Review: Leman Russ: The Great Wolf by Chris Wraight
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At the the height of the Great Crusade, Leman Russ and his Dark Angel brother, Lion El'Jonson, come into conflict as they pacify the world of Dulan.

Many are the sagas of Leman Russ, Lord of Winter and War, most fearsome of the Emperor’s primarch sons. At the height of the Great Crusade, his Space Wolves fight to bring the rebel world of Dulan to compliance. Enraged by the defiance of the tyrant Durath, Russ has pledged to strike him down personally – but his brother Lion El’Jonson of the Dark Angels advises more caution. With the might of two Legions arrayed against Durath, tensions nevertheless run high, and the rivalry between the Wolf and the Lion threatens to engulf them all.

This one's a few months overdue and following Magnus out of order. It took me a while to get through it, and another while to figure out my feelings on it - and how to put them best. Hopefully I managed to find a good way to do just that here.

The Story:
"At the the height of the Great Crusade, Leman Russ and his Dark Angel brother, Lion El'Jonson, come into conflict as they pacify the world of Dulan.

Many are the sagas of Leman Russ, Lord of Winter and War, most fearsome of the Emperor’s primarch sons. At the height of the Great Crusade, his Space Wolves fight to bring the rebel world of Dulan to compliance. Enraged by the defiance of the tyrant Durath, Russ has pledged to strike him down personally – but his brother Lion El’Jonson of the Dark Angels advises more caution. With the might of two Legions arrayed against Durath, tensions nevertheless run high, and the rivalry between the Wolf and the Lion threatens to engulf them all."

The Review:
Leman Russ: The Great Wolf left me conflicted. I struggled to get invested in this Primarchs novel for quite some time before I decided to just sit down and get it done. Despite having some brilliant moments that left me in awe, the almost overwhelming amount of action, especially early on, left me struggling to enjoy the book.

A big part of my problems with this one isn't just down to content, or specifically a big focus on battles. The structure of it all is what made it feel as exhausting to me as it did. Leman Russ comes along split into a mere six chapters. The first and last of these form the meta narrative, putting the rest of the book into the context of Russ telling the story of his feud with the Lion of Caliban. They are, however, not labeled as prologue and epilogue like you might expect.
The remaining four chapters in between focus on the war for Dulan, the Wolf King and the Lion's many disagreements and ends in, as lore would have it, them punching the living hell out of one another. This iconic and highly anticipated moment in 40k history was handled exceptionally well, in my opinion, whereas the early parts and what may constitute as the main plotline felt underwhelming to me.
I digress, however. While reading the book, I found many, many scene changes that could have easily warranted a chapter break. I've always been in favor of having a good amount of chapters. As long as you're not as ludicrous with it as the Star Wars: Rogue One Junior Novelization which has over 60 chapters for a mere 192 pages, I'd say a few redundant chapter breaks are preferable to having endlessly long ones. Leman Russ, to my dismay, has plenty of those.

I honestly don't know what went wrong here. A lot of times the book lent itself to thematic breaks left and right, splitting battles from more profound and introspective moments, but instead it all runs together into one mess that I found tough to keep excited over. If you're anything like me in this regard, you might struggle.

But aside from these structural issues, I found the novel too loaded with battle scenes and all they entail. The first Dulan-plotline chapter kicks off with a massive boarding action, for example. Yes, it did a good job showcasing the Wolves' way of war, their howling and single-mindedness, but it dragged on a bit too much for my liking. It isn't that Wraight didn't make an effort to make me appreciate the Jarl of the 13th Great Company. I quite liked Jorin Bloodhowl of Dekk-Tra. His role within the Legion is fairly unique, due to being one of Russ's old guard on Fenris. It is just that I never really felt much for the Dulanians. They were the stand-in antagonists. The only thing they actually had going for them for the biggest part of the novel was their advanced and odd technological level. But if that's the only thing I can associate with them for the majority of the story, then I cannot claim to find that very interesting or engaging.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase an advanced civilization that rejects the Imperium's rule, yet the only part that came close to that was the Lion's final meeting with the "Tyrant" of Dulan. That was about where I got curious about this civilization. Sadly, that's also where it became irrelevant to the rest of the book.

