Thursday, 28 April 2011

‘Age of Darkness’ – Edited by Christian Dunn (Black Library)

I love reading genre fiction (you may not have realised this but it’s true...) and this means that every year is crammed full of little ‘genre highlights’ that I find myself looking forward to. There’s plenty of speculative fiction and some of this pokes its head above the rest and demands my attention straight away; chief amongst this select little band is the arrival of any new ‘Horus Heresy’ book from the Black Library.

There have been a few little blips along the way (I’m looking at you in particular ‘Descent of Angels’...) but on the whole, the ‘Horus Heresy’ series has consistently demonstrated why it’s the flagship series for the Black Library. They’re well written, engaging and enjoy the position of being able to open up previously unexplored background for established fans as well as being an ideal starting point for newcomers. Plenty there then for me to get excited about and I was very excited when my copy of ‘Age of Darkness’ arrived; of course it took me weeks to finally get round to opening it but that’s just the way things seem to go round here these days...

'Age of Darkness’ marks the point in the Imperium spanning civil war where the Warmaster Horus has achieved all his short term goals and is finally ready to begin his march on the Emperor’s palace on Terra. There are a lot of planetary systems to annex and conquer before then though and this is what underpins the short stories that make up this collection. It’s not all just about Horus though, loyalist Primarchs and their legions (and even groups of Marines who have decided not to side with Horus) must make their stand against the oncoming storm and try to salvage something from the wreckage in order to safeguard an uncertain future. ‘Age of Darkness’ highlights an area of the conflict that isn’t as overt as you would come to expect from this setting but is still just as deadly...

Could ‘Age of Darkness’ be the best Warhammer 40K anthology that I’ve read yet? It could well be... Some of the tales have their issues (more on that as we go) but on the whole this is a very solid collection that achieves its aims in some style. There is another war happening in plain sight, but hidden by more prominent conflicts, and it’s time that this particular fight got the attention it deserves. All the writers here combine well to show a warfare of diplomacy and intrigue that is still punctuated by the clatter of bolter at all the right times. They also foreshadow the ‘modern Imperium’ in a number of clever ways that I think fans will get a lot out of. I’m no big expert on the setting but I get the feeling that there will be more than one surprise here for fans who thought they knew the whole story behind the Horus Heresy. The stories themselves run as follows...

‘Rules of Engagement’ – Graham McNeill

Graham McNeill opens proceedings with a tale that leaves the reader (and the Primarch featured) in no doubt as to the perils that humanity faces as a result of the war. It’s very interesting then to see the steps taken by this Primarch, especially as we know how these steps will be seen in the fortieth millennium, an ultimately futile gesture but one that still has to be taken. The nature of the plot gives rise to repetition in its structure that makes for a stodgy read but ‘Rules of Engagement’ is still worth a look 8.5/10

‘Liar’s Due’ – James Swallow

The only story in the collection that doesn’t feature a single Space Marine and ‘Liar’s Due’ works all the better for it. ‘Liar’s Due’ looks at the air of paranoia that grips the galaxy (in the light of the Warmaster’s rebellion) and does an amazing job of showing how this feeling can be twisted to work for the enemy without a shot having to be fired. The sense of inevitability makes this read all the more compelling 10/10

‘Forgotten Sons’ – Nick Kyme

Nick Kyme tells an engaging tale here and provides insight into just how the seemingly invincible psyche of a Marine can be damaged irreparably. Everyone has their role but some of these roles are dumped on those who have no other use... What I thought was missing though was a sense of how ‘Forgotten Sons’ tied into the themes shared by the other stories here. It felt more than a little disjointed from the rest of the pack... 7.5/10

‘The Last Remembrancer’ – John French

John French is a name that I haven’t come across in the Black Library but if ‘The Last Remembrancer’ is anything to go by then I expect that to change very soon. Could one of Horus’ greatest masterstrokes come about far from the main battlefields? An unassuming man is deposited in Imperial space carrying a book that could rock the Imperium at its very foundations... ‘The Last Remembrancer’ is a fascinating study of one of the Heresy’s leading figures and shows roots that will come to fruition ten thousand years hence. It’s all very atmospheric but the ending is in no doubt and that does spoil things a little... 9.5/10

‘Rebirth’ – Chris Wraight

Imagine if you had unwittingly sat out one of the major events of the war and arrived at your home planet to find...? That is the premise of Chris Wraight’s tale but the real fun is to be found in seeing how Chaos is fracturing Horus’ forces even as it seeks to make use of them. An intriguing glimpse into the mindsets of traitor marines, who will soon become the bitterest of foes, and a tale that I can see myself reading again (even though that sense of inevitability works against the tale once you realise who the antagonist is...) 8.5/10

‘The Face of Treachery’ – Gav Thorpe

‘The Face of Treachery’ tells another side to the rescue of the Raven Guard Legion and worked best for me as a means of fleshing out the story told in ‘Raven’s Flight’. Not that it doesn’t work well in it’s own right (with plenty going on to hold the attention) but the reasons behind the involvement of the duplicitous Alpha Legion are left so vague that the story feels like it tails off without any clear ending and I guess I was after something a little more solid... 7.5/10

‘Little Horus’ – Dan Abnett

Little Horus was a character that I wanted to see a lot more of, in the opening stages of the series, and I finally got my chance here with this tale of Little Horus’ self doubt set against an ambush that’s potentially deadly in it’s simplicity. Abnett writes excellent military sci-fi and ‘Little Horus’ is no exception with a skilfully rendered account of military engagement. I wasn’t so sure about the character study though with certain conclusions dismissed too readily by Little Horus himself. It felt like a lot more could have been done with this character and an opportunity was lost... 8/10

‘The Iron Within’ – Rob Sanders

I’ve had issues with Rob Sanders’ work in the past and, to begin with, ‘The Iron Within’ shows those same problems with regimental detail getting in the way of the story itself. Sanders moves past this in some style though and gives us an insight into the psyche of the Iron Warriors in the best way possible, siege warfare. I also liked the links with McNeill’s opening story. Who was the narrator though? That’s going to bug me... 9/10

‘Savage Weapons’ – Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Who better to end the anthology with than a Black Library writer who doesn’t seem to be able to put a foot wrong? ‘Savage Weapons’ isn’t one of Bowden’s strongest works in my opinion as the opening passages don’t have that clear sense of direction I always find in his work. This is more than made up for though with a tense finale and a final sentence that either confirms the intent behind McNeill’s story or throws everything into doubt at just the right time. I loved it 9/10

1 comment:

Jess Horsley said...

Agreed - I'm reading this now and loving it; especially John French's "The Last Remembrancer," which seems to me to be the compilation's best. Can't wait to see what more French brings to the Heresy.