When you read novels in a series of books you start to expect certain things. So it can be a little frustrating and off putting when you come across an entry in a series that doesn’t deliver what you’ve come to expect right away. If you have patience with these books though they can sometimes surprise you and take you places you don’t expect while still delivering what you’ve come to love from the series later on.
That’s just what happened to me while reading “Descent of Angels” by Mitchel Scanlon, the sixth entry in Black Library’s “Horus Heresy” series, which chronicles the epic galactic civil war that lays the ground work for their “Warhammer 40,000” line of novels. So if you’re looking for a novel that gives you epic battles with Space Marines (the genetically engineered super soldiers that serve as many of the focus characters in the “Horus Heresy”) you might want to skip “Descent of Angels,” or perhaps read it another time. If you don’t have patience with the book it will frustrate you. So it might not be for every “Horus Heresy” or “Warhammer 40k” fan.
That’s because instead of kicking off his narrative right around the time of the titular Horus Heresy Scanlon rewinds things back quite a few years. Each book of the “Horus Heresy” series puts the focus on the members of one of the 20 original Space Marine Legions and the civilians that might be caught up in their orbit at the time, and in “Descent of Angels” Scanlon focuses on the Legion known as the Dark Angels, but he kicks thing off several years before the Dark Angels are even a Legion. So it’s very much an origin story of the Legion instead of a tale focusing on their role in the Horus Heresy (I imagine we’ll get more of that in a later book titled “Fallen Angels”)
So “Descent of Angels” begins on Caliban, what will become the home planet of the Dark Angels legion. It’s an interesting world in that it’s been cut off from the rest of humanity for thousands of years. So much so that the population starts to wonder if the tales they’ve heard about Terra, the ancient birth planet of humanity, are really ancient myths. The technology on the planet is very much a mix of science fiction and medieval; soldiers wear crude power armor and carry high tech pistols, but they also carry swords and ride horses.
The society of Caliban is very much medieval too. Knightly orders exist to protect the planet’s populace from roaming monsters that jump out of the heavily wooded areas to commit acts of whole sale slaughter. So Scanlon really brings Caliban to life. One of the things I love about “Horus Heresy” and “40K” novels is the fantastic places the writers take us. Like I said though, this is a very different place then what’s found in many other novels in the series. So be prepared for that. At the beginning “Descent of Angels” feels almost like a medieval fantasy.
That’s because we start off by following the exploits of, Zahariel, a young supplicant to Caliban’s most popular group of knights, The Order. When we meet him Zahariel is one of the Order’s most promising trainees and that’s due in part to his friendly rivalry with his cousin Nemiel. The duo inspire each other. Nemiel is more of a pragmatist. So he’s a decent character, but Zahariel is an idealist ready to give his brothers and people the benefit of the doubt, which I thought made him a pretty likeable lead character.
So we follow Zahariel on his exploits to become a full fledged knight, which involves several tasks. Perhaps my favorite is one that happens early on and does involve some fun, creepy, clues about the supernatural nature of the 40K universe. Then we follow Zahariel, Nemiel, and their fellow knights lead by the demigod like Lion El’Johnson and his friend Luther as they set out to liberate their world from the monsters (both creatures and human) that terrorize it.
That struggle takes up over half the book. Then comes the inevitable meeting between the Order and the forces of the Imperium of Man, which leads to the founding of the Dark Angels. This section of the book continues to be interesting as Zahariel deals with the great changes that’s come to his world in such a short time. It’s got some fun training sequences. It also has a surprise appearance by one of Warhammer 40K world’s most legendary characters and it’s handled really well. When this character appears it’s like “Woah!” Scanlon capture the majesty of the character quite well.
From there Lion El’Johnson, who is one of the long lost demigod like Primarchs created by the Imperium of man’s leader, the God Like Emperor, takes command of the Dark Angels. The newly founded Space Marine Legion then heads out into space as part of the Imperium’s Great Crusade to reunite the various planets colonized by humanity. This section of the book feels most like your typical “Horus Heresy” or “Warhammer 40K” style adventure. It’s almost like a fun little short story that has the Dark Angels confronting a hidden threat on a very interesting world.
