Friday, 6 April 2012

‘Void Stalker’ – Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

Finally, here is the review that should have gone up on either Tuesday or Thursday this week. This past week has thrown a bucket full of stuff at my attempts to post some thoughts about ‘Void Stalker’. I didn’t even get the job that I interviewed for yesterday. Oh well… Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
I’ve been waiting for ‘Void Stalker’ to hit the shelves since, oh… the 8th of April last year. That was the date my review for ‘Blood Reaver’ was posted and, once I’d got my head around just how good that novel was, all that was left for me to do was wait for things to be concluded in ‘Void Stalker’. My copy finally arrived a couple of weeks ago and pretty much immediately elbowed its way to the very front of the reading queue (which explains why my review of ‘Caine’s Law’ was a little late in appearing, seems to be the story of my life as far as the blog is concerned). That’s the way it goes, some books demand you read them straight away :o)

One of the things that I hate about reviewing any kind of series is the danger of repeating myself the further a series goes on. I mean, how many times would you want to hear me say that the writer in question is brilliant at exactly the same things he was brilliant at in the last book? Doesn’t exactly make for interesting reading…
Sometimes though, a writer is on top of his game and you’ve got to acknowledge that by saying that he has all the bases covered and came up with something superb as a result. That’s what Aaron Dembski-Bowden has done, yet again, with ‘Void Stalker’…

The final days, of a war played out over the course of thousands of years, are coming for the Night Lord Traitor Marine Talos and his comrades. Longstanding divisions in Talos’ war band could become something far worse but that is such a common occurrence as to be beneath any Night Lord’s notice. What is a far more pressing concern is the relentless pursuit of the Night Lords by the Eldar of Craftworld Ulthwe, alien beings desperate to stop mere prophecy becoming stark reality.
Talos and his comrades eager to take the fight to their enemies though and that means all of them. By the time an Eldar God made flesh faces Talos for the last time entire worlds will have been left burning in his wake…

Before we get going here, I ought to say that I’ve been a huge fan of Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s work since I first got my hands on a copy of ‘Cadian Blood’ a few years ago. You might want to bear that in mind as you read the rest of the review. Having said that though, ‘Void Stalker’ more than deserves all the good stuff that I am about to say about it. We’re talking about a book that I couldn’t stand to be apart from for too long; even though Dembski-Bowden drops a pretty big hint about the ending (right at the beginning) I still had to see how it turned out.

Dembski-Bowden’s big strength as a writer is to consistently give his readers characters that you can get behind without even realising that it’s happening. Even here, even with characters who have spent ten thousand years indulging their basest emotions at the expense of a dying Imperium. ‘Void Stalker’ is full of accounts of vicious deeds that will make your blood run cold but you read them and think, ‘nasty stuff but I can understand why they’re doing it.’

And you do. Dembski-Bowden leaves us in no doubt that, despite their actions, the Night Lords have been betrayed by the Imperium and left directionless by a Primarch who saw nothing but futility. If that wasn’t enough, the Night Lords cannot even trust their own kin with each and every one of them either seeking more power or slowly falling to the whims of the Ruinous Powers. Can you blame them for falling back on the one thing they were good at, lurking in the shadows and striking whenever the opportunity for terror arises. Like I said, you may not like what they do but you can get just why they do it.

‘Void Stalker’ is crammed full of moments like these with Talos’ Night Lords seeking to punish innocent settlers, of the Night Lords’ homeworld, and then using that world as a base to carry out an act of terror against the Imperium that is vast in scope. These moments are extremely well executed to say the least, both in terms of what happens on the page and how the reader is invited to observe what follows. We know something is coming and it’s not going to be pretty. The thing is though, we only know a little more than the people that the Night Lords are about to fall on and attack do. It’s always a really nasty surprise when things finally kick off and it gets nastier as Dembski-Bowden shows us just what a Traitor Legion is capable of when it takes the field. I’m talking about events on the world of Tsagualsa and Xarl’s fight with the Champion of the Genesis Chapter (I don’t know about Xarl but I felt bruised after reading that fight…).

All the while this is happening though, we get to see it through the eyes of a man who is essentially human and trying to deal with a veneer of super humanity. It’s a constant struggle for Talos to use his gene enhanced abilities without them killing him and even when everything works he is essentially lost without a father figure to guide. A great choice to lead a war band brimming over with mistrust and rivalry. You would be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the Night Lords didn’t realise there was a wider war going on as they’re all trying to get one over on each other first. As a result, ‘Void Stalker’ is a novel of contrasts vying with stagnation of the humanity of the far future; the humanity at the heart of darkness and more or less eternal war.

And all of that is before the Eldar arrive.

Dembski-Bowden ties everything else up by those last chapters (although he leaves one massive surprise right until the very end, that one floored me) and what we’re left with is one final chance for the Night Lords to spit in their enemy’s eye before the inevitable end. Being told how things turn out, right at the beginning of the book, may take away some of the surprise but this is more than balanced out by the heroism shown in the face of what is to come. The one thing that Traitor Marines and Loyalists have in common is that they all die well. It’s awe-inspiring stuff and a tremendous way to sign off the trilogy.

‘Void Stalker’ is another example of not only essential Warhammer 40K fiction but also essential reading for those who like their sci-fi dark and horrific in general. If you fall into either of these camps then you really do need to pick this one up.

Ten out of Ten

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