I guess it is to be expected somewhat to have the war on Dulan be more of a backdrop for the Wolf vs Lion story of old. We didn't really know much about the conflict before and all the interesting bits were about how Russ and Jonson started their Legion feud for good. But for that, I feel that this happened a bit too late in the book. The buildup was decent, if action-heavy, but the blows landed only in the final stages of the book. As a climax it worked wonders and made me appreciate Wraight's skill at handling Primarchs once again. But between this rivalry plotline, the Dulan war and the third plotline involving the curse of the 13th Great Company, I felt like it didn't take center stage enough.
All three plotlines needed more to them to really shine. They were serviceable, but in the end I felt that the book needed more room to properly build them up. They play into one another just well enough to not make the book feel shizophrenic, but not well enough to properly satisfy me.

Having a big timeskip after the conclusion of the big brawl, rushing through the Heresy-to-come up until the aftermath of the Imperial Palace, was awkward in my opinion as well. It is clear that Wraight wasn't going to spoil Heresy-series events, and that the book needed to work stand-alone and not hold anything mandatory for the flagship series. The encounter between the two brothers also needed to be in the book. But after being relatively slow and bogged down with battles for 80% of the book, having one of the 4 chapters available to the core-part of the novel rush through decades into the future of the HH series, felt awkward. It seems more like a pacing issue to me than anything down to Wraight's skills as an author. In fact, this chapter was one of the most engaging parts of the book for me. It just didn't fit as neatly as I've come to expect from Wraight after all I've read from him.

But this is all so very negative, isn't it? I honestly don't like being this way. My disappointment has a lot to do with the high expectations I had for this novel, based on Wraight's own work with the Space Wolves both in and out of the Horus Heresy series. And truthfully, he did a bang-up job showcasing the Great Crusade-era Legion, with quite a few bits of foreshadowing and easter eggs. The Wolves felt dangerous in many scenes, and the Lion too felt authentic to his core character archetype. He is proud, deeply arrogant, but also insanely competent. Despite all of that, Wraight made it clear that the Lord of Angels wasn't quite as cold-hearted as he often appears. It was great to see Lion El'Jonson this way. The scenes putting the lense on him were some of the best in the book.
Russ, too, did get some neat additions to his character and the fears he held for his Legion. This is a Wolf King that wants his Legion to be seen as more than simple-minded barbarians, quite in contrast to his appearance in Prospero Burns, where he seemed mostly comfortable with the idea of being underestimated by all. It is interesting to see how many aspects of Leman are the same as in chronologically later depictions, while subtle changes were made to accomodate his pre-Heresy Great Crusade incarnation.

Yes, Leman Russ: The Great Wolf is well worth reading. It may be my least-favorite Primarchs novel out of the first three and took me a good while to slog through, but it is still a competent novel that does a lot of good things for the Vlka Fenryka. I'd say the final chapters where everything comes to a head alone make this book worthwhile, despite the pacing and structural issues. It is, however, one of the books that I wish hadn't gotten the short novel treatment but instead been a full-length novel. I believe that, had that been the case, Wraight could have fully lived up to expectations and made all three plotlines compelling in their own right. Either way, it is a great read for fans of the Wolves, but also the Dark Angels and people like me who wanted to see more Great Crusade depictions of the Legions than we got so far.

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Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
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After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy.

I breezed through this novel within about 4 days give or take. Timothy Zahn's done a fantastic job reviving his classic villain from the Star Wars Expanded Universe and I am pretty excited to be reviewing it.

The Story:
"After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy."

The Review:
Star Wars: Thrawn is easily one of the most satisfying novels in the new Disney Canon. Not only does Timothy Zahn reintroduce his classic Expanded Universe character in great detail and style, but it also makes for a cracking read. Thrawn, a master tactician by anyone's measure, is presented as brilliant, calculating and possibly menacing, but also compassionate and mysterious.
If you've never heard of this Grand Admiral before (which would be a pity), then this novel does a damn good job showcasing just why Mitth'raw'nuruodo, more commonly known as Thrawn, has been a fan-favorite for decades and has been one of the most-celebrated re-introductions to the Star Wars canon to date (and may remain so until Disney finally gets around to bringing Mara Jade back...).