So in terms of overall story “Descent of Angels” is a little disjointed, but thats okay. The individual parts of the story are interesting enough and the characters that populate the novel are very intriguing and fun to follow. A lot of what happens is setting the stage for the Dark Angels later on and readers familiar with that will catch some ominous hints of that set up.
With “Descent of Angels” Scanlon has written a very different “Horus Heresy” novel and that’s okay. It might not be for everyone, but if you’re patient and allow yourself to enjoy the ride and the characters he introduces you too the book is very rewarding. It also did it’s job of making me more interested in the Dark Angels, a Space Marine Legion I didn’t know a whole lot about. So I’m excited to hopefully revisit a number of characters that Scanlon introduced me to in a later novel.
You ever experience a story that is just so exciting, compelling, and powerful it just kind of leaves you dumb struck? Or a tale that’s so entertaining and informative that it’s awe inspiring? It’s happened to me a few times. I remember walking out of the movie “Heat” just feeling dazzled and overwhelmed by the powerful and complex tale I had just witnessed. It happened again on a regular basis while watching the HBO series “The Wire.” It’s also happened with graphic novels like Jason Aaron’s “Scalped” series from Vertigo and in prose novels like James Ellroy’s “American Tabloid.”
That feeling also came to me during and after I finished Don Winslow’s epic drug war novel “The Power of the Dog.” It was one of the best books I ever read. It’s an amazing 30 year crime saga. If you haven’t read it yet, go read it now! I’ll be here when you get back. So Winslow set the bar pretty high for epic crime sagas, which meant I was both excited and a little nervous when I heard he was working on “The Cartel,” a sequel to the “Power of the Dog” which would unfold over the course of 10 years. It turns out I was right to be excited and silly to be nervous. Because I’m happy to report that “The Cartel” is also one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it may even be better than “The Power of the Dog.”
Winslow’s “The Power of the Dog” revolved around a sprawling cast of characters but at the book’s center was the relationship between DEA agent Art Keller and drug lord Adan Barrera. In “The Cartel” Winslow returns to Keller and Barrera who continue to be fascinating characters. The experiences of the last book have fueled their enmity and continue to haunt and drive them. So watching their feud flare back up and seeing the directions it goes feels natural, organic, and heartbreaking. These are two deeply flawed protagonists and like all great crime fiction neither character is entirely good or entirely bad despite the fact that they’ve been cast in the roles of lawman and lawbreaker.
The Keller-Barrera rivalry is sort of the center of “The Cartel” but a whole host of fascinating characters are drawn into their orbit. We meet the staff of a Mexican newspaper, various drug traffickers, sicarios, soldiers, and civilians trying to navigate the dark and dangerous place their world has become thanks to the drug war in Mexico. What’s great is for pretty much all of these characters you’re swept right up into their stories right away. Some you don’t meet until hundreds of pages into the book, but when you do meet them their part of the world is really interesting and continues to be even more interesting. Plus like Keller and Barrera, many of these characters are also complex and flawed. Some are stubborn people taking a heroic stand, some are idealists losing their way, some are bullies and murderers that I hated with passion, and some are drug dealing killers that I almost sort of rooted for.
The action and story in “The Cartel” is exciting and fascinating. You’re dropped into the middle of gun battles and lightning fast commando raids. It’s also kind of a gut punch though too. Make no mistake, this is a novel about war. People die. Some of them in horrible ways.
So “The Cartel” is a novel that will break your heart. Winslow describes the horrors being perpetrated by the Cartels and their associates in a powerful and haunting manner. You really feel for the people caught up in the nightmare that is life in a country where violent drug cartels dominate almost all aspects of life. Making things even more powerful is the fact that Winslow did a lot of research for “The Cartel.” Many of the characters have been fictionalized, but many of the events and the organizations that perpetrate them are real.
Winslow uses that research and his characters to present a truthful and frightening argument against the drug war. It’s a war where only the rich and powerful profit. The poor and middle class are chewed up and spit out. Winslow also convincingly argues that much of the horrors and evil perpetrated on Mexico and it’s people is the fault of America’s appetite for drugs. People are tortured, murdered, sold, and exploited in Mexico because in my country life has gotten so horrible for some people that they feel the need to escape their life with drugs.
