Monday, June 28, 2010

Review: Nemesis by James Swallow

Nemesis by James Swallow
Black Library Publishing
416 pages

After the horrors of Istvaan V, Horus declares outright war against the Imperium. In the shadows of the Emperor's Palace, powerful figures convene.Their plan is to send a team of assassins to execute the arch-traitor Horus and end the war for the galaxy of mankind before it's even begun. But what they cannot know is that another assassin is abroad already, with his sights firmly set on killing the Emperor.

The Officio Assassinorum. We’ve been waiting on something like this for decades, and James Swallow delivers it. As expected it involves scheming at the top levels of the Imperium in order to end this civil war as quickly and painlessly as possible. Anything to save The Emperor and his Imperium.

The main plot is simple: send a team of top-shelf assassins to kill Horus, Warmaster, Primarch, son of the living Emperor of Mankind. Simple, right? Well if we know anything about Primarchs in this setting, they are demigods. Demigods surrounded by legions of genetically engineered super-men packing state of the art hardware. Assassins have tried and failed in the past. We get to see each of the major enclaves (or Clades as they are called here) of assassins at work. I have to admit, its awe inspiring.

Usually, having a super-powered team to go do a mission is a pretty weak premise. I mean…they are all pretty uber. They represent the best of the best of the best, sir! With honours sir! The saving grace of the main plot is that they are also up against a foe which is for all intents and purposes…untouchable.

There is a secondary plot as well, which is a kind of cop story. Murder scene investigation gone wrong, 40k style. It’s actually well thought out and feels like a bit of CSI ala 40k at first (which is cool I think). Something is murdering citizens of Iesta Veracruz in a particularly horrific way and they can’t figure it out. Add to this cults like the Theoge etc. and you have a pretty nifty murder mystery going on.

I don’t want to give away too much or spoil it, but it’s very interesting the way Mr. Swallow tied it all together. He also nicely tied in elements of the period such as the growing Cult of the Emperor, true believers, elements of the Imperium that pull the strings and what makes them tick as well as plotters within Horus’ coterie.

There are moments where you have to re-read sections but this is to be expected: this is a spymaster kind of novel, not really a battlefield novel. The plots are deep and you can’t expect to see it all coming. There is a fine line between keeping the story tight and deep and dumbing it down so it becomes trite and pointless. James Swallow does a fine job in treading carefully and weaves a fine spy thriller steeped in 40k (30k?) lore.

I have to admit that occasionally I got confused on who was who: I think the “Dramatis Personae” section should be almost mandatory in novels with large casts. I’m so thankful for the Horus Heresy series using them every time. Black Library, please take note!

It was really interesting to get in to the heads of the characters. James Swallow did a fine job in delving in to the minds of the main characters (for the most part). What makes a man (or woman) become an assassin? How do they cope with it all? How do they become so indoctrinated and loyal? Can they really be trusted? At what point do they really lose their humanity? We get a glimpse inside the noggin of seasoned operators from each of the Clades we all know and love (and some minor ones I hadn’t heard of). I have to admit that the names of the Clades get confusing after a while. In 40k lore, it all makes perfect sense, but after reading and seeing the names so often, it starts to blur. Vindicare is easy, but Venenum and Vanus…ummm, which is which? Even after it is straight in my head I second guess myself.

*None of this is to do with the author, it’s just 40k lore and similar names causing confusion.*

Kell the Vindicare is the protagonist and he’s a pretty rich character. I really liked him even though he’s pretty messed up. Koyne the Callidus and Iota the Culexus were very cool as well (Iota was really interesting; I wish we had more of her). The rest were cool as well.

For those in to roleplaying games, this novel will certainly have an appeal. It certainly shows how a team of skilled operators tackle a tough obstacle. Granted, these operators are at the very top of their fields. Fans of Rogue Trader and Dark Heresy will dig this one a lot. Fans of murder mysteries will dig it as well. I think your general fan of the Warhammer 40k ‘verse won’t get as much from it and the subtlety may be a bit lost on them; not having lots of big battles, and lots of bolter-blasting and slashy death.

Overall I enoyed the novel. It didn’t catch me by the horns and drag me through a long night of hell, depositing me spent at 4am… but it was a fine read and a worthy addition to the Horus Heresy series.

