The Siege of Castellax

The Siege of Castellax by CL Werner.

Earlier this year, I had said that I wouldn’t do anymore book reviews. At the very last sentence of it I had mention that, at the very least, I wouldn’t do anymore in a negative tone. 

Until today, I had kept my word on that. Today I finished reading The Siege of Castellax by CL Werner. So, in an exception I hope not to make so often, I am giving it a review. Call me a liar if you must.

For fans of Warhammer 40k, many of the Space Marine Battle Novels have  not always to their tastes. The SMBs, by their nature, have tended towards straight forward stories of two sides fighting, and some feel they lack story and character growth. 

But this book is a game changer. It is the first full SMB novel revolving around a Chaos Marine Legion instead of loyalists (Architect of Fate was a series of novellas). And above all, it has a story that delivers as sharply as any other 40k novel, or rather moreso.

Castellax is a factory world ruled by the Iron Warriors, under the command of Warsmith Andraaz. Life on Castellax somehow manages to be even more heinous than that of the Imperium. Human slaves, referred to by a resource term of ‘Flesh’, grind themselves into nothing serving the needs of the Iron Warriors, all to keep up shipments to Medrengard.

But everything goes to hell when a billion Orks attack the planet. Immediately, the Iron Warrior’s navy is smashed. Andraaz finds himself relying on his captains: Vallax and Rhodaan (pictured above) who lead the Raptors. Algol, a madman who enkoys taking the skins of interesting slaves. Gamgin, who leads the Iron Warrior’s human auxilia, Morax, who is in charge of the air forces. And Oriax, the enigmatic Fabricator and Techmarine.

Every major Iron Warrior character has their own fetish or intrigue. While the Orks tend to be more of a plot driving element than a character driven force, the story is told in the form of endless scheming and conniving amongst the Iron Warrior ranks. Grand plans to usurp positions of leadership, attempts at rebellion and revenge abound everywhere, as the psychotic antics of the legion repeatedly undermine their efforts to stop the greenskins. These characters create several of their own plot lines, that tie together and could never end happily.

A rare spectacle of the book can be explained in one word: Obliterator.

Indeed. Chances to read about an Obliterator in action, or even converse with them, don’t come often from the works of the Black Library. But Werner has given us the rare chance to witness the horror these eclectic behemoths inflict upon both enemies and allies. The scarcity of these monsters alone makes the book worth reading for anyone who has pondered these walking arsenals.

CL Werner crafts rare stages for combat, unusual circumstances that you wish would you could not just read or see on the screen, but play in a video game. Trains that dump cars and sacrifice their desperate allies to pick up speed. Raptors diving down massive cannon barrels to destroy them from within. Having to subdue a rampaging Obliterator. Perhaps the guys who are tinkering at the next Warhammer 40k game will pick Werner’s brain for ideas.

The Siege of Castellax satisfies and more. It hits every note that Black Library readers want: tight battle scenes, detailed settings that strongly interact with the story. Gripping, intriguing characters who spin and drive their own plots. Rhodaan will be a character who inspires modelist for months, if not years, to come. Chaos and its themes rule the day. 

It’s everything you want a Space Marine Battle novel to be. It’s a great book, and hopefully the start of even more amazing things to come from the SMB series. Be sure to grab a copy for the holidays.

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The Gildar Rift

I'm sorry, but Huron Blackheart is just too damn ugly to make fun of.

I'm sorry, but Huron Blackheart is just too damn ugly to tease.

Author’s Edit-Note: Yesterday, I heard out some statements and thoughts on the review. As I considered it, I started to mentally compare this review to others I have written. I didn’t feel what I wrote was particularly fair, so I’ve submitted here an edited version.

Opinions can be swayed or changed, and not always for ill. If opinions and feelings didn’t change, then your first love would be your only love, people would be content with the same meal everyday and Kim Kardashian might still be married… for better or worse.

And opinions can be wrong, especially when founded on false facts or the impact  of a few bad apples in the barrel. And that doesn’t really do a book and its author justice. If anyone thinks this makes my opinion too biased, then so be it. It’s not the end of my world.

So here is the updated version. Edits are mentioned before hand, while the rest is left as the original.

I feel the need to give something of a disclaimer before I post this review.

You see, I pal around with the author, one Sarah Cawkwell, on the Shoutbox. That being said, I cannot claim that this review isn’t without additional bias (as I already am a Warhammer 40k fan). I admit that I found both strengths and weaknesses in the story, which I will list with both deserving praise and constructive criticism respectively.

I leave it to the reader to decide if my word is trustworthy given the facts I have presented. But I feel that The Gildar Rift is a solid, interesting read.

