Monday, July 23, 2012

Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow

Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow is the fourth book in The Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. It is a book of transition-- from the opening acts of the Heresy to the middle acts, from Imperial Truth to Lectitio Divinitatus, and from the tightly scripted narrative of the starting trilogy to a more free-form exploration of the Heresy. It is a book of transition both literally and figuratively.

Flight opens with the assault on a Jorgall “bottle ship,” a giant, sub-light colony ship. The story quickly shifts to the events of Isstvan III. The narrative doesn’t dwell here long, as this is well worn story this point. Instead, Mr. Swallow quickly jumps into new territory with the flight proper of the Eisenstein. These subsequent events are primarily divided into three distinct phases. The first phase covers the trials endured while the ship was becalmed in the warp. The second phase details the rescue by the Iron Fists. The third phase wraps up events at Luna. It is a fast- paced narrative, rarely staying in one place long.

Flight does several things well, and there were several very smart choices in crafting the narrative. For one, it had to be a difficult story to stitch together. The opening of the book is a great example of these intelligent choices. The assault on the Jorgalli fleet is completely superfluous in terms of The Horus Heresy. Yet, it allowed Mr. Swallow to introduce nearly all of the characters and their motivations. It is in these events we see how Nathaniel Garro differs from his peers. More importantly, we see the seeds of his faith, a critical element in Garro’s future growth as a character.

Another element that I enjoyed were the brief scenes with Mortarion. The Death Guard is a very stern Legion, reflecting their Primarch, the Lord of Death. Yet, in several private scenes between Mortarion and Garro you see a very human side to Mortarion as he struggles with signing Garro’s death warrant. Ultimately, this very human sentimentality is what allows the Eisenstein, and Garro, to escape and thus alert the Emperor of Horus’ perfidy.

Flight at its core is really a story about Nathaniel Garro. The story focuses on him to such a degree that the other characters suffer as a result. Garro is defined by a few core traits: his loyalty to the Emperor, his loyalty to Terra and loyalty to his Legion. As these elements come into conflict via events in the story, there is a parallel conflict within Garro as he fights to maintain his sense of identity. The end result is that Garro is reforged into a weapon of the Emperor.

The supporting characters get much less attention and for the most part serve as little more than foils to Nathaniel. But, that is not to say they are not interesting. In particular I liked Kaleb Arin, Garro’s housecarl. Kaleb is pivotal in two important ways. Kaleb’s faith helps steer Garro down the path of the Lectitio Divinitatus, and Kaleb’s backstory as a failed aspirant helps bring a human touch to the story. Both side stories are written in a very organic manner that meshes well with the story.

I also liked the introduction of the Sisters of Silence-- in particular how Mr. Swallow opens and closes the book with them. It brings a certain elegance to the narrative. It is Garro’s interaction with the Jorgalli psyker that causes his first internal crisis, and it is at the Sisters’ citadel that he completes his journey both internally and externally. The Sisters themselves are interesting being null entities in regards to the Empyrean. One can’t help wonder what becomes of them in the Warhammer 40K setting.

Lastly, I thought Solun Decius was interesting, less as a character, but more as a plot tool. Solun mirrored Garro’s doubts. As Garro’s doubts grew, so did Solun deteriorate both initially through insubordinate behavior and later due to the effects of the warp pathogen. Solun figuratively becomes a boil on Garro’s soul, finally erupting as the Lord of Flies. Only when Garro lances this infection, killing the Lord of Flies, does he purge himself of doubt.

There were a few things that I think were less successful. First, I was disappointed in the cursory attention given to Euphrati Keeler and Kyril Sindermann. They did not grow as characters nor did they add much to the story, only appearing when Garro’s character development needed them.

The story sequence involving the Iron Fists was also disappointing, again because they seemed so very unimportant. Other than a key scene with Rogal Dorn, there was not much of note happening and bordered on boring. I wished this section had been fleshed out a bit more in some way. But, given the tenseness of the previous section in the narrative, being trapped in the warp, perhaps this slow pace was purposeful; giving the reader a rest before the climatic finish on Luna.

Flight of the Eisenstein is a strong entry into The Horus Heresy series. It was a book that could have failed in numerous ways. Yet it successfully transitioned from the scripted opening to a more open stage. It presented a character in Garro that represents the soul of the Imperium. In him you see the Imperium transition as well, from the ideals of the Great Crusade, to something new and not yet defined. Flight matches the bar set by previous novels and it is an easy recommendation.

Memorable Quotes:
“‘No’ he spat, ‘this is my vessel, and you have boarded it without my authority!’...’You will stand down, you will identify yourself, and you will answer to me!’” Garro page 320
“‘The Emperor protects,’ said the Sigillite slowly, as if he were reading the words from the page of a book. ‘He does indeed, Astartes, in ways that you cannot begin to comprehend.’” Lord Malcador the Sigillite page 402
“‘I am an Astartes, but now I am a brother without a Legion. Alone, I stand unbroken amid all the oaths that lie shattered around me. I am the Emperor’s will, but I am nothing if He will not task me!’” Garro page 404
The Black Library: Flight of the Eisenstein by James Swallow
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1844164592

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter

Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter is the third novel in the Horus Heresy series published by The Black Library. Galaxy in Flames closes out the opening trilogy of the Horus Heresy. Ben Counter takes the series into a more passionate direction as the characters come to grip with Horus’ treachery.