3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: Path of the Warrior by Gav Thorpe

Path of the Warrior, by Gav Thorpe
Black Library Publishing
409 pages
Advance Review Copy

The ancient eldar are a mysterious race, each devoting their life to a chosen path which will guide their actions and decide their fate. Korlandril abandons peace for the Path of the Warrior. He becomes a Striking Scorpion, a deadly fighter skilled in the art of close-quarter combat. But the further Korlandril travels down this path, the closer he gets to losing his identity and becoming an avatar of war.

Path of the Warrior is the first of a new trilogy focusing on the race of Eldar. This is interesting in one respect as the Black Library for ages chose to avoid such novels, wanting to keep the alien races…alien. We’re all human, and the xenos races of the 40k universe should remain so. This presents a challenge for any Black Library writer as they need to delve in to what it is like to be one of these strange characters. Over the past few years there have been other novels presenting various xenos races as protagonist: Fire Warrior (40k), Defenders of Ulthuan (fantasy), Gilead’s Blood (fantasy), Malekith (fantasy), Shadow King (fantasy) etc. Also several novels have had alien races as sympathetic characters if not the protagonist: Guardians of the Forest (fantasy) as well as several others where humans are the main focus, but xenos races get some spotlight time and we get a glimpse in to their psyche.

Path of the Warrior is the first time I’ve seen a full-fledged delve in to a xenos race. A real glimpse of life as an alien. The question becomes can the author make us believe it. Can we delve in to the psyche of a race that is completely alien, make us feel for it, yet keep a sort of awe at the race and characters as being completely foreign to us…maintain that feeling of alienness?

Gav Thorpe steps up to the plate and smashes the ball over the fence and out of the park!

If you have any interest in the Eldar at all, you HAVE to read this book. Mandatory reading. If you play Warhammer 40k and field Eldar, this book should be read before you assemble and paint one figure. If you want to know what the Eldar are really like…you can’t pass this book up.

Even if you aren’t so in to Eldar, it’s a smashing good read.

The story is about a young Eldar named Korlandril who is a bit of a fop, a nancy boy. The story follows him as he deals with some issues that are pretty common to anyone: something we can all appreciate and his eventual trail toward the Path of the Warrior.

Once on this path we see some pretty brilliant illustration of how the paths work, what brings the various personality types to the various Aspect Warrior shrines. Mr. Thorpe does an amazing job of illuminating how the Eldar really work: the nuts and bolts of what makes this race tick. They really ARE different. They think, observe, communicate and feel on so many diverse levels, and the author really brings this out in a manner we can understand. The Eldar are incredibly deep.

The novel is not packed to the gills with battles. Honestly, this is much more of a “thinker” novel than anything Gav Thorpe has written. This kind of “thinker” style is something I’ve come to expect from Graham McNeill and others, but Gav Thorpe I think really flexes his writing muscles and expands in to new territory. It’s pretty brilliant.

I will admit that some of the shifts in perspective, and shifts in time between the present and flashbacks of the past are jarring. I don’t think this is necessarily on the author as much as the editor: these could have been broken up better by an extra break or different formatting. There are a lot of flashbacks, which some folks may find jarring, especially since they are often in-line, one para to the next you jump from one POV to another. There were a few instances where we see the same scene from two different views. Again I think if these were broken up via formatting differently it would be easier to follow. As it stood I had to stop and go back a few times, re-read the section to realize what the hell was going on. I will admit that with the Eldar being such a contemplative race it works easier than I think it would otherwise.

The cover art is by Neil Roberts and it is fantastic. Very crisp and stark. A perfect fit. I want a poster of this!

Overall it is a damn fine novel and absolutely essential reading if you are even remotely interested in the Eldar. The author takes us in to a few big battles, including one that is Craftworld-scale, including a lot of big names. It’s amazing to see how a Craftworld goes to war.

Fantastic novel, rich in every way. No other novel to date has captured the overall vibe of the Eldar race so completely. If it weren’t for some formatting oddities in the shifting of POV and flashbacks, this would have been a perfect 5 of 5. Even with the bit of weirdness, it’s a damn brilliant read. Gav Thorpe is getting better and better! Buy this book! You will not be sorry! I'm such a nerd I'm going to name all my Exarch minis and create shrine names for the Aspect Warriors. I need some more Striking Scorpions!

