Monday, August 24, 2015

REVIEW: Sabbat Crusade Anthology

The latest addition to the Gaunt's Ghosts series finally arrived a few months ago and it's just as good as I expected it to be. Sabbat Crusade is an anthology of short stories from a collection of authors so I will briefly review each story.

I am a huge Gaunt's Ghosts fan. This series is MY series. It's my favorite line of books from Black Library, hands down. The first book in the series I read all the way through was Sabbat Martyr back when it first came out. It's a little funny since that novel was the sixth one in the series, and a pretty pivotal point in the storyline. It was so good though that I immediately went back and read all the books in order that came before it. Since then I have gotten every single novel in the series the moment it came out.

Sabbat Crusade was originally released as a limited First Edition, which meant it was close to $100 and had a bunch of extras packed in. Like I said, I love this series, but I sadly cannot justify spending that on a novel. I also have a little OCD about all of my novels in a series matching on a book shelf (damn you Horus Heresy series and switching book sizes on me!) so it wasn't a huge sacrifice to me to wait for the standard hardcover version of the novel. Like I said at the top, this is actually an anthology, similar to the Sabbat Worlds book from a few years ago, so I will briefly review each short story.

Family by Dan Abnett

The book opens with a fairly short, but amazing story. Dan himself pens it and it gives us a brief glimpse into one of the quieter moments within the Ghosts. Taking place after Salvation's Reach we get to see Gol Kolea have a nice, if not a little awkward, family dinner with his kids and their mother Tona Criid. For those not in the know, back in Necropolis when Gol was merely fighting for his home world as a militia member before joining the Guard he thought he had lost his kids to the war. It turns out they were actually found by Tona Criid who took care of them. After that war Gol had suffered a severe head wound which left him functional, but without his memory and pretty catatonic. Tona adopted his kids, not knowing they were his, and raised them with Caff (poor, poor Caff). Eventually Gol regained his memory and Caff died in a later war. Now Tona is taking care of the kids herself and Gol acts in a fatherly way, but doesn't try and take them away from Tona, or butt into their lives too much. All in all it's a rather involved situation.

It's a very quiet story and very emotional. You really feel for Gol and his situation. I always enjoy seeing these more human and relatable moments within the Ghosts series. Stories like this are what make the series so special. It's a war story but the characters are what's really important. Family is a great opening story and reminded me right away why I love this series so much.

Final Score - 5/5

The Blood Bound by Rob Sanders

The Blood Bound is an unusual story for a Ghosts book since it focuses entirely on Space Marines. Marines are not very present in the series, and when they do show up it's always in a supporting role, and usually a very small one at that. Here we follow a small strike force of Iron Snakes as they investigate the disappearance of an arch-enemy general who had been taken prisoner and was being transported. When they arrive at the last known location of the frigate transporting him they find a ship graveyard circling a world that is no longer responding to any calls. 

This is a pretty intense action piece and involves the Marines searching out their target through a hive city completely in control of the enemy. It's fast and intense and essentially the equivalent of a popcorn action movie, but a good one. I feel like with 10 more pages or so Rob could have fleshed out his Marines a bit more, but it's a small complaint and The Blood Bound is a great Marine short story.

Final Score - 4.5/5

You Never Know by Dan Abnett

This is another short one by Dan himself, but a very well written story. We get yet another small, quiet moment, far removed from the front lines of battle. In transit after the Salvation's Reach mission the traitor Mabbon Etoguar, who had switched his loyalties from the Imperium, to the Blood Pact, to the Sons of Sek, and finally back to the Imperium again, finds himself confined between missions. Despite having been a critical asset to the Ghosts and seemingly sincere in his efforts to help the Imperium again, he is still a tainted traitor, so is kept in isolation. What we get is a conversation between him and Sergeant Varl as the latter checks his cell for contraband. It's an amusing exchange and shows us the humanity of Mabbon as well as the growing perception amongst his captors of that humanity. I really love Mabbon as a character and think he is one of the greatest additions to the series in a long time. I hope his intentions are sincere, because it would gut me a little bit to see him turn on the Ghosts in a future book. Knowing this is Dan Abnett though, no one is safe, so I guess we can only wait and see.

Final Score - 5/5

Son of Sek by John French

John French rarely disappoints with his writing, and he doesn't let me down here. Son of Sek is a rather short story and has two parallel storylines running through it. We see a newly christened Son of Sek preparing to take his final vows and a newly inducted Imperial Guard blundering his way through his first engagement. The Guardsman's story is actually somewhat amusing as you see him aspire to join the Guard and then blunder his way through his first fight, and end it in an unexpectedly heroic manner. The Imperium being what it is, awards his heroics with a promotion despite having no tactical skills and not even being able to read. It's a darkly amusing and somewhat sad story, and not everything is as it seems. All in all a solid story.

