Thursday, 24 November 2011

‘The Gildar Rift’ – Sarah Cawkwell (Black Library)

I’ve had occasion to mooch around a few Games Workshop stores in my time; both as a teenager looking to kill time on a Saturday afternoon and a guy in his mid thirties (thirty six is still ‘mid thirties’ dammit!) who’s after indulging his fascination with well painted toy soldiers. I love what they do in these stores, just a shame that my wallet isn’t as enthusiastic.

One thing that seems to be the same now as it was back in my teenage years is that I’ve only ever seen guys in Games Workshop stores, no ladies at all. I don’t know why this is but that’s what I always find. If you’re a GW frequenting female please leave a comment and prove me wrong but it’s looking very one sided in the meantime.
Up until now, this phenomenon has been mirrored on the publishing side of things with the Black Library. Barring a few short stories here and there (thanks to Nik Vincent and Juliet E. McKenna), Black Library is typically a male preserve for male writers. Again, not sure why this is; maybe that’s just the way things go sometimes.
It looks like things might just be about to change though. Sarah Cawkwell has already submitted stories for ‘Hammer and Bolter Magazine’ and her short story ‘Primary Instinct’ appeared in ‘Victories of the Space Marines’. While I wasn’t too keen on ‘Primary Instinct’ I was still interested to see what Sarah’s first full length Black Library novel was like. After all, you’ve got to be doing something right if you’re commissioned to write a novel off the back of a few short stories, surely?

The Space Marines of the Silver Skulls Chapter patrol the debris strewn Gildar system with all the superhuman vigour that you would expect from these post human warriors. Waiting in the wings though is the Arch Traitor Huron Blackheart and his Red Corsairs. Their quest for gene-seed (to bolster their own ranks), along with a burning desire to steal anything that isn’t nailed down, has bought them to the Gildar system and a confrontation with its guardians. The Silver Skulls display a ferocious zeal in combat and their own secret experiments, in the Gildar system, mean that they have added cause to fight back against the predations of the Red Corsairs. Blackheart himself has come to the Gildar system though and not only is he undefeated in open combat but he also a strategist the likes of which the Imperium hasn’t seen in hundreds of years...

I kind of have a ‘love/ hate’ thing going on with the ‘Space Marines Battles’ series; if you’ve been reading for a while then you probably know this already. This particular series just so happens to be the very series that Cawkwell’s debut novel finds itself in. While I had a few issues with ‘The Gildar Rift’, they were issues that I have with the series as a whole. ‘The Gildar Rift’ fell on the right side of the fence for me though; I’d certainly stick around to see what Cawkwell comes up with next.

The big problem that I have with the ‘Space Marines Battles’ series is that, well... battles aren’t really cut out to be the main focus of an entire book are they? A battle is something that a plot might hinge upon but no more than that, certainly not an entire book’s worth. This is especially the case when your protagonists are superhuman warriors engineered to make armed combat a very straightforward and bloody affair. They do a ‘no frills’ job but a book needs some frills to make it interesting. Several of the books in this series have fallen down, to one extent or another, because of this. Like I said though, ‘The Gildar Rift’ avoids most of the obvious pitfalls and is worth picking up because of this.

Cawkwell’s master stroke is to make ‘The Gildar Rift’ about far more than just a stand up fight between two sets of fairly evenly matched Marines. The Silver Skull’s ‘Resurgent Project’ takes equal billing with the main event and it’s interesting to see how the character of Volker Straub develops under the pressures of both the project and the ensuing war with the Red Corsairs. Alongside Volker Straub, Cawkwell’s depiction of Jeremiah (the incredibly insecure navigator) also adds a human element that offsets some of the ‘superhuman’ stuff and fleshes the plot out a little bit more.

Even the Marines (on both sides) get similar treatment and the end result are protagonists where you really get a feel for why they are fighting so fiercely. I love the character of Huron Blackheart, absolutely ‘off his face insane’ but still able to scrap it out with the best of them when the need arises.
What I would say here is that although the background history of the Silver Skulls is important, there wasn’t enough there to make going into it in such big detail a good thing (especially when it’s made clear that the Silver Skulls aren’t really aware of their ultimate origin anyway). I found myself skim reading these bits, which occurred far more often than was necessary, and that’s never a good thing.

When action really kicks off, either in the depths of space or on Gildar Secundus, Cawkwell proves to be more than up to the task of displaying Marine on Marine combat in all its bone crunching and visceral glory. While the battles themselves are a little too straightforward and simplistic (X moves his squad to point Y, Z counters...) it’s the more personal moments that are worth the price of entry. Cawkwell really doesn’t pull any punches.

‘The Gildar Rift’ doesn’t quite escape the issues that, for me, have plagued this series. What it does do though is give us a bunch of characters that we want to invest in and then put us through the wringer as we wait to see their fate. You can’t really ask for a lot more than that.

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Anonymous said...

My daughter played Warhammer throughout her teens and would have continued in college but the only place she could find where they were playing in the town where she first attended college did not have a good vibe. Just a data point. But she was certainly unusual.

Blitzspear said...

My local GW shop bod was very enthusiastic about this book a couple of weeks ago as he had an advanced copy. I'm of the same opinion about SM Battles, a bit hit and miss and a bit restrictive but this sounds like a winner.

Graeme Flory said...

Kate - Thanks for the data point :o)

Blitzspear - This is certainly one of the better entries in the SM Battles series, I reckon you'll like it :o)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great review-- ordered the book and looking forward to it. By the way, I am one of these few GW frequenting females (with 5 armies...). Girls are not as rare as you might think ;-).

Paul said...

Worst black library book I ever read. The action wasn't as visceral as that depicted in the work of say mcneill, and the writing style and description lack flair, with the phrases "more than adequate" and numerous such as "countless" and "innumerable" used far too often when in the end it turned out about 20 silver skulls of the 4th company died. Captain arrun was constantly angry for no good reason and his strategies made no sense, neither for that matter did blackhearts', as he continued to lose but claimed it as a strategy. An poorly concieved and executed book when put against other space marine writers.

kyle said...

this is the first 40k novel i have read as yet but am finding it hard to put down,any recomended novels for my next read?