Personally, I only ever scratched the surface of the Expanded Universe. I was about to dive fully in when news of Disney's acquisition of LucasFilm hit and the EU got thrown out the window - including Timothy Zahn's classic Thrawn trilogy. A few months back I tried to squeeze in Heir to the Empire, the first book, but didn't get more than maybe 10 chapters in before other reads called. However, what I read of Thrawn was thrilling and engaging. I'm happy to say that this new Thrawn book is just as satisfying as what I read then. But I don't intend to compare the two works. I honestly don't care to do that and there are plenty of analysis videos and articles on the net already. Instead I want to look at it more from the perspective of somebody who hasn't read much EU stuff, hasn't seen the "Yuuzhan Vong" invade the galaxy, or Thrawn's untimely demise. At least not in detail.

The reason for that is simple: Thrawn can stand very well on its own, without the nostalgia or big links to the old material. It simply is a great book exploring incredibly compelling characters and a complex mystery that spans many years of the Empire's history, up to just shortly before Grand Admiral Thrawn's appearance in the animated Rebels series. You do not have to watch the TV show to enjoy it either - in fact, I've seen very little of it outside of choice bits - but it will greatly enhance your understanding of various characters.

The novel primarily focuses on three characters: Thrawn himself, his translator/aide Eli Vanto and Arihnda Pryce. Eli crosses paths with Thrawn when the latter is rescued from lonely exile and the Chiss quickly adopts him as his translator. From then on, their paths are invariably intertwined and we follow their rise through the imperial ranks from the academy to admirality.
In many ways I found their relationship quite resembled that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Thrawn is analytical, seeing patterns and studying his opponents' moves, both on the battlefield and in conversation. Eli, meanwhile, has a good degree of understanding but lacks the ability to quickly put things together. Thrawn, like Holmes, attempts to tease out his aide's potential, asking questions and letting him puzzle things out on his own. This also extends to the rest of his command staff later in the book - Thrawn is hugely intelligent, but tries to cultivate his allies for their mutual benefit.

Eli meanwhile has some misgivings about the situation. The encounter with Thrawn means that his career path changed drastically and he becomes the target for a lot of the political fallout of the Empire's upper classes. Having a non-human gain the favor of Emperor Palpatine just doesn't sit right with the higher echelon of the navy or the ruling classes and the duo face stiff opposition on a political level. Thrawn seems relatively oblivious to this - as much of a genius as he is, he isn't presented as flawless. He has his blind spots, and Eli, and later Arihnda Pryce, offer a way to balance those problems out.

Miss Pryce, who also appears in Rebels, gets her origin story here, up unto her introduction in the TV series. It is her that shows the most drastic changes in character and morals over the course of the book. Having grown up as the heir to a mining company on Lothal, she gets thrust into the political power play of Coruscant after her family's properties are taken from them under duress. Her goal? To take back what is rightfully hers and take revenge on the politicians that caused the fall of her family.
But as much as you may root for her success, as she gets further entangled in Coruscant's politics, attempting to raise her own status and forge convenient alliances, her character becomes far more dubious and devious. I loved it. She was never much of a nice person to begin with, but her course throughout Thrawn gives a fantastic view of the political intrigue of the Empire and its corrupting influences.

All these political shenanigans, whether within the army or government, make the book. There is little direct action for most of it, especially as far as Thrawn himself is concerned. Instead you get treated with fleet maneuvers, smartly orchestrated attacks to force surrender rather than devastate needlessly and mysteries rooted in the Empire's secret projects.
Thrawn's hunt for the book's antagonist Nightswan really felt more like something you'd expect from a mystery/detective novel rather than one on science fiction warfare. There are wild goosechases, but they were more considered than what you could find in, say, Battlefront: Twilight Company. Thrawn usually is in a bird's eye position, orchestrating rather than directly engaging, though there are exceptions to that throughout.

At first I was a little concerned by how disparate the Thrawn/Eli and Pryce plotlines seemed. There was the occassional crossover, but only late in the book did the two converge fully. That convergence was hugely satisfying to me, though, and well worth the setup. Both plotlines delivered different things that just clicked into place effortlessly as the story progressed.
Another thing I quite enjoyed were the depictions of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen. Both of them felt authentic to their other depictions and Tarkin, for as little time was spent on him, slotted right into place with his appearances in Catalyst, Tarkin and Rogue One. There were even cool little references to Tarkin throughout which served to make the universe and new canon feel even more connected.