On the back cover of “The Cartel” one of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, proclaims, “There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He’s a master and this book proves it once again.” Having finished the book I must wholeheartedly agree with Connelly. “The Cartel” is the best type of fiction it moves you, excites you, and makes you think. It’s a hell of a book; one of the best I’ve ever read.
When most people think of Warhammer 40,000 they imagine it’s trademark power armor clad, genetically engineered, super human, bad-asses the Space Marines. I was introduced to Black Library’s thrilling series of 40K novels via another fascinating character type though, the agents of the Imperial Inquisition. If the Space Marines are the Supermen of 40K characters than the Inquisition are sort of the Batmen– well a mixture between Batman, James Bond, and the hunters of “Supernatural” if they existed in a high tech setting. So they’re morally gray, very human bad-asses that can embark upon a variety of stories. I loved that about them. That human quality was what kept me from reading Space Marine stories for awhile.
That was my loss. Having recently read the first five entries in the Horus Heresy series and the stories that make up Nick Kyme’s “Salamander” omnibus I now see that the genetically enhanced soldiers of the Adeptus Astartes can be fascinating characters in their own right. So I was very intrigued by Ben Counter’s “Grey Knights Omnibus” which combines Space Marines with the Inquisition since the titular characters serve as the Chamber Militant, or private army of the Ordo Malleus, the branch of the Inquisition charged with hunting demons. Adding to my excitement was the fact that Counter penned probably my favorite entry in the Horus Heresy books I’ve read so far “Galaxy in Flames,” the series third book. Having now finished the three books that make up the “Grey Knights Omnibus”: “Grey Knights,” “Dark Adeptus,” and “Hammer of Demons” I’m happy to say the book was even better than I expected it to be. I loved all three books, especially “Hammer of Demons!’
Like any great Warhammer 40K novel the books that make up the “Grey Knights”omnibus feature a lot of action and Counter is great at staging a variety of different action scenes. We get hostage stand offs in massive high tech office buildings that have been taken over by demon worshipping cults, a massive melee battle between power armor clad Grey Knights and the medieval warriors of a feudal planet, cat and mouse pursuit involving techno-demons and sinister bio-mechanical warriors, a finale to the second novel that has to be read to believed (I’m not spoiling it here!), and a whole series of really cool hand-to-hand and insane large scale battles in the third novel. Counter expertly stages these scenes. The pace of them is fun and exciting and you feel their impact.
As a bonus you also get some really cool scenes of space ship combat. You don’t often get outer space combat in 40K novels where much of the action takes place on the ground, but the “Grey Knights Omnibus” featured some exciting space battles that came about organically and added some tension and excitement to the larger narratives.
There was so much diverse action in the Omnibus because in each book Counter told three very different types of stories. The first book in the series “Grey Knights” was the type of story you initially think about when you’d imagine a group of demon hunting Space Marines affiliated with the Inquisition. In it Justicar Alaric and the fellow members of his Grey Knights squad are tasked with aiding an Inquisitor investigating a prophecy about a powerful demon prince escaping his prison in the otherworldly dimension known as the Warp. “Dark Adeptus” is sort of a “behind enemy lines” style story where the world of the Grey Knights collides with the world of Warhammer 40K’s mysterious tech priests, the Adeptus Mechanicus. It follows Alaric, the other Grey Knights from his squad that survived the first book, some members of the Inquisition, and an expedition of tech priests as they explore a mysterious Forge World, the technological centers of the Imperium of Man, that has suddenly reappeared after vanishing over a century ago. Then the final book “Hammer of Demons” finds Alaric trapped on a hellish demon world; an entire planet dedicated to the worship of the murderous Chaos God, Khorne.
I loved that Counter gave us three distinct stories. It gave the book a nice variety and it also added towards what’s become one of my favorite aspects of Warhammer 40K novels; the travelogue feel to them. It feels like authors of Black Library’s 40K books really strive to give the planets where their stories take place unique feels. In “Grey Knights” Counter took readers to several very different and distinct worlds. In the latter two novels the author took the chance to explore in depth two strange and inhospitable planets. So setting was very much a big part of these novels for me and really added to the larger stories Counter was telling.
