Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Indefensible Positions

Flight Of The Eisenstein: The Blinded Star (I)

The coming storm (copyright Games Workshop)
Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

It is difficult for us, uncommonly bald apes that we are, to fully grasp the nature of space combat.  Forty-three thousand years ago, we charged across open plains at our foes, waving our copper swords. Fighting in two dimensions.  Knowing the valleys and the river mouths and the mountain passes through which our enemies might file in order to defeat us.

As the centuries passed, war grew and became more complicated. Sailing ships slid out of sight of land, as the fear of creatures from the depths became outweighed by the tactical advantages of murdering your enemies in places they never expected to be murdered. But the basic truth remained: the enemy could only ever come from over the horizon. Even when our talents for devising new weapons gave us submersible warships and flying machines, we could still comprehend what we faced. Our ancestors once lived their lives amongst the foliage, we understood threats that could come from above or below.

There is no "above" or "below" in space, not once a ship glides from a planet's grasp. Once that planet no longer fills our windows, an attack can come from anywhere. And we simply cannot cope. Full, total three-dimensional war is simply not something we are capable of comprehending. Thousands of automated systems and sensor clusters strain to reduce the infinite sphere of the void into a space we can deal with. We simply cannot deal with the complexity unaided.

Or at least, we cannot cope whilst visualising the process as armed combat. But a far older and far more futile struggle provides a near-perfect analogy for our aggressors: viral infection.

It is not just our star fleets which must face enemies hidden from our gaze by simply being so much smaller than what surrounds us that we cannot realistically hope to see them coming. Planetary defence forces are less soldiers defending fortifications than they are white blood cells waiting to be surrounded without warning.

In short, invading space fleets operate as a disease, a contagion, the vector through which a race spreads itself across a hotly-contested galaxy. Which is a rather apt thought when it comes to the Death Guard, of course, given their eventual fate.  As we begin these discussions of the final days of the XIV Legion as loyalists, it's sensible to consider another vector, as Mortarion's sons begin their drift into the arms of Nurgle. With so disgusting a deity, as we have argued before, it can be difficult to understand why anyone might volunteer to become his servant.

Here, though, this isn't really the case, and not just because if anyone might fully appreciate the increased toughness offered by Nurgle it would be dedicated warriors. It took us a great deal of work to understand devotion to Nurgle amongst the cultists hidden within the Imperium, and we only managed that by viewing the idea as a bleak form of insurance against a nightmarish universe. No such convoluted logic is needed with the Death Guard's fall to the Lord of Pestilence.  Even if we strip away their obsession with poison and their disinterest in dressing up death as anything more noble or honourable than an ugly inevitability, their entire stated purpose forces them into a parallel path with the phagocyte; those other factors simply made them the most obvious targets. We may never know to what extent the prideful Death Guard allowed themselves to be warped by Nurgle and to what extent it was forced upon them, but if the change was not voluntary, it was only a disagreement of what they had become adn what they were becoming. The general direction of their fall was never in doubt.

Indeed, it may well be that in some respects the outbreak of the Heresy and its consequent shift of the their role from crusading conquerors to ever-pressed defenders was the salvation of those Astartes who remained loyal. Pathogens were spreading. The Imperium was infecting, and it was becoming infected. Everything becomes sick and dies unless the universe conspires to kill it first. In the final analysis, it may be that the Heresy's greatest effect was to stop the galaxy succumbing to our infection rather than someone else's.

As ever, though, we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Before the Death Guard can become plague-bearers of a very different type, we have many miles to go and many places to visit.

We shall begin on the bottle-world of the jorgall.


What Was

How are you finding the world according to Kaleb?  You've mentioned before a lamentable lack of human viewpoint characters. Is Garro's housecarl doing the job you were hoping for? And what about this idea of having servants that failed to become Astartes themselves?

He's definitely fulfilling the role I hoped Petronella was going to, before she turned out to be first awful and then dead. It really drives home the elitist attitude the Astartes have. Is it my imagination, or is he bowing and scraping more around the other Astartes than he is Garro?