From the get go, there’s a lot that separates this book from other Space Marine Battle novels. For starters, I enjoy the fact that the enemy is Chaos instead of Space Orkz. I grew somewhat tired of the constant Orkz’R’Us that some other SMBs offered (Helsreach and Rynn’s World). It’s refreshing when the enemy is after your soul more so than your body.

When the threat of corruption is as equal as the threat of destruction, one must keep one’s eyes both on the enemy and on one’s allies.

I feel it best to discuss Cawkwell’s strengths. Her writing of space-naval battles is impressive. Very impressive. I’ve read some of the works of Michael Stackpole and veteran Black Library authors, and her talent for writing naval warfare is exceptional even in comparison. Her writing of ground battles is also solid but not quite the same caliber as in space.

Plot wise, The Gildar Rift offers far more than most Space Marine battle books, with a mix of interesting villains that contrast themselves against the long term plans of the Silver Skulls. The Skulls were hard at work on a new technical project designed to mesh man and machine. You may wonder how this is different than other Mechanicus products, but trust me when I say that it is different. That it is unlike anything we’ve seen in the grim future as of yet. It is enough to keep one curious and keeps the book from being branded as “bolter porn.”

One thing of interest was the traditions of the Silver Skulls. Firm believers in the will of the Emperor, they relied on Chaplain-Librarians to divine the future and accept or deny battle plans accordingly. While interesting in theory, I feel for the impatience of the main character, Daerys Arrun. To wait for the aye or nay of a tarot reading would drive me absolutely bonkers.

But the Silver Skulls “read the signs” approach truly fits Sarah Cawkwell’s combative writing style. You can tell from the first battle that she is a writer who fight-writes with her head first by discussing strategy and tactics. She lays out what has to be done and how it will be done, and takes the time to think it out before putting her thoughts and words into action.

Edits: Originally, I had stamped Cawkwell’s dialogue as somewhat weak at points. As I reevaluated the book, I narrowed my grievances down to only a few parts. The dialogue throughout the book was fine to good. My original post seemed to suggest that there was more wrong with Cawkwell’s work than there was, which was my fault.

So I have removed the section explaining body language and non-verbal communication. It can be reincarnated later in a more fitting post, and not insinuating more weakness in Cawkwell’s work than is actually there.

My grievances are reduced to a few scenes or statements which bugged me. At the start of chapter four (page 77), Arrun feels it necessary to apologize to Prognosticator Brand. Now in its defense, situations where a Space Marine feels it necessary to apologize to another are as rare as thumbs on a dog. But it’s painfully awkward to watch Arrun try to console his guilty conscience. Could I have written this part better myself? Very unlikely. But it begs the question of what is the proper way a warrior should seek forgiveness from another, which is something I’ll be thinking about.

On page 141, Huron Blackheart goes into some monologue of everything he intends to do with Arrun. The whole rambling set of threats could have used a touch of reason, even if it was irrationality. Was it Blackheart’s insanity? Was it psychological warfare? Was it madness or was there a method to it? Or both? The monologue raises an interesting question as to how much the author should explain. Would it have been better to clarify the purpose of Blackheart’s ranting or leave it to the reader to figure out?

Finally on page 320, the taciturn Daviks felt it necessary to give a very long winded explanation of the kinks in his strategy. Getting detailed would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that Arrun was in the middle of a battle. Arrun shot this down, but wondered why it didn’t dawn on Daviks that it wasn’t the time.

But these weaknesses are miniscule compared to the whole. The Gildar Rift is a strong read, difficult to put down as the old question, “What happens next?!” kept me glued. I’ll be looking forward to Cawkwell’s next novel.

Exterminatus Review

Trained in battle, but also a master of dance fighting. With an axe.

Also a master of dance fighting. With an axe.

Exterminatus. Mmmm good.

Among the earliest complaints I agreed with on Space Marine was the lack of content. THQ however, worked quickly to fix this, coming out with a new coop mode only a couple of months after the release. When it came out, I was frustrated because a bug wouldn’t let me play, but THQ worked fast to fix that. Now I enjoy Exterminatus whenever I need something new.

But depending on who you ask, their timing was anywhere from good to poor.

You see, in Exterminatus you can only earn experience. You cannot earn perks or armor. So for those players who already earned level 41, their incentive to play Exterminatus is effectively nil. But for those who have not yet earned the highest tier, it’s a fun change of pace.

Hopefully, since THQ is coming out with another version of Exterminatus called “Chaos Unleashed” for the Chaos faction, they’ll add some new armor or perks to earn. In CU, Chaos Marine teams will fight not only Orks but Imperial Guard too, with new boss and units like the Sanctioned Psyker. The DLC comes with new maps and a new game mode. Check it out here.

