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!

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.