Review: Empire by Graham McNeill
A bit late, not just looking at the calendar, but also because I'm halfway through God King, the sequel, but I have to get this sorted now, at last.
Yes, I know, I've been slacking off, but try to understand - I'm also a gamer, and the last many weeks were hardcore, both in terms of entertainment value, challenges and on my pocket. Wish me luck that I can get back on track without too much trouble!

Either way, here's my review of Graham McNeill's Empire. I very much enjoyed reading this novel, and hope to convey the reasons well enough.

The Story:
"Having driven back the orc invaders, Sigmar unites the tribes of men and founds the Empire. The fledgling empire grows, but its prosperity is not assured. The lands are still wild and untamed, and many enemies lurk in the forests and the mountains. When a Chaos invasion sweeps down from Norsca, the ensuing conflict tests the abilities of Sigmar and his chieftains to the utmost."

Book Two of The Legend of Sigmar

General Information
There's hardly anything to say in general about Empire at this point. You should read Heldenhammer first, so check the earlier review of that novel first. The individual novels of the Sigmar trilogy will probably be out of stock everywhere by now, but don't worry - there's a newly released Omnibus readily available, collecting all three novels into one massive tome. If you consider the story interesting based on the reviews, go ahead and buy it. Not only do you save money, but it will also looks great on your bookshelf.

Note: This review might include spoilers due to being a sequel.

Structure & Plot
Empire follows directly after the end of Heldenhammer, which introduced Sigmar and the tribes that would form the biggest Empire in the world known to men. While Heldenhammer introduced the characters the Legend of Sigmar depends on, presenting the dream of Sigmar Heldenhammer up to its fruition, the sequel does paint a slightly different picture. The adult king of the Unberogen is taking up the crown of the Emperor, uniting his tribes under one banner and keeping their lands safe.

However glorious the ceremony of his coronation, or the dream itself might be, the task resting on Sigmar's shoulders is a heavy burden to bear. The Emperor soon realizes that mankind's enemies are many, ranging from the vile beastmen lurking in the forests right within the Empire, to the savage orcs or the restless dead. Sigmar has to fend off all kinds of forces that would see his work destroyed.

He cannot do this alone. Unity is the key to mankind's success. To show their allegiance to Sigmar as their Emperor, the former tribal kings shed their titles in favor of a less pompous title. They are counts of the Empire, equals under their Emperor's rule. Yet while they support Sigmar's dream, their internal struggles keep Sigmar on his toes. He has to learn to be just as skillful a diplomat as he is a warrior, appease rivalling counts, reassure loyalties and face his own fears.
However, one tribal king did not stand with him at Blackfire Pass to defend their realms against the orc invaders, and when all attempts on diplomacy fail, Sigmar's quest for unity takes him to the walls of Jutonsryk. After a long and depressing siege, he succeeds in bringing the Jutone merchant city to join his Empire.

The newfound wealth through trading lets the Empire grow far beyond its limits while ghosts of the past plan their schemes, forcing Sigmar's hand against the undead gathering near Middenheim, the city of the White Wolf. An artefact of incredible strength falls into Sigmar's hands, and he must resist temptations from beyond the grave to stay true to himself.
The book comes to its eventual conclusion after a massive invasion from the north, which sees Middenheim ravaged by Norsii tribes, beastmen and the minions of the Blood God. Upon the anvil of the Fauschlag Rock, old bonds of loyalty and friendship will be reaffirmed and new ones crafted, as the unity of the Empire is being put to a test.

Final Words & Verdict
I very much enjoyed Empire, maybe even more so than Heldenhammer. I can fully understand why this book won the David Gemmel Legend Award 2010 and believe that it absolutely deserved that honour.

Empire puts everything we've read about in its prequel to a test, puts the pieces into relation, shows us new characters we only heard about before, while keeping everything solidly connected. The first of the Empire's many counts are getting much more attention, the headaches that come with dealing with all their squabbles are comprehensible and actually reach the reader, and the risks, fears and dangers feel realistic enough to keep you hooked til the very end.

Graham McNeill managed to keep a fantastic balance between moments of hope and despair, glory and shame, life and death. Nothing here seemed wasted, overdone or lacked impact. While one can argue that the development of the Empire as a nation feels rushed, with incredible discoveries and construction projects being fulfilled in a manner which makes modern architecture feel like a sad, ineffective joke, it did not bother me in the slightest. The early years of the Empire are an age of prosperity, great developments and epic heroes - we can surely overlook those minor gripes in favor of a well-crafted world.

To me, Empire is the second extremely strong novel in the Sigmar trilogy, and the first 200 pages of God King I read this far is looking solid as well. If you haven't picked these books up yet, I want to ask you one simple question:
Why haven't you?

Empire on the Black Library Website
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Review: Architect of Fate
Architect of Fate is the first Space Marine Battles anthology. I am sure, it won't be the last we'll be seeing, since eShorts and audio dramas tend to end up in print rather sooner than later. However, AoF is special in one regard: all four novella-length stories are related to the anthology's core character, in one way or another.
Kairos Fateweaver, the Oracle of Tzeentch, is shaping the Space Marine's fate in this anthology, and slowly the pieces fall into place, revealing just another grand scheme of the Lord of Change...
The Story:
"The Space Marines stand against the darkness, and yet on countless battlefields they play unwitting roles in the schemes of Fateweaver. From the doomed world of Ilissus, through the embattled corridors of the Endeavour of Will, to the borders of the Eye of Terror itself – friend and foe alike follow the great plan that he set in motion many thousands of years ago. But not even the Architect of Fate himself can foresee the destiny that lies in wait for him..."

Collected for the first time, all four parts of the Architect of Fate novella series are presented in a single printed volume. The infamous Kairos Fateweaver, greater daemon of Tzeentch and master of manipulation, has discovered the limits of his power – even one so prescient as he cannot divine beyond the event horizon at the end of the 41st Millennium.

General Information
Architect of Fate is the first anthology in the Space Marine Battles series to date. It includes four novella-length stories, more or less linked to a central topic: Fate. It is fate that lets the Star Dragons and Blood Swords tread on the damned floors of the Accursed Eternity, just as it was the Relictors' fate to fall from grace. It was also fate that saw the space fortress Bastion Inviolate being violated by a powerful data-daemon. But even the Fateweaver is not exempted from the twisting threads of destiny, as this anthology shows.

Kairos Fateweaver, Greater Daemon of Tzeentch, his Oracle, able to stare into the future - something his Lord and Master could not do without doubt. One head always lies, while the other speaks the truth, but how to find out whose words will lead to salvation, and which mouth utters your death sentence?

All stories featured in this anthology are self-contained, picking up threads of the background and weaving new patterns into the lore. Most of the featured Space Marine Chapters have been barely explored by official sources and thus make for a nice introduction to the series, or even franchise, while the established Chapters and characters are getting nicely illustrated in ways which don't make it hard to get familiar with them at all. Aside from Space Marines, Imperial Guard and, of course, Daemons, three of the featured novellas also have Inquisitors joining the cast, all of which are interesting and show various aspects of the fractioned Ordos of the Emperor's Holy Inquisition.

Architect of Fate should be easily understandable to novices of the franchise, even though fans will of course get the greatest mileage out of reading it. I personally would even go as far as to say that this anthology is a fantastic introduction to the Imperium's struggle against the forces of Chaos.

Accursed Eternity
by Sarah Cawkwell
"Space Marines of the Blood Swords and Star Dragons Chapters are enlisted by Inquisitor Remigius of the Ordo Malleus to storm the infamous daemonship known as the Accursed Eternity. But all is not as it first appears, and what should have been a relatively simple mission rapidly devolves into a hellish warp-spawned nightmare – the stage is set for a galaxy-spanning tale of Chaotic intrigue and of a war which has lasted for ten-thousand years..."

Having this story introducing the anthology was a good decision. It quickly builds up a certain sense of conflict and tension which it sustained til the very end. My only regret regarding this story would be that the end came way too soon, leaving questions unanswered, or rather open to speculation. Accursed Eternity was such a good concept with satisfying execution, I'd have loved to read at least 50 more pages about the twisted horrors the ghost ship throws at its uninvited guests. The scenario's potential simply exceeded the story's roughly 100 pages.
In fact, speaking of horror is quite accurate, since the horror elements featured in the novella are one of its strongest points. From the moment the Star Dragons and Blood Swords enter the halls of the Accursed Eternity onwards, a psychological thriller unfolds, tying the reader to the pages (or screen). Questionable loyalties, distrust between allies and the nagging presence of something utterly wrong in the back of one's head drive this story on more than just one plane of existence. Of course, there surely was something utterly wrong on board the daemon ship in general...
Until the very end I did not know who, if any of the loyalists, would possibly survive, and as soon as it was over, I got stuck thinking about the novella's implications, especially the revelations regarding the Accursed Eternity, the warp-entity controlling it and the imperial Containment Fleet Kappa, that shaped the final chapters.