The end of Thrawn will have a few very exciting implications for fans of the new canon. Taken along with the recent Rebels season 4 trailer, certain assumptions can be made. Adding to that knowledge of Palpatine's plans for the galaxy as a whole and teases of the threat coming from the unknown regions, you're in for a treat. It doesn't say too much on any of these matters, but just enough to get you speculating and anticipating the next piece in the puzzle. Zahn shows a satisfying kind of subtlety here.

I found much to love about Zahn's return to Thrawn. He maintained the essence of his original creation while reassessing his role and character for the new canon and timeline. Nowhere did the book feel bogged down and exciting twists and shifts of perspective occured throughout. Thrawn himself has proven to be a very complex character with a lot of depth, and pitching Eli Vanto as his aide was the perfect decision to build up the character. Their dynamic shaped the book into what I expect to be seen as a canon classic for years to come. It wouldn't surprise me if Thrawn was cementing the titular character's popularity for another twenty-five years - both with veterans and newcomers alike.

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Review: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
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After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
I had been holding on to a review copy of this for months now. Months. I figured I'd best save it for around March, getting the review out shortly before release in early April. Look how that turned out. The release brought with it an audiobook version, which I bought on Audible to make up for the lost time in some fashion, at least. Good reading courtesy of Gabra Zackman, by the way.
I finished the book a few days later, and have been thinking on it since. What do I really want to say about it? I think I've figured it out now, so here's my review.

The Story:
"After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature."

Disclaimer
I received a print ARC from the publisher upon my own request. I love Lovecraft's works, so getting my hands on it was a given. I also picked up the audiobook via Audible.

The Review:
Winter Tide was a great extension of Lovecraft's mythos. Ruthanna Emrys impressed me with the original Aphra short story The Litany of Earth when I read it last year and this sequel novel continues that trend. While not exactly dark and disturbing on Lovecraft's level, the angle Emrys based her approach around is a very satisfying one to see explored.
This novel almost didn't happen. Litany was a stand-alone story with no planned sequels. Thankfully, the author got enough requests and encouragement that she ended up writing this book. For what my opinion is worth, I believe that this was a fantastic thing to happen to fans of Lovecraft and the Mythos as a whole.

Over the years, especially the past five or so, Lovecraft has received a lot of flak from all sides for his personal views on race, sex and the likes. Many of his views are, of course, reflected in his writing. His stories have been taken apart systematically to expose and theorize on his xenophobic tendencies, and sometimes that even resulted into pretty weird new interpretations of his works.

One of these stories is The Thing on the Doorstep. Fun fact: I believe that was the first HPL story I ever read, and I still have a soft spot for it. In the story, the protagonist details the reasons why he supposedly murdered his best friend. It develops into a weird mind-frying body-switching tale full of odd concepts and horrifying ideas. One interpretation of the story comes down to topics of sexual identity. I personally am not a fan of these, because I'm more intrigued by the Cosmic Horror angle, but speculation was rampant for a while. It is an interesting topic to discuss, at any rate.

Now, I'd highly recommend reading The Thing on the Doorstep before you read Winter Tide, because Emrys used it as a somewhat big factor in her novel. To her credit, she combined some of the literal Lovecraft message of the story with the more out-there interpretations and allowed both sides to co-exist within the setting, while maintaining the "canonicity" of the Cosmic Horror angle.
I've seen a lot of attempts to modify the Mythos canon, as far as it can be said to exist, to better suit modern sensibilities, which often makes me want to gouge my eyes out and beg great Cthulhu to take my sanity. I credit Emrys highly for finding her own niche, in a lot of ways, to tell her stories in, all with their own little interpretations, viewpoints and messages, without attempting to reinvent the wheel. It is obvious that she has a lot of respect and passion for HPL's fiction, and while likely very at odds with the man on an "ideological" level, her way of showing that in Winter Tide and Litany is for the most part subtle and effective.
This was very important to me on a personal level, so excuse me for spending so many words on elaborating on that. I believe that the concern is worth addressing, however.

