Thursday, 4 February 2016

Horus Heresy book review: Meduson - Warhammer World Exclusive Anthology

A quick note before we continue; We are now at a stage of the Heresy where cross referencing and combining of narrative threads is becoming inevitable. This book in particular sees elements from previous titles picked up and even adopted by different writers like never before. It's not essential to have read the previous titles but it will grant you a better understanding of what it going on. So, you will notice a fair few titles in bold text throughout the review. These are links to previous titles that i have reviewed. These are for the most part devoid of spoilers so feel free to check them out. Now, on with the review... 

As a book that you can only pick up from Warhammer World, Meduson is likely a title that has not garnered as large a readership as perhaps it deserves. Even at its normal price of £30 it is a hefty sum but on Ebay it can fetch much more. Is it worth it though? Well maybe not the scalpers prices, but it's of decent length and ‘exclusiveness’ aside (my how I have come to hate that word) is it worth shelling out thirty notes for this compilation of short stories on the shattered legions?

Meduson: By Dan Abnett

Well, with Dan Abnett penning the very first entry, maybe that is enough on its own to justify the asking price and secure demand. Work from Abnett for the Black Library is as scarce as the Emperor’s Tears these days and i'm beginning to wonder if we will ever see Warmaster and Penitent. Still, he has produced a decent story for Meduson here, as you might except (in Abnett we trust). Based around Shadrak Meduson (who will be known to many a reader, although this title is at the start of his rise to prominence). Reeling after the massacre at Isstvan, the council of Iron bicker and quarrel over which action is to be taken next. Without Ferrus Manus and his guiding hand and clear leadership they are rudderless. Like the proverbial deer in headlights they are frozen, indecisive, destined to be destroyed before they can rally. When the entire council is laid low in a traitor ambush it is left to Meduson to help to reforge the Iron Hands into a new fighting force and reclaim some glory and pride to keep the shattered legion from disintegrating completely. A task he never wanted but was always destined to fulfill.

I rather enjoyed this story from Dan, he captures the natural inflexibility of the Iron Hands extremely well, detailing the Iron Council’s hostility to Meduson’s forward thinking perspective. He effortlessly portrays the extent to which the legion is wounded without resorting to crying space marines, something that I feel Nick Kyme could learn from having read Deathfire (review very soon). Of course being a Dan Abnett story there is hidden depth, and metaphors abound, though nothing particularly hard to discern. Still, it’s nice to have something with layers as a lot of short stories can often come across as a bit superficial. Shadrak Meduson himself is also well written, being a compelling and complex character, a Terran born Iron Hand riling against an inflexibility that he knows will doom his brethren.

Dan understands the universe in which he is writing inside out (indeed he is one of the few authors that could genuinely claim to have significantly added to its lexicon) and the story absolutely feels authentic, oozing class and putting you right in the moment. It’s a focused tale, centered around Shadrak and making no apology for it. Reading this story feels like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes. The vast majority of readers will have read a substantial amount of Dan’s work and even were his name not on the pages odds are that you could tell he was the author. The action is typical Abnett as well, punchy and realistic and typically ‘against the odds’ heroic.

One does however get the feeling that Dan is running on autopilot here, it is ‘Abnett by the numbers’ nothing exceptional, it feels rote. It’s not lazy at all, its just not exactly vintage Abnett, you don’t get the feeling he is stretching himself in any way. I very much got the same feeling from ‘The Unremembered Empire’ and that really felt like half a book, and at that, one that i'm not sure Dan will ever finish. Still Abnett running at half steam is the equal of many other author’s best efforts and even were the odd short or novella all we can expect in the future from Dan as he addresses his other commitments it would be better than nothing. A fine and strong start, well worth your time and integral to the majority of the stories in this book.

