Thursday, 1 August 2013

Best of Hammer and Bolter: Volume 2 Review.

Right, last time I spoke at length about how much I liked Hammer and Bolter and it reminded me of the good old days of Inferno so im a bit gutted to discover that this is in fact the last volume. So no more nostalgic ramblings from me as it would be somewhat redundant seeing as BL have swiftly killed this format. Still,  that means this time I get more time to speak about the stories themselves so, (in no particular order)  here we go....

One of the highlights in this book for me were Josh Reynoldses Marienburg set Warhammer tales. He’s got his settings down, has created well rounded characters and writes compelling action that flows smoothly. It may seem a little fantastical at times but I found it entertaining in a very old school way and enjoyed them immensely. Be it opening tale ‘Dead Calm’, the Fimir laden ‘Lords of the Marsh’ or the absolutely hilarious comedic irreverence of ‘Dead Mans Party’, (probably my top pick of his offerings). I greatly look forward to further exploits of Dubnitz and Goodweather.

Another great contributor is Laurie Goulding, who offers up an enjoyable Gotrek and Felix murder mystery thriller, ‘The Oberwald Ripper’ the best by far of Gotrek and Felix stories here, David Guymers effort, 'The Tilean Talisman' in particular faring quite badly. Goulding also gives us ‘Shadow of the Beast’ an excellent precursor to what I hope will be a full book about the Emperors Scythes ruin at the hands of the Hive Fleet Kraken and what I would consider a return to form for the Space Marine Battles series. (IE actually dealing with major engagements in the Space Marines history and not just being a dumping ground for any old Astartes story.)

I also really liked ‘Leechlord’ by Frank Cavallo, a great Festus story that paces itself well and doesn’t overreach itself. An effortless read. Unfortunately his other effort is a largely forgettable Scylla Anfingrim story that is one of the poorer tales in the book.

Graham McNeill adds some effortless class to proceedings with a Sigmar 2 parter ‘Let the Great Axe Fall’ elsewhere there is a reprint of his ‘Iron without’ from the Iron Warriors Omnibus

Talking of reprints, they abound here, (and these are just the ones I know of for sure), ‘The Lion’, the best part of the Primarchs Horus Heresy book is reprinted here in three parts, now this I find doubly annoying. It would appear that it appeared in Hammer and Bolter first THEN was reprinted in the Primarchs, cheapening even further the value of what I consider to be the worst Heresy book thus far. (and yes I am including the Dark Angels books in that) Still it could be worse, had ‘Feat of Iron’ been the story used in The best of Hammer and Bolter vol 2 then my score probably would have been reduced by a further whole point. ‘The Lion’ is a decent story and solid work from Gav Thorpe who I would quite happily see take over the reins of the 1st Legion full time.

Also a reproduction if not a reprint is ‘Thunder from Fenris’, a Nick Kyme audiobook originally. Id not read/heard it before and hadn’t realised what an obvious advert for the Thunderwolves (released at the same time) it was. That said its not a bad tale and Kyme does the Space Puppies quite well as they hunt down one of their own turned Wulfen.

The Space Wolves are also featured in the story ‘In Hrondirs Tomb’ which again reads more like a murder mystery than anything else. Scooby and Scrappy doo Space Wolves are not needed but I am perhaps being a little harsh on Mark Claphams effort which is by no means the worst thing on display here and is actually quite enjoyable.

Sarah Cawkwell unsurprisingly is featured and I actually enjoyed ‘The Pact’ as the Silver skulls form an unlikely alliance defending against a common enemy, its utterly predictable but well written and better than most of her other stories. ‘Born of blood’ is her other entry and functions as a prequel of sorts to her Valkia The Bloody novel. Competent but unexciting. I still find her writing a little stilted overall but she is growing on me.