Action and setting are fun elements of course, but they don’t necessarily make for good stories. Good characters are key for good stories and in his “Grety Knights Omnibus” Counter presents us with a fantastic lead character in the form of Justicar Alaric. Over the course of the three tales you really get to see Alaric grow and change. It was fun and exciting to watch and it was not unlike what Dan Abnett did with his protagonist in his amazing “Eisenhorn” trilogy of novels, which were my introduction to Black Library’s “Warhammer 40,000” fiction line. Part of what made Alaric’s journey so fun was watching him deal with the complications and difficult choices that come with fighting demons and seeing how that affected his faith in the God Emperor of Mankind (An almost deity like figure that the humans and many Space Marines of 40K revere and in some cases outright worship) and his duty to humanity.
You really get to see that in “Hammer of Demons” which in some ways was a difficult book to read because I was really invested in Alaric as a character by that time. Ultimately though “Hammer of Demons” was the best of the three books in the Omnibus though and one of the best 40K books I’ve ever read. Again, I don’t want to spoil much, but the book’s setting of a world conquered by demons means Alaric undergoes an epic journey that challenges his faith and devotion to duty and forces him to grow as a person. It’s thrilling and powerful stuff and featured some real moving quotes about hope and humanity.
Alaric wasn’t the only interesting character in “The Grey Knights Omnibus” either. Over the course of the three novels you meet some complex heroes and vile villains. My favorites were Inquisitor Ligea, Alaric’s battle brother Dvorn, Interrogator Hawkespur, and the demonic Duke Venalitor who I really hated.
So if you’re a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, or are looking for a good place to get acquainted with it for the first time, pick up the “Grey Knights Omnibus.” It’s a hell of a read that’s fun, exciting, poignant and powerful. It left me wanting more from both Ben Counter and the titular demon hunters of the Ordo Malleus.
I’ve reviewed some of The Black Library’s “Warhammer 40,000” novels on this blog before. I’ve talked about how I’m addicted to them and they’re a fun mash up of elements from “Star Wars,” “Dune,” the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and Tolkein style fantasy that have a heavy metal visual aesthetic and often feature morally gray themes. If you like all that stuff do yourself a favor and check out some of those books. They take place in a fascinating and well constructed dystopian sci-fi fantasy universe.
What I have not discussed here before though is Black Library’s “Horus Heresy” line of books, which take place 10,000 years earlier and chronicle the galactic civil war that laid the foundation for the shape of the “Warhammer 40k” Universe. These books are just as fun and they have the added bonus of being a sort of epic history. If you’re coming to the “Horus Heresy” as a fan of “Warhammer 40,000” you’ll be delighted to get to know some of the big names of 40K history like the titular Space Marine Primarch who is just as fearsome as later history made him out to be, but is also fascinatingly more nuanced.
If the “Horus Heresy” books are your first trip to the “Warhammer” universe though there’s plenty to offer you too. You get to be surprised by some twists and turns and the characters you’ll meet are fascinating.
The essential set up is it’s the 30th millennium and mankind has united under the banner of the superhuman psychic know as the Emperor of Mankind. So the Emperor and his legions of genetically engineered super soldiers, the Space Marines, have left Earth and set out among the stars to reunite with or conquer the pockets of humanity who have set out colonize the galaxy ages ago. Each of the Space Marine legions is lead by a demigod like Primarch who are like sons to the Emperor. When the action in the Horus Heresy has picked up, the Emperor has returned to Earth to work on a secret project and the Primarch Horus has been put in charge of the Imperium of Man’s Great Crusade. There are sinister supernatural forces, the Gods of Chaos, at work though that seek to corrupt Horus and his fellow Primarchs and ignite a civil war among the Imperium.
The opening trilogy of the books details Horus’ corruption and the treachery he sets into motion to purge several Space Marine legions of warriors still loyal to the Emperor. Those books are “Horus Rising” by Dan Abnett, “False Gods” by Graham McNeill, and “Galaxy in Flames” by Ben Counter and they’re all fantastic, especially “Galaxy in Flames.” In book four of the series “Flight of the Eisenstein” James Swallow chronicles the quest of a Space Marine who assumes control of the titular freighter and embarks upon an epic and inspiring voyage back to Earth in order to warn the Emperor that Horus, several of his other Primarchs, and their corresponding Legions have turned traitor.