Unforged: By Guy Haley

Unforged is a very short story indeed, set on Isstvan shortly after the massacre. Surviving members of the shattered legion are being hunted by traitor legion kill squads and daemon engines and signals for help can not be trusted as Horuses warriors are using false beacons and distress calls to ensnare and kill their loyalist counterparts. Unforged deals with one such scenario as stranded loyalist Astartes, some of which you will recognise from ‘Strike and Fade’ a previous short from Guy, pick up a signal from a Storm Bird in a deep crevasse on Isstvan, representing possible salvation but just as equally annihilation. Guy does well with the snippet, doing a good job of showing how damaged the Astartes are following the massacre and the myriad of ways they have been affected with profound repercussions. The story does seem somewhat brief but Guy does pick up the thread later with his second story Unspoken, which continues the narrative. There is not a great deal to make this stand out apart from the shocking ending but there is not a great deal wrong with it either.

Immortal Duty: By Nick Kyme

I’m one of those that really enjoys Nick’s short stories and novellas but struggles with his full length Heresy novels. Therefore I fully expected this to be another stand out installment, especially seeing as he was returning to the Iron Hands, whom he had impressed with in Scorched Earth. Unfortunately it isn’t. Immortal Duty starts with an Iron Hand about to be executed for some past transgression. What follows is a flashback to that transgression, a boarding action, well written and intense with some superb battling between the disciplined and mechanical Iron Hands boarding parties and wildly insane Word Bearers forces. Throw in a little personal vendetta (which for some may turn a little convenient), and you should have the makings of a classic. Sadly it doesn’t quite come off, we get the idea that the Immortals are kind of like Dwarf Slayers, committed to seeking a noble death in the Emperors service but it’s never really clarified or expanded on. The actual content of the story is fine, but the construction of the narrative is clumsy and haphazard, leaving the reader struggling to work out exactly what the point to everything is or worse, even care. Its the same problem that plagues some of his novels and I was surprised to see it rear its head here in such a short tale. Not one of the highlights sadly.

Grey Talon: By Chris Wraight

Long time Conclave readers will know that i really rather like Chris Wraight’s work. From the excellent Battle of the Fang to his awesome Swords of the Emperor fantasy novels, he is a writer that rarely puts a foot wrong and delivers time and time again. Apart from his second Space Marine Battles book that is, Wrath of Iron. My problems with that can be found in the linked review, but suffice to say after his other excellent works I found it a disappointment. Thankfully here there are no such problems. Part of this is due to a much more diverse character list as Chris works in the White Scars that he has also brought to life in his Horus Heresy titles Scars and Brotherhood of the Storm The titular Grey Talon is a captured and repurposed Lunar Wolves ship, and the story starts with a wonderfully recounted history of the vessel, bringing us right up to date where it is under the control of Bion Henricos, another famous Iron Hands Legionnaire. Cleverly playing upon some well founded animosity between the Iron Hands and White Scars, Wraight weaves a tale of rivalry and mistrust mixed in with some excellent ship to ship combat and the inevitable boarding actions.

The White Scars have been scarcely featured in the Heresy bar Chris’ own work and the fact that he has stamped his identity on them pays dividends here, the Iron hands, being survivors of the Isstvan Dropsite Massacre, have BIG issues working with marines that once (admittedly in error) declared for Horus and the theme and subject is revisited several times throughout the pages that Chris has to work with. Before the story builds to a conclusion that satisfies and tantalises in equal measure. It is an excellent story and i was left eagerly awaiting more. Hopefully Chris has another heresy novel in the works as we speak.

The Keys of Hel: By John French

John French is rapidly getting a reputation (at least in my eyes) for being the most brutal and harsh Heresy writer. Whilst we have yet to see a full heresy novel from him (I’m sure there is one coming) his short stories have been not far off Sci Fi horror in places, none more so than Riven, a Horusey short that showed what happened when measures taken to mitigate Iron Hands losses went too far, reanimating legionaries to fight again with the help of their augments and some dark forbidden technology. Cyber zombies.

