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.

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!

Catechism of Hate by Gav Thorpe (A Review)

As most of you know, Black Library’s latest Limited Edition novella, Catechism of Hate, was released less than a week ago and sold out in the first few minutes. To celebrate the launch of the novella and also the milestone for Gav Thorpe, for whom this is his second such novella, the Bloghole brings to you a review of Catechism of Hate, thanks to one of our members, MalkyDel.

Without further ado, here is the review. We hope you enjoy!

“What is it to be a Space Marine?”

This is the first line of the Catechism of Hate, not the novella but the battle-prayer written by its protagonist, Brother-Chaplain Cassius, after the First Tyrannic War. It is that conflict which looms over the entirety of Catechism of Hate as a story and it is also a pertinent question to put to its protagonists.

Catechism of Hate is the latest limited edition novella that I’ve had the luck to acquire and the first one I’ve decided to review. As ever the presentation is stunning; Jon Sullivan’s cover art conveys the relentless savage nature of war against the tyranids and brims with the fiery wrath which Cassius brings down upon them. It’s beautifully crafted (as all the other Space Marine Battle series art has been) and the included poster shows it off in even more detail. Unlike other limited edition novellas and unlike the other SMB novels, the tactical maps are located on the inside cover of the book, this at first threw me, but it became oddly appealing as I read on and it almost seemed as though the narrative itself were emerging from amidst the battle-plan.

The actual hardback is white and blue, not as iconic as the salamander hide of Promethean Sun or the heretical scrawlings of Aurelian but effective in its own simple way. Had it been blue and gold however I feel as though I’d have been put in mind of the Codex Astartes itself which would have been great.

The novella itself is told in flashback, with Cassius using it to galvanise his warriors in another campaign against the Tyranids. This conceit put me in mind of Dilios telling the story of Thermopylae to the Spartans at Platea, in Frank Miller’s 300. It is a very effective narrative tool and we get to feel, and understand the reasons for, Cassius’s hate. As the Ultramarines ready for war against the orks assaulting Vortengard, a distress signal is received from Styxia, an agri-world threatened by the relentless encroachment of Tyranid splinter fleets post-Ichar IV. While Marneus Calgar and the other Ultramarines wish to forge on, it is Cassius who makes the argument for intervention – introducing us to a stalwart and resilient character who could easily be accused of arrogance. Despite his assurances that he will not sell Ultramar lives in vain, his decisions inspire doubt amongst his fellow Astartes.

This forms much of the heart of the novella; what does it mean to be a Space Marine? Is it enough to simply smite the enemy because they are hated? The Ultramarines bear much antipathy for the Tyranid menace and this is effectively summarised by Cassius when he rages that the aliens humbled them, the greatest of the Space Marine chapters, and almost destroyed them. Cassius tempers his hate with an appreciation of his circumstances and the loyalty of his men; when the time comes to strike and the strategy for victory becomes clear, each becomes fanatical in their loyalty.

The pace of the novella is easy and fluid, with interesting support characters  in the form of a Cadian Commander, two Titan Princeps and the other members of Cassius’ command, all aided by Gav’s able command of the setting. The tyranids are well-described; sinuous alien horrors brought to life and given a relentless character of their own. It’s always hard to judge tyranids, since they have no real potential for “Enemy POV” scenarios, but the horrific biology of these aliens is well-represented here, with the interactions between different tyranid genus-types shown to its fully intermeshed glory. Battle scenes flow well, especially when the Space Marines are properly unleashed. Reading the climax, where the Catechism of Hate is finally enunciated, filled me with an almost martial pride, an unstoppable yearning to read more, to roar alongside them.

Through no fault of the authors, my only real disappointment is that the novella doesn’t really add to the canon, outside of a clearer view of the battle of Styxia. This is the purpose of the SMB series, of course, to bring clarity to famous battles in the history of 40k, and this it does admirably. It should not suffer simply because, unlike the previous novellas, it does not tie in to another series (Iron Warrior for Ultramarines, Daenyathos for the Soul Drinkers, The Bloody-Handed for The Sundering, Promethean Sun & Aurelian for the Horus Heresy), and instead only represents a single battle. The novella still stands as an exemplary piece of writing on Gav’s part. It reminds me why, no matter the chapter, Gav Thorpe remains one of my favourite authors at the helm of Space Marines.

******

As a sort of bonus, there might be some other reviews in the pipeline for the future so make sure to keep checking back here!