Quite possibly. But that's probably not unusual with master-servant relationships.  Although what do I know, really. I'm basing this on Jeeves and Wooster. Which might be the best idea for a crossover ever, but it's a shaky foundation for extrapolating working relationships.

So does everyone go through an Astartes test? Well, every man?

No.  You've got to be a pretty kick-ass warrior just to get to the point of the trials.

So do many people fail the trials? I can't imagine the Legion needs all that many housecarls. 

Indeed not.  There's other, less rewarding options available too.



Spare parts?

Actually, kinda.


Robots. Well, cyborg servitors, but let's not get picky. I like to think there's a second test where those who've failed the first test find out who gets to be servants and who get to be lobotomised.

No wonder Kaleb loves his job so much.

What Is

This is the first book in the series that doesn't directly follow from the previous novel. Are you happy about backtracking like this and seeing things from a new angle?  Or are you impatient to get to whatever happens next?

I'm fine with backtracking. All that fantasy reading has primed me for book series that suddenly lurch backwards. And better this than a big jump forwards.  That's really annoying.

The title here doesn't exactly hide what this novel is going to be about.  Just out of interest, is this the dangling thread from Galaxy in Flames you're most interested in exploring? Or is there something else you'd rather had been covered first?

Like what?

I did wonder if you were going to ask me that. Let's see... you've got the upcoming shenanigans on Istvaan V, the Word Bearers attacking the Ultramarines at Calth, whatever secret plan Horus has to deal with Sanguinius, and what happened between Fulgrim and Ferrus Manus.

I think this is a fine choice. The Death Guard don't feel as well-explored as the Luna Wolves, or the Emperor's Children. They can have their own book.

You don't want to see more from the Emperor's Children?

Nope. They're dicks.

Try telling that to Tarvitz.

Tarvitz is dead. The survivors are all dicks.  And we've just had a tremendously depressing conclusion to the last book. Do we really want to hand the next book over to a gaggle of arseholes?

I see. That doesn't explain why you're not interested in more Blood Angels, though.

I'd rather see them in a multi-book story, though.

Why does that disqualify them here?

You said the next few books are standalone.

Not standalone. There just aren't any more multi-part stories without other books in the middle.

But that's a terrible idea!

So it's no Emperor's Children books, and no multi-book stories with gaps in between.  Man, you're going to hate the next two books after this. Especially since one of them is just awful

It's early days, obviously, but Swallow has a very different prose style to Counter. Are you enjoying the sudden outbreak of literacy? Or does he need to come to the point?

I did think it was going too slowly to begin with, but I'm getting into it now.  It's nice. I like finally feeling like there's enough description of what we're seeing. It's nice and eloquent.

In the last book, you - entirely reasonably - complained that we learned almost nothing about Mortarion.  Has this opening chapter helped in that regard?  And to what extent would it be sensible to keep Mortarion mysterious?

There's still not much there, is there. I mean, obviously he's death.  They're not even trying to hide that.  But other than that, what do we know? That he likes to hide in the shadows?

That's my point, though. If you want keep someone a mystery, there's a low ceiling on what you can show. Just the occasional detail, like how he keeps sniffing at gases rising from his chest. I like to think it's Vick's VapoRub.

I guess we'll have to see.  Not about the VapoRub; that's just silly. But about the mysteriousness. It depends how long they try to spin it out.

Any thoughts on our newest faction, the Sisters of Silence?

It deels a bit like a token.  That's about the only thing I'm even partially sure of at this point. They could be warriors, or shamans, or anything.  No idea. But they look like tokens.  And it's interesting that they're linking women with the forbidden.

Yeah. Yeah, that might go wrong.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Galaxy In Flames: The Gallery

A Sons of Horus Battle Barge descends towards Istvaan III to begin the virus bombing.

Sorry it's not the best quality picture. I'd hoped to scan it, but our department's scanner seems to have been deliberately wired to only allow low-grade scans. Which I suppose is a good way of keeping feckless staff like me from making use of it for our own dubious purposes, but it does also mean that anything actually useful we want to make copies of is immediately rendered unreadable.