Of course with such desperate measures taken they are not going to sit well with other members of the legion and such is the case as the undead marines come across a ship that has sallied forth from Medusa to seek out survivors of the Massacre. The Keys of Hel are something that is ark and forbidden for a reason and I really can’t see a happy ending for this offshoot of the legion. With some utterly brutal and savage combat that is John’s specialty and a horrific sense of unease perpetuating the story, (not to mention the chilling epilogue) it was nice to see what I had figured was a throw away one off story picked up and continued and see yet another way in which the Iron Hands have been so utterly destroyed by the massacre. More par for the course visceral nastiness from Mr French and I can’t help but wonder if Crios and his fellows will appear in a larger way in an upcoming novel.

Deed Endure by Gav Thorpe:

I’m a Gav Thorpe fan but I have to be honest and say this was the most disappointing story in the anthology. For one thing, Gav has already done sterling work with Ravenguard and I was rather hoping they would feature here as they are certainly a shattered legion, but given the X Legion centric nature of the book I guess that was a bit too much to hope for. There are a couple of so-so stories among the mostly excellent line up but this one in particular really did just nothing at all to impress. Gav, normally so very good at characterisation, falls back upon established and tired tropes here and it makes everything a bit mediocre. A joint fleet consisting of one Iron Hands ship and one Salamanders vessel are above a World Eaters training base. The Iron Hands are all for obliterating the site from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure) whilst the Salamanders insist that they need to launch a ground assault to minimalise civilian casualties. The Salamander officer carries the superior rank (although no discernible personality) but this seems to count for little and the Iron Hands, (here entirely unlikeable and bullish)are not about to listen. Inevitably the two legions come to blows in some admittedly well written action and though i'll not spoil the ending here, I have to say I found it spectacularly stupid and illogical given the situation the legions are in.

It’s a case of seen it all done it before for this story, the character templates are worn and obvious, no subtlety or anything creative about them. I’ll give Gav points for the action as that is pretty good and an interesting take on the Iron Hands motto but that’s about all I really took from this story apart from a rather cool sounding heavy suit of Terminator armour that could be interesting as a model. The main problem is with the characters, the Iron Hand is detestable and two dimensional, the Salamander is foolish and dull, (really committed to throwing away the remaining few troops he has to rescue civilians?) and it take this the stereotypes to beyond their reasonable limits. Average at best, among such stellar company it comes off as noticeably inferior. A shame, and nowhere near up to the standard of his work with Corax and co.

Very Rogue Trader like. 

The Noose By David Annandale:

David’s previous work ‘The Damnation of Pythos’ is widely regarded as one of the poorer books of the Heresy. I honestly didn’t really see it that way, I really enjoyed the way he showed how non Astartes are affected by the Heresy and although the rest of the book was pure bleak filler that was meandering and pretty dull I did think that it had a fair few redeeming factors. It was certainly one of the most ‘chaosy’ books we’ve had for a while anyway. Well here he gives us a pseudo sequel as the shattered legions bait a trap for the Emperors Children, who acted as such a great antagonist in that book. David, spends a bit of time on the III Legion too, though he does not have enough space to do them justice as before. With a fair bit of back and forth and as much focus on the traitor legion as the loyalist I rather enjoyed this short story as the Iron Hands look to adapt their strategy in order to wreak revenge on their foes. It’s not as bleak and horrific as Damnation of Pythos but honestly, what is? A good read and a surprise to see David continue to develop his narrative strand as Pythos seemed to be as final as final gets, i'll even forgive him using the name of a deceased character accidentally towards the end. A decent read, nice to see how the amalgamation of the shattered legions leads to a change in tactics and battle philosophy.