Now on to Winter Tide itself.
Aphra Marsh is a survivor of the Innsmouth raids, which are based around Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Again I would highly recommend reading this one first to get the most out of Emrys' novel. Aphra, as told in Litany, made a contact with the FBI and this time around she is asked to accompany agent Spector to old Arkham to counter a supposed plot by russian agents to learn the art of body-switching magic.
Spector offers her and her brother Caleb the opportunity to study the collection of books taken from Innsmouth during the raids and kept at Miskatonic University. Getting their hands on their family and friends' old books, journals and so on wasn't something Aphra could have passed up on.
Other characters join the trip from San Francisco to Arkham, and yet more get introduced along the way, leading to an unexpectedly large cast to look out for.

And here lies one of the problems I have with the novel. There's just so many intriguing little bits that I wanted more from some than the book could realistically deliver. Neko, Aphra's "sister" of her adopted japanese family that she and Caleb met during her time in the camps over the course of the second World War, could have used more of a role here. I loved the scenes involving her, and her relationship with Aphra was beautifully explored, but for large sections her role in the ongoing events was very negligible. As new characters got introduced, old ones were sidelined more and more. Of course, the new characters can join Aphra's growing circle of students; it was nice to see her own little family growing, but some of it happened a little too fast and easily here.

That is not to say I didn't also appreciate the new characters that appeared. Not at all! Audrey, one of Aphra's new students, was one of the most exciting and dynamic parts of the book. She was clever, had depth and saved some butts. Professor Trumbull too added a LOT to the book that I didn't expect. It just bugs me a little that some of the early themes from closer to home had to make way for emergent themes to the degree that they did.

This also includes the initial contrivance for Aphra going to Arkham and Innsmouth: To find out about the russian spy plot and foil it. Less than halfway through, I was feeling like nobody really cared about this point anymore. Other things took center stage easily and unopposed, and the way this plotpoint was resolved in the book felt... weak. It really felt more like a MacGuffin than a vital part of the book.

Much of the narrative is spent commuting between Professor Trumbull's home, two universities, Innsmouth and even a museum. There are a lot of sections where Aphra and co are simply researching texts and finding familiar handwriting in journals. Introspection and musings on the future of the Deep Ones are prominent, whereas action is left by the wayside. The novel has a lot to say, whether through dialogue or Aphra's narration, so at times it could be considered a little slow. When the climax appears on the page, things get a bit frantic but damn exciting, however. That, too, strikes me as pretty lovecraftian.

I'm aware that this may seem very negative. Please don't take it that way. The book as a whole was insanely enjoyable to me. There were so many little nuggets for Mythos fans, so many very human moments and relationship developments, I got deeply invested in Aphra's journey and the people in her life. For all the cosmic horror and magic, at the core Emrys has written a strong, human novel that bridges cultural differences easily but not cheaply. It was very charming.
Not exactly as dark and desperate as Lovecraft's works would be. Not nearly as cynical and nihilistic (though definitely not weak on it either), but full of relatable feelings and invitations to take a different approach to people's differences. It is also very pro-family, which is to say it triple-underlines the importance of having a home and people to rely on and trust. In that, it is very different from HPL, who would usually write stories about suspicion, distrust and doubt. His narrators are unreliable, whereas Aphra is very honest and caring under all the painful experiences.

It is a strange thing that a book that is in many ways almost antithetical to Howard's works can feel so familiar and respectful while shifting the perspective on the Mythos as a whole in such a profound way. It didn't contradict the horror inherent in HPL's cosmos, but it added a layer of understanding that Lovecraft himself would likely never have offered. It maintains the dangers and risks while establishing a level of control.

Honestly, this is very tough for me to put into words. I adored Winter Tide. It has problems. But it also has a certain charme that pulled me in and makes me ask for more. Emrys wrote many characters I cared for, and if one of my biggest complaints is that I didn't get to see enough of every single one of them to satisfy my curiosity, then that seems more good than bad to me. They all appealed to me for one reason or another.
As a fan of cosmic horror, I am pleased. I want to read more about Aphra Marsh and her Confluence.

