Review: Damocles by Various

Posted by DarkChaplain at 7/24/2014
Two centuries ago, the Imperium of Man and the upstart Tau Empire fought to a standstill in the Damocles Gulf. Now, as the 41st millennium draws to a close, the tau have returned. As the world of Agrellan falls under attack, the White Scars and Raven Guard rush to its defence, but with the skilled Commander Shadowsun leading the alien forces, the Space Marines and their allies are hard pressed. Kor’sarro Khan, Huntmaster of the White Scars, swears that he will win the day in the most direct way possible – by taking Shadowsun’s head.
This one was a difficult book for me to finish. The review may be a bit more on the rant-y side, but you'll see why.
Please note that the book will be re-released as a paperback early 2015, as part of the Space Marine Battles series.

The Story:
"Two centuries ago, the Imperium of Man and the upstart Tau Empire fought to a standstill in the Damocles Gulf. Now, as the 41st millennium draws to a close, the tau have returned. As the world of Agrellan falls under attack, the White Scars and Raven Guard rush to its defence, but with the skilled Commander Shadowsun leading the alien forces, the Space Marines and their allies are hard pressed. Kor’sarro Khan, Huntmaster of the White Scars, swears that he will win the day in the most direct way possible – by taking Shadowsun’s head.

Gathered within this volume are four novellas that focus on the events of the second Damocles Gulf Crusade. This book contains:
Blood Oath by Phil Kelly
Broken Sword by Guy Haley
Black Leviathan by Ben Counter
Hunter’s Snare by Josh Reynolds"

The Review
I'd be lying if I'd tell you Damocles was an easy read. It most assuredly was not, at least to me.

I started reading this anthology back in April, and it took me until late July to finish. Why, you ask? The easiest way to answer that would be to point towards the first of the four stories in this anthology.

Blood Oath by Phil Kelly

I absolutely could not enjoy this one. It made the White Scars feel flat, unlikeable, and even the focus on O'Shaserra, the famous Commander Shadowsun of the Tau Empire, could not fix the lack of substance in this novella.

Where Kor'sarro Khan felt often incompetent and out of character, especially when clashing with the other imperial forces on Agrellan (including Colonel "Iron Hand" Straken of the Catachan Devils and the head of a house of Imperial Knights), Shadowsun came across as a cliched female warrior who neither could not get over her old rival O'Shovah, Commander Farsight, nor get the respect of her subordinates. Even her shield/combat drones seemed disrespectful towards her, and the stealth team attached to her seemed badly misplaced. Her mutterings about Farsight felt especially jarring, as they occured way too often. If a scene centered on Shadowsun, you could bet she'd bring up "the traitor Shoh" again.

I did like the portrayal of Aun'Va, however. He came across as a prick, an arrogant self-aggrandizing prophet. It suited him.
Colonel Straken, who I have a soft spot for, was completely underwhelming in Blood Oath. He had a few lines of dialogue, and even those were mostly about telling Kor'sarro Khan off.

Overall, however, there was not much to gain from this story outside of fairly shallow action. On various occassions the story felt like bad marketing for Games Workshop's expensive, then-new Imperial Knight kit and the Tau Riptide. Yes, they're impressive warmachines, I get it, but this story felt like it was fawning over them way too much.
I did enjoy the Tau's coordinated strikes to bring down most Hives on Agrellan within hours, but those scenes were over so quickly, I felt disappointed overall.

Blood Oath felt wrong, and it is by far the weakest story in this collection. That I score Damocles at 4 stars is testament to how much I enjoyed the other stories by comparison.

Broken Sword by Guy Haley

Ah, Guy Haley. It won't be news to you that I adore his novels. He writes some of the best non-human characters out there, whether it be greenskins, eldar, artificial intelligences or, in this case, Tau.
Broken Sword is a totally different story from Blood Oath - and not just in terms of quality. It goes under the hood of Tau society, the indoctrination of humans into the Greater Good, and as such offers Guy Haley a lot of room to show off his skills at constructing the Tau as an advanced species, and an intergalactic empire.

Unlike Blood Oath, which depicted the Tau as ruthless conquerors and usurpers of mankind's right to rule the stars, Broken Sword depicts them as liberators, offering freedom to the oppressed people of the fringe worlds between Imperium and Tau Empire, and the kind of life they never knew was possible.

The main protagonist is one such man who joined the Tau'va, believing it superior to the imperial rule and embracing it fully. The story is, for the most part, presented as the protagonist's retelling of the events, which offers further commentary in retrospect. We follow him through certain points of the war for Agrellan, and see him forge bonds of friendship with a member of the Tau Water Caste, their diplomats. This offers a fairly unique spin on the Tau Empire topic, and I enjoyed it greatly.