For this review I’m going to be looking at the fifth book in the “Horus Heresy,” Fulgrim, by Graham McNeill. In the book McNeill examines the fall of the titular Primarch and his Space Marine Legion, a chapter known as the Emperor’s Children. Each of the Primarchs and their Space Marine legions have a distinct personality and character and for Fulgrim and the Emperor’s Children it’s a pursuit of perfection. That means a number of the Emperor’s Children can come off as snobs and prigs, but previous Horus Heresy books have shown that the Legion also has a number of selfless and morally upstanding heroes like Saul Tarvitz, who readers meet in the opening trilogy. He plays a role here and so does Solomon Demeter, a brave but charmingly rash Space Marine, who readers meet in “Fulgrim” for the first time.
It’s also important that readers empathize with Fulgrim since this is an ultimately a tragic story of his corruption and downfall, and I did. McNeill does that by showing the Primarch’s love for his legion and his brother Primarch, Ferrus Mannus who commands the Iron Hands Space Marine Legion. The scenes between the two of them, especially their final confrontation are awe inspiring and also heartbreakingly poignant. McNeill makes you feel the bond between the Primarchs and how much they mean to each other, especially Ferrus Mannus who has a rather cold demeanor most of the time.
Readers also empathize with Fulgrim’s love of art. That love for art is established early on through the introduction of several “Remembrancer” characters. The Remembrancers are an interesting device that are established in the first Horus Heresy book. Essentially they are the Imperium’s greatest artists and creative people and they’ve been tasked with documenting the Great Crusade. In the opening pages of “Fulgrim” we meet some of the Remembrancers who are traveling with the title character and the Emperor’s Children like sculptor Ostian Delafour and composer Bequa Kynska, who helps contribute to one of the book’s most chilling scenes.
Horror is very much a part of “Fulgrim” and McNeill plays those parts of the story expertly. The novel has a creeping sense of dread through out that only increases the more Fulgrim, the Emperor’s Children, and the Remembrancers fall under the corrupting sway of Chaos. They do so in a way that sees their behavior becoming more and more decadent until it climaxes in a concert of alien and supernatural evil influenced music that is both intense and pretty terrifying.
I thought the role perfection and art played in “Fulgrim” gave the book a unique haunting feel; a sort of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” meets “The Exorcist” vibe that was interesting to read and see brought to life. It also made the final scenes with the now fully corrupted Fulgrim standing upon a ruined stage tragic and terrifying.
“Fulgrim” wasn’t entirely about corruption and horror though. McNeill also treated readers to some intense battle scenes that featured some great action. I loved the opening battle of the book that found Solomon Demeter “going right down” the middle to help win the battle for an alien world. Plus the final chapters of “Fulgrim” chronicle one of the biggest and most infamous battles in the history of “Warhammer 40,000,” the battle of Istvaan V. The scale of those battle scenes are intense and fantastic and and part of the reason why I love “Warhammer 40,000” novels and “The Horus Heresy” series.
So “Fulgrim” is a worthy fifth entry in “The Horus Heresy” line. It’s got great characters, exciting, action, and features a horrific, tragic, and fascinating story that leaves you wanting more.
I think it’s very much appropriate that I’m typing this review up the weekend of the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the first blockbuster movie release of the summer of 2015. Because for me that’s what the Joe Ledger series of novels by Jonathan Maberry have become. Literary events that I wait all summer for, and like the best summer movie blockbusters they’re always entertaining. I just finished “Predator One” the latest Ledger novel and I’m happy to report that it’s more than just entertaining it’s perhaps my favorite entry in the series so far.
I used “Age of Ultron” as an example at the beginning of this interview and I loved that movie because it had big, insane, action and lots of fantastic character moments. I loved “Predator One” because it used the same formula to tell a highly satisfying story.
“Predator One” is the seventh installment of the Ledger series. So at this point I’ve bonded with the main cast of characters: Joe, his enigmatic boss Mr. Church, his comrades at arms Top and Bunny, his best friend Rudy, and even his dog Ghost. I’ve also come to love the rich supporting cast that has grown up around them like computer expert Bug, Joe’s girlfriend Junie, high ranking DMS officer Aunt Sallie, and the other members of Echo Team like Lydia Ruiz and Sam Imura. I’m even become attached to new recruits like Montana Parker who I can’t wait to see more of.
