Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: The Chapter's Due by Graham McNeill


The Chapter’s Due by Graham McNeill

Black Library Publishing

320 pages


War is unending in the life of a Space Marine. After defeating tau forces, Captain Uriel Ventris of the Ultramarines has returned to the Chapter’s homeworld of Macragge, but there is little respite. The Ultramarines are thrust back into battle, and this time the enemy is the Chapter’s greatest nemesis. The traitorous Iron Warriors, led by renegade Warsmith Honsou, have gathered together a massive and brutal warband. Their target is the realm of Ultramar. Their objective is total annihilation. It is a final showdown between legendary Space Marines, and Uriel Ventris must take on the might of Honsou if he is to save his Chapter’s homeworld.


The Chapter’s Due is the culmination of several interesting plots, distinct groups of protagonists/ antagonists and a second trilogy of Ultramarines goodness. All sorts of fans will love this novel because there is something in it for everyone. Most obviously fans of the Ultramarines will get the most out of it, but so will fans of the Adeptus Mechanicus, Raven Guard, Inquisition fans and of course Iron Warriors.

Without spoiling the story for people, I’ll just let it suffice to say that the scale is epic. Honsou brings the war to Ultramar in the largest gathering of Iron Warriors, xenos mercenaries, traitors and a whole metric boat-load of daemons since the Horus Heresy.

Think of it in these terms:

The Ultramarines symbolize a sort of “by the book” style of fighting. Literally. Granted, it’s a big book that covers everything in the sphere of warfare, but still, it ultimately equals predictability. The realm of Ultramar is the…”THE” bastion of the Ultramarines. Outside of Terra itself it is the single largest fixed fortification in the universe.

Chaos Space Marines represent…Chaos. Obviously. Super-soldiers bred for furious assaults who know no fear. Angels of death regardless of which side of the traitor/ loyalist line they are on… the Iron Warriors even more so as masters of siege warfare; a completely unpredictable foe.

It’s the Irresistible force versus the Immovable object.

So now the stage is set for the plot. The Ordo Malleus arrives to deal with the warp-spawned daemonic incursion. The Raven Guard arrive as well (oh boy, they are portrayed nicely). The Adeptus Mechanicus plays a crucial part (as Honsou has Dark Mechanicus with him).

I have to admit it is nice to see the cast of characters, chock-full of big names as well as seeing the Ultramarines fighting on their back foot. Off balance and dealing with something that very seriously threatens the entire chapter.

I’ve discussed this in several reviews, and there’s no sign of stopping: I LOVE it when the characters are in real peril. I really love the author to scare me. Build up characters, make me love them…and then hurt them, scare me with the threat of their demise. Make me want those characters to survive. I thrive on the slaughter of sacred cows. I want to laugh and cry, get choked up and pissed off. I want an investment in the books I read, and I go on the assumption that everyone else does too.

Graham McNeill does a fine job of beating up many sacred cows in The Chapter’s Due.

There are many moments in the story where as a reader you never really know if this is the last ride of Uriel Ventris, Pasanius, Learchus, or Marneus Calgar or Varro Tigurius for that matter.

I have to admit that the story does start a bit slow. The first quarter of the book took me a couple days to get through (which is rare considering I can burn through 300 pages in a night). One problem with books about massive battles is that…battles all start to sound the same. Yep, slash, stab, shoot, spurt, “Courage and Honour!” splat, “Death to the False Emperor!” entrails, bolt-casings, yadda yadda yadda, yawn. McNeill does a fine job in breaking it up, and keeping the reader coming back for more. I never lost interest. Actually the story got better and better as it rolled on.

The last ¾ of the novel I absorbed last night. A nice analogy would be in The Matrix Revolutions, with the APU units fighting in The Docks against the swarms of sentinels: the first part things looked fine. Yeah, toasting lots of bad-guys, carnage, APUs kicking ass. The sentinels were simply probing, wheedling them down until the end it was simply too much.

The Ultramarines did much the same. They started off strong; they have the uber-bastion of defense in their favor. The Iron Warriors however tested, prodded and showed why they are superior in siege assaults and the futility of static defenses.

The characterization of the antagonists (and protagonists) really made the story pop. You get to sympathize with The Newborn and Vaanes and think of some Ultramarines as arrogant pricks. You can’t help but admire both sides. THAT really is what sets Graham McNeill’s writing ahead of the pack. Seriously.

Overall it’s a very good book: surpassing Courage and Honour and on par with The Killing Ground as well as a fine summary of the story arc.


Even with a hint of slowness at the start it finishes strong and left me wanting to assemble and paint more Ultramarines. Thanks Mr. McNeill!

4 out of 5 Stars.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Review: Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden


Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Black Library Publishing

414 Pages

*This is an advance copy review.


When the world of Armageddon is attacked by orks, the Black Templars Space Marine Chapter are amongst those sent to liberate it. Chaplain Grimaldus and a band of Black Templars are charged with the defence of Hive Helsreach from the xenos invaders in one of the many battlezones. But as the orks numbers grow and the Space Marines dwindle, Grimaldus faces a desperate last stand in an Imperial temple. Determined to sell their lives dearly, will the Black Templars hold on long enough to be reinforced, or will their sacrifice ultimately be in vain. Black


While I am familiar on a basic level with the Black Templars I don’t know all the details of the major characters, so walking in to this novel I’m almost a BT newbie.

