Saturday, 19 September 2015

Horus Heresy Novella Review: Scorched Earth by Nick Kyme

You know it's not often I head into a review with such a cast iron perspective of the subject I am reviewing. More often than not I actually construct the review as I rethink points in my head ruminating and considering various aspects and elements so as to ensure the review is balanced and free of any bias that might arise from a skewed first impression. Often I can find my view on the subject more malleable than first thought, and can often find myself at conflict with my initial perspective and I can find that my final assessment varies slightly over the course of the review.

Not so with Scorched Earth, I bloody well love this book, I really do. The funny thing is it isn't really all that spectacular (or original for that matter)just one of the most enjoyable reads i have had of late. 

When thinking of the myriad of novellas that have been released Scorched Earth is actually one that had slipped my mind. Indeed it seems to have been released only to coincide with with the latest full length novel Deathfire, from the same author. 

And I'll freely admit that I approached Scorched Earth with a certain amount of trepidation upon seeing the authors name. Not that i particularly dislike Nick Kyme's work (I still have the Salamanders Omnibus sitting on my shelf to read) but I did find Vulkan Lives a particularly frustrating read for reasons that you will find here (be warned, the very nature of my beef with Vulkan Lives means that it is one of the few reviews I have done that is NOT spoiler free) So the prospect of reading what is essentially a prequel to that book wasn't exactly a tantalising one. 

Set, as much of the recent Heresy material has been, in the wake of the Dropsite Massacre of Istvaan V, this is the first book that i have read that has been set solely on the devastated planet itself. Nick does an excellent job of establishing just how dead Istvaan is, a desolate wasteland, completely inimical and hostile.

The story itself revolves around a select few characters, all survivors of the Dropsite Massacre, being hunted down by traitor legions kill teams. The reader is left under no illusion that this is anything other than a desperate last stand. No grand resistance, just a shattered defiance against the inevitable. 

And they are indeed shattered. The characters that Nick has created are flawed and deeply wounded. Broken versions of Astartes, falling back upon training and instinct to survive. In fact the strong characterization is one of the major highlights of the book, with the characters being memorable yet identifiable, pleasingly human yet still Astartes albeit crippled versions of their former selves. 

Nick doesn't really venture that far from the established legion tropes, there is no need to. Instead he strips those tropes down to their elements to make his characters more vulnerable. The Iron Hands, rendered fatherless, seek strength as always. Be it from their augments, acceptance of Ferrus Manus's demise and the hatred derived from it, or a stubborn refusal of the same fact. The Raven Guard are as dogged and pragmatic as you would expect, dangerous like a wounded animal. Ever vigilant though few in number, and using their hit and run tactics best as they can in the face of vastly superior forces. The Salamanders are in the position of not having any idea what has become of their primarch, stoically clinging to the mantra 'Vulkan Lives'. of course Scorched Earth was bought out subsequent to Vulkan Lives meaning the reader is quite aware of Vulkan's fate. 

Still, the Salamanders are not privy to the events of Vulkan Lives and are making frequent forays away from the relative safety of their base of operations to deploy sensor beacons in the hope of locating Vulkan's ship whilst avoiding the attentions of the roving traitor kill squads. This includes the main two characters in the book, Ra'stan and Usabius who decide that rather than waiting to die they will venture out into the wastes of Istvaan to try to find out what has happened to their primarch. 

So begins (albeit more than half way into the book) a buddy story of sorts as the marines encounter all sorts of trials in their quest, This gives Nick an excellent opportunity to work on the camaraderie  between the two marines and also embellish upon the base nature of the traitor forces as the true extent of their depravity is laid bare.

The rest of the book covers the sojourn across the surface of Istvaan on their quest. This is where all the action takes place such as it it. The actual ending itself is somewhat undercooked and revolves around one clever idea.Very well implemented it will certainly cause you to flick back through a few choice pages. It's not original although it is done with a twist but the SKILL with which Nick has pulled it off is considerable. Certainly i was very impressed.

But then i was already impressed. Impressed by the masterful characters that Nick created and the way he has simultaneously portrayed them as strong yet damaged and wounded. We have not really seen Astartes portrayed this way before and i found it a breath of fresh air. It is not the most action packed book but in my opinion it in no way suffers for it. Nick seems to be in his element writing these smaller length novellas and i have certainly enjoyed his short stories as well. It seems only when he is attempting something much larger that he comes unstuck. Still, maybe that track record will change with Deathfire which i hope to have in a few weeks.

In the meantime I thoroughly recommend this book, it really is that good. Though not spectacular or a game changer it is written with real skill and is one of the more fun reads I have had recently. The ending, although pulled off with finesse is secondary to the exceptional character work within and I look forward to seeing if he can continue that strong characterisation in the future, now i'm off to read the Salamanders Omnibus

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