Anyway, I doubt the method by which the picture was replicated is the real problem, but I hope you like it nevertheless.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Reports From The Front (Last Words On Galaxy In Flames)

Let's start talking about Galaxy in Flames by nipping back to the two books we've already covered. After all, this is a trilogy; there's just no way the final instalment isn't going to end up being  compared with its predecessors.

I mentioned last time around that Graham McNeill had a tough job on his hands with False Gods, but of course the truth is each of these books brought with them unique problems. The first installment had to be a belter to ensure the series had any real chance of surviving over the long term, hence why it was given to Abnett, the safest pair of hands Black Library can boast. The second book, as I've noted, required pulling off the genuinely difficult trick of starting out with a depressed but still loyal Horus, and ending with a Warmaster baying for his father's blood. And whilst I've never spoken to anyone who's said they were glad McNeill got this job rather than Abnett, it's hardly like it was an indefensible move. In the years before False Gods was released McNeill had already published seven novels for the Black Library, including books set both in the 40K universe and the Warhammer Fantasy Setting, and he had proved by the solid sales figures of his Ultramarines books (the first omnibus is currently on its second printing, I believe).

Ben Counter, in contrast, was a comparative newcomer.  Before Galaxy In Flames, he had published just four books, and three of them focussed on a Space Marine chapter of his own invention.  There was then rather less reason to be certain of Counter's ability to adapt to the brief required here. In other words, it seems someone in charge at Black Library decided that the concluding instalment in this opening trilogy was the book least in need of a proven hand at the tiller. Perhaps this decision
was made on the assumption that with the story of Horus' fall already mapped out, Counter's contribution need not involve much beyond connecting the dots. Certainly, dot-joining is essentially all that's in evidence here.

Galaxy In Flames is not a tale well-told. Indeed, large sections of it don't particularly feel told at all, so much as noted. When I initially read the book, I thought the prose poor. But that's not quite it.  It isn't poor, it's just achieved a level of functionality almost unattainable by authors permitted to tell their own tales. The events are laid out on paper and linked with brief sketches of the motivations for those involved, but the overall impression is less of a novel and more of a dry history text which happens to be covering a period with more explosions than usual. But even for a history book, this does quite feel right.  It's more like one of those awful summaries of historical battles you find dotted around the internet written by those far more interested in warfare than can be considered healthy; the kind of writers for whom detailing the exact weapon used to murder a man is of greater importance than the choices that led that man to his death in the first place.  A blog dedicated to a military sci-fi franchise might seem an odd place to make such complaints, but there's enjoying fictional violence, and then there's fetishising it. Not that I think this novel is trying to fetishise violence.  I don't think it's really trying to do much of anything.

Still, if Black Library believed the tale to be all but author-proof, they weren't completely wrong.  The Battle of Istvaan III and the last stand of the Luna Wolves - along with Lucius' vile betrayal - provides ample opportunity for adrenaline-aimed pulp entertainment.  There may be nothing even approaching a subtext, but the all-surface story offers plenty of resolute heroes and hissable villains, all set against a death toll galloping upwards. This is hardly a disaster. Still, the impression left is very much that works here does so despite Counter's efforts, or at best independently of them. This is a story easy to avoid screwing up, but also easy to spin into something truly remarkable. That Counter was only able to achieve the former can hardly be considered much of a triumph.  This is a book without even the ambition to fail in a way we might find interesting.


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Is There In Truth No Beauty?

Galaxy In Flames: Brothers (IV)

Loken and Abaddon (copyright unknown)
Welcome, citizens, to the Truth.

We are, just perhaps, most honest with those we are about to kill.

Certainly, the testimony offered up by Abaddon and Little Horus immediately preceding the final battle of the Mournival is the closest we have yet come to an honest explanation of what made these two warriors abandon the vows they made centuries earlier. That makes it extremely important to think about what exactly they said, and just as important to think about what they didn't say.