The cast of characters was quite excellent; an Inquisitor, two Astartes Chapters lacking everything beyond a few descriptive lines of background material and a bunch of daemons make this an exciting ride. I was a bit disappointed by some great characters, like the Star Dragons' Astropath, Kerys Jabiru, not having a greater role in the novella, and am hoping that Sarah will come back to these two Astartes Chapters somewhere along the line. I found myself instantly taking a liking to her characters and felt like they had a very enjoyable, fresh air around themselves. It was indeed very easy to get into the story, seeing the events unfold in my mind's eye without effort.

Sadly, due to the supposed novella-length, a few of those aspects didn't come across as well as they could have, if given enough room for exploration. But I guess that could not be helped, and was to be expected. It was still a damn good read, and I'd love to read more about Sarah's Star Dragons and Blood Swords rather sooner than later. Next up, however, will be Valkia the Bloody - I can't wait to find out how Sarah breathed life into the Gorequeen...

by Darius Hinks
"The Relictors are sent by the Inquisition to loot the repositories and libraries of a world on the cusp of annihilation. With the countdown to Exterminatus looming over them, they realise that even the Chaos Space Marines of the dreaded Black Legion are not the worst threat that they will have to face before they can escape, and that their true enemy may lie elsewhere."

Sanctus plays out on two layers, one telling of a squad of the Relictors Chapter of the Space Marines, down on the surface of a doomed planet bordering at the Eye of Terror. The Relictors, deemed traitors to many imperial authorities, are using whatever means necessary to fight the enemies of mankind. Alien technology, occult lore, they are actively searching for artifacts that would see even an Inquisitor branded a radical. No matter how good their intentions are, their Chapter has been paying the price for their obsession with forbidden knowledge, but they are not entirely without friends.
Inquisitor Mortmain, leading authority over fleet Sanctus, has given the Relictors a short timeframe to find out what really happened on the planet's surface. A terran navigator house has taken too much interest in seeing the planet destroyed, and Mortmain would not put a whole world to the torch without unveiling all of the mysteries surrounding its fall from grace. But when the daemon Cerbalus breaks free of his host, the Inquisitor is forced to act more quickly than expected, for the daemon learned of it all. Exterminatus cannot wait any longer. Cerbalus is unstoppable.
A battle against time itself ensues, with the Relictors hurrying towards their goal, oblivious to the events in orbit, and Mortmain hurrying to begin the orbital bombardement.

To date, I have only read Darius's story Cankerworm for Warhammer Fantasy, which was released during the Black Library's 15th Anniversary celebration. While his Warhammer Heroes novel Sigvald has been sitting on my shelf for far too long, I absolutely loved Cankerworm. Hinks got talent, and this also became apparent in Sanctus, although the story got overshadowed by the restrictions imposed upon it by being part of a thematical anthology like this one.
Sanctus plays with a very tzeentchian theme - the flow of time. The beginning of the story marks the end, with the chapters in-between telling the actual story which led to the events in the looped timeframe. Fittingly, Sanctus is written in present tense, leaving no hint on whether these events played in the past or are yet to happen - for all intents and purposes, it is happening, maybe not even for the first time, while the reader is flipping the pages. I felt that Hinks pulled this off very nicely, and especially the implications of the ending - or beginning - made it an enjoyable and satisfying read.

While I personally quite enjoyed Sanctus for all it delivered, I am not so sure that it fits well into the anthology. As Bane of Kings stated in his own review for The Founding Fields, this story could have easily filled a full-length novel or might even have worked better as a stand-alone novella due to its lack of actual references to Tzeentch, Kairos and their likes. Certainly not a bad story, but it got massively held back by the novella's restrictions and feeling out of place in this Space Marine Battles volume.

Endeavour of Will
by Ben Counter
"Chaos Space Marines of the Iron Warriors Legion launch a devastating attack upon their hated foes the Imperial Fists, crippling one of their principal starforts. Unperturbed, the heroic Captain Darnath Lysander withdraws his warriors to a second stronghold, the Endeavour of Will, to weather the rest of the assault. But as the Iron Warriors’ methods are revealed, critical and desperate decisions must be made, lest their insidious techno-contagion spread throughout the Imperial Fists’ fleet and beyond..."

Without a doubt, Endeavour of Will was a good story. It had suspense, tension and was quite unpredictable. I dare say it was a bit too unpredictable, however, almost shouting 'Deus Ex Machina at the reader. While we all love plot-twists and surprises that break the mold, especially in action-heavy stories, I felt like some things about this story didn't match up as well as I had thought they would, and at times it seemed like Ben Counter was a bit too liberal with the background material. A few things simply irked me about it. Some of these things were rather silly mistakes, like describing the Imperial Fists' heraldry as a "red fist", when it has always been black on a white background (the Crimson Fists' heraldry is red, however). There were a few such inconsistencies to be found in Endeavour of Will, which makes me wonder; Ben Counter has written six whole novels about the Imperial Fists' successor Chapter, the Soul Drinkers, which heavily featured both Imperial and Crimson Fists, so I would expect him to have a complete grip on the Chapter.

Counter tries a range of things with Endeavour of Will.
The way the machine-spirits of the twin star-forts Bastion Inviolate and Endeavour of Will are depicted is entirely unique. I have never read a 40k story that showed the machine-spirit in such a way. Considering the vast amount of time both forts have spent in space, processing data and growing over the millenia, I can well believe that their artificial intelligences would develop a certain character, and bond with their crew. However, once again, this is a novella, so there was not much bonding between crew and machine, and in fact not much screentime for either of them, despite being a vital part of the story. The old rivalry between Imperial Fists and Iron Warriors is being shown mostly through the views of Darnath Lysander and the Iron Warrior's leader, Warsmith Shon'tu. Ben played these cards well, trying to show the similarities between the masters of fortification and those of siegecraft, and both sides outsmart each other throughout the novella just as much as they go toe-to-toe for thick action. Sadly, the story plays out mostly between the two leaders, with other Fists or Warriors getting little actual attention aside from notes on dropping dead during the battle. Interestingly, though, Lysander's past, namely his disappearance, got covered in an interesting way, bringing up both questions for the reader and making room for Shon'tu's daemonic allies, connecting the story to the tzeentchian theme of the anthology.

However, there are quite a few bits I did not like. While the other featured Architect of Fate stories felt limited by their permitted length, Endeavour of Will truly had too much going on. It seemed like Counter tried to cut-down a whole novel concept into a quarter of the usual pagecount while maintaining all key-elements but drastically shortening the overall level of detail, character development and buildup. I've never been into Imperial Fists, believing them to be the most boring loyalist faction of the Space Marines; while this Endeavour made me care a lot about Lysander, I couldn't find it in me to actually give a damn about all the other imperials. The only exception to that was the Tech-Marine Hestion, who didn't fare all that well.
Endeavour of Will had massive potential, but also wasted massive opportunities by the way it was executed.

Quite honestly, I am completely torn about this novella. I enjoyed it for the fast-paced action, the load of twists it delivered and the insights on Captain Darnath Lysander of the Imperial Fists, who had been a well-known special character on the tabletop for ages, but there were certain aspects about the story that made me want to put it away. Trying to do something rather unique, or adding new layers to existent pieces of the overall lore is something I usually appreciate, but this time it made for a bag of mixed feelings.
It is too bad that it turned out like this, since Endeavour of Will had a range of brilliant scenes and ties to other parts of the franchise. Don't worry too much about this story, however - it is certainly entertaining and worth reading, but better take it with a grain of salt.

by John French
"The White Consuls Space Marine Chapter answers a distress call, only to discover that the source of the signal is far more terrifying than the message it relays. As a psychic backlash sweeps through their astropathic choir, the infamous Kairos Fateweaver, greater daemon of Tzeentch and master of manipulation, reveals his final hand in a game which has lasted since the beginning of time. Destiny awaits."

I felt like I really needed something great to recover from my disappointment regarding Endeavour of Will, and hoped for Fateweaver to deliver. Bearing the name of the Oracle of Tzeentch, this story just had to be worthwhile, I hoped.
The story mainly focuses on Epistolary Cyrus Aurelius of the White Consuls and how he leads his brothers into what might appear like a trap. Following in the wake of the Inquisition, witnessing dead worlds that fell victim to the judgement of Exterminatus and hearing whispered warnings uttering the word Fateweaver, the White Consuls set out to prevent fate repeating itself on the astropathic relay station Claros. Cyrus, however, does not just follow a distress signal, but also his own visions - visions of his own death, fighting warp-spawn. But when the Consuls arrive at Claros, nothing seems amiss.
Fate, however, is inevitable, so the daemonic incursions the signal reported and Cyrus dreamed of eventually begin taking their toll. It is a battle that would see the station destroyed without a doubt, if Cyrus cannot grasp the meaning of the false distress call before it is too late. 'Fateweaver' - what does that name mean and why did countless worlds utter it while breathing their last breaths?