I say all that because those characters I love are put through the ringer in “Predator One.” Maberry makes them hurt and those scenes are heartbreaking and powerful, but the writer also shows you why these characters are heroes in scenes that are inspiring and just as powerful where they deal with and overcome the physical and emotional traumas they’ve endured and fight back against the enemies that are threatening the world.
“Predator One” isn’t just a fascinating study in heroism though. It’s an equally fascinating look at villains and the evil that makes them tick. In the novel Maberry pits his cast against a frightening and fascinating array of foes. I of course hated all these characters because they were nasty pieces of work, but what was so intriguing about them was how multifaceted they were. You had a wide variety of evil motivating these characters. It raged from tragic souls that had been corrupted into monsters, a character who was motivated by greed and perhaps unsure at times about the evil he was part of, a character who was motivated by pure hate, and another that was motivated by something even darker.
We also got to follow a character who once walked the path of villainy and is trying to be something better. I love stories about characters working towards redemption or making amends for the bad things they’ve done, and in “Predator One” Maberry tells a pretty fascinating story about a character struggling to be better than he was in the scenes involving Toys Chismer. Those were some of my favorite scenes in the book.
I haven’t talked much about plot because it occurred to me that a lot of the fun I had with this book was some of the twists and turns that happened in it, and I don’t want to spoil that fun for readers who haven’t read “Predator One” yet. So there’s some stuff I really want to talk about, but I’m not going to. Let’s just say there’s some really cool reveals in the novel that just made it even more exciting, fun, and fascinating.
Here’s what I will say, in “Predator One” the villains come up with a way to take control of America’s developing drone and automated technology. So we get some frightening scenes of combat drones gone amok and even things like the growing number of automated functions on automobiles spiraling out of control . That leads a number of characters to have some great and nuanced discussions about the dangers and benefits of this technology. It of course leads to some kick-ass action sequences as well.
For my money no prose writer does action like Maberry. In “Predator One” he gives you plenty of brutal and exciting scenes of hand to hand combat, gun battles, and intense action sequences. A lot of those scenes come in the book’s last hundred pages where Maberry crafts one of the most exciting climaxes I’ve read in recent memory. I was sort of tired when I picked up the book and started the climax. I thought I might need some caffeine. I did some reading though and the prose on those pages was so intense it got me fired up and awake! I felt like I was right there and in the thick of things. Who needs coffee or soda when you’ve got the exploits of Joe Ledger!
So “Predator One” was a hell of a read. The Joe Ledger series are always highly entertaining reads, but to go back to my summer blockbuster metaphor this was something more. Maberry has crafted a novel that’s both entertaining and full of substance. So yes for me, “Predator One” was the literary equivalent of “Age of Ultron.” It had great action, even better character moments, and left me super excited about what comes next in the series.
I’ve been a crime fiction fan for years, but for the longest time I didn’t appreciate stories about amateur sleuths or criminals. They often seem too quaint and tidy or to stretch disbelief like the person stumbling around in the world of murder and mayhem that is a good crime fiction tale should be arrested or killed right off the bat.
The past several years though some good television shows, comics, and novels have been working to change my opinion and now thanks to those forms of media there is one particular type of “amateur” crime fiction protagonist I have great love for and find fascinating, the type of person that suddenly discovers they’re really good at committing or stopping crime. I’m talking about the Walter Whites and Saul Goodmans of the world. I’m also talking about the Veronica Marses as well, and with his latest novel “Canary,” writer Duane Swierczynski gives us a tale that reads like a mash up of “Breaking Bad” and “Veronica Mars.” Plus the writer introduces us to a fascinating new character in the form of Serafina “Sarie” Holland.
When we first meet Sarie in “Canary” she’s an Honors Student at a small Philadelphia College. She’s likeable and conscientious, but she also makes some poor decisions involving a boy she just met. Those decisions lead to her being left holding the bag when a Philadelphia Police Detective, named Ben Wildey shows up to arrest the boy for the drugs he just bought. So Sarie is left with a choice: be prosecuted or become a confidential informant for the special narcotics unit that Wildey is part of.
