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.

Adeptus Astartes Psychology

I’ve never been a huge fan of calling them Space Marines.

When I call them Space Marines, I sometimes think of the various other kinds of space marines out there, from the movie Aliens or Starcraft. Ordinary humans with lots of equipment and training and scars. Tough, meaty guys with the HOO-RAH attitude who frequently get massacred. 40k Space Marines are just something else entirely.

I prefer the term Adeptus Astartes.

We want YOU! ... In our cross hairs.

We want YOU! ... In our cross hairs.

Astartes are a much more awesome term having originated from the goddess of war, fertility and sexuality, Astarte. Which is meaningful for the first two points and ironic on the third. They are masters of war, create new Space Marines through their gene seed and are pretty much asexual.

That last point may have been meant to kick Sigmund Freud to the curb. It’s not that the writers of the Black Library’s stories are afraid of sex; it has occasionally found a place in the stories like those of Ciaphas Cain and parts of the Horus Heresy. But sex is just not a motivation for a Space Marine.

My history teacher back in high school, an amazing man some claimed to be crazy, once told us that the four most powerful motivators of people. My mind added a fifth, and I can’t remember which were the original four he mentioned. But they are power, sex, violence, fear and money.

We’ve already struck out sex. Money doesn’t matter either. It’s possible that power motivates Space Marines to an extent, but they rarely occupy the planets they take for long, rarely seem to ‘move in’ and hold onto a planet for longer than they have too. Fear is taken away by the Imperial decree, “And they shall know no fear.”

So I suppose that leaves violence and violence alone.

They are, after all, warriors. Men who have done away with the usual limitations of mankind, such as age, the need to procreate. They survive conditions that would kill most men, can eat, drink and breath things we cannot. They do not know fear.

They aren’t human, not anymore anyway. So much is taken away that what is left is magnified. You could claim that the big guns and armor and compensating for something with a wink and nudge, and you’d be right. They are compensating for the fact they’re only vaguely human.

They have, on my levels, outgrown what it means to be mortal. And have ventured, but do not cross, into the realm of the immortal. You can talk about all the neat toys like the bolters and power armor. You can discuss the great genetic gifts they’ve received. But repeatedly, we are told that what separates a Space Marine from a man is that they are an idea of humanity transcended, that their faith is their shield and hatred their weapon.

Transcendence. Think about that for a moment.

A major theme of science fiction, fantasy and everything in between is what it means to not be human. To either rise above human or to never have been at all. To be either an alien species or something distantly related to humanity, turned down a different evolutionary path (of which someone is quick to declare another besides humanity the superior race), or technologically advanced. In real life, transcendence is a major issue in most religions, as each attempts to answer the question of what happens to our conscience when we die.

Astartes are ultimate in the fact that they touch on so many of these things, all at once. There is the genetic manipulation of their DNA through the introduction of gene-seed organs. There are technological augmentations, such as the ports of the black carapace, augmented limbs and the power armor. And yes, there is even a fervent religious element to it as well, as they become the Emperor’s ‘Angels of Death.’

It’s a curious thing then that they reject the cult of the Emperor as a god, with the view that he was an extraordinary man. Yet, so much of their day is spent in prayer and ritual. The original material on this was taken down from the GW site, but remains available. Even stripped of a central monotheistic figure, Astartes remain diligent in their observation of chapter tradition.

When you strip a man of his manhood and replace it with the gifts of a demi-god, there is only a fraction of his humanity that is left over. And what’s left becomes intense and quintessential. It turns him into something more pure. The difference between a human and an Astartes is akin to that of men and angels; when surrounded, as they often are in the 40k universe, a man may have no where to go. He may have no choice but to die. But an angel can rise.

Or… as I’ll discuss later, an angel can fall.

Angels of Darkness

The current cover.

The current cover.

Angels of Darkness, by Gav Thorpe, was my first Warhammer 40k novel.

For a newcomer as I was, it was an extremely rough ride. It is a short book but at the same time, there is a lot going on which related to the background. The Horus Heresy, the splintering of the Dark Angels Space Marine legion. The recruiting trials of neophytes and the correlations of the planetary governments who are hosting the Adeptus Astartes.

It was a smack in the face.

The first thing that startled me were the neophyte trials. The main character, a Dark Angels Chaplain named Boreas, descends with his command squad upon a tribal world. The tribesmen greet the warriors and summon forth several youths who compete for the right to return with the Dark Angels and begin training to become Astartes. After the physically challenging trials, only three are left.