Fateweaver is, without a doubt, the best of the featured stories. It has everything; from a perfect pacing, growing foreboding and excitement to a meaningful ending which is not only full of action and sacrifice but also incredibly satisfying to experience. I am impressed at how French managed to build up on Sarah's efforts while raising the stakes even higher and higher while his story progressed. His characters are incredibly interesting and easy to connect to, and even those poor souls that get sacrificed along the way were artfully crafted, making me, as the reader, regret their loss. For tabletop-generals fielding Daemons onto the battlefield, there's even a meet&greet with the Changeling, which got presented awe-inspiringly well and true to the lore.

There could not have been any better way to end this anthology.
John French successfully incorporated the events from Sarah's Accursed Eternity into his Fateweaver, turning this anthology into a full cycle. While neither Sanctus nor Endeavour of Will are being mentioned in any direct manner, I felt like the fate of Inquisitor Mortmain from Sanctus was being hinted at (but do not take my word for it, it might not have been intended), making this a perfectly fine selection of novellas.

"It is what we were made for", a line which describes this novella all too well. Fate has its hold on every character in Fateweaver, and while some struggle to resist falling prey to their future, others embrace it. But despite that, at no point did I feel like things were set in stone, like this novella was predicable or growing dull. Quite the contrary; it has been a ride I am all too eager to repeat in due time, and I am convinced that the revelations made will blow my mind again.
Call me biased, but this story earned a spot in my personal favorites, just as was fated to happen. I hereby bow my head and tip my hat to John French. This novella was absolutely fantastic, captivating and conclusive. I hope you will agree, once you reach this anthology's grandiose conclusion.

Final Words & Verdict
Overall I quite enjoyed this anthology. Some stories might have had their downsides, Endeavour of Will doubly so, but the package you get here is one I wouldn't want to pass on. Indeed, it has been worth reading for Accursed Eternity and Fateweaver alone, which make up the core of the anthology.
My only real negative points about the collection would be that the first two stories were way too short for what they could have delivered with their massive potential, while Ben Counter's contribution might just as well have been scrapped altogether, at least removed from this anthology. Fateweaver, however, dealt fantastically with its restrictions, and worked perfectly the way it played out. As I stated elsewhere in this review, giving both Sanctus and Accursed Eternity 50 more pages each would have made them shine much brighter, and leaving Endeavour of Will for a stand-alone release would have made that entirely possible. Don't get me wrong, I do not want to trample down on Ben's story, but it just didn't work here, and it disappoints me that the Space Marine Battles-logo on the anthology's spine wears the colors of the Imperial Fists, when the real diamond in here was John French's story featuring the White Consuls.

But alas, nothing I can do about it, and it certainly isn't anything that should scare you from picking this book up. You'll get your mileage out of it in any case. I clearly recommend getting your hands on Architect of Fate.

It's taken me a while to get another book done and reviewed, but I hope to finish Aaron Dembski-Bowden's The Emperor's Gift over the weekend. Yes, I know, yet another AD-B review is coming, but what can I do? I just cannot resist...

Architect of Fate on the Black Library Website
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Happy Towel Day 2012!
While I'm typing this post, Germany is already good four and a half hours into this year's Towel Day - May 25. Some of you might be asking themselves what the hell that is supposed to be, and why you should care.

First of all, Towel Day is a day where the world shows their appreciation and pays tribute to the famous author Douglas Adams. Adams died on May 11 in 2001, and two weeks after his death, the first ever annual Towel Day was celebrated.

Douglas Adams? Maybe the name rings a bell already, but here it comes:
He wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which spans a radio comedy series, a 'trilogy of five books', a TV series, even a movie adaption and lots of other stuff. It is quite popular and should be a title most science fiction fans are popular all too familiar.

Shortly after Adams's death, a post found its way on the Internet:

Towel Day: A Tribute to Douglas Adams
Monday 14 May 2001 06:00am PDT

Douglas Adams will be missed by his fans worldwide. So that all his fans everywhere can pay tribute to this genius, I propose that two weeks after his passing (25 May 2001) be marked as "Towel Day". All Douglas Adams fans are encouraged to carry a towel with them for the day.

So long Douglas, and thanks for all the fish!

— D Clyde Williamson, 2001-05-14

Now, 'Why a towel?', you might be asking. It is a question best answered by quoting the Hitchhiker's Guide itself:

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

If you're a fan, or simply want to have a good Friday afternoon and maybe do something crazy, you should definitely check out the list of internationally planned Towel Day activities on There's probably something going on near you!
Maybe you haven't heard of Douglas Adams or the Hitchhiker's yet, but if this post made you curious, please check Adams's Goodreads page.

My Towel has been slung around my neck for the past 5 hours now, so I guess I'll be safe today. What about you?

Don't Panic.
Have a nice Towel Day 2012!

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Review: Blood Reaver by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
After finishing the prequel Soul Hunter incredibly quickly, I've been waiting for Blood Reaver to arrive on my doorstep, eager to claw myself back into the Night Lords trilogy. Apparently, though, I was not meant to finish it quite as quickly as I had wished to, but at last, here's the review. Let me just say that this was a fantastic successor to Soul Hunter, and left me shivering and chuckling alike. The new contributions to the series really added even more depth to the scenario, and I appreciated every chapter. A lot of neat details featured in the book tempt me to order some boxes to convert a few Chaos Marines models for my shelf...

First Claw is hunting again. In search for prey, they stalk the night once more.

The Story:
"Driven on by their hatred of the False Emperor, the Night Lords stalk the shadows of the galaxy, eternally seeking revenge for the death of their primarch. Their dark quest leads them to a fractious alliance with the Red Corsairs, united only by a common enemy. Together with this piratical band of renegades, they bring their ways of destruction to the fortress-monastery of the Marines Errant."

General Information
Blood Reaver is the sequel to Soul Hunter - don't read it without having read that one first. Most things said in the earlier review still hold true; the story still brings up Heresy-era moments once in a while, which makes sense given most of the cast's involvement in the Siege of Terra. The Night Lords are still screwed, even more so than in SH, with their ship critically damaged and their supplies at rock-bottom, and they are still treacherous bastards.
If you have enjoyed Soul Hunter's depiction of the 8th Legion, you won't be disappointed.

Structure & Plot
The Night Lords of the Exalted's warband are struggling for survival. Their supplies are almost at an end, their ship is critically damaged after the events at Crythe told in the prequel, and their ranks are diminished. In-fighting takes its bitter toll on the Legion and their new Navigator, Octavia, the eighth of Talos's slaves, has to fight for control over their vessel, the Covenant of Blood, who rejects her guidance through the warp. Desperate actions lead to the warband striking for Ganges Station, an Imperial deep-space refinery, to plunder supplies, slaves and technical components to keep the Covenant going. When Imperial reinforcements are inbound, the Exalted has to give another shameful order to ensure the Company's survival - retreat. Given the circumstances, there is only one way to repair the ship and become hunters again: sailing into the Maelstrom, begging for a Tyrant's assistance.

Lufgt Huron, called Blackheart, Blood Reaver, the Tyrant of Badab is a broken creature, yet still holds together in his hatred for the Imperium and is planning his greatest assault to date when the unlucky Night Lords arrive at the docks of Hell's Iris: Attacking the fortress-monastery of the Marines Errant Chapter to plunder their precious gene-seed to cripple the loyalist Chapter and swell the ranks of Huron's Red Corsairs even further. The Tyrant's ascendancy and the richness of his renegade warband show a strong contrast to the crippled Night Lords Company, and Huron knows fully well that he may use them as a vital pawn in his war. But the Exalted and First Claw are just as treacherous as the Blood Reaver, and are aiming for something far different for the siege - the Red Corsair's spoils of war. The former Night Lords vessel Echo of Damnation will be their prize for helping Huron. He just does not know it yet...