A cynical mind might think that a fair few of these stories were included just to plug other series, Hence we get two Nick Kyme Salamander stories, one of which, ‘The Burning’ is rendered somewhat impenetrable without having first read his Tome of Fire Trilogy. Thankfully ‘Fireborn’ has no such requirements and I enjoyed it much more, being a straight up action story. Neither has me running out to buy his Salamander books but I do look forward to Vulkan Lives after reading Promeathean Sun (review is here for those who are interested.)  :

Likewise I have not read James Swallows Blood Angel books so cared little for ‘Redeemed’ and ‘Bloodline’, although the latter has a Horus Heresy hook that whilst utterly implausible is nonetheless engaging. ‘Torment’ by Anthony Reynolds also suffers from a lack of both familiarity and originality. Not a favourite here im afraid. Ive read the ‘voice in the head’ thing a hundred times or more now.

Of course the bulk of the stories are Astartes centric and out of the remainder, ‘Reparation’ sees two marines who may not be all they seem fighting for survival in Commaraghs gladiatorial pits, its safe and predictable but rattles along reasonable enough. Andy Smilies other entry is a 2 Parter Flesh Tearers story that leans a lkittle too much toward Bolter porn but does have some merit and is fittingly enough quite visceral. Ben Counter gives us a brace of unorthadox Imperial Fists tales, ‘Vermillion’ is a perplexing investigation story told though psychic means as a dead Inquisitors memories are probed for the answers to a xenos attack. ‘IRIXIA’ is a great little tale as Lysander educates some intitates on the tenets of honour and warfare by means of flashbacks from different characters perspectives. Its nice to get something a little different although it doesn’t work as well as it could. There has always been something about Counters writing that seems ever so slightly off to me. Still I enjoyed what he was trying to do and its not a total failure by any means. Rounding off the Power armoured entries is ‘Rite of Holos’, a Blood Drinkers story by Guy Haley. The author somewhat overlabours the point (we get it they’re vampires!) but its competent enough with some well described action scenes and a nice curveball thrown over the Marines nature as saviours.

So there are but a handful of entries left, ‘Shadow in the Glass’, by Steve Lyons is a refreshingly small scale story in which a girls dalliance with a mysterious mirror spells doom for her whole village. Elsewhere Carroburg Greatswords have to contend with both an attacking chaos beast and a typically psychotic Witch Hunter in Joran Ellingers rather neat ‘Butchers Beast’ Rob Sanders delivers ‘Necessary Evil’ as Inquisitor Czevak stumbles upon a colony in that may not be all it seems in a well written but somewhat telegraphed tale. Chris Dows misses the mark with ‘Mouth of Chaos’, a dull story revolving round an Elysian Drop Trooper assault, but fares slightly better with ‘Shadow of the Emperor’ as an Imperial Navy captain tries to lead a group of survivors to safety and reclaim family honour, all the time being hounded by a Commisar hellbent on his damnation and execution. The poor relations are ‘Lesser Evils’ by tom Foster an instantly forgettable and totally imbalanced assault on a Sisters of Battle Stronghold by unkown and improbably impervious forces, and Braden Campbell with ‘Hunters’, dealing with a Catachan insurgency against occupying Tau forces which has good characterisation but little else. Rounding off the contents of this book are three VERY short stories (about 3 pages each) which can be best described as pointless, (Mug of Recaff) pretentious and confusing, (The Hunter) and competent but misjudged (Death Stares Back)

So, that’s Best of Hammer and Bolter Vol 2, and indeed the last volume. Black Library have killed Hammer and Bolter, deciding it is much more lucrative to sell individual themed stories (adverts) instead. Thankfully it is stated in this book that there will be a ‘dead tree’ format of these new digital stories which is pleasing for the stubborn non e-book adopters like me.

Overall this second anthology of fiction doesn’t fare quite as well as the first. There are some great entries but the amount of material that practically requires that you have read previous series is disappointing. The presence of ‘The Lion’ is also a little galling as although it is a fine story it is yet another large chunk of the book that has already previously been available. There is also a marked lack of the more esoteric material in that all the stories are from the core universes and settings. All Marines and Empire there are no stories that do not feature at least some imperial force and the Eldar are omitted all together. The layout is at times a little odd, ‘themed’ stories being grouped together betraying their promotional nature. Still, all things considered it is still a fine collection of fiction and worth its price overall weighing in at just under 900 pages with 40 stories. A little more diversity and ambition in terms of setting would have been nice however and i still think its a shame they discontinued the monthly format to hawk flavour of the week E-books.


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