, but on the other, treacherous, arrogant and incompetent enough that their plans never quite fall into place and dissolve into bickering and finger-pointing. This can make them challenging to read, as the constant plots and backstabbing sometimes seem in danger of becoming predictable and repetitive, but when done well they are thoroughly enjoyable.

“Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on…”


Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

Queek Headtaker, by Games Workshop Artist Mark Gibbons.

As far as I’m aware, this novel is both David Guymer’s first full-length Warhammer fantasy story, and the first time Black Library have issued a Skaven-centric novel not written by either William King or C.L. Werner. The eponymous Queek Headtaker has been a special character on the Warhammer tabletop for some time, but, other than a brief cameo in a Thanquol novel, hasn’t really appeared in the fiction or background until now. This book therefore represents an opportunity to do something new and different with the Skaven, and largely succeeds in that goal, while remaining faithful and respectful of the precedent set by Messrs. King and Werner.

The plot revolves around an attempt by the Skaven to attack the Dwarf fortress of Karak Azul, a major manufacturing hold, to disrupt the Dwarf infrastructure. Meanwhile the Dwarfs of Karak Azul have plans of their own to punish the local orcs and goblins for a previous humiliation. The real focus of this book, though, as with most of the Warhammer Heroes line, is on the characters, rather than the plot itself.

Queek is an unconventional Skaven character. He has no interest in the usual politics that the Skaven preoccupy themselves with, nor does he display any real sense of self-preservation, enjoying a good scrap and preferring to fight in the front lines. It seems he has maintained his position through the favour of his clanlord, together with his personal ferocity and the loyalty of his lieutenant, who actually organises his army. He is widely believed mad, although it is hinted at various points that this might at least in part be an act designed to disorient political rivals. He makes a refreshing change from the Skaven as traditionally portrayed, while still remaining distinctively one of them.

“Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.”


The main character, however, is not really Queek himself, but Sleek Sharpwit, an envoy of the ruling Skaven council sent to supervise Queek’s mission. Sharpwit is even more unconventional than Queek, an almost entirely original Skaven character. Mr Guymer is not afraid of tackling some of the more common complaints about the Skaven head-on; one memorable scene has Sharpwit lamenting Skaven short-sightedness where, following a collapsed tunnel, they would rather dig through it and trust to luck rather than take the time to clear it properly. Sharpwit is accompanied – and constantly hindered by – the more conventional Skaven Grey Seer Razzel, who resents his position of authority. I found Sharpwit’s efforts to manage Queek and Razzel and play one off against the other while retaining his own position to be some of the highlights of the novel.

We also see something of the Dwarf characters who stand in the way of the Skaven: Thordun, a young Dwarf from the human Empire who is seeking to make his fortune in the Dwarf lands, and Handrik, a Dwarf elder and friend to the king who is trying to make right a recent embarrassment.

“…the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals…”


While the Dwarfs are generally realised well, Thordun’s story is one of the weaker plot threads, as the character and his human sidekicks seem to be used largely as a means of creating conflict among other characters and driving more interesting plot developments. Handrik is a strong and memorable character, though, displaying generosity of spirit combined with a badly injured pride and a stubborn melancholy.

If the book has a real weakness it is in its final act, where I found that the number of concurrent subplots and characters, and the cutting between them, made the story rather difficult to follow. Most disappointingly, the Dwarf plot ends without a real resolution, which leaves the reader hanging.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

Queek Headtaker, model available at Games Workshop.

As always, I found it a little frustrating to have the possibility of real world development dangled during the course of the book; while the book doesn’t exactly return things to the status quo as is common with such Black Library novels, it still falls short of giving us anything in the way of progress. The Skaven characters have a more satisfactory conclusion.

Overall, the book does a great job of continuing the strong Warhammer Heroes novel line and is probably the best entry in that series for some time. It should appeal to existing Skaven fans as well as those who have struggled with previous portrayals, and should also be accessible as a standalone novel (although the absence of a map is not helpful in this regard). Throughout, Headtaker manages to remain faithful to the setting and background while at the same time is unafraid to attempt something more original, an effort which I thought was on the whole very successful.

Follow the Bolthole at @BLBolthole. David Guymer can be followed @WarlordGuymer.

Eye of Terror by Barrington J.Bailey (A Review)

Forum regular and moderator Vivia does a review of an old and classic 40k novel by Barrington J. Bailey.