Final Words & Verdict
All in all, I loved Blood Reaver, probably even more than Soul Hunter, which makes it quite exceptional. The Night Lords are changing, which gets clear throughout the whole novel. Some things will end, others will begin, and nothing will be quite the way it was before this story. Characters are getting a lot of development, either directly or passively, and BR even explores some more emotional tunes, which build up a solid balance to the presence of the Tyrant of Badab and his minions. I even think Huron has been a more impressive leader than Abaddon the Despoiler in Soul Hunter, and almost wished for the Blackheart to lead a 'Red Crusade' to rival Abaddon's black ones.
Incredibly enough, some of the new characters made me laugh heartily at times, from Octavia's attendant 'Hound' to the ninth slave of Talos and the strange chemistry between some characters. Not only that, but it also managed to make me grieve the losses this book brought with it and the sacrifices made by some members of the warband. The end was quite bitter-sweet and the epilogue promises some exciting events to happen in Void Stalker, when Talos's visions of the Eldar finally become a reality.

Blood Reaver is full of surprises and draws you into the setting. Aaron proves yet again that he's the mastermind behind the 41st Millenium's heretics and feeds the reader with a high amount of tension and action. If you've read Soul Hunter, you simply have to read the sequel, and if you haven't yet, this book is just another damn-good reason to catch up with the trilogy. It is dark, it is full of treachery and even hope for a change.
The second Night Lords novel is definitely worth the time you will spend on it.

Next up for me is either Atlas Infernal, Empire or, you guessed it, Void Stalker, the last book about Aaron's Night Lords. I'll have to make up my mind today.

Blood Reaver on the Black Library Website
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Review: Heldenhammer by Graham McNeill
Quite honestly, I have tried starting Heldenhammer more times than I'd like to admit. There were plenty of reasons to finally get done with it, and, in hindsight, I don't regret the time spent in any way. It is a pity that bad timing always stood between me and the Legend of Sigmar, for the book was truly moving.

Now that I am finally done, let me review the first Sigmar novel in detail. Will I pledge my sword for the Heldenhammer's dream of an united Empire of man?

The Story:
"It is a time of legends. The lands of the old World are wild and untamed, where the primitive tribes of men struggle for survival. In this time of peril, by virtue of his valorous deeds, a young man claims leadership of the Unberogen tribe. His name is Sigmar Heldenhammer, and his actions will change history forever. This is the story of how Sigmar rose to power, culminating in the Battle of Black Fire Pass, where men and dwarfs fought against the vast hordes of orcs in their quest to safeguard the future of the Empire."

Book One of The Legend of Sigmar

General Information
Heldenhammer was the first book in the Time of Legends series to get released. The trilogy is complete by now, with the Omnibus collecting all three parts of the Legend of Sigmar coming up this summer. All Time of Legends contributions aim to unveil essential parts of the fictional history of the franchise, telling the stories of the first undead who ever rose from their graves, or the civil war engulfing the elven dynasty, and many other tales beyond these.
The Legend of Sigmar trilogy follows the life of Sigmar, King of the Unberogen tribe, and shows how he realises his dream of humanity united in purpose. Did you ever wonder what's up with the Warhammer that gives the franchise its venerable name? Sigmar was the first man to wield it in battle, and he was the one who reshaped the scattered, rival tribes of men into what would become humanity's greatest realm in the Warhammer world - the Empire. It is a quest that would eventually see him revered as a God by the men of the Empire for millenia to come.
Heldenhammer is quite a classical story, written in a different, lighter tone than other grimdark Warhammer novels; it is full of hope, good humor and events of cinematic proportions, almost comparable to the epic sagas we have been collecting over the course of human history. It is a story which lays the foundation for the franchise, so even if you've never heard or read of Warhammer before, you might easily enjoy it.

Structure & Plot
The book starts the night before Sigmar sets out with an army of his tribe to battle the Orcs invading the lands of their allies. Sigmar has ridden into battle before and even earned himself the gratitude of the dwarfen High King Kurgan Ironbeard, but this time he will earn his shield and progress into manhood, leading hundreds of Unberogen warriors against the enemies of mankind. Swinging the legendary hammer Ghal-maraz, the gift of King Kurgan, Sigmar and his men quickly emerge victorious, but one of his Sword-Brothers, Trinovantes, fell to the Orc warlord while holding the assault to give the rest of the army time to resupply.
Returning home to Reikdorf, a shadow lies over Sigmar's triumph, for his fallen friend's twin, Gerreon, blames Sigmar for the death of his brother. Worse even, the woman Sigmar loves was the sister of the twins, and stands between both sides. While Sigmar's father, King Björn of the Unberogen tribe, honours him and the fallen men, Sigmar overcomes his shyness and begins a relationship with his beloved and dreams of a future where all men stand together against the shadows that threaten their race, united and strong as an empire.
Little does he know that Gerreon, feeling betrayed by both Sigmar and his sister, plots against the King's son, and that his apologies aren't to be trusted. Sigmar's naivety would see him stripped of what he loved most andhurt beyond measure, but despite all he would emerge stronger than ever.

After his father's death in battle against the barbaric tribes of the north, the Norsii, Sigmar inherits the title of King of the Unberogen and quickly sets out to realise his dream. While uniting the rivalling tribes turns out to be just as hard a task as expected, Sigmar would not leave the road he has determined for himself, and overcomes all the trials before him. He renewed old swordoaths, forges new bonds with the other kings, slays creatures that would see men destroyed and eventually leads his race to new heights. His goal seems to be near, but mankind's enemies did not sit idle, and soon warnings of a new threat reach the King's ears:
The Orcs march for war. Ten thousands of Orcs seek to invade the lands of men, and only if all tribes work and fight as one will their race be allowed to survive, for alone they are lost. Sigmar leads a massive army of all his allied tribes to stand against the Orc warlord Urgluk Bloodfang - at Black Fire Pass, the fate of humanity will be decided, and an Empire born...

The book spans many years in Sigmar's life, from his mid-teens to late twenties, laying the foundation for the legends surrounding him. Apart from a few scenes, the whole story is written from either his perspective or with focus on his life and surroundings. Heldenhammer really manages to breathe life into Sigmar's character, making him much more than the sum of the legends of his deeds. It is a story full of emotion, hope and great strength that shows expertly just how much potential lies in unity.
Of course, telling of an individuals life in such a way will lead to the feeling that things are going too fast at times, and many details and discoveries ended up as mere notes between events; the introduction of rune-writing, stone roads, better wargear and the quick growth of human settlements all have a place in the story, and a role to play, yet they are never really explored as much as I'd liked them to be. What might seem unnecessary or even boring to others I thought was a great way to build up the world, showing just how essential Sigmar was to humanity's prosperity. While what was written was enough, I surely wouldn't have argued against more of these details along the road.

Final Words & Verdict
Graham McNeill managed to drag me completely into the story. The dialogues were inspiring, emotional and enjoyable. It was incredible how some scenes made me laugh, and how human the characters felt. Even Sigmar, who might be seen as some sort of wonder-boy by some for realising his dreams and smiting even the most brutal beasts on his own, felt human, realistic and deep. It was a real joy to follow his footsteps, from his homeland, his first love and his relationships to his friends to the tasks he'd need to fulfill to forge new alliances.
In a way, these trials almost appeared similar to the Labours of Hercules, and somehow that comparison isn't so far off, for, as Warhammer fans already know all too well, Sigmar would eventually join the Gods in their pantheon - at least that is what the descendents of the Empire believe.

At the end of the day, I really regretted not having read this one much sooner - and I had this one on my shelf since January 2009! If it wasn't for other books on my list, I'd have picked up the sequel, Empire, immediately after finishing Heldenhammer. Alas, this will have to wait for another day.
In my opinion, Graham has pulled the right strings with Heldenhammer. There's been enough foreshadowing and promise for the rest of the trilogy to utilize, and if you trust the David Gemmel Legend Award 2010 McNeill earned with Empire, it is only going to get better from here on.

Next up for me will be Blood Reaver and most likely Atlas Infernal, but I am already looking forward to the rest of the Legend of Sigmar. If I got you interested, keep an eye open for the Omnibus edition coming this August!

Heldenhammer on the Black Library Website
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Review: Prey by George Mann
Prey is the latest Raven Guard short story by George Mann.
Only available as an ebook, the price of £0.79 / 1.00€ / $1.25 seems quite fair, considering this story is about 2500 words, two and a half as many as the BLis15! shorts. Prey also works as a teaser to George's upcoming limited edition novella - The Unkindness of Ravens.

"Raven Guard Chaplain Cordae hunts a deadly beast in the mountains of the Chapter’s homeworld, Kiavahr. But as the creature realises the danger, Cordae finds himself the prey..."