As one could surmise from two such different people, the two rebel members of the Mournival offer decidedly different explanations as to why they condoned the brutal murder of thousands of their former brothers. It is no surprise that Abaddon offers the more passionate response, nor that, as with so many who allow their passions to rule - as oppose to merely influence - them, that the response is so utterly shot through with incoherent foolishness.  The Emperor isn't paying sufficient attention to the forces that could destroy humanity so we should join with those forces? That's like saying your physiker never offers you the right optics so you should gouge out your eyes and throw them at her. It's only blind, charging passion that could possibly keep this sieve afloat, pushing it forward so fast it never has time to sink. And of course it's the same passion that forces such hatred of Loken from him. To feel anything other than total disgust at Loken's choice might lead to trying to make sense of his position, and then the hastily constructed structure of bent timbers and crumbling stones would collapse entirely.

Loken has to be wrong because Abaddon has to be right. Because if Abaddon isn't right, then...

In comparison, Aximand is almost refreshingly pragmatic. Abaddon's view of reality has forced him to conclude that his Primarch is infallible; that Horus' choices are the Right Choices, even when those choices are transparently incoherent; even when one day he personally saves Loken and a few months later orders his flesh be dissolved. Aximand, in contrast, seems almost disinterested in the righteousness or otherwise of the Warmaster's cause.  What Aximand sees is the necessity. The Warp cannot be beaten, it can simply, perhaps, be appeased. It doesn't even matter whether appeasement is plausible, really, any chance at avoiding destruction is better than certain extinction. It's a tremendously cynical and pessimistic viewpoint, but the cold, selfish logic is clear to all, including Aximand, which is why he sounded so morose when delivering it.

Of course just because something has its own bleak logic doesn't make it right. Yes, the final triumph of Chaos is, based on everything we know, inevitable. Demons cannot be destroyed, they can only be banished; removed temporarily from our reality. They always come back, even as more are created by our sprawling ocean of psyches. We reinforce Chaos with our minds and with our emotions, as surely as we do with those who betray their race and flock to tattered and bloody banners. A world that falls to daemons in weeks can take centuries to reclaim, and most never are. The road from Us to Them is never long, and it only goes in one direction. Sooner or later, the last human will stand surrounded by an endless swarm of gibbering monsters, and they will die.

But so what? Humanity will one day become extinct in any case.  It is a mathematical certainty. Perhaps we survive the awakening of the Necrons, and the closing grip of the Tyranids. Perhaps the Eldar fail in their desperate attempts to reclaim their past glories, and the Tau fail to surplant in their mad dash outwards. We will still die, frozen and lost amidst heavy, ugly stars.  All we are ever doing is attempting to delay the inevitable, to drag ourselves broken and bleeding to the finish line, where we can fade from the universe not because we failed, but because even success must some day die.

That being the case, I say we seek to earn the best deaths we can.

In essence, Abaddon and Aximand represent the two endpoints of the scale upon which every convert to Chaos falls; one all belligerent petulance, consumed by the conviction that every move that hurts those he hates must be the right on, the other unsure, hesitant, under no illusions that what he is doing is utterly wrong, but unable to conceive of any other option. Seeing both endpoints of the scale is of great value, actually, because in dismissing them both we can cast aside every point in-between at the same time. The lies of small, sad logic reach no further than the lies of passion. The truth is always that we must resist.  It remains true when our friends betray us. It remains true when they send armies to trample us. It remains true when they burn our cities and poison the very air against us.

The odds of success are a supreme irrelevance. A physiker does not fight disease because they think they can help us live forever. We fight not because we believe we can win. We fight because the alternative is surrender.

Such thoughts might prove of some small use in our darker moments. Certainly, with the Battle of Istvaan III, we approach perhaps the darkest moment of Imperial history short of the Siege of the Emperor's Palace itself. Istvaan V is approaching, and with it the single greatest act of betrayal history records. Whatever scraps of comfort we can find, I suggest we take them.

Before all that, though, a diversion is needed.  For over a year now we have focused on the birth pains of the rebellion aginst the Emperor.  It is time to shift our focus to the very first moves in the Loyalist response to Horus' treachery.

It is time to tell the story of the frigate Eisenstein.