Final Score - 4.5/5

Tempest by Nick Kyme

Tempest sees Nick Kyme return to the Volpone Bluebloods, an Imperial Guard regiment renowned for their snobbery and a classic rival of the Ghosts throughout the series. It's always fun to take a regiment who are the equivalent of the antagonist in a 1980's movie (think Johnny from Karate Kid), and flip your expectations and make them the stars. It's easy to forget that they are in fact still the good guy since they fight for the Imperium. We get to see them interact with the Militarum Tempestus here as they are requisitioned for a special mission, while being left in the dark on the details. How do you make a famously snobbery and arrogant regiment look less bad? Put them next to an even more arrogant fighting force. The Tempestus are suitably hardcore though, at least somewhat justifying their arrogance. My favorite part of this story is a sub-plot that was reminiscent of Dexter to me, but without any of that main character's redeeming attributes. When we are constantly surrounded by war in 40k it's easy to forget that murder probably still happens, and still frowned upon.

Final Score - 5/5

Viduity by Nik Vincent

The first story to feature the Ghosts not written by Dan "the man" Abnett, Viduity deals with one of the horrible realities of war. The Ghosts are a large fighting force and require a large baggage train of people to support them. This often includes a lot of women who are either a professional of some sort, someone's wife or girlfriend, or a "professional" of some sort. Here we see what happens when a trooper with a sick mind who gets shit on all day by his officers has no one to take it out on besides the women that he has black mailed. It's as horrible as you imagine it would be. This is sadly a truth of war that probably happens more then we would care to admit. It's great that Black Library is acknowledging some of these more mundane, yet still very dark realities. What's even better is that the story focuses almost entirely around women as the protagonists. Our main trio are Elodie, Tona Criid, and Ana Curth, with Elodie taking charge as they investigate the string of injuries turning up amongst the single women in the civilian population. The best part of it is who resolves the whole issue at the end, no men allowed.

The one thing that brings this story down a bit for me is the style in which it is written. I felt like it was very, very dialogue heavy, which made it feel like I was reading a screenplay as opposed to a story. This may not bug some people, but for me it felt a little jilted and choppy because of it. With a little less dialogue or maybe more descriptive text in between it would feel more complete to me. It's a fantastic story and idea, but falls down a little bit on the delivery.

Final Score - 3.5/5

The Deeper Wounds by David Annandale

In David's first contribution to the Gaunt's Ghosts universe we get another unique look at something we don't normally see. This story focuses entirely on the forces of the arch-enemy and is a direct result of Salvation's Reach. With the Blood Pact and Sons of Sek now thinking the other is trying to usurp the other, Urlock Guar decides it's time to send a message. Sending an elite team of Blood Pact in to infiltrate a Sons' base, they are tasked with causing as much damage as possible. It's an enjoyable read and an interesting look at how the two major Chaos forces in the Sabbat worlds view each other. The Pact obviously view themselves as superior but are unpleasantly surprised with how organized and well trained the Sons of Sek are once the bullets (lasers?) start flying. I hope this is a sign of things to come for the Ghosts series, since it would definitely add another exciting element to the war. This is the beginning of a payoff long in the making ever since Traitor General introduced the Sons of Sek as a fighting force.

Final Score - 4/5

Ghosts and Bad Shadows by Dan Abnett

No Dan, don't do this to Gol Kolea, you already took Bragg, Corbec, and Caffran from us, leave him alone. Now that that's out of the way, Ghosts and Bad Shadows focuses on Gol as he leads an expedition down to a world containing a supply station. It's essentially explained as a resupply area set up years ago with no staff, and no other population on the planet. Honing in on the beacon they clear a landing area in the dense jungle and send the Ghosts down to the surface to retrieve the supplies. What follows is a great horror story as they go through the dense jungle and are hounded by whispers and what several people describe as "bad shadows." It's a direct continuation of a plot thread set up earlier in Family and the ending bodes ill for poor, poor Gol and possibly his daughter Yoncy. It's a fantastic story and I can't wait to see how it pays off in Warmaster, mostly out of fear for what it may mean. This story, and Family are essential read for the Ghosts series.