The story is actually quite simple, yet unusual. Expanding further on the Raven Guard's background, George Mann tells the story of Chaplain Cordae's ritual hunt for a Roc, a gigantic raven-like bird. Having pursued the animal for nineteen days, Cordae is close to the hunt's end, yet the bird surely has been aware of his pursuit. Timing and cunning would decide whether Cordae would bring the Roc's dead body home to become part of his armor, or if the pursuit would see him lying dead on the foot of the mountains he had been climbing for days.
To succeed, Chaplain Cordae of the Raven Guard has to risk his life attempting to capture his prey. But how can he be sure he didn't underestimate his quarry?

George Mann isn't new to the Raven Guard; Having written two previous audio dramas about them, namely Helion Rain and Labyrinth of Sorrows, over the last years, he has taken every opportunity to add a few new traits and layers to the Chapter, partly inspired by Forgeworld products, which prove to be a satisfying contribution to their background. He knows the Raven Guard and manages to make them both appear deep and accessible in their ways.
Prey is a prime example of his efforts to expand the lore of the Raven Guard; instead of showing Space Marines on the field of battle, Prey discovers the Chapter's culture, rituals and symbolism. One single, unarmored Space Marine testing his mind against the giant ravens of Kiavahr, the Chapter's homeworld - we certainly don't get things like these often enough. Even the warriors of the Adeptus Astartes do have a cultural background, as Prey expertly shows.

While the story is definitely unusual and admittedly short, it was quite a pleasant read. The ebook managed to paint a vivid picture of the ritual hunt and the Chaplain's determination to take down his quarry. Add to that all the little details to flesh out the Raven Guard-feel of the story and you get a good read you won't regret picking up. Especially fans of the Chapter will find a lot of inspirational details for upcoming hobby projects. Fans of Bolter-porn will be severely disappointed, however, so be aware that this story is not about war, but filling a niche. It certainly isn't for everyone.

I recommend picking the ebook up; The low price makes this an especially safe bet.
But beware! You might get tempted to buy the upcoming novella The Unkindness of Ravens. Well, at least I am...

Update: An Extract of The Unkindness of Ravens is up on today's Black Library blog entry. Check it out!

Prey on the Black Library Website
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Review: Dead Winter by C.L. Werner
Having thoroughly enjoyed C.L. Werner's The Red Duke, my anticipation for Dead Winter has been huge. A plague, ratmen, the mighty Empire brought to its knees... What is not to appreciate about that scenario? Being the latest entry to the Time of Legends series, I was sure to pick it up anyway - more Warhammer Fantasy is a good thing in my book.

Now that I finished the book, I need to get in touch with a Plague Doktor. I think I might be contaminated...

The Story:
"More than a thousand years after the Age of Sigmar, the Empire he struggled to create rests on the edge of destruction – the reign of the greedy and incompetent Emperor Boris Goldgather has shaken down the great and prosperous edifice of his erstwhile realm. Without warning, a terrible and deadly plague strikes, wiping out entire villages and leaving towns eerily silent through the long frozen months. As the survivors struggle to maintain order and a worthy military presence, vermin pour up from the sewers and caverns beneath the cities, heralding a new and unspeakable threat – the insidious skaven!"

General Information
Dead Winter is the latest entry to the Time of Legends series, which is trying to explore the origins of the Warhammer world as fans know it. Being blessed with a rich lore, Warhammer is certainly a treasure trove for epic battles, reformations and tragedy beyond measure. From the founding of the Empire of man by Sigmar Heldenhammer over the civil war that tore the race of elves apart to the rise of the undead under the reign of Nagash, the Time of Legends series has seen a fair share of epic events that have only been shortly addressed in armybooks before. The Black Plague trilogy is no different, yet it marks a vital timeframe for the Empire. Cross-referencing to the Sigmar and Nagash trilogies, the novel can stand well on its own, and manages to feel like real history more often than not.

Of course, Dead Winter is founded on actual historic events. Humanity has survived the Plague many centuries ago, and I am sure most of us have learned enough during history lessons to realise that it was a dark time for all involved. Yet that was history, and those history books hardly manage to give us an insight on why we should care. Dead Winter, however, shows the reader a conclusive view on all layers of society and how they cope with their fear of getting afflicted with the Plague. From the lowliest peasant over soldiers, counts, priests and even princes, C.L. Werner makes clear that everybody is involved and in danger once the disease spreads.
Add to that the presence of a greedy, incompetent Emperor, leading his realm into ruin, the forming of resistance against this unjust ruler, and of course a bit of necromancy and plotting ratmen, and you get a very promising, dark and unforgiving story that keeps you on edge.

Structure & Plot
The book follows multiple plot-lines, which switch within chapters, neatly arranged to make for a compelling read. All those plot-lines are based around the novel's leading topic - the Black Plague. As C.L. Werner put it himself, the disease itself is the star of the book, the focus everything comes back to. They are only loosely connected throughout the novel, but are sure to meet in the inevitable sequels. Some of them might even shake more than just the Empire of man.

We see the unjust reign of Emperor Boris Goldgather, his overtaxation of the Empire's provinces and his schemes to enflame the rivalries between his subjects to keep them at bay. After having disbanded the armies of the Empire and removing the exemption of the Dienstleute, men employed by the provinces, towns and cities to secure their lands and defend their people, from taxes, resistance against Boris forms. From protest-marches of the discharged soldiers to the plans of the noblemen to dethrone the tyrant, a conflict ensues that involves all of the Empire's people and demands sacrifices from all of them. There can only be one solution to the Empire's misery - a coup against Emperor Boris!

Earning his living by catching rats in the city of Nuln, Walther Schill lives an easy life, shunned by society for his choice of work. Wishing to be with his love, a tavern maiden of the Black Rose, he quickly acquires plenty of coin due to the surge of rats on the streets of Nuln after the outbreak of the Plague. One day, however, a body is found, and the rat-catcher quickly realises that the man's throat had not been slit with a blade, but gnawed open - by a giant rat! He makes plans to catch the beast and make a good fortune off it, but little does he know what he might attract through his deeds, and what sacrifices his short luck would demand. I particularly liked this plot-line; it had a surprisingly human tone, realistic and comprehensible, sprinkled with hope and joy that presented a nice balance to the depressing reality of the spreading disease. But in the end, nobody is safe, and reality catches up...

Cold reality also holds Graf Gunthar of Middenheim in its grips. The ruler of Middenland has to face hard decisions that would earn him the disrespect of his son, prince Mandred. Having to decide between accepting refugees of the surrounding lands or barring Middenheim's gates to everyone, Graf Gunthar decides to protect his subjects from outside influence by shutting them in. Being forced to watch the refugees in front of the city-state die from their diseases and by the claws of beastmen, his son decides to help smugglers to get refugees into the city, against all reason. Courage and a good heart lead the young prince from one foolishness to the next, but even he will have to face the sad truth sooner or later...

While Middenheim is still looking at the bright side of things, the town of Bylorhof has already lost the battle against the Black Plague. Priest of Morr, god of the dead, Frederick van Hal struggles to keep his people sane and pious while they descend into the depths of human despair and return to the worship of old idols. When his own family is in grave danger, Frederick has to make decisions that will change his life forever. He steps into a realm of powers he should never have learned about - the vile art of necromancy. When the charlatan Plague Doktor Bruno Havemann damns his family at last, van Hal is struggling to keep even his own desires for vengeance in check...

All the while, deep below the surface, the Skaven are busy trying to betray each other, with Puskab Foulfur, Poxmaster of Clan Pestilens being the leading character on his way to claim a seat at the Council of Thirteen. Betrayal and counter-betrayal with a following counter-counter-betrayal are the most essential part of this plotline. Despite being so obviously skaven in nature, I found it quite difficult to make out which rat was actually double-crossing which other rat or clan. It really draws you deep into the abyss of skaven malice and makes you appreciate just how mean and evil this vile race truly is - and how it is possible that they haven't overrun the surface already. However, that might yet come to pass, thanks to Puskab's own creation - the Black Plague.

Final Words & Verdict
If you read this to make up your mind whether or not you should buy this novel, let me answer the question straight away: Hell yes, you should. Why haven't you already? This novel is bloody awesome, it is just that simple. It is dark, it is bloody, it evokes the whole spectrum of emotions, from fear and courage over hope to despair and love and hate. It is exciting, addictive and makes me craving for the sequel already. History is being written in Dead Winter, so close yet so different from our real history, it makes you wonder 'what if?' from beginning to the bitter end. The book lays the founding for two further installments to The Black Plague, and let me tell you, you'll want to read them after finishing Dead Winter. From one who knows quite a bit about the Warhammer lore, let me tell you that this is just the start to epic events yet to come. Some scenes and characters really made my fanboy-heart squeal in anticipation.