Of these three, one fails. What occurs after was a cultural shock to me. It was a wake up call as to the nature of the society that is the Imperium, and what some feel are the necessities it takes to survive in this war torn future. But like an initiate myself I somehow got over what happened and continued to read, muddled as I was. There were surprises yet in store.

Without giving away any spoilers or surprises, Angels of Darkness was one of two somewhat controversial titles (in an entertaining way), the other being Simon Spurrier’s Lord of the Night. Like Spurrier’s masterpiece, Thorpe’s book revolves around a character who has been alive since the Horus Heresy, and who provides a unique first hand perspective about the events.

The original cover.

The original cover. I actually think this is the better looking of the two.

The historically connect character in this book was a prisoner of the Dark Angels, a man named Astelan. A former lord of a planet and one of the Dark Angels’ coveted fallen, half the book is spent covering the torture and interrogation of Astelan, who insists on his innocence. One of the most powerful character moments in Black Library history occurred when Astelan was offered a choice, and the decision he chooses comes at great personal cost.

Another similarity between Angels of Darkness and Lord of the Night was in the manner it was told. The two books went back and forth between two different perspectives on the chapters. The different was that while Angels of Darkness involved the same characters at different times, Lord of the Night involved two different characters at the same time. Thorpe’s work bounces back and forth between the past and the present. The present offers another, different plot which loosely connects to the past. However, the present story seems pale and of less importance to the revelations that occur during Astelan’s interrogation.

I cannot claim in good conscious that Angels of Darkness is a great novel for fresh fans. People who know and understand enough of the background will find an unforgettable story that rocks what they know to the core. But the newcomer will be lost and confused, like being dropped in white water rapids when they don’t know yet how to swim. But for those of us who consider ourselves Warhammer 40k fans, Angels of Darkness is a must read.

The Ultramarines Omnibus

Probably as close to good guys are you're going to get.

Probably as close to good guys are you're going to get.

A good book to read for the uninitiated? One for chaps who are new to the works of the Black Library?

Well, that’s kind of tough to answer. Some books are easier than others to figure out and understand. But there’s no escaping that a person’s first trip into Warhammer 40k is likely to be like slamming a person’s head into a bucket of ice cold water. There’s a lot to learn, from the terminology to the factions, the history of each race.

So I can’t say with absolutely certainty, but Graham McNeill’s The Ultramarines Omnibus is probably going to be one of the better bets.

The Ultramarines Space Marine chapter is probably one of the few who are fairly more benevolent than most. Well, that’s what we’re led to believe. Nothing in the universe is ever that simple, and the moral grey areas lend themselves to complexities that make almost every faction and character more well rounded than we are ever first led to believe. But for a new guy, this is fine.

In Nightbringer, Uriel Ventris is the main character of the series, who is captain of the 4th Company. Together with his ally and close friend Pasanius, the 4th Company is sent to look into the civil unrest and Dark Eldar raids against the planet of Pavonis. I cannot really say much more without risking plot spoilers.

Of the three books in the trilogy, Nightbringer is actually my least favorite. It goes for some mystery elements that do not particularly mesh with the direction Ultramarines are expected to take in my opinion. But for the new guy, the first of the three books will do them a favor in illustrating the infighting and complications of life and politics on just about every world in the Imperium. Still, despite any personal misgivings about the first book, the second and third ones make up for it.

I'm just glad Uriel looks nothing at all like Bruce Campbell...

I'm just glad Uriel looks nothing at all like Bruce Campbell...

In Warriors of Ultramar, Uriel Ventris joins Chief Librarian Tiberius in forging an alliance with the Mortifactors, another Space Marine chapter descended from Roboute Guilliman. Together they join in the defense of Tarsis Ultra, who is in the path of a Tyranid fleet. Given that Tyranids cannot be reasoned with and seek to devour all the bio-matter on a planet (including yours truly), you would think the story would be straight forward good guys versus the bad dudes. But McNeill isn’t going to let the reader off that easy. In the defense of the system, various characters sacrifice lives to protect Tarsis Ultra. Or to save their own bacon.

Dead Sky Black Sun takes place very shortly after Warriors of Ultramar and, ironically, as a direct result of Uriel Ventris’ actions within the previous book. Punished for not sticking to the Codex Astartes, Uriel Ventris is stripped of command of the 4th Company and sent with his friend Pasanius on a quest of redemption. Due to an unforeseen and very bloody supernatural intervention however, Ventris and Pasanius are dumped on Medrengard, the industrial world home to the unforgiving Iron Warriors legion.  The situation is even worse given the power struggle between two Iron Warrior factions, one of whom is led by Warsmith Honsou. Who is Honsou, you may ask? I haven’t time to explain. But at the rate this guy is accumulating fame, you’ll find out sooner or later.