In a lot of ways, Black Templars are the epitome of what many folks consider Space Marines. Borderline psychopathic, bio-engineered supermen who kill in the name of the crusade and the Emperor. Period, full stop.

Have no doubts boys and girls, these guys are bastards. The comparison scenes with the Salamanders Chapter was telling. Salamanders being one of the most humane of chapters…protecting the citizens, and the Black Templars, going off to kill stuff and why are these damn civilians in the way?!? Grimaldus is pretty much the worst/ best of these. His detachment is telling. You can see how a person has been altered in such a way that they are really no longer human anymore. Driven by hatred and zeal few of us can imagine to destroy the xenos invaders.

I do exaggerate a bit as the author is quickly becoming one of the Black Library’s best authors of characterful fiction. Like Soul Hunter before this, the characters are all very colorful coming from a variety of backgrounds. Each seems like a person dealing with a lifetime of war, indoctrination, mind-scrubbing…and war. Dembski-Bowden does a fine job of taking the reader and tossing him right in the middle of a firefight or burning vehicle. He even makes Chaplain Grimaldus interesting. Now THAT is a feat! You’d think that a character like that would be boring, two dimensional…flat. ADB pulls it off. He really knows how to make characters come alive on the written page.

The scale of the novel is enormous. You certainly have the feel of untold bajillions of orks bearing down on you, and that the odds of survival are grim at best. The protagonists struggle for every bit of ground they win (or lose). The odds are overwhelmingly against them yet they struggle on, battered and bruised, losing battle-brothers along the way. All hope seems lost, yet a spark of hope remains. Yeah, like that! Aaron Dembski-Bowden drags the reader all the way down in to the muck, mud and blood, takes away all hope, and slowly gives it back.

I enjoyed the Steel Legion parts as well as the Salamander bits. The Black Templars are a bit overwhelming for my tastes, but it’s a damn fine story. The ending left me almost a little flat. I’m not sure what happened there. Without spoiling it I have no way of explaining it short of saying it was not what I expected. That’s a good thing!


Again Aaron Dembski-Bowden has written another gritty, dirty story full of actually interesting characters. His action scenes are largely clear, the dialogue witty, the description good. I cannot say whether there are 40k canon issues as I’m not as familiar as some other reviewers. The plot was interesting and kept me going. The ending was a bit of a twist but good.

4 of 5 Stars.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: Call to Arms by Mitchel Scanlon


Call to Arms by Mitchel Scanlon

Black Library Publishing

320 Pages

*This is an advance copy review.


Dieter Lanz is a young recruit to the 3rd Hochland Swordsmen, otherwise known as 'the Scarlets'. His regiment is called into battle when an orc army starts to rampage across the countryside, and when the Scarlets are defeated, Hochland is threatened with collapse. As a desperation measure, legendary general Ludwig Von Grahl is brought out of retirement – he is the last hope to stem the vicious green tide.


It wasn't until I watched Star Wars, Episode One, The Phantom Menace when it dawned on me what bothered me about this novel.'s not just one thing, but it is a biggie in my estimation.

I hate child prodigies. The new kid that is awesome, has elite skills and never makes a bad move or decision. Yeah. Hate him.


Because I can't relate to him. He's a superhero. A Player Character amongst a cast of NPCs. Call to Arms is fairly entertaining but at no time was I worried about the primary protagonist. There really is only one protagonist anyhow. Everyone else seems like window dressing. I ended up pulling for Holst and Gerhardt etc. more than Dieter "Skywalker" Lang.

Don't get me wrong, Mitchel Scanlon is a good writer. I won't disparage the man's skill as a writer: the scenes are nicely detailed. Some bits are very well thought out and tasty. For example the teen is accepted in to the regiment in a bit of ceremony that is very cool. There are several scenes like this. This isn't a "bad" book at all.

My issues with the story are as follows:

1. The protagonist isn't one I can get warmed up to. Too good, on every level. Makes no mistakes. As a teen he's hardly challenged by anything that he faces.

2. The side-characters are under-developed. They remain fairly peripheral yet I pulled for them more than Dieter. The roles they play are pretty typical "soldier story" fare. You have the old hand that sleeps every chance he gets, the pessimist, the grizzled sergeant and dependable good captain and a couple shit-bag troopers to serve as troublemakers.

3. In general the novel is very four-color. I think it would work great as a graphic novel or series of comics. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad except a couple troublemakers who wear black hats. I have to admit though that some Black Library authors write the same way, Dan Abnett among them. I have to admit my preference is for authors that are able to leave the four-color world and dig deep in to shades of grey: having characters...protagonists that are human, fallible, make mistakes, do the wrong thing and learn from it (or not). It gives them character. Makes them easier to relate to.

4. Aside from the earlier parts of the story I never really worried about who was going to "win". There were very few surprises in the plot.

Again, I want to stress that the author is clearly a good writer, he can craft a scene, describe action nicely and all that. I just feel like this novel fell a bit short. I don't expect a batter to hit a home run every time at bat.


It was somewhat enjoyable although a bit of a chore to finish. I kept hoping for more depth all the way to the end.

2 of 5 Stars.