The only negative aspect to the book, if you ask me, would be the way the Skaven-plot was handled. Of course, they're the ones behind the Plague and use it to decimate mankind before engaging them in force, but I felt like their side of the story was, while excellent and exciting, a bit too detached from the events on the surface. Admittedly, though, they simply don't care about the human-meat as long as they don't have to face it at full strength. While the Skaven did have a paw in the events around the Revolution, the plot-line's lead character, Puskab Foulfur, followed his own path. It is also regrettable that the Grey Seers did not really appear in the novel apart from the opening chapters.
Without a doubt, the skaven-side of the story will be much more prominent in the sequels, but their presence in Dead Winter felt a bit lacking, which isn't a fault of the book, as it presented them quite fitting- and satisfyingly, but an issue you'd find in almost any series. Some parts of the story simply had to get sown before they can be reaped in a later installment, and there's nothing wrong with that. It just makes me wish I already had the sequel in my paws...

That being said, the book is amazing, vivid, moving and at times infuriating when confronted with blatant human failure. It gets you as close to the Black Plague as you can possibly get without getting afflicted, and makes you glad you are just watching the events unfold. Once again, C.L. Werner managed to capture me with his grasp on the grim darkness of Warhammer Fantasy and the depths of the human mind. I am itching to squeeze Wulfrik into my reading list already, and am browsing various stores for a copy of the Mathias Thulmann Omnibus. There are plenty of books written by Clint which I haven't yet have the pleasure to read, but if The Red Duke and Dead Winter are anything to go by, I cannot wait for his next contribution.

For the time being, however, I'll have to be content with Blood Reaver's imminent arrival and C.L. Werner's Black Plague tie-in story featured in Age of Legend - fittingly, said story is called Plague Doktor...

Dead Winter on the Black Library Website
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Review: Kraken by Chris Wraight
Another story by Chris Wraight. I think my review of Luthor Huss made it clear that I'm thinking very highly of Chris and his works for Warhammer Fantasy. Now, this isn't fantasy, but 40k - a Space Wolves story. Not having had time to read Wraight's Battle of the Fang, I was quite curious how Kraken would turn out.

"The Space Wolves forge new sagas as they hunt a monstrous beast of the oceans and battle the alien menace of the tyranids in a brand new tale by the author of Battle of the Fang."

The Space Wolves are a proud Space Marine Chapter. They almost appear savage to outsiders, with their long manes, sheer strength and prowess on display. It is no surprise that these proud Astartes treasure not only their own honour, but that of their whole pack, as their squads are called. Sometimes the bonds in between packmates are strong enough for the last survivor of the group to swear an oath of vengeance to restore the honour of his brethren by hunting alone, becoming a Lone Wolf.
Lone Wolves set out on many quests in search for a foe mighty enough to be worth slaying or in the attempt. Etching the names of his fallen brothers onto his armor, or even skin, the Wolf longs for the day he might return to Fenris, the head of his quarry in hands, proving that the honour of his pack has been restored.

Kraken tells the story of such a Space Wolf on his quest to hunt down a Tyranid leviathan in the hope of redeeming his brothers' honour. Following Aj Kvara on his quest has been quite a ride - a short one, I admit, but the story makes up for that with action and satisfaction. Not only does it present the wolf's battle against his Tyranid quarry, but also shows the reader key-moments in Kvara's life, from his first hunt on the seas of Fenris to the loss of his pack and the taking of his oath, granting us a complex picture of the Lone Wolf called Aj Kvara. What must Kvara sacrifice in order to restore his honour and rest in peace again?

I can't pretend to know much about the Wolves of Fenris, especially not as much as I'd like to, but the subject of these Lone Wolves has always interested me. They are an integral part of the Wolves' traditions and sagas, but are too often overlooked, so I gladly picked this one up.
The story has a really strong buildup to it; I quite honestly did not expect such depth from a short story of around 17,000 words. I should have known better, I admit, since the opening chapters of Chris Wraight's Battle of the Fang were giving a strong impression of Fenris and the Space Wolves already, but reading Kraken really felt like a story fitting of a Lone Wolf and the losses he'd be looking back on. As much as Kraken depicts the might of a Space Marine, showing off just how much even a single one of the defenders of the Imperium is capable of, I thought the core of the story was playing a much more tragic tune of regret, sacrifice and brotherhood. People say wolves are incredibly loyal and their howls feel like mourning, and I felt like this story mirrored that very nicely.

Interestingly, the people of Lyses, the world he delivers from the Tyranid menace, present a nice way of balancing the action-driven story. As little 'screen-time' as they had, the way they perceived the Space Wolf and compared him to the only other Marines they've seen before, the Ultramarines, made me chuckle. It made clear just how unique the sons of Russ truly are in their ways.
The presence of underwater action is another unique feature in the story which I haven't mentioned yet. I don't know of even a single story in the Black Library range that dealt with Space Marines combating their foes below the surface, especially not in the depths of an ocean. I'm impressed by how smoothly the story dealt with this type of action; it gave the story a cinematic atmosphere.

All things considered, I am pleased with this story. If you're a fan of the Wolves of Fenris, I clearly recommend reading Kraken. It has been an unexpectedly touching story that sucked me in and made me feel like I, as the reader, actually had a connection to the lost members of Kvara's pack. This one really was something else, a welcome distraction from the glorious defenders of humanity. Even if you're not a die-hard Space Wolves fan, you'll most likely appreciate this one.
The only thing I regret about this story would be its length, or lack thereof. I wouldn't mind it to be longer, since the final part in particular felt a bit rushed. Just a few more paragraphs and I'd have been even happier with Kraken.
Nonetheless, this was the fourth time Chris Wraight has managed to capture my interest with a story, and if it wasn't for Dead Winter lying next to me, I'd pick up Battle of the Fang right away. For the time being, however, I will just relish the thought that another Space Wolves story is waiting on my shelf. It won't rest there for long now...

Kraken on the Black Library Website
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Review: Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
With the Night Lords trilogy coming to a close with Void Stalker, I finally managed to pick up and read the first novel of the bunch - Soul Hunter.
It is no secret that this trilogy by heretic overlord Aaron Dembski-Bowden is being extremely praised and, lacking a better word, hyped like the 14th Black Crusade. You can imagine how high my expectations have been ever since this hype surfaced in the spheres of the 40k fandom, so I was quite eager to get my claws on this book and read it once I'd get an open reading slot. Having been a Night Lords sympathiser ever since I saw their color scheme in one of my first White Dwarfs, I haven't come to read much about them in the past. Pure anticipation forced me to finish this book in mere days.

Can Talos and the Night Lords live up to the hype surrounding everything AD-B touches these days? Did Soul Hunter turn me from the Emperor's light? Let's penetrate the darkness...
The Story:
"The Night Lords form an uneasy allegiance with the Black Legion in order to assault the valuable planet of Crythe Primus. The Imperial world puts up a stern defence, but the biggest obstacle to success will be the disunity and mistrust between the two Legions. Will their covenant last long enough for them to succeed in their mission?"

General Information
While technically a 40k novel, Soul Hunter also ties very deeply into Horus Heresy events, so I recommend having a solid knowledge on both parts of the franchise before reading - that way you'll get the most out of it. The ties into existing lore and background material reach deep; deep enough to impress me more and more with every moment I spend thinking about the book.
Soul Hunter and its follow-ups are some of the rare Black Library novels depicting the Traitor Legions not just as antagonists, but show their inner workings. While it gets quickly clear that these aren't the shiny cover-boys from Ultramar but evil bastards out for blood, it is incredibly easy to genuinely care about the Night Lords' 10th Company.
The Night Lords Legion itself is based on psychological warfare - instill fear in the hearts of your enemies and they will struggle to even put up a fight. Their deeds, however, led them to being looked down on by the other Space Marine Legions, and eventually saw them deemed traitors. Primarch Konrad Curze, the Night Haunter, decided to cut the Legion's ties to their corrupt homeworld by destroying it, and later joined the Traitor Legions in their Heresy against the Emperor - which he foresaw, for Konrad was plagued by visions of the future.
Soul Hunter deals with events in the present timeline and the Legion's history ten thousand years in the past, addressing the Night Haunter's visions, the fate of the Legion, the Black Crusades led by Abaddon the Despoiler and picks up threads from all around, knitting a solid, believable start to Aaron Dembski-Bowden's Night Lords trilogy.