Winter Tide feels like a journey of discovering one's place in a ever-changing world full of mystery and the mundane. It defies many expectations while fulfilling a lot of hopes I had for it. Despite a few nitpicks, it feels like a logical and passionate extension of the Mythos and incorporated many elements thereof while adding much of its own to it. It can't have been an easy task, but it was one Ruthanna Emrys nonetheless succeeded in.


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Review: The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley
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Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.
Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.
Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.
Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone.
This one was supposed to be out... about a week and a half ago. Alas, things really didn't go as planned in March, what with five different flavors of awful to deal with.
I finally managed to just sit down and finish the self-imposed job to read & review this book, and now I actually feel worse for taking this long. Sorry for the delay, Ben!
The Story:
"Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.
Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.
Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.
Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone."

Disclaimer
The author contacted me via email to ask for/offer a review copy. I accepted the request and have not regretted it. Since then I've also ordered a print copy for my shelf off Amazon.

The Review:
The Heart of Stone is already a strong contender for my favorite books in 2017. Not just because it is still early in the year, mind you, but because it had an incredible blend of emotion, action, philosophy and compellingly complex characters. I'm honestly still amazed by how human a story built around a stone golem could end up being.

Task, our Golem, is thrown amidst a kingdom's civil war between royalists, the Truehards, and the capitalist factions under the Last Fading. He is beholden to his master, who turns out to be a very petty man with ego problems. He is to follow orders and slay the enemy combatants indiscriminately, constantly biting his tongue and trying not to care. He isn't like other golems, of course. He thinks, he feels, he can even be genuinely funny. He is, as much as you can say it about Golems, a freak of nature. He is used to the grind of war, the stares of fear, the orders and cruelty of his masters. That doesn't mean he is fine with any of them. He struggles to bend the rules a little bit, and despite his better judgement, ends up befriending a young stable girl at the Truehards' camp.

The girl, Lesky, was the anchor of the entire story. She is bright, clever, even wise sometimes. She brings relief to what could otherwise be a pretty dark story. Not that it isn't dark, but Lesky's character brings a degree of hope to it all, and her growing friendship with Task, despite all odds, makes not just the Golem care, but the reader as well. I loved how her and Task's dynamic gave color to the entire book. It was touching to see them interact, both making me smile and close my eyes in regret during the sadder moments. The novel may be about a long-running civil war, threats of a world war looming, Task's rebellion against the magic binding him, but at the core it is a story about a Golem and his unlikely best friend, and how friendship can change your entire outlook and give you strength.

On the other side we get introduced to the Last Fading's counter weapon, the Knight of Dawn Alabast Flint. Slayer of the last dragon, Alabast has turned to more.. dubious pasttimes. He's a regular at whorehouses, borrowing money from all the wrong people, an alcoholic, and gets recruited to slay a Golem while down on his luck. He attempts to escape his bonds and wiggle out of his sheer impossible quest. He offers a neat contrast to task, who has mostly resigned himself to silence and grim acceptance of his role. Both of them have their duties, both are forced into them, yet both long for ways to escape them and be free. Alabast proves a compelling counterpoint to Task in more ways than one, and the comedy he brings to the book isn't to be underestimated.

The last of the characters I want to specifically talk about is Ellia Frayne, councillor to the royalists and zealot of the Mission, the realm's religious authority. She is a highly complex character with her own goals and schemes, and it is clear from very early on that she's taking the war into her own hands with subtle nudges to both Task and his master. I won't spoil her role in the story, but damn me if I didn't loathe and love her for her place here. She could go from relatable to appalling very easily, and it wasn't so easy to figure out where she stood on things. In many ways, she is also the glue holding the different factions in the book together, allowing the reader a better understanding of the ongoing politics in the kingdom.

The Heart of Stone is, in many ways, about the final months of a civil war that has lasted almost a decade. But more than that, it uses the war and the various injustices committed throughout as a vehicle for the characters to grow and connect. The war isn't shown gratuitously; it isn't glorified or the point of the book. Instead it offers context for everything, and rather than play out all of Task's fights in the book for the reader's benefit, Galley often chose to just depict the aftermath, the state of mind of the Golem and lowly soldiers, the carnage and cleanup duties. In my opinion, he nailed the horrors of war and the ways in which such a long-lasting conflict can ruin the environment it is held in. There is no call to arms here, but a clear message of avoiding war at all costs, because little good will ever come of it. I felt it was a very mature way to depict war and one I enjoyed a great deal for the way it was executed.