On the other hand, we have the Raven Guard attempting to capture said Water Caste Tau, which is also told in an interesting fashion. The action in the story is rather light, and more akin to skirmishes with few Space Marines, rather than the large scale warfare seen in the first story. This is, in my opinion, a plus.

Overall I'd say this is my favorite story of the bunch. It offered plenty of insight as well as twists and turns, and kept me engaged as a reader.

Black Leviathan by Ben Counter

I struggled a bit with this story. It takes the war for Damocles from Agrellan to a neighboring world, which, until the Imperium's arrival, had been inhabited by nomad-savages.

The descendants of these tribes reject the Imperium's claim for the world, and ally with the Tau to rid themselves of their overlords and return to the good old ways.
Set to prevent the Tau from overtaking the planet are a squad of Ultramarines led by a Captain I've never heard of, and another squad of Jade Dragons, a Chapter created for this story.

While I did not quite like the Ultramarines in this story, the Jade Dragons made for an interesting story. Ben Counter did a fine job characterizing his new Chapter, lending them both their own traditions as well as superstitions, which both play into the overall story. They also give the two very different Chapters reason to mistrust one another, and rather than cooperate clash on various occassions.

On the Tau side, we see yet another Water Caste member who is busy spinning a net of subterfuge and traps around the Space Marines. This Tau made for a very good antagonist, even though direct confrontations were avoided. He played both the Space Marines, the Tribes and the general population as well as his own Tau Fire Warriors like pawns on a chess board.

Black Leviathan is a story about subterfuge, mistrust and good intentions that carve the way for bad results. It was more of a political tale than an action piece, but the bolter action pieces did not disappoint either.
A second good story in this collection.

Hunter's Snare by Josh Reynolds

This final story by Josh Reynolds of Warhammer Fantasy fame goes back to Agrellan and the White Scars, forming a sequel to Phil Kelly's Blood Oath. Thankfully, Josh managed to set things right and return the White Scars back where they belong: In the saddles of their bikes, laughing while they kill their Tau enemies.

Hunter's Snare is, at its core, a deadly dance between two very different yet so alike hunters - Kor'sarro Khan and Commander Shadowsun. After the events of Blood Oath, Kor'sarro returns to hunt down the Tau Commander, and the two characters dance a dangerous waltz of feints and snares.

Kor'sarro is back to the way I enjoy reading about him - a passionate, dedicated huntsmaster who does not lack humor and finds respect for a worthy enemy. I would also say that Josh Reynolds is a great pick for writing White Scars - he understands their character, and manages to put good humor into their mouths.

Unlike the first story, Shadowsun and the Tau are taking the backseat in Hunter's Snare. They do appear as antagonists, catching the Scars off-guard on various occassions, but we do not get an insight into them the way we did in previous stories. This works well for the story, and I enjoyed the focus on the Khan and his brothers.

I'd also like to point out that there are various nods to characters from Chris Wraight's Horus Heresy novel Scars, which I appreciated greatly.

Josh Reynolds, in my opinion, is an excellent writer with a sure hand when it comes to writing and placing humor. His characters, whether it be Gotrek and Felix from The Serpent Queen, the whole cast of Bernheimer's Gun or the protagonists of his original novel The Whitechapel Demon, all come across as interesting people, and manage to make me chuckle rather frequently. Most importantly, the humor always seems to fit the story's context, and Josh knows when to be serious instead.
I like this skill, and am looking forward to reading more of his stories, with The Whitechapel Demon being on my current reading pile.

All in all, Damocles is not a bad anthology. It actually was a fairly good read once I got past the initial disappointment, or even distaste, for Phil Kelly's contribution to the book.
The biggest flaw of the whole collection is that it frontloaded the worst it had to offer, making me put the whole thing down countless times, over the course of many weeks. If I had known how much I would like the other offerings, I would have forced myself to finish Blood Oath sooner.

Be that as it may, I would definitely recommend picking this anthology up early next year, when it gets re-released as part of the Space Marine Battles series - the paperback is already announced. Though I do disagree on this being a SMB candidate, considering that it is most assuredly a Tau collection.
But I digress.

A big thanks to Guy Haley, Ben Counter and Josh Reynolds for turning my initial distaste for Damocles into a good experience.

Damocles on Goodreads

About the Author
DarkChaplain is a big nerd who spends too much time reading and thinking about books, organizing them on his ever-growing shelves, and yet increases his backlog by the month. DC is also an avid Gamer and owns more PC games than he'll ever be able to play. He is certainly spoiled for choice!
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain

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