Eye-Of-TerrorA decade ago , Eye of Terror was my first Warhammer 40k novel after reading Into the Maelstrom and I didn’t know anything at all about the 40k universe. It left a great impression on me and I knew then that I had read something significantly different in sci-fi. I was left in shock after the ending, thinking that stories like this could exist.

The first story is about a rogue trader named Rugolo, who encounters a psyker whom he believes to be a navigator. The not full-trained navigator, Calliden, is deadly scared of the Warp after suffering a strange and traumatic experience which has made him into an outcast. Soon they travel together to the outskirts of the Eye of Terror where they meet many strange people and aliens, among them a man who carries strange goods and his mysterious sister. They claim to have travelled into the Eye of Terror and returned, albeit changed.  Rugolo and Calliden are uncertain of how, but they fear that something is wrong with the strange duo.

The second story takes place within the Eye of Terror and we follow the travels of a lone Space Marine. A lone Space Marine is an indication that something isn’t right. His story is incredible and very much a mystery, even to him. He is one the most memorable characters I’ve ever read in a BL story. This story is a window into the psychology and behaviour of a post-human super-soldier and the story lets us decide whether it is all for good or evil..

The Space Marine in question meets a lone battle-brother of his own chapter and he senses that there is something not quite right about him. As a character the protagonist seems hopelessly naive, and when I read the story I came to understand that a Space Marine was someone special, but it wasn’t clear to me as to how, as I hadn’t read any background at that point. There is another reason for this and it took me around 9 years to get it. It could be a total surprise or incredible obvious to the reader.  It was secondary because in the Eye of Terror nothing is what it should be and nothing happens without a purpose. His comrade, the mysterious Captain Abaddas does one of the most calculating cruel deceptions that could ever be done to an Astartes. If the death of a primarch is horrible then this possibility is enough to make them crumble from within, something the captain is well aware of. For some reason, the Captain isn’t particularly concerned with how he is able to meet one of his old battle brothers; he accepts it without any evidence or effort, such is the Eye of Terror.

The third story is one of the rarest; we get a POV of a Chaos Daemon and not any daemon but a very special one, which made me all happy inside. From within the warp the daemon is trying to force itself into our reality to manipulate it for a greater purpose, a scheme within a scheme. It contains one of the coolest fights between Chaos daemons, and it was so awesome I read it several times. As an experience, it has forever coloured my view of how Chaos should be written.

All of these characters get woven into one epic story that has one of the cruellest and heart-wrenching fates in BL history. I reread it again recently after all these years, and it still brought tears to my eyes, written in the beautiful prose of Bailey.  It’s a very bleak story and with an ending where there are no winners or losers, no good and evil, no heroes or enemies. Some of it is too incredible, but that’s why the setting of the Eye works so well. We are thrown into a world where normal rules don’t apply. Anything is possible. Planets shaped as flowers exist, beauty hides horrible creatures, all mixed into a nightmare world, very Alice in Wonderland in nature, but exceedingly darker, much darker. The inhabitants are literally puppets of the dark gods. Mortals are disposable creatures and there is plenty more where they came from, that’s the main philosophy.

To live in the future of 40k is to be among billions, and nowhere else is this more evident than in the Eye. There is a feeling of hopelessness throughout the novel that tickled my fancy for dark fantasy. Don’t expect anything good things happening to the characters.

In the early 2000s, Barrington J. Bailey was a very interesting BL writer. He wrote a 40k novel that manages to capture the essence of an alien and faraway future, and allows his voice to shine through. He doesn’t overload his story with too much information and background, he only tells a fascinating evil fairy tale.

I would say it’s a beginner’s book in the same way as the Space Wolf series by William King is. Since it takes place outside the Imperium it has more time to explore other sides of 40k. I wonder how I would have thought about 40k if I had read another book first. The Gaunt’s Ghost books left me disappointed because I knew too little to really appreciate them, Pawns of Chaos was difficult to get into and so on.

Read and enjoy!

Being A Writer Is Like Being A God

Another Boltholer joins us on the blog today for some more ruminations on writing. Bod the Inquisitor aka Simon is a good friend of mine, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him twice at Games Day UK’11 and Black Library Live! 2012, where we spent a good amount of time talking about writing and other things. In his first guest blog for the Bloghole he presents a critical piece on a “How To Write” book, written by acclaimed SFF writer Orson Scott Card.

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