Wednesday, November 28, 2018

REVIEW: Blacktalon - First Mark

Neave Blacktalon has been an interesting character to me since she first came out. She was the first female Stormcast model we ever got, looked awesome, and had a pretty cool backstory to boot, as small as it may have been at the time. I was definitely looking forward to reading a book featuring her as the main character, and I wasn't disappointed by First Mark.

First of all, that cover art is amazing. Everything about it, from the composition, to the colors, to the rendering. It's all great looking. I especially like how they captured the general feel of the Neave model pose, but in a new context and it makes perfect sense. 

First Mark opens with a few storylines going on. First we see a Swifthawk outpost under attack and the lone survivor of it making good their escape. This is a pretty cool little set piece, but we won't come back to it until about halfway through the story. Next we see Neave and her friend and Knight-Venator Tarion on the hunt for a deadly Tzeentchian sorcerer. This is mostly to set up who Neave is and what she does. It also highlights what makes the Stormcast so unique for those unfamiliar with them, basically the fact that they are reforged upon their death and brought back. She is so determined to take down her mark that her and Tarion both die in order to see it done. Like I said, this is good information for newcomers to the setting, but it also highlights an issue that will continue to crop up throughout the book for Neave. It appears that she has been reforged numerous times at this point. There are several mentions of her blood having small electrical sparks in it when she is wounded, an early sign of too many reforgings for the Hammers of Sigmar. 

After this initial death Neave is reforged in Azyr and is suddenly plagued by a reoccuring vision of a village getting attacked and a small girl crying. These visions are a problem for her for a few reasons. Within the Hammers of Sigmar visions are seen as both a gift and a curse. It could be a sign that you are essentially broken and your soul may be sequestered by the Sacrosanct chamber upon your next reforging, a genuine fear amongst the Stormcast. Her visions are also debilitating as she goes into an almost seizure/comatose state when they come upon her. This is how Tarion learns of them when she collapses as they're walking through their Stormkeep. He vows to keep her secret, but this quickly becomes an issue during their next deployment to Ghur. 

Normally I like to keep the majority of a story spoiler free, but I'll need to skip ahead a bit to talk about some of the best parts and characters, namely Katalya, the younger girl on the cover, who doesn't show up until about halfway through the book. Through a series of circumstances, including a rather cool side quest involving Tarion on his own, Neave must leave her Vanguard chamber and venture into Ghyran alone. Essentially abandoning her duty, she is compelled into following whatever her visions are trying to tell her. It's here that she finds Katalya and her faithful insectoid steed, Ketto. The last of a mortal tribe, Katalya is saved from a Skaven attack by Neave, though she is far from defenseless, in fact, using her magical vambraces she manages to pretty much destroy Neave's helmet.

From there the pair are off to finish Neave's quest, which leads them into a Dreadwood wargrove of Sylvaneth, and ultimately to the stronghold of a Nurgle lord who has had the area in an iron grip for decades. There are lots of fun scenes throughout, with some really well written action pieces. It's all paced very well, and there was never a point where I grew bored or felt like the story stalled.

While the narrative of the story is entertaining, the characters are where it's really at. Neave of course takes center stage. She starts the book with a pretty solid devotion to Sigmar and his missions, but over the course of the story starts to question things. What is really happening to them when they're reforged, why can't she remember her past, and how much has she changed without even being aware of it? At one point she comes to the realization that her, and most Stormcast for that matter, were taken by Sigmar and thrust into this life of unending war without their consent. They didn't ask for this, it was just placed upon their shoulders. It's a pretty powerful realization and one that weighs heavily on her. Katalya also plays a pretty big role in Neave's development. Surrounded by Stormcast she has become detached from the plight and needs of the people they are fighting to save. When confronted with Katalya, a mere teenager whose entire life has already been upended she is forced to face even more uncomfortable truths. One of which is how precious life is, something that's easy to forget when you cannot truly die. A lot of the second half of the story revolves around Neave trying to complete her own journey while keeping Katalya safe. 

Katalya is a great character on her own as well. Even though she's just a teenager she is more then capable of taking care of herself, to an extent. She definitely finds herself in over her head in a few situations, and you really start to worry for her since her death would be permanent. She has a wonderfully stubborn personality, which is why Neave brings her along, knowing she would likely end up getting her self killed if left alone. Ketto, the giant insectoid steed is great too. The two have a real bond and I was worried throughout the whole book that Ketto was going to die. He's essentially like a giant puppy dog with chitinous armor and antennae. He instinctually knows that Neave is worthy of trust, which goes a long way towards Katalya being able to form a bond of trust, and is also super protective of his master/partner. Tarion is interesting enough, and he has some cool moments, especially one within a floating fortress above Excelsis. For me the heart of the story is Neave and Katalya though. There is another character you don't meet until the end who plays a big role, but I don't want to give too much away. Sufficed to say, she is just as nuanced and you're never sure just what her intentions are. 

The way the story ends definitely sets this up for future installments, something I will be reading for sure. The only real criticisms I have of First Mark is that, for me, the first half of the book felt a little like the connective tissue between the introductions, and the real meat of the story. It's not poorly written and there are interesting arcs within that half, it's just that the second half with Katalya is so good. Secondly, there are a lot of plot threads that don't get wrapped up here as they are clearly meant to be laying the groundwork for the series in the future. There is even a moment at the very end where Neave is wondering about these loose ends and what they could mean. I think I would have liked it a bit more if these were more self contained, or at least took up less of the book. Overall though I really liked First Mark

If you're a Stormcast fan, or just want to read a good AoS story, then this is for you. The action is good, the pacing is spot on, and the main characters are handled wonderfully. I know we have had a few stories touching upon Stormcast dealing with the fallout of their reforgings, but this is a fresh take on it, and a decidedly human take at that. At times you can feel like Neave has a maternal affection for Katalya, which is kind of true, but I think it's more she see herself in the mortal and the life she could have had if Sigmar hadn't taken her. I definitely recommend picking this book up.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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