1. Let's have a minute's silence for brave Tarik Torgaddon. And then talk about how he went down like a bitch.

What about Loken?

Well, um, er... we didn't actually see him die. Yes, yes that's why I didn't mention him. That's the only reason why.

I didn't think Little Horus had it in him.  But then I guess Torgaddon didn't leave him much choice.

Careful now. It sounds like you're blaming Tarik for getting his own head cut off.

At least it proves Aximand has his doubts.

Hell of a way to work that out, isn't it? Is there no way to test that which doesn't involve getting someone's head chopped off?

I wonder if Abaddon has been concerned about Aximand for a little while now, actually. It would explain why he never seems to leave him alone.

Were you surprised that Torgaddon lost out to L'il Horus?

What do you mean?

Well, you know. Only Torgaddon and Abaddon have survived since the start of the Mournival. Tarik's clearly a damn good fighter.

Maybe Horus had other advantages, though. We know Abaddon refused help, but maybe Aximand was a bit more practical. 

You think he's on something? Or that he's spent some time over at Fabius Bile's Emporium of Illicit Alien Dangly Bits?

One or the other. To be honest, I was more interested in Abaddon's approach. That he wouldn't accept the cursed sword -

That's the anathame you're thinking of. Abaddon refused the Justaerin, which are his bodyguards.

- Well either way, sword or bodyguard, it doesn't matter. If you're going to get on your high horse about not needing help, it's a bit off to clamber into your super-good armour that your opponent can't beat.

That's an excellent point. "I will dress in basically a goddamn tank to destroy this man; offering me further tanks INSULTS MY WARRIOR CAPABILITIES!"

 He obviously isn't thinking clearly.

Tell me about it. It's hard to get anything out of his explanation of the rebellion other than "The Emperor doesn't understand the Warp will destroy all human life. So we've joined with the Warp against the Emperor". That's like saying you're so pissed off by how the local police aren't keeping crime down you're going to rob a bank.

Yes, this hasn't been a great day for the forces of logic.

2. How well has this last book/section/chapter resolved the opening trilogy? Has it balanced getting answers with opening up new story paths?

Well, there's certainly a lot of options for new stories, even though they've killed off pretty much everyone. Aside from Sindermann and Euphrati and so on, who's even left for us to go back to?  My thing is whether we actually needed the whole trilogy.


Meaning that almost all the heroes are dead, and the villains could have been introduced in a brief description at the start of a book.  Lots of stories kick off explaining that some traitor has caused some disaster, and then launches straight into that.  We don't necessarily have to see everything they did. We know what a traitor is, right?

Fair enough.

But on the the other side maybe the whole point is for us to have learned the names and characters so that when Horus turns we have an investment in the people he's betraying. I also probably shouldn't be too critical until we see where Little Horus goes next. It might all have been about setting up his internal conflict.

I'd like to think so. Aximand is probably my favourite character in the opening trilogy.

Speaking of the way things have developed, does this mean that bloke on the Des'Ree really is dead?

I'm afraid so.

So why the hell was it written like that?

I suspect Counter didn't realise how ambiguously he'd written that section in the first place. Though it may also have been that he wanted to leave it unclear until the very last minute who was actually in charge of the Titan.

I was hoping all the way through that the Des'Ree would just shoot Eidolon in the back.

I noticed re-reading this that the final stand is actually written like the moments before the cavalry arrive, actually. Everyone's at their lowest ebb, and you're sure they'll be saved at the last second, because that's how fiction works, but no; the Dies Irae really is still under Horus'  control, and all the good guys die.

It's quite original, in that sense, actually, though I confess that being original by ramping up the grimness isn't a strategy without problems.

3.  Time, as is traditional, for Fliss to mark the book.  We'll talk plot, characters and setting, and then discuss an overall score.

a) Plot

I'm not really feeling this one. It wasn't quite gruesome enough-

Not quite gruesome enough? A planet's worth of people melted screaming.

Meh. It's no Scandinavian crime novel.

I see.

There just needs to be something different about the fighting for me to enjoy it.

More different than superhuman soldiers with gigantic death robots?

Yes. I want dragons.