Talos of the Night Lords' 10th Company, under the command of the Exalted, has inherited his gene-father's gift of foresight. Regarded as prophet by many of his brothers, he plays a vital role in his Company. Assuming a role similar to sergeant of his squad, the First Claw, Talos often argues with the Exalted about the state of their decaying warband, and even the whole Legion. The Exalted, however, shrugs the lack of reinforcements, supplies and servants off on many occassions. Having embraced the influence of the Dark Gods, he believes himself above these matters and instead thirsts for Warmaster Abaddon's grace and to prove his tactical excellence in void battles.
When Talos delays the warband's departure for the Crythe system to support Abaddon's war, following the call of one of his visions and returning with new servitors and even a female Navigator, the Exalted feels once more threatened in his rule over 10th Company. The rare gift of the third eye the Navigators bear on their foreheads allows them to stare into the warp, guiding void vessels through the galaxy. Said female Navigator has to decide whether to align herself with traitors to the Golden Throne or to refuse and die at the hands of their betters. Meanwhile, her 'master', Talos, faces temptations, the ruin of 10th and his memories regarding his gene-father, Konrad Curze and the name he gave him - Soul Hunter.
The book's final stage is reached during the battle on Crythe Prime against the Mechanicus and their Titan Legion. At last, the Night Lords join sides with Abaddon's Black Legion - but can real unity be found among condemned traitors? Who can be trusted? When the Imperial relief-fleet arrives to defend the Crythe system, the Night Lords are force to not just stand against their old foes, the Blood Angels, but also against their own...

Final Words & Verdict
As bitter as the Night Lords present in the novel are, the story is not without humor - at least for the reader. The character interaction is top-notch, their relations a promising build up for further books. The action sequences are captivating and satisfying, making clear that being traitors to the Imperium comes with both positive as well as negative aspects. The Night Lords are grinding themselves down - they are dying in their defiance. They have to scavenge pieces of equipment from fallen brothers and foes alike, are lacking proper recruitment methods and the means to properly maintain their machines. These Traitor Marines feel realistic, gritty and act like true renegades. Even the human characters in the novel have their place in the novel, and make for an unexpected twist.

Believe me when I say that it is incredible to read such a tightly-knit book. Everything comes together in Soul Hunter - the Great Crusade, the Heresy, the wronging of the Night Haunter, his eventual assassination by M'Shen, the Night Lords' fall from grace - I am not sure I have read another Black Library novel that digs so deep into small details and aspects of the background; Even rarer for them to feel so natural and well-placed. Some scenes from the post-Heresy-era even reminded me of similar scenes from Horus Rising, as they were discussing the same principles with a different twist and angle. I'm almost convinced to call this book, maybe the whole trilogy, a fantastic addition to the Horus Heresy series. AD-B's depiction of Warmaster Abaddon, former First Captain of the Sons of Horus hit me as surprising, yet wholly pleasant. Having read the chapters featuring him, I am hoping Aaron will realise his plans regarding a Warmaster-series as soon as possible. His take on Chaos is simply that good, trust me.

Another thing Aaron obviously manages to pull of with great success is the subject of void battles. Normally I am not a fan of spaceships shooting at each other until shields go down and they may move in for the kill, but surprisingly the chapters dedicated to these battles in space were extremely enjoyable, comprehensible and kept me excited. Every single one of these scenes featured was unique and satisfying - now I finally understand why people are so excited about more void battles written by AD-B, for I am now in the same battle-barge...

You can't possibly comprehend how much I am looking forward to the upcoming Prince of Crows novella, to be featured in Shadows of Treachery. While Graham McNeill wrote The Dark King, a story about Konrad Curze's fate around the time he attacked his brother Rogal Dorn, ending in the destruction of the Night Haunter's home planet Nostramo Quintus, it is AD-B who refines the Legion, and he does so both in the Heresy era and the 41st Millenium. Having this man in charge of the 40k-Batmen is a bliss for both the franchise and the fans. He does his homework regarding the background material and utilises it in fantastic ways that add further layers to whatever he writes about without disturbing pre-existent works. If you need proof of that, pick up Soul Hunter and marvel at the richness of the story.

You won't regret picking the book up. You will, however, most likely regret having to put it down once in a while.
Now I need to kill a few days, possibly a week, until the sequel Blood Reaver arrives...

Soul Hunter on the Black Library Website
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Review: Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium (Omnibus)
This time I'm reviewing not an individual novel, short story or audio drama, but am going for the big bunch: an Omnibus. Including three novels plus incentives in the form of three gap-filling shortstories, not only am I trying to take a look at an individual plot, presentation and character development within a single book, but rather a package deal. I'll keep it rather short on the individual novels' contents and try to judge the Omnibus as a whole.

Can Ciaphas Cain uphold his reputation over the course of three novels? We're about to find out...

The Story:
"In the war torn future of the 41st Millennium Commissar Ciaphas Cain, hero of the Imperium, is respected by his peers and an inspiration to his men – at least that’s what the propaganda would have you believe. The reality is very different, for Ciaphas is simply looking for an easy life and a way to stay out of peril. However, fate has a habit of throwing him into the deadliest situations, and luck (mixed with self preservation) always manages to pull him through and onto the loftiest of pedestals. To survive Commissar Cain must dodge, bluff and trick his way out of trouble, even if it increases his status beyond his control!

Featuring futuristic military action, thrills and humour, Hero of the Imperium collects the novels For the Emperor, Caves of Ice and The Traitor’s Hand, plus three exclusive short stories."

General Information
Being an Omnibus, Hero of the Imperium includes the first three novels of the Ciaphas Cain series, plus three short stories. They're all set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and due to the style of the books, a solid amount of pre-knowledge will benefit the reader. Without this knowledge about 40k, you'd surely miss a lot of cross-references and jokes, which make up a good part of the series' entertainment value.

The stories themselves revolve around an Imperial Commissar, charged with maintaining a healthy morale at a newly-merged Imperial Guard regiment. Due to heavy combat losses, one of the rare mixed-gender regiments is formed, and Cain is forced to shape the rival troopers into a new, reliable unit that stands together on the field of battle. The command structure is getting restored, the 296th and 301st Valhallan regiments become the 597th and Cain earns the regiment's respect, which is vital to every Commissar. Charged with the task of maintaining morale and dealing with infractions, most Commissars are just as trigger-happy when dealing with friendlies as they are when pointing their pistol at the enemy. Expectedly, these autonomous figures are generally hated among the troopers, which is not the most secure state of things, especially during war. Ciaphas, however, wants to save his hide, and only reluctantly punishes his regiment in severe ways, playing the good guy to gain both trust and support - which only furthers his heroic reputation earned over his years of active service. Of course, to maintain his face and reputation, Cain has to play his role consistently, which often leads him directly into danger and situations of sure death - which he'd have undeniably found by now, if it wasn't for his ressourceful aide Jurgen.

It is this spiral of maintaining his reputation and having to deal with its results, both good and bad, that make up the heroic stories of Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium, and grants the reader access to a very close view on the command structure of the Imperial Guard, the way they fight and the way they deal with the time between fights, and combined with Ciaphas Cain's very own thoughts, opinions and fears, the series provides an unprecedented richness of detail on the inner working of the armies of the Imperium.
Of course this package also comes with a good dose of humor, sarcasm and curses, which break the mold of your typical 40k stories in a very refreshing way.

Written in-lore by fictional Commissar Ciaphas Cain, celebrated Hero of the Imperium, these stories consist of multiple layers, which work together to create a comprehensive account of the events described:
  • The memoirs of Cain, written by himself, presented in first person view
  • Editorials and footnotes written by Inquisitor Amberley Vail, who also knows Cain in person and met him on a multitude of occassions, usually making life harder for him
  • Selected excerpts from various sources to expand on Cain's personal views, fill the gaps left in the telling and put them into a wider scale
Luckily, Sandy Mitchell manages to give all of these a very specific character, from Ciaphas and his thought processes over Amberley and her more professional standpoint and even the excerpts are written in varying styles depending on the fictional author. Indeed, some of these excerpts are written in an almost painful way, which Amberley alludes to, suggesting the reader to skip the next part at times, or hinting at the unprofessional style of the excerpt's author.

This mix, as complicated as it may sound or look at first, is a fantastic thing I appreciate very much, as it provides balance and different views on matters Cain himself might look at with heavy prejudices, or simply gets wrong in his tale - in fact, as much knowledge he shows in areas that might save his life, he has his oversights and flaws, which often get directly addressed by a footnote or two. It is these inaccuracies that make Cain, despite his incredible luck and reputation, a believable character with clearly visible flaws (which, admittedly, he explains often enough on his own). However, this mix is only around in the full novels in case of the Hero of the Imperium omnibus - the short stories are unedited pieces straight out of Ciaphas' works.

These points make me feel that the Ciaphas Cain series is just as much about perception as it is about the Imperial Guard, Commissars, wars, heroism or simply service in the Emperor's name. It does never get entirely clear if Ciaphas Cain, who describes himself as a habitual liar, really is the coward forced into action by necessity or the actual modest hero people see him as - there are plenty of ways to look at Cain, and it is up to the reader to decide what to believe about him.