This starts Sarie’s journey into Philadelphia’s drug underworld and it’s a fascinating one to watch. Like all amateurs she makes a few blunders, but soon the Honors Student discovers she has an apptitude for more than just academics. She’s also quite good at walking the edge between law breaker and law enforcer that is required of a “snitch” that wants to stay alive and stay out of jail.
Much of “Canary” is told to the readers first hand from Sarie’s perspective. As I said. she’s a very likeable protagonist with some fun and interesting insights and watching her deal with and overcome the strangeness and horrors of the Philadelphia drug underworld is at times funny, exciting, and terrifying. I mentioned “Veronica Mars” earlier and Sarie has the same mix of cunning, likeability, and interesting perspective that Veronica has.
Sarie isn’t the only interesting character in “Canary.” Over the course of the novel we meet a whole host of interesting players from both the underworld and suburban environments Sarie is straddling throughout the story. They include previously mentioned cop Ben Wildey, “D” the boy whose dealing leads to her arrest at the beginning of the story, and several shady criminals. My favorite underworld character is a veteran Philly mobster named Ringo that Swierczynski introduces in the latter half of the novel. He has some great scenes, especially with Sarie.
The Holland family is also a big part of the story. Sarie lives at home with her father Kevin and her younger brother Marty and they’re all dealing with the recent death of her mom in different ways. Kevin is probably dealing with it the worst. So there were a lot of moments in “Canary” where I didn’t like him, but by the end of the book Sarie’s father becomes a very sympathetic and likeable character. It’s the same for 12 year old Marty. He comes off as a sort of nuisance figure early on, but Swierczynski does a fantastic job establishing what motivates Marty.
On top of great characters and action “Canary” also features some other elements that Swierczynski is a master at. First and foremost of those of course is bringing the city of Philadelphia to life. All of the books that the writer sets in his home town crackle and make you feel like you’re right there walking the mean streets with the characters. They’re almost travelogues and documents of the weird, wonderful, and warped places of the City of Brotherly Love.
The other element that Swierczynski excels at is immersing a character in a shadowy world that they previously weren’t familiar with or had no idea existed. He did that fantastically with his Charle Hardie trilogy of novels and he does it again here. The more Sarie becomes immersed in the twisted world of Philly’s drug wars the more thrilling “Canary” became. The last half of the novel is harrowing and very, very cool.
So in “Canary” Swierczynski introduces to a thrilling new character whose journey into the world of crime is both fun and exciting to read about. I don’t want to say much about the end results of Sarie’s journey because I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say though that “Canary” is a deeply satisfying novel and the best book Swierczynski has written since “Hell & Gone,” my favorite of the Charlie Hardie trilogy. I eagerly await the writer’s next novel.
Tie-in fiction has an unfortunate stigma attached to it. Like the fact that because it’s a story from a pre-existing world, usually attached to a game, that it’s no where near as entertaining, imaginative, or as worthy as original fiction. Having read a number of tie-in fiction books over the years I can tell you whole heartedly that tie-ins can be just as fun and exciting as original fiction. In fact in recent years I’v discovered a series of tie-in books that I’ve become utterly addicted to even though I have no interest in playing the tactical miniature game that inspired it. I’m talking of course about Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe.
A friend of mine once describe 40k as a “jungle juice of cool genre fiction.” You’ve got elements of Star Wars, Dune, Tolkeinesque fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, and an often noirish outlook on morality. On top of that it’s got a visual aesthetic that appeals to the heavy metal fan in me. So of course I’d be drawn to the Black Library’s series of Warhammer 40K fiction. So far I’ve read some fantastic stuff by Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell. For Christmas I got a mammoth tome of 40K fiction that I just recently completed reading, the “Salamander Omnibus” by Nick Kyme. It’s a collection of three novels and like 10 short stories for the cover price of $17.50 in the U.S. So it’s a great value, but on top of that it’s a thrilling and epic read.
All together the stories in “The Salamander Omnibus” run about 1014 pages. So reviewing all that and keeping it spoiler free is going to be tough, but let’s see what I can do.