4 out of 5 Stars.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Dark Millenium Online, a Warhammer 40k MMORPG

Games, esp MMOs have to be focused. Of course, this is based on the tabletop wargame. Everything GW puts out from licensed console games, to licensed MMOs to novels, to everything else GW makes a pound from: it's geared towards selling toy soldiers and the Warhammer game(s). Like it or not, that's what the bottom line on the quarterly stock report says.

Now to make it an electronic game, some concessions need to be made. It's a guarantee that it will not match up bit for bit with the tabletop game or the decades of lore. There's just no way to make a game that broad within the financial constraints given. There will be compromise and that is something people will complain about.

It's a forgone conclusion that you cannot, and will not make everyone happy with a licensed game. No way around it. It's axiomatic. The best they can do is make a fun game that gets the overall vibe right that is internally consistent.

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning did this. It picked a level of closeness to the lore and stuck with it. It went high on requirements which makes it beautiful...but buggy. Overall it is a gorgeous game that gets the overall feel of Warhammer right, within the confines of the never ending war theme that is present in the tabletop wargame. They stated from the get-go that WAR was not a WOW-killer. Apples to Oranges. While they made "classes" which is almost imperative, the classes are tuned to the lore in a fairly balanced way, yet completely different from the perfectly tuned and overly gamey WOW way: it has a unique Warhammer taste that doesn't require the classes to be pigeon-holed the same way as other MMOs. For good or ill, that's the way it is. The goal was to retain as much of the Warhammer flavor as possible.

Dark Millennium Online will do many of the same things. My fear is that it'll go cheap on development and be half-assed. While EA-Mythic may have been top-dollar, they put out a gorgeous product and have a dedication to making sure WAR is as good as it can be. Going cheap, means there will be less quality. There will be bugs. WoW has them: always has...but they pour a ton of cash in to making it smooth running.

The one thing WoW has for it is Blizzard. That is a cash cow if there ever was one. WoW isn't the prettiest game, but it is smooth as a babies butt. It's largely the same ol same ol as far as gameplay: when you get down to it MMOs and all electronic games to a certain degree come with the same nuts and bolts. Go to A. Get quest from B. Do C. Get D, gain XP and loot, improve character. Lather rinse repeat. WoW has this finely tuned. Every character fits neatly defined roles. Very neat and clean. It's internally consistent. It works.

WAR is similar except the roles are a bit looser and a focus on RvR. WoW has better crafting/ grinding for materials. PvE is PvE. Whatever name you slap on it, it's more or less the same. PvP in WoW isn't as fine tuned. In WAR PvP is very different, and takes a different mindset. More like a FPS game where you assault a beach head, die, rez and come back. The difference is that it is nicely balanced in WAR between the tiers.

Anyhow, Dark Millennium Online, will make concessions and compromises in order to fit the MMO paradigm, and people will be disappointed. Same thing as watching a movie based on a book or comic, it's never the same. It will be based on war. Constant battle. There will be classes built around killing stuff. There won't be scribes to play. The classes will be approximated in to certain roles, and I have no idea how close they'll follow the lore. The closer they follow the lore, the happier GW fans will be, but long-term MMO fans won't get it.

Warhammer is awesome. I love it. But in playing WAR, I've learned something: if you keep the game as close to the lore as possible, people won't understand it, won't subscribe en masse. It'll be a small niche. If you dumb it down to cater to the masses, you'll get more subscribers, but alienate the Warhammer fans. Either way, compromises will need to be made. It's down to where you draw that line. Amongst Warhammer fans, I expect everyone wants the line to be close as possible to the GW lore. I think most of the folks here will be very disappointed in the game.

A fine example of this is Dawn of War. I love the game, but by a very narrow margin is it even remotely Warhammer 40k. It's a RTS with a 40k skin. I'm cool with that, but a lot of folks aren't. I foresee Dark Millennium Online going much the same way.

Am I going to play it. Hell yeah. But I'll go in to it with eyes open, expecting a 40k flavored MMO...not Warhammer 40k in MMO form. To do otherwise is just asking to be disappointed. I figure as long as they get the overall vibe right (as I feel WAR has done) it'll be cool and ultimately I'll end up dropping even more $ on minis...again.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review: Malekith by Gav Thorpe

Malekith, by Gav Thorpe
Black Library Publishing
416 pages
(Usually I review advance copies from BL, but this one I went and bought because I missed it previously and enjoyed The Shadow King, part 2 of The Sundering.)