However, the book starts off relatively slow. I liked the pace, personally, and how it held back a lot of top-down information from Task - and by extension the reader. The first half feels very personal and focused as a result. Task's role in the world, the war, the Truehards, is explored in great depth, as is his friendship with Lesky. There are introductions for Alabast and his recruitment by the Last Fading. Ellia is seen scheming here and there, and Task slowly shifts his mindset towards hope.
But only in the second half does the overarching plot really kick off. Things start spiralling out of control as Task comes to doubt and think more about his place and the Truehards and Fading. It gets progressively more exciting as more is revealed. I think limiting exposure for the most part to what Task himself can witness was clever, but I can see why some readers may not be fully engaged by the early sections. The problem, if it is one at all, solves itself, however.

One nitpick I have is that a lot of the underlying causes for the war were so long in the past, the reader has to rely on reports from witnesses. The novel tells of various atrocities in brief terms, like at campfires, but we don't actually get to see them committed. As a result there is a lot of (intended) ambiguity in who is right and who is wrong, whether the Truehards are righteous or not. While it ends up giving pretty definitive answers on almost everything later on, I would have liked to get some slightly more visible evidence. The Mission especially, could have benefitted from a more active role. A lot is implied, but in the end The Heart of Stone doesn't let its focus slip too far from Task and co.
For this book in particular, I liked that approach. I liked the focus. But I'd be damned if I didn't want to see more of this world. Galley crafted something very interesting here, with its own mythology and various kingdoms and their dilemmas. Even if this is a standalone novel with a clear end point, I would love to see the author take this world and tell more stories within it, whether sketching out past events or building further into the future.

In the end though everything slots together neatly like the stone plates making up the Golem's body. The character dynamics, the war, the wider world, the rising emotions, they all worked to create a memorable story with a lot of heart. There were plenty of sections that could just get you thinking. There was humor, tension, fear and anger in it. Galley managed to change my mind on various characters as things progressed, which I take as a big achievement.
Despite the personal delays I experienced in finishing this novel, it was always a joy to go back for more. With it being a stand-alone novel, I'm afraid there won't be anything to come back to next year, like if it was a trilogy and that makes me somewhat sad. I've grown to love Task, Lesky and even the infamous Knight of Dawn.

There not being any clear sequels makes it very easy to recommend, however. I know I'm not the only one who gets annoyed with the wait between installments in a series, or needs a change of pace sometimes. I'd honestly recommend The Heart of Stone if you'd like to read something more grounded with a clear start and end point. No cliffhangers, no padding, but fully satisfying in its conclusion. For that, I already chalk it down as one of my favorite reads of the year, and come the new year, I'll be sure to recommend it again. Ben Galley's put himself on my list of authors to look into further, as well.

The Heart of Stone on Goodreads
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Review: Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero by Graham McNeill
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Lord of the mystical and uncanny, Magnus the Red has long studied the ancient crafts of sorcery. A psyker without peer, save only for the Emperor himself, he commands his loyal followers of the Thousand Sons Legion in the Great Crusade, always vigilant for any lost knowledge they might recover from the remains of dead human civilisations. Now, fighting alongside his brother Perturabo of the Iron Warriors, Magnus begins to foresee an approaching nexus of fate. Will he remain true to their mutual aims, or divert his own efforts towards furthering his own mastery of the warp?
Oh joy, I didn't get much at all done in March, for various reasons. It is actually pretty demotivating to see that. So, with April on the calendar (and my moving stress dealt with!), let's get to it again.

I skipped reading the second Primarchs novel about Leman Russ so far. Well, I started to read it but felt kinda bored by the action scenes in the opening chapters. But now Magnus the Red released, and I wanted to go straight for that, especially in anticipation for The Crimson King this summer!