Dead Sky Black Sun has a back story to it that is told in McNeill’s other book, Storm of Iron. A first time reader can probably wing it without too much difficulty, but the previous book answers many questions that may pop up throughout Uriel Ventris’ quest on the Iron Warrior’s home world.

Given how much the Black Library sees the Space Marines as the most integral part of the Warhammer 40k universe, a new guy is going to have to get initiated with the Astartes sometime. Graham McNeill is probably the best author on the subject. Hence The Ultramarines Omnibus is probably going to be one of the best choices for bringing new fans on board.

Gaunt’s Ghosts: The Founding

I think it's... dashing.

I think it's... dashing.

So let’s say you’re new. You want something that is considered a classic, a must read. Something that despite being years old, you can always find fans who are excited to talk about it. And just for kicks, let’s say you don’t have too much money to spend.

Well, for the latter problem I would advise you to check out the omnibuses. Usually these crunch three books down into a single, massive book and then add a short story or two for a price range of about $15. That’s pretty solid value. If you’re willing to get it used, you can even get it for less.

As for the former issue, I’d advise you to read almost any of Dan Abnett’s older stuff. But in particular, to read The Founding.

True to its name, The Founding is about the creation of the first and only Tanith Ghost regiments. The series spans more than a dozen novels with no signs of stopping anytime soon. It would be a little difficult to jump into the series mid way because many stories relate back to one another sooner or later as well as a very large cast of characters to meet.

Let’s talk about the setting for a moment. The story takes place in the midst of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade in the Segmentum Pacificus, located ‘south’ of Terra. For an idea of where that is, check out this 40k star map and look below Terra. To bring you up to speed, Chaos has taken a vested interest in the region, which has resulted in a very, very long and ongoing war. Being an extremely large chunk of the Imperium at stake, a lot of the war is fought man to man. You won’t see too many Space Marines of either variety, because even the application of the Astartes, though welcomed, would not immediately turn the tide of war. Instead, most of the war is a meat grinder for the Imperial Guard and the Lost and Damned Legions.

The backdrop and heart of the Crusade was Warmaster Slaydo, a powerful but somewhat enigmatic figure who died just before the book series began. Not long before his death on Balhaut, Slaydo had called together forty eight officers to take a Blood Oath. One of the officers was a young Commissar by the name of Ibram Gaunt, who is sent to the forest planet Tanith to collect a tithe of three regiments for the war effort. An unfortunate oversight by the Imperial Naval defenses however permitted a Chaos fleet to attack and destroy Tanith. Commissar Gaunt takes the reins as a Colonel and evacuates the planet’s Guard regiments. The survivors are consolidated into a single regiment, known as the Tanith First and Only. Top sniper Hlaine Larkin is credited with the Tanith regiment’s nick name, “Gaunt’s Ghosts.”

It's rare that the third is the best of a trilogy these days.

It's rare that the third is the best of a trilogy these days.

First and Only, the first book of the trilogy, discusses the regiments founding while also explaining some of Commissar Gaunt’s family baggage. The second book, Ghostmaker, is completely different. Instead of the usual story telling method, Ghostmaker is an anthology of short stories about important individuals within the Ghosts. These stories eventually tie together into the final arching plot. This is actually my least favorite of the Gaunt’s Ghost series, but it’s still decent.

But Necropolis, the third book, is my favorite. In my opinion, it is the best of the Gaunt’s Ghost series in general and one of my top stories not only among what the Black Library publishes, but also among all the books I own.

Necropolis takes place in a hive city under siege by one of its neighbors. At first, the nobility believe the war to be another trade war with their neighbor Ferrozoica Hive city, things turn sinister when the hand of Chaos is clearly at work. Reinforcements and aide are summoned from the Imperium, resulting in the Tanith regiments appearing alongside several allied units.

The rest of the story weaves back and forth from the individual struggles of squads and their characters to the behind the scenes politicking and the fight to keep morale up against the sheer hopelessness of the situation. There are times when the story reads like a very dramatically told historical piece, mentioning the sacrifices made for victory. As you read, your mind just cannot help but to play dramatic music.

So if you’re fresh to the world of Warhammer or an old hand looking for a classic to reread, turn to the The Founding.