The titular characters of the “Salamander Omnibus” are the 17th Legion of genetically engineered soldiers known as Space Marines. They serve as sort of the elite forces of the Imperium of Mankind a sprawling interplanetary empire that is under siege in the 40th millenium by a host of rival alien empires and corruptive supernatural forces that turned several Space Marine Legions into marauding malevolent forces often capable of arcane feats. What makes the Salamnders unique is the fact that they’re one of the most altruistic and “human” of the Space Marine Legions. Each Legion has it’s own set of customs and beliefs and the Salamanders credo urges them to protect, sacrifice for, and try to elevate the humans they live side by side with.
Making the Salamanders even more interesting is the fact that they hail from a volcanic home world in a constant state of turmoil. The planet “Nocturne” is dubbed a “Death World” because of how inhospitable and dangerous life there is. It takes a hardy stock to survive and an even more resilient individual to survive the arduous trials that lead to initiation into the Salamanders.
So Kyme already has some great building blocks to forge the characters of his “Salamanders” stories and he uses them to build some fascinating and fun characters to follow. The chief protagonists of the stories are Zek Tsu’gan and Hazon Da’kir. When we first meet Tsu’gan and Da’kir they’re bitter rivals because of who they were before they became Space Marines. Tsu’gan hails from a city of wealth and power and believe Da’kir, who is the only member of a nomadic tribe to become a Space Marine, is unworthy of the genetic gifts he’s been given.
With that set up you’re instantly geared to like Da’kir who is a noble and heroic guy. You’re also left with a feeling of anger and hatred towards Tsu’gan. It’s like he’s a William Zabka character from an ’80s teen movie. I believe that’s intentional though. Over the course of the three novels and 10 short stories things change drastically for Da’Kir and Tsu’gan. They undergo many heartbreaks and perilous adventures and over the course of these exploits I started to understand Tsu’gan a little more an empathize with him. Plus he’s pretty bad-ass.
Da’kir and Tsu’gan aren’t the only Salamanders that figure into Kyme’s stories. You meet a whole host of fascinating characters that occupy a variety of positions through out the Legion; every one from the leader of the entire chapter, Tu’Shan, to the Captains and Sergeants of the various companies. Some of my favorites include Sol Ba’Ken, a giant even for a Space Marine, who is Da’kir’s best friend; and Pyriel, a Space Marine Librarian which means not only is he a genetic super soldier, but he also possesses a whole host of psychic abilities.
Kyme also gave his heroes a fascinating cast of villains to do battle with. Over the course of the novel the Salamanders go to war against Orks (imagine the bad guy armies from the Lord of the Rings armed with steampunk technology), Dark Eldar (evil sadomasochistic space elves armed with technology that is almost magical) and Space Marines that have been corrupted by the malevolent Chaos Gods. The Chaos Space Marines that are a recurring force of villainy throughout the “Salamanders Omnibus” are war band called The Dragon Warriors.
Nihlian, the leader of the Dragon Warriors, used to be a Salamander before he became corrupted by Chaos so he has a personal grudge against the Legion. Over the course of the three novels we follow his various schemes and plots to get revenge on his former Legion. These schemes makes him and his lieutenants bad guys you love to hate.
Describing the various clashes between the Salamanders and their enemies takes us into spoiler territory so instead lets talk about where these clashes take place. One of the things I’ve grown to love about 40K tie-in fiction is they’re also travelogues of fantastic and otherworldly places. You feel transported to strange and fascinating alien worlds. That’s exactly what happens here. In addition to the Salamanders home world of Nocturne Kyme takes us to such fascinating and fun locales as a twisted Dark Eldar port city located in the ethereal realm known as the Webway, a massive alien haunted ghost ship or Space Hulk, and a mysterious ancient world somehow related to Nocturne.
While we visit these places we’re treated to really cool moments of character development, and intense action. There are some battle scenes that made me stand up and cheer. Most of these battle sequences are fought man to man or army to army, but in “Nocturne,” the final novel in the Omnibus, Kyme gives readers some fun outer space battles between capital ships.
So the “Salamanders Omnibus” is an epic, fun, sci-fi, fantasy story packed with great characters and thrilling moments. My one real complaint, and to be fair Kyme mentions this in the book’s introduction, is that not everything wraps up by the time the book is over. On one hand that’s a little frustrating, but on the other I was definitely left wanting more. With the “Salamanders Omnibus” Nick Kyme made me a fan of of the 17th Space Marine Legion and I can’t wait to see where he takes them in future books.