One of the things that shakes up coop against competitive is the fact that in competitive, the best perks tend to focus more on anything that boosts offense and defense enough in the face of short, brutally intense fights against other players. So perks like Serrated Combat Blade, or Iron Halo tend to be really useful.

But in the coop, the fight is long, ongoing and full of attrition. The Orks are weak, but keep coming after you with their hordes. They grind you down, wear you out and eventually overwhelm you. So perks that focus more on recovering and sustainability tend to be more useful. Final Vengeance for example is a wasted perk, since your team only gets a very finite number of lives and you do more damage staying alive than blowing up on the Orks. In competitive play, I wouldn’t have bothered with Ammunition Stores because I can recover ammo by killing or respawning. I just never really ran out. But in coop, Tactical and other Devastators need ammo too, so we tend to compete for the ammo drops the Orks rarely leave behind.

So here’s a short list of perks I believe are more useful for Exterminatus:

Tactical:
Typically, you want to avoid any perk that is more about respawning. Rapid Deployment and Teleport Homer aren’t terribly useful because you and your allies should work very hard to avoid death. You maybe tempted towards Master-Crafted Wargear and Favor of the Armory because grenades do well with managing Ork groups, but the occasional difficulty in replenishing grenades will quickly take away from the benefits of these perks.

  • Larraman’s Blessing – You will sometimes have to run away from the hordes to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed. But this perks lets you recover more rapidly and get back into the fight.
  • Weapon Versatility – The beauty of this perk is that you take two guns and not just one with you. By doing so, you also increase the amount of ammunition you take with you as well as the amount of ammo you recover when you get an ammo drop. You can also better react to the kinds of Orks you’ll be facing.
  • Additional Melta Fuel – This perk as well as any that let you take additional ammo is recommended. Given the slow recharge time of a Melta however, you may also consider the Improved Melta Charge perk with this.

Devastator:
The Devastator’s defensive perks work well in Exterminatus. So it really boils down to the weapon choices. As such, I cannot recommend the Lascannon because of the sheer number of targets and their preference towards close combat. The Plasma Cannon is decent, but one must be mindful of the fact that the Orks are desperately trying to get close, making it personally dangerous. This means that the Heavy Bolter is probably the most reliable choice for Exterminatus. Surprisingly, while Heavy Bolter Expertise is a make-or-break perk in competitive, it’s not that big a deal in coop.

  • Heavy Bolter Coolant – Given the sheer number of Orks, overheating is a huge problem for the Heavy Bolter. This perk goes far to counter it, letting you keep up the barrage of firepower to take them down.
  • Ammunition Stores – When you have one other Devastator or Tactical Marine on the team, getting ammo usually isn’t too bad. But if you have three or more, it becomes very difficult. But Ammunition Stores lets you keep going where as others are down to pistols.
  • Artificer Armor – In truth, almost any of the defensive perks are great for survivability. Artificer Armor however lets you recover from battle damage much more quickly. Just disengage and run until it replenishes your armor.

Assault Marine:
Assault Marines don’t suffer from the necessity of ammunition quite like the other two classes. This is not to say that the pistols aren’t useful, but they should be at the front fighting the hordes face to face. They also have the joy of health replenishing perks, which let them continue to fight where as others have to back off in order to survive.  The one change up is that Assault Marines should not be afraid to leap away if they’re getting overwhelmed. Orks prefer numbers and melee combat and sometimes, and that’s too much for a lone Assault Marine to deal with. The jump pack should be used defensively as well as offensively. Perhaps the worst thing about Assault Marines is when they have to take a control point, as they cannot use their best features as offensively as they are intended too.

  • Swordsman’s Zeal – This perk lets you keep going even when your armor is gone. It’s easy to have too much faith in this perk, however, and believe you can stand up to a horde. Fight as hard as you can, then jump away and kill a lone Ork to replenish your life rapidly. Then rejoin the fray. The same applies to the Axeman’s Zeal.
  • Air-Cooled Thrusters – Leaping away from a horde can sometimes spell the difference between life and death. The jump pack stores up to two jumps, so exhausting your supply when you land is risky business. Blast Off and Death From Above pair well with this, so long as you jump as often as you can.
  • True Grit – I’ve seen Assault Marines use this in Exterminatus and it is surprisingly effective. It gives them a very valid ranged option when the Assault Marine must pull away from a horde (the pistol isn’t bad, but a bolter is still better). When the Assault Marine has to take a control point, it also gives him a better weapon for fending off Shoota Nobz and Rokkit Boyz. The only downside is that it makes the Assault Marine more ammo dependent, to the detriment of any Devastators or Tactical Marines.