Final Score 5/5

Arnogaur by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Arnoguar is a rather short, and self contained story, but enjoyable nonetheless. It focuses entirely on the Blood Pact and takes place on Urdesh, which means there is a good chance that some of the characters could crop up in Warmaster. The plot centers around a tank commander who is murdered by his crew and whose body is then dumped. The one major rule the Blood Pact must adhere to is that Pact do not kill Pact. I guess that makes sense since they are an extremely organized and efficient Chaos force. When the body is discovered is is left to the one with the rank of Arnogaur to discover who perpetrated the crime and punish them accordingly. The Arnogaur also just happens to be a seven foot tall post-human who used to call Angron lord before pledging himself to Urlock Gaur. Seeing Chaos Space Marines mixed into the enemy forces is always interesting since they seem to have such a limited presence amongst them in the Sabbat Worlds. We never see more then a handful together at any given time, which means that their rank, import, and impact on the story are usually pretty high. Aaron never disappoints, especially with his traitor marines. My only complaint is that it was too short. Hopefully he gets a chance to play with this character again in the future.

Final Score - 5/5

The Inheritor King by Matthew Farrer

The Inheritor King is actually a full novella, clocking in at over 100 pages, and is a great read too. Matthew Farrer doesn't write much for 40k, but when he does it's always worth a read. His style is unique in that I feel like he revels in the minutia of the universe. He fully realizes every rank, war, piece of technology and minor setting, making them utterly believable just by how much detail he goes into. Sometimes this can come across as dry, but not often. In this story he focuses on a tech adapt of Mars, Tey, sent to the world Ashek II to retrieve one of the woe machines of Asphodel. If there was any faction of the 41st millennium that was more suited to delving into the minutia of, it's the Adeptus Mechanicus. There's just so much to explore, and here we also get a look at some traitor tech. The story kept me engaged the entire time, and you were never quite sure what Tey was up to. There was a ton of mystery throughout and I never really guessed the twist until the very end. It's a great twist too, perfectly suited for the machine minded Mechanicus. I would love to see more from Mathew Farrer in the future. He has written plenty of short stories and novellas, including the fantastic After Desh'ea for the Horus Heresy, but hasn't written any full length novels since the Shira Calpurnia series. If you're reading this Matthew, I would very much look forward to another novel from you.

Final Score - 5/5

The Fissure by Nik Vincent

The second story in the anthology by Nik Vincent also happens to be the second Space Marine story. We once again focus on the Iron Snakes as they respond to a war rift unintentionally unleashed on a developing Imperial world. This story actually takes place several hundred years before the Sabbat Crusade and is only tied in by the fact that it takes place within the Sabbat worlds and features the Snakes. You may be wondering why both Marine stories center on the Iron Snakes and that's because they are Dan's chapter. He invented them back in the days of Inferno and they have their own full length novel titled Brothers of the Snake, which you should read immediately. They also happen to be the main chapter of Space Marines involved in the Crusade, the others include the Raven Guard, Silver Guard, White Scars, and Imperial Fists. 

The tone of the Iron Snakes in The Fissure much more closely resembles that used in Brothers of the Snake when compared to The Blood Bound. I enjoyed this since I really liked the unique culture and customs Dan had created for them. The story itself had some interesting moments, such as skeletal cultists held together only by the power of the warp as they continued to chant their praises. The Iron Snakes force consisted of only three Marines, which once again showcases the rarity of Astartes forces in the Sabbat region. The action seems a little, "they did this, then they did that" to me, but besides that it was an enjoyable read. I really like the Iron Snakes, and even started a small force of them back in the day (these later got slightly repainted to become the first members of my Astral Claws), so I'm always happy to see them in print.

Final Score - 4/5

A Ghost Return by Dan Abnett

This last story by Dan features a young Gaunt before he joined the Tanith. We find him with his original regiment as they attempt to liberate one of the first worlds in the opening of the crusade. They are on a special mission to locate and assist an archeology team in the under hive tunnels who have been tasked with recovering artifacts relating to the Saint. It's pretty interesting seeing how a young Gaunt handles his position and duties. Here he is not the commanding officer and must walk a careful line of being authoritative and respectful. This to me was the best part of the story, just because of how unique it is for his character.

Once they locate the archeology team it looks like everything may not be what it seems, and could this be the same world featured in the previous story, The Fissure?

Final Score - 5/5

All in all this is a great anthology and there isn't a bad story amongst them. Sure there are some that are better then others, but they are all pretty good, and their sum more then makes up for any shortfalls. If you are a Gaunt's Ghost fan I highly recommend you pick this up. Besides just being a great read, Dan has said that several stories in this will be essential to understanding future plot points. This is less an extra book on the side of the series, and more the bridge between Salvation's Reach and the upcoming Warmaster

Overall Final Score - 5/5 
(technically 4.62 if you want to get the average of all the scores, but together I think it deserves a 5)

The character artwork of Tona, Gol, the Blue Blood and the Son of Sek are from the first edition of the book and are done by Fred Rambaud. You can find more of his work on his website.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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