The Story:
"Lord of the mystical and uncanny, Magnus the Red has long studied the ancient crafts of sorcery. A psyker without peer, save only for the Emperor himself, he commands his loyal followers of the Thousand Sons Legion in the Great Crusade, always vigilant for any lost knowledge they might recover from the remains of dead human civilisations. Now, fighting alongside his brother Perturabo of the Iron Warriors, Magnus begins to foresee an approaching nexus of fate. Will he remain true to their mutual aims, or divert his own efforts towards furthering his own mastery of the warp?"


The Review:
Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero is, overall, a damn good novel for all manner of reasons. I have some gripes which relate to the usual issues with Graham McNeill's works, but at the end of the day, it worked. It felt like a fresh story, with early Great Crusade Legions still growing into what they'd become by the Heresy. Out of the three Primarchs novels out so far, I might like this best (though admittedly I stopped reading Leman Russ for the time being; the action-heavy start just didn't get me fully invested).

To get my big bugbear out of the way first, though: Yes, McNeill once again "recycles" his characters from previous books. Not only do we see Ahzek Ahriman, Hathor Maat, Phosis T'Kar and Atharva, who at least make sense being here in a Thousand Sons novel, but Graham also included his old Storm of Iron/Angel Exterminatus cast; Forrix, Obax Zakayo and Barban Falk accompany Perturabo, and while Forrix at least made sense considering his rank, I found the inclusion of Zakayo and Falk to be... redundant.
I didn't feel it added to the plot, and their roles could have easily filled by other, non-established Iron Warriors. In fact, I cannot recall a single, lasting Legion character of either TS or IW that we did not see before in another McNeill novel. Where both David Annandale and Chris Wraight have made efforts to play with a new roster of fresh characters, Graham is, once again, resting on his old creations. It strikes me as lazy, even if I can see why he would do it. Adding to that somewhat on-the-nose foreshadowing for Forrix and co, regarding Storm of Iron, didn't help me feel good about it.

Be that as it may, though, the rest of the book was pretty unconventional. Rather than big warfare, we get a logistics problem here. What fighting there is tends to be limited to short scenes, not drawn-out engagements, and McNeill implies more of the overall conflict than he clearly spells out. I bloody loved that!
I've talked about "battle fatigue" a few times before, and after seeing both previous Primarchs novels being heavy on action, this came as a pleasant surprise and relief. I didn't have to trudge through chapters full of bolter shells and psychic fizzing, but got to see a desperate evacuation of a doomed world that allowed for plenty of character development for Magnus, his sons and even Perturabo.

That isn't to say that the action was unsatisfying, not at all. It was on point and had a purpose beyond ticking checkboxes for the editors. There are spectacular scenes here, showcasing the psychic might of the Thousand Sons and their Primarch, and Forrix kicks ass. But everything serves the plot and the greater moral dilemma. McNeill made the correct choice going this route, in my eyes. It is too easy to fall into the trap of writing superhero-Primarchs doing everything by themselves. True enough, Magnus goes far and beyond what you might expect here, but it is all well-grounded and comes at a price. What he does here shapes his character in a way I didn't expect, and Perturabo too has some great scenes, including lines of dialogue that I'd quote here if they didn't involve spoiling some very well-handled scenes.

Where the book really shines in my eyes however is in depicting the youthful naiveté of the two Legions. They are still highly idealistic and think they can do no wrong. Many lines have not yet been crossed, and Perturabo and his Legion aren't worn down yet by disregard and being used as blunt tools of siege warfare. The sons of Magnus are still a little reluctant to show the full extent of their powers to the other Legions. It was refreshing, really, to see some characters like Ahriman still a little uncertain of their true potential, though I am a little disappointed in how his role grew exponentially throughout the book, taking the spotlight from Atharva. I'll really have to re-read A Thousand Sons soon as well, I think, even if just to see if Hathor Maat was as much of an annoyance there too...

The scale of the story, the early look at the Legions, the well-paced action and awesome twists that link back to the Sons' search for lost knowledge all made this book a truly enjoyable experience for me. I can overlook my nitpicks about recycled characters and heavy-handed foreshadowing if the overall framework and many of the close-ups of the story are as satisfying as with this novel. The book stands on its own pretty damn well, while offering readers of A Thousand Sons and Angel Exterminatus some really neat looks behind the curtain. If you've ever been interested in reading more about the Sons and their early days, this is about as good as it gets.


Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero on Goodreads
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