To end this section, let me again point out how the omnibus itself is structured.
Starting with a foreword by author Sandy Mitchell about the origins of the series, and the character he created, the book quickly gets to the first ever Ciaphas Cain story, Fight or Flight from 2002. Next up is the first novel called For the Emperor from 2003, which as a title holds both an important position in the whole 40k franchise and alludes to Ciaphas' selfish character. Bridging the gap to the next full novel is Echoes of the Tomb, released in 2004 and setting the stage for Caves of Ice, the second novel which got released in the same year. The final two parts of the omnibus, namely the shortstory The Beguiling and novel number three, The Traitor's Hand, interact in a similar way as the former two, albeit The Beguiling was released in 2003 as the second Cain story, with the third novel appearing much later in 2005.
All of the included stories build up on each other, cross-referring to each other on a multitude of occassions and knitting a tight profile of Cain's career and character. Read on to learn more about the individual contents of the stories, I promise I'll keep the spoilers down.

Plot Overview
Fight or Flight
"Ciaphas Cain's early years come to light as he fights alongside the Valhallan 12th Field Artillery on the world of Desolatia."
In the wider scope, Fight or Flight describes one of the earliest events in Cain's commissarial career, and introduces both him and his aide Jurgen. Chronologically this story is the first one as well; every over shortstory and novel being set at a later point in Cain's life. The story itself is rather simple, but sets the flags for Cain the Hero. Oh, and did I mention the attacking Tyranids?

For the Emperor
"On an outpost Imperial world on the fringes of Tau space, Ciaphas Cain and his regiment of Valhallan Guard, find themselves in the middle of a war. As the Imperial Guard struggle to contain worldwide civil insurrection, can the wily Commissar Cain identify the real villain before the planet is lost to the Imperium forever?"
I must admit, by now my memory of For the Emperor is indeed a bit hazy by now, but what I remember of it has been a great read from start to finish.
Set on Gravalax, a world suffering from a stalemate between the imperial forces and the Tau Empire, steadily expanding its borders, For the Emperor makes for a highly political and diplomatical tale. Apparently not only the Imperium and the Tau are trying to take a hold on Gravalax, but also a mysterious third party trying to incite a war between both forces has a few pawns in play. Cain enters the stage alongside the support troops of the newly merged 597th Valhallan regiment of the Imperial Guard, and is forced to join sides with the Tau to uncover the schemes working in the background. What he is bound to find is both unsettling and more dangerous than the threat the Tau pose.

This is the first story which features Inquisitor Amberley Vail, who sadly wasn't really featured in the other two included books, despite having a cameo in both. It is her who reveals quite major information on Cain's aide Jurgen, which is vital to the full understanding of the series. Another thing it presents, just as importantly as the mentioned revelations, is the founding of the 597th, which Cain would serve for a very long time without getting shot in the back by his own troopers. The early struggles of the regiment are both interesting to read and they also give the reader an understanding of Cain's place among the Guard, his work-philosophy and how he came to be so respected amongst the men and women of Valhalla.

Echoes of the Tomb
"Ciaphas Cain battles alongside the Reclaimers Space Marine Chapter against a mysterious foe."
Now this description feels entirely inaccurate to me. While the Reclaimers are featured in this short story (and would be heavily featured in the 7th Ciaphas Cain novel, released in 2010), it is only during the last paragraphs that Cain encounters them. Instead, the story focuses on the events that happened when Cain was supposed to meet up with the Reclaimers for a mission but ended up waiting at the site of an expedition of the Mechanicum until the Reclaimers' arrival. It depicts very nicely that some things should never be stirred in their sleep, and sets the stage quite impressively for Caves of Ice.

Caves of Ice
"On the ice world of Simia Orichalcae a spate of mysterious disappearances is causing unrest amongst the mine-workers, and, as senior officer, Cain is nominated to investigate. Unbeknownst to him, the planet is right in the path of a major ork incursion and, as the savage greenskins attack, a malevolent evil begins to stir deep in the ice caves."
This second novel shares some essential parts with Echoes of the Tomb, which, as an event in Cain's life, serves as an important plot device throughout the story. Cain is forced to hold his own fears in check to maintain his reputation, while diving straight into the depths of his nightmares. The imperial defenders find themselves in a struggle against time, which only succeeds due to Cain and Jurgen's ressourcefulness.
While the story features plenty of twists, it somehow felt rather repetitive to me during the third quarter. It kept me going nonetheless, however, due to the deep trouble our main character found himself in, and there's enough incentive to motivate the reader to read yet another chapter. What I found very enjoyable were Cain's interactions with the troopers he attached himself to, and the different civilians involved in the defence. Seeing the Valhallans' Colonel Regina Kasteen and her second-in-command Major Ruput Broklaw scaring the arrogant Mechanicum and Administratum representatives was a pleasant occurance, and also the stark contrast between the native valhallan iceworlders and Ciaphas in the cold of Simia Orichalcae.
Overall this was an enjoyable read, which introduced quite a few characters that the reader may meet again in the following novels.

The Beguiling
"On Slawkenberg, Ciaphas Cain is a long way from the front lines and that's precisely what he wanted. However, Chaos is present on Slawkenberg and Cain finds himself back in the firefight against his better judgement. "
Being the second-ever story written about Ciaphas Cain, The Beguiling is quite essential to the Commissar's life, as it marks one of his early encounters with Chaos, and proves the strength of his character in the face of temptation. Interestingly, it serves as sort of prologue to The Traitor's Hand, and does that job rather well.

The Traitor's Hand
"Ciaphas Cain's latest missions takes him and his Valhallan regiment to the planet of Adumbria to defend against an approaching Chaos invasion. However, infighting with fellow Imperial Guard regiments and the uprising of a sinister cult on the planet puts paid to any hopes of an easy life."
The Traitor's Hand, hands down, is the best of the included stories if you ask me. It delivers a healthy balance between action, diplomacy, conflicting cultures and insane heretics. From wonderful descriptions of the planet Adumbria and its unique status among the myriad worlds of the Imperium to the almost blasphemous behavior of Cain towards the pious Tallarns, one of the other regiments involved, this novel simply keeps you excited and reading, manages to get plenty of chuckles out of you and even adds a slight horror-factor to the story. The 597th Valhallan gets a lot more action than before, allowing the reader to experience the iceworlders in solid action rather than continuing the waiting game seen in the earlier novels. This is the war the books have managed to avoid so far, and it is bloody, cruel and unpredictable.
Above all, The Traitor's Hand gives Cain more opportunities to further his reputation than I thought possible, even providing him with a rival Commissar from his days in the Schola Progenium, who is presented as the absolute opposite of the good Ciaphas. This makes for more than just fun, but also adds an immense tension to the book, which manifests in the last stage of the story and delivers a very pleasant and satisfying ending to the omnibus as a whole.

Final Words & Verdict
The Ciaphas Cain series might not suit everybody's taste, but it is certainly a 40k subseries I'd recommend to fans of the franchise. Even if the stories appear to be quite formulaic (Cain considers the upcoming mission an easy one, gets into trouble, everything seems lost, Cain saves the day), they are no less exciting. In fact, despite knowing that Cain survives, it is always quite questionable how he manages to escape the heat without losing face, and what is the price for survival. This makes for enough of an uncertainty to enjoy the tension building up throughout the stories.

Let me once again stress the immense entertainment value this omnibus volume holds for the reader. The books are straddling the field of 40k fiction in ways you'd hardly find anywhere else. Taking themselves serious enough to tell a comprehensive and authentic story of the Commissar's service attached to the Imperial Guard, I didn't feel like the sarcasm, curses, ignorance or snide comments featured are detracting from their internal realism. The inner quarrels between the imperial institutions representatives, the prejudices between Guard and Mechanicum and Cain's antipathy towards certain characters make the cast feel very much alive and comprehensible. Even side characters got their own characteristics, making the Guard look much less of cannon fodder as they're usually depicted in the usual 40k Bolter-Porn novels.
And at the end of the omnibus, I admit, it was like I knew these Valhallan troopers much better than your typical Space Marine squad or bunch of heretics. They've made an impression on me, and it will probably last well until I'll manage to start the second omnibus, and grow even further as a result. Ciaphas Cain brings the reader as close to the typical Guard regiment as it may get, which I am very much thankful for.

Hero of the Imperium is a damn good read, especially for those who are getting tired of brute force and forcefully heroic characters and know quite a bit about the franchise. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and will keep a lot of fantastic scenes in good memory. The 9th Ciaphas Cain novel cannot get announced soon enough... I clearly recommend picking this omnibus up!

Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium on the Black Library Website
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