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: “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.

Interview with David Guymer

Today’s interview is with David Guymer, one of the newest writers to join the ranks of the Black Library author roll. Part scientist, part writer and all nerd, he’s here to answer some questions about the creative process that goes into word craft.

David Guymer, because being the lord of the rats never sounded so good.

David Guymer, because being the lord of the rats never sounded so good.

He2etic: What is the writing process like for you? If you were to describe the process in one word, what would it be?

David: Fraught.

Some people might enjoy a whispering muse at their shoulder. My writing is accompanied by buzzing neurones, lack of sleep, worry, doubt, and then I print off what I’ve done, cover it in red and do it again. And again.

It’s not a method I’d recommend but it gets the job done, and anything that can survive three or four lashings of the red pen probably deserves its place in the final draft.

He2etic: What kind of music do you listen to while you write?

David: Basic rule is not to listen anything with lyrics but the precise choice varies from project to project. I find music useful in setting the right mood for a piece and (probably for fantasy and horror more than anything) if you get the mood spot on then you can get away with a lot.

“I’m a gamer first and a writer second, but I love the fact that this is a world that enables me to do both.”

 

For Headtaker that was the Dragonball Z soundtrack with a bit of Final Fantasy: Advent Children. Big fight music for big fights! For City of the Damned I needed something more eerie. I started off juggling between The Killing and Mass Effect 3 soundtracks before ultimately settling on the soundtrack to the old computer game, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines.

The Karag Durak Grudge, by David Guymer

The Karag Durak Grudge, by David Guymer

He2etic: Who are your favourite characters amongst both those you’ve written, and by other authors?

David: It’s hard not to work with a character every hour of every day and not become attached. There are actually very few characters that don’t pop into my head from time to time to demand a little love and attention. I’d originally intended to produce a small list of a selection of my favourites but, for the reasons noted above, I’ll just give you my standout, except no alternative, favourites. And that is…

Sharpwit.

The reasons are many. He’s delightfully devious, intelligent, but also vulnerable in a way that’s relatable to a human being reading about rat-men. I also think he’s quite unique amongst the skaven currently out there, surviving well into old age on the back of his wits and cunning. Before the plot for Headtaker was settled, Sharpwit existed. His full backstory and arc needed padding out, but the character was there right from the beginning. He’s my little contribution to skavendom!

As for other authors, that’s tricky too. What with their being so many. When I close my eyes and just wait for a character to spring to mind then (surprise surprise) they’re all members of the Tanith First!

Unseen, by David Guymer

Unseen, by David Guymer

I don’t know how he does it, but nobody writes characters quite like Dan. It’s doubly amazing given that his books tend to feature so many of them. The very first that came to mind were Rawne and Feygor. I couldn’t even tell you why as it’s so long since I read them, but that just goes to show how powerful they are.

He2etic: What are your favourite armies in the Warhammer and 40k universes?

David: I have a skaven army, naturally, that’s waxed and waned through the years ever since I first picked up a box of mono-posed plastic clanrats when I was twelve. We’ve fought some epic battles down the years and they’re the favourite to which I always return.

Most other armies have had my eye run over them at some point or other down the years. Wood Elves and Tomb Kings attract a lot of covetous glances. Writing Headtaker made me desperately want to collect dwarfs, but I do yearn for the chance to field some cavalry for once.

With 40K it’s more tricky. I did have a bit of Imperial Guard, but my school friends and I didn’t really play it. Necrons, Dark Eldar and Tau didn’t even exist when I last properly played 40K!

That said though, an Imperial Guard army is my current project because I do love tanks and big guns. What I *really* wanted though is Eldar or White Scars. I love them for the background and the feel of them, but neither suits the way I play. I’m a ‘sitting on my hill clustered around my war-machines’ kind of guy.

He2etic: Are there any dream characters or settings you want to write about? Not just those in the Warhammer universes, but in other franchises or even of your own make?

Curse of the Everliving, by David Guymer

Curse of the Everliving, by David Guymer

David: Ikit Claw was always my favourite character, so I’d always love to write about him. The great thing about Warhammer and 40K though is there are so many great characters, settings and possibilities that it’s a pleasure to write for any of them. I’d never fielded Queek in my skaven army, for instance.

And I didn’t think much of King Kazador in the old dwarf army book either. He was basically a dwarf lord with an extra point of strength and a hatred of greenskins.

But when you look past the stats, immerse yourself in the background, then you see that there’s so much character to them both.

If, however, we’re talking other franchises then I’d love to write a Star Trek story as I grew up as (and still am) a massive Star Trek fan.

I’ve also threatened to write a Ms. Marvel screenplay if no-one else looks likely to do it!

He2etic: What are your favourite drinks, both alcoholic and not?

David: I consume vast quantities of milk. It’s good for you, although in these doses probably less so. With alcohol, you can’t go too far wrong with a good cider. Out of regional pride, I like to get Aspall’s Suffolk Cider. So if anyone sees me dry at the Weekender, you know what to get me.

He2etic: What is it about Warhammer and its 40k brother that you love the most?

Gotrek and Felix, Lost Tales, from the Black Library

Gotrek & Felix: Lost Tales, from the Black Library

David: I’m a gamer first and a writer second, but I love the fact that this is a world that enables me to do both. When I think about what I want to write it’ll be cool stuff from the game that comes up. I want to see what happens when a doomwheel charges a giant, or when rat-ogres get shot by an Anvil of Doom.

If they let me loose on 40K, I’d want to write about a fleet battle in an asteroid belt or hundreds of battle tanks blowing the crap out of a titan.

I like that these are worlds where big things can happen, where there are heroes and villains and a whole lot struggling along in between. And I like that one will always be trying to stab/poison/blow up the other.

He2etic: If you could cast anyone to play the roles of main characters in your work, who would you pick?

David: I’d be terrible at this. I’d just want to put Star Trek and Buffy actors in everything. Will Wheaton as Felix Jaeger? No… no, I don’t think so.

“It’s hard not to work with a character every hour of every day and not become attached.”

 

He2etic: Do you have any long term projects for writing?

David: They don’t come much longer term than my ‘first’ novel, which I started working on well before I first submitted a story for Black Library. It’s a fantasy story about wizards that (stop rolling your eyes at the back) draws quite heavily from my love for Dragonball. It’s about two-thirds done. Occasionally, between projects, I’ll edit the opening paragraph for the zillionth time and then it’s back to the hard drive. I do plan to finish it one day.

It’s a long term project!

Closer to fruition, I’ve got plenty of irons in the fire with Black Library to keep me going for the near future. So I’m afraid you’ll not be seeing the back of me just yet.

That’s all the time we have for today! Thanks David!

Follow the @BLBolthole on Twitter for updates, articles and more. This blog’s art was crafted by Manuel Mesones, and you can check out his portfolio. The author can be followed @He2etic, or on his blog.