Passed over to succeed as king, elf general Malekith is wracked by jealousy and bitterness. Under the pretence of rooting out the pernicious cult of pleasure that is corrupting elf society from within, Malekith plots his revenge. When he betrays Phoenix King Bel-Shanaar and attempts to seize power for himself, Malekith triggers a tragic sequence of events that plunges the realm of the elves into a civil war from which they will never recover. Malekith begins the epic tale of the Sundering by Gav Thorpe, and continues the Time of Legends series.

The subject of this novel poses an interesting problem…challenge for the author (and the reader I found). For those unfamiliar with Warhammer lore, Malekith is a very dark character. Son of the Uber High Elf king Aenarion who was at once great and terrible due to his drawing of the Sword of Khaine, Malekith is destined to become THE ultimate villain for the race of elves for millennia to come (along with his twisted mother Morathi). Knowing this the author has to tell a tale we will read. To do that, we have to somewhat sympathize with the main character. This is a tall order.

It is even harder considering that the prince Malekith is raised in the Shadow of his father and under the tutelage of his mother, trained from birth to bear a sword and one day be a king. Encouraged at every step to be proud of who he is and have a firm belief that he will be the heir to the Phoenix Throne.

Lets be honest; Malekith is not a sympathetic character. He’s pretty much an arrogant bastard. As we all know from reading the back flap, Malekith is passed over and Bel-Shanaar is chosen as Phoenix King.

Frankly, the story was a bit hard to get in to at first. Maybe the first hundred pages took a bit of warming up to. Thankfully Mr. Thorpe has taken a character from an Army Book for a Miniatures War-game, and turned it in to a real living, breathing, believable character. I say believable because you can see what’s happening, know what is coming, and it makes sense in a coherent way that while fantastic, is consistent with the setting.

We get to see the young firebrand elf, full of himself become tempered through interaction in the lands outside Ulthuan. You have to realize that this story is akin to the Silmarillion in many ways. In the Warhammer universe Elves long pre-date mankind: man is largely crawling out of mud huts at the time Malekith leaves Ulthuan. Dwarves are a young race and within living memory of their ancestor gods. Elves are almost like walking gods on the field, with armor, magic and weapons that legends are made of. This is really what the core of the whole Time of Legends series is about, and it does well.

One thing that Gav Thorpe has down to a science is the telling of a dark tale. I don’t know of any other Black Library author who really has the pulse of “The Uber Dark” like him. Gav tells a grim tale well and doesn’t need blood spatter, gore or shock value to get there. Granted, the cultists of Khaine and the pleasure cults are depicted well, but I think tastefully and not over-gratuitously (as I have seen in some depictions). One of the things that really sets the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k settings apart is the unique DARKNESS of it. Maybe it’s a very British thing, built upon the darkness of the late 20th century. Maybe not. I know that it is one of the things that makes Warhammer unique, special, and Mr. Thorpe has it by the balls.

In the telling of Malekith, the reader rides the wave of the story, loathing the princeling, hoping for change, seeing him become wiser, understanding how he was raised, learning to sympathize with him and really hope he turns it around: hoping to blame someone else for his fall…which is inevitable. I hoped to blame the taint of chaos, his most wicked mother, the cults, the gods themselves. I wanted him to be redeemed and have his fall be due to an outside force. The ultimate failing the reader has to discover for themselves.

Again we as reader get to “see” beautiful vistas, magnificent epic battles of massive hosts of elves, and magical beasts. It’s truly awe-inspiring. It’s also nice to get to see the cast of characters really fleshed out. High King Snorri Whitebeard, Bel-Shanaar, Tethlis as well as characters that recur in The Shadow King (which I admit dove-tails in perfectly).

Stars a bit slow but makes up for it in the end. Think of it as a Warhammer-verse retelling of Star Wars Episode III sans the horrible George Lucas dialog/ writing. (Actually, as I think about it, I’d love to see Ep III redone by Gav Thorpe: now THAT would be brilliant!)

4 out of 5 Stars.