The story arc of Galaxy in Flames is fairly compact. Most readers will already know how the books ends with the betrayal at Isstan III. The entirety of the novel is the build-up for that galaxy-shattering event. Though the reader may be aware of the future, the characters in the novel are not. So while the characters struggle to understand events, the reader is horrified as they see the underlying treachery unfold each step of the way.

A familiar cast of characters returns, and some of the smaller characters grow in importance as new ones arrive. I particularly enjoyed Titus Cassar, Primus of the Dies Irae. Although he might have been little more than a plot device, he was a very effective one. It is via Titus that you get a glimpse into the workings of the Collegia Titanica which is always interesting.

Perhaps most important is the interaction between Titus and Jonah Aruken. As events move along, Titus’ faith in the Emperor and the nascent Lectitio Divinitatus strengthen. Jonah however doubts. He has faith only in the Dies Irae, and his only desire is to one day be the princeps of such a machine. Ultimately, even in the face of proof of the Emperor’s divinity via Euphrati’s miracles, he rejects the Emperor and betrays his friend Titus. While Jonah was perhaps a good man, his desires prove to be his undoing. I thought this was a great way to showcase the insidiousness of Chaos.

Kyril, Mersaide and Euphrati’s story thread was perhaps the most interesting piece of the narrative as it was more of an unknown. The events of Isstvaan III are a known factor, but the rise of The Saint is an unexpected variable that is a pleasure to read. To see the beginnings of the Imperial Cult, its iconography and its sayings is very interesting. It was also fun to read how Mersaide’s character doubts the veracity of her friends’ new faith much like Jonah doubts Titus. Ultimately, Mersaide stays loyal to the Emperor. I thought that was a nice counterpoint point to Jonah.

The tagline for Galaxy in Flames is “The heresy revealed.” This manifests itself in the passion of the characters. While False Gods was more introspective as the characters sought to understand events, in Galaxy they rage against them. The character rage as they witness the ideals of the Great Crusade are perverted and stolen from them via base acts of treachery. The characters mourn as they see the potential for glory be lost.

All of this raw emotion is kept under tight control for the bulk of the novel. The characters seethe inside. They have no way to vent; Isstvan III serves as the pressure release. It is here that the full extent of Horus’ betrayal is laid bare, and there is no rationalizing it away. Watching Horus’ Chaos corrupted personality emerge during the slaughter of the remembrancers is tragic. You know there is no redemption for Horus. In the face of such repugnance, Iacton Qruze’s character is finally shocked out of complacency, honoring his brother Loken in protecting Kyril, Mersaide and Euphrati.

On the surface of Isstvan III, the loyalist Space Marines finally face the treachery of not only Horus, but their Primarchs and their battle brothers. There is no hope of victory; there are no reinforcements. Yet, in this crucible, they fight on. Their spirit is unbreakable. They fight to the last.

In this desperate milieu, two events are especially poignant: the battle between the Mournival brothers and Lucius’ betrayal of Tarvitz. Loken and Tarvitz have been built up as characters now for several novels. They have been developed as paragons of their Legions, ideals to which every Space Marine should aspire. Now they both die, betrayed and unwilling to break their oaths to the Emperor even for the love of their brothers. Lucius’ betrayal is especially foul as he succumbs to Chaos due to his pride and vanity.

The closing chapters of Galaxy in Flames are Ben Counter’s most successful. Whereas the bulk of the book can feel frustratingly slow at times, the final chapters explode in violence and emotion. Given that this gradual build up was likely intentional, the climactic end is highly effective.

What I didn’t like about the novel was Ben Counter’s rather loose grasp of facts at times. Saul Tarvitz’s character is incredibly promoted to First Captain, which is not really in line with the previous Horus Heresy entries. It is jarring because that is a fairly august position, yet he is not treated as such in the narrative. Ben Counter was also sloppy with the virus bombing of Istvaan III. Specifically, scenes of local citizenry dying both to the virus and later to the firestorm. They should not have been alive for the firestorm. I have a hard time describing these issues as anything else but sloppy writing and sloppy editing. They are minor, but they are also very annoying-- more so than grammar issues.

All in all, I enjoyed Galaxy in Flames. As a whole it isn’t as successful as the preceding two novels. But, its high points are very high, and Ben Counter creates some of the most memorable scenes of the Horus Heresy thus far while fashioning a fitting end to the opening trilogy. I think this is quite an accomplishment given the very strict framework within which he wrote this book. What I will remember the most is how Ben Counter was able to infuse the narrative with so much emotion. Galaxy in Flames is a must read for fans of Warhammer 40K and the Horus Heresy.

The Black Library: Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter
Image Source: The Black Library
Review Copy: Self Purchased Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-1844163939