Unspoken: By Guy Haley

Unspoken acts as a follow up to Guys earlier story Unforged and really is a bit too far after to do so as many a reader might take a while to associate the two. It’s a character development and introspective heavy piece although there is some good anti Alpha legion (who are being their usual infiltrating sneaky selves) action to be found. It ties into Nick Kyme’s Scorched Earth novella and the focus is on one of the Salamander characters from Unforged and the effect that the events of that tale had on him. There is great character development and it is nice to see that Guy can pick up loose threads and intertwine them with his own narrative. Some of the construction of the story, (mixed perspectives) is a little jarring though which lessens the impact and makes the story a little harder to follow than it should have been but this is easily offset by the quality of the prose . It’s a great progression piece which actually sees characters move on and promises more to come. (no novel from Guy yet either I think). With this and the other great Haley shorts that I have read (like Twisted from Blades of the Traitor) there is clearly some great talent yet to reveal its full potential. Maybe we won’t miss Dan and Graham as much as we think.

The Either: by Graham McNeill

After having Dan Abnett start the anthology with a story about Shadrak Meduson, it seems fitting that another Black Library alumnus should end it with a tale about his nemesis. I shouldn’t need to tell you anymore than that, like Dan, Graham is a safe bet, rarely setting a foot wrong in the many stories he has produced (The Reflection Crack’d from The Primarchs being a noticeable exception) and here he has delivered another great tale. Set just before the Warmaster leaves for Molech, the story finds Tybalt Marr, convinced that the Shattered Legions present more of a danger than is suspected, not as completely destroyed as thought and still representing a credible threat to The Warmasters plans. This is a position not shared by his brothers, like Abbadon, and Little Horus Aximand, both members of the Mournival who have recently voted against Tybalt Marr’s inclusion. They try to prevent him from presenting the information to Horus and distracting the Warmaster at a vital point in the war. . However, Marr, haunted by memories of the assassination attempt on the Warmaster is resolute in his beliefs leading to more conflict within the legion as he sticks to his guns.

I really enjoyed this very character heavy piece. Graham does a superb job fleshing out Marr and indeed the Sons of Horus in general, who are really gaining an identity of their own after the missteps of the past (False Gods i’m looking at you). There is not a great deal that actually happens, most of the depth of the narrative (and it is a long story) is based around Marr’s position in the legion and the internal politics of the Mournival, But what is here is superbly crafted. Tybalt Marr comes across as ruthless but oddly identifiable, a shunned son not given his due and bitterly looking to prove his point. Hopefully Graham will continue to bring out pieces of this calibre in the future or commitments permitting, another novel. Hopefully a more focussed one than Vengeful Spirit (which this story parallels). In all honestly though if we get anything from Graham it is likely to be thousand sons based so it may be that we need to rely on other authors to keep us in touch with the Warmaster. Mostly this story functions as set up for future encounters between Meduson and Marr so only time will tell what will come....

Meduson is EXCELLENT. Although not every story is a stand out they are collectively very strong. The unified theme helps a lot, this anthology works a little like Mark of Calth, though i would argue it is vastly superior. Meduson appears frequently throughout the book even if just in the background or mentioned in passing, and helps tie the theme together. The different takes on the Iron Hands themselves can be a little jarring when presented in a mass like this, and it is fortunate that the authors are writing about different characters, often picking up their own threads and combining them with another authors works. This interchangeability is most pleasing and bodes well for the series should an author become unavailable and be unable to continue what they started. I would actually like to see more themed anthologies like this, but not as exclusives.

So to the original question? Is it worth the price? Well, £30 may be a premium price, but this certainly is a premium product in content if not construction and presentation. If a novella priced at £15 with four stories is worth the price then it follows that this is as well as it is a big book. That said, however it is not bigger than a hardback heresy novel which carries a cover price of £20 so it could just be argued that the novellas themselves are grossly overpriced. At the end of the day I feel that the price has been raised purely to justify the exclusiveness of the book and this is something I cannot really support. The titles within are being slowly released as audio dramas as the Black Library marketing machine kicks in again but if you are at Warhammer World and were to pick this up over any of the limited novellas which command the same price. i don’t think you would be too disappointed as the quality within is for the most part very high and even the poorer stories are far from awful. I would like to see much, much more like Meduson with the strong unifying theme and picking up of previous narrative threads being combined to make a cohesive setting, but lets hope release method wise, its a one off.


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