Because those are as original as all hell, obviously. You talk like people were coming out of the Hobbit sequel saying "What the hell was that thing in the caves?"

I like dragons!

Fine, but don't kid yourself. You're not looking for originality. You're looking for dragons.

(Fliss offers me a gesture I would fear to describe)

Anyway. Too much of the book was based on a series of battles I didn't really care about. Fighting giant insects around wierd spiky trees; that I can get into. This was just a slog. An endless description of which body part someone had lost this time. The problem with Astartes is they can take so much punishment. You just start to wish they'd die and get it over with.

Oh dear.

I mean, the whole plot was basically "Ooh, look how bad Horus is now! See him kill everyone! Look how everyone was too stupid to notice and they're all dead now the end".

Was there nothing good on offer?

Well, I liked the bits with Euphrati and Sindermann. I was glad they got away. It was one of the only upbeat moments in the whole book.


b)  Characters

We didn't really get to see any new characters, really.

That's true, which means this section is mainly going to be about how well Counter has handled the characters he inherited from Abnett and McNeill.

I think he's done a decent job, though there wasn't really much developing on what went before.  Loken got even more wet, I suppose, but that's entirely plausible.

You mean Loken entered into a downward spiral of increasing wetness, but it was totally believable.

Yes. I mean, really lots of characters just ended up as almost parodies of themselves. Eidolon is an egotist and a glory seeker, so all he did here was plot and preen. Abaddon has an arrogance issue, so here he just won't listen to anyone ever. That sort of thing.

What else?

It felt like a greater ranges of perspectives this time, which helped. I think we get more from Euphrati as a saint than we did from her as a remembrancer. I still think the sudden change from "We love the Emperor!" to "Death to the Emperor!" was too fast. 

That's more of a criticism of the last book, though.

Not entirely.  There was ample space for flashbacks and explanations.

I suppose. I agree that False Gods had enough to do; further selling the whole Heresy idea should have been something for Counter to handle.

It would have been really handy to see more of Little Horus. Watching how he came to terms with what's going on would have been really helpful.

Good point. Plus of course he's the most interesting character in the books. He was literally the only Astartes in the series who I couldn't tell which side he'd end up on (though I was always hoping Tarik might surprise me). Did anyone surprise you with the way they went.

Not really, other than my theory about Vipus not coming true.


c) Setting

There wasn't an awful lot of new locations this time around.

That's true.

I mean, really there's not much to say. The High City wasn't really described in too much detail.

Well it did need to get demolished pretty quick, I guess.

I'll give out credit for the Warsingers. That was a pretty cool idea. But like I say, we hardly went anywhere.

I think the idea was to build tension, You know, keep cranking things up until it's all horribly clear what's about to happen. If it was horribly clear.

Most of the broad strokes. Bits and pieces surprised me.

But in truth the aim here is to build on dramatic irony. You suspected what would happen; people like me knew.


So the build-up comes attached with anticipation for us.

Three books is a lot of anticipation.  Why did you need all those words if you knew what was going to happen?

Shakespeare took three play to get through Henry VI.

Henry VI has a legacy. Loken just takes three books to die.

Loken has a legacy!  Even if no-one knows what he and Tarvitz did, his actions could have made all the difference.

Henry VI is of enormous historical importance, though.

Look, it's not like I'm directly comparing the two trilogies, obviously. I mean, a story about a doomed leader broken into a tale of military mistakes and the fading of a unified cause, a story of political machinations and the approach of inevitable war, and the total collapse of the established rules of order during a cataclysmic civil war? Not much mistaking which trilogy that is.

That reminds me! That guys laboratory was really gruesome.

And you like gruesome?

I love gruesome!

Well at least you've got something out of this.




And that's another book consigned to the "now read" pile. Fliss gets her traditional fortnight off whilst I write an actual review of Counter's first Heresy effort, and if you're lucky (for a unique definition of the word) this time around The Gallery will feature my first piece of artwork I've encouraged others to see since, well, ever, I think.

Fliss will return on the 28th of October to get to work on Flight of the Eisenstein.