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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review (In Brief): The Emperor's Gift

Hey there everybody! Old Man Chaos is back with another posting. Officially, there's only a few more days to go till the new Chaos Codex. I can't wait to get my grubby little hands on that. Speaking of, I did buy the Dark Vengeance boxed set finally, so I'll be reviewing that soon too (have to put the Chaos pieces together first). However, as a result of buying DV, I will have to wait on buying the big Chaos stuff, since the book alone is $50- of course, my birthday and Christmas are coming up (hint hint). Anyways, I will for sure rate the DV box and the Codex very soon.

However, right now, I just finished Aaron Dembski-Bowden's The Emperor's Gift. Now, you all know I think he may be the best Black Library writer out there- his Cadian Blood and Night Lords Trilogy are absolutely perfect works of 40K fiction. However, in this book he is focusing squarely on a Grey Knight brotherhood, which is far from his usual. So, did he knock it out of the park, or is it a swing and a miss? Let's find out:

 For sure, ADB is still the most fluid writer in the BL stable. His writing is concise, but still descriptive and occasionally poetic (for 40K, natch). ADB handles complex action scenes, emotions, and plots with ease. He gets the point across without beating you over the head with it, as some of the BL authors do. Nor is his writing "bolter porn" as it were- there's meaning in his action sequences, and his stories are about characters, not just action scenes staring the same character. Here, ADB primary focus is Hyperion, a new Grey Knight bonded to Castian squad. Hyperion is strong and brave, but he finds it difficult to coordinate his skills with his battle brothers, while at the same time trying to "re-figure" out human emotion from those mortals he serves with. However, trouble comes for Hyperion when word reaches his squad that the world of Armageddon is under attack from the forces of Chaos.

What follows is a very unusual story indeed- the book isn't about the First War of Armageddon- rather, it is how Hyperion becomes part of a task force sent to Armageddon, and then what happens after the wars. It is rather interesting conceit- the War itself is like two chapters long only. The war was longer, but the Grey Knights see battle only once- against Angron himself (very cool, by the way). The remainder of the book is about the moral conflict that follows: what should be done with the loyal soldiers and citizens of Armagedon who saw Daemons- standard Inquisitorial protocol says all must die for seeing "that which CANNOT exist". But the Space Wolves, who have fought for months on Armageddon, want to spare the innocents. Hyperion is torn- he wants to protect humanity, but allowing these people to live will only allow Chaos to spread, unwittingly perhaps, but spread nevertheless.

Therin lies the issue here, for both good and bad. The story has odd fits and starts- the War is truncated, and the first boarding action and subsequent mustering goes on for too damn long. Indeed, at one point I said "I get it- the ship is possessed- move on". And while the Armageddon scenes were cool, it was too brief, and relied on the fact that longtime fans knew the outcome already. On the other hand, the moral issues that Hyperion confronts are truly interesting and deep- we always know that the Inquisition will do such terrible things for the protection of humanity, but here it takes on a more realistic dimension as Hyperion wrestles with the moral implications of what the Inquisition must do. Since the story was told from Hyperion's perspective, it made for fascinating reading.

Even better, ADB has found a great "voice" for the good guys of the Adeptus Astartes , which can be tricky to write for(he can write Chaotic Marines quite well, as we already know). Hyperion is very sympathetic, a hero who wants to understand the humans that he fights to protect. To most humans, he seems cold and fearsome, but he is also capable of gentle warmth, which I thought was a great blend for the Grey Knights. Writing first person allows ADB do bring a great deal of depth here, and it makes up for the books flaws.

The other great thing that ADB does is he plants both feet firmly in the 40K lore. Not only is this about the First War of Armageddon, he also manages to tie this book to others, including The Battle of the Fang, Prospero Burns, and amazingly (and wonderfully, I might add) the Ravenor and Eisenhorn series. ADB did this with his Night Lords trilogy too, which makes his work feel like part of the mosaic of 40K, rather than just one author's take.

So, what to take away from this? ADB tries some risky things here- his first person Grey Knight narration, his willingness to forgo the battle that most would have expected going in, and his interest in the "clean-up", rather than the war itself, makes The Emperor's Gift very interesting and different from other BL tales. My only issue really was the pacing of the first third of the book, which takes too long. Perhaps if that had been trimmed, ADB could have done more with the Armageddon piece, which I think would have strengthened the weight of the moral questions  asked in the last third. Thus, I award this book 3 1/2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. Its a good book in the chances it takes, but the pacing could have been better.

Until next time...


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