Mark of Calth (Anthology by various writers): If you have been reading this page, you know that I love the Horus Heresy books. Sure, not all of them are winners, but overall I love the rich tapestry this series is creating. We know how the Heresy ultimately ends (or do we? Or have we just been hearing Imperial propaganda about that final battle?), but each book takes a look at characters great and small, and events that are tearing the galaxy apart. In particular, the focus has moved to the "Shadow Crusade", the war to sever the realm of Ultramar from the rest of the galaxy- thus allowing the forces of Horus to move against Terra without fighting the Ultramarines. Of course, there is a lot more at stake here, which is why Know No Fear and Betrayer were both so great- You have this terrible war going on, but there's a lot of other things happening, particularly the ongoing rivalry between Lorgar and Guilliman, the politics within the Word Bearers, little nuggets about "the perpetuals", and, particularly amusing/compelling, the fate of Angron. I read Know No Fear and Betrayer back to back, and it was just amazing, with Abnett and Dembski-Bowden giving a fantastic one-two punch. I was thrilled to see the announcement of the anthology Mark of Calth- more action and intrigue in the Shadow Crusade...
Well, it dawned on me as I delved into it- these anthologies rarely go well. Every anthology I've read from Black Library is always the same- there's a couple of good ones, and a bunch (more) bland or even bad ones. Sadly, this is the same, despite the excellent backdrop. The best one was by Abnett, which followed Oll Persson and his group as they escape from Calth. Oll is a "perpetual"- and the hints dropped here about these "perpetuals" is just fascinating- are they the actual biological children of the Emperor? Are they like the Emperor, but just not as powerful? I loved that Oll was disdainful of the Emperor's "game" as he called it, and quite resentful that he's been drawn into it. Also, John Grammaticus makes an appearance too (always welcome). The other tale I really enjoyed was by John French regarding the origins and "path" of one particular ceremonial chaos knife- from its crafting to its role on Calth. The story was told in an interesting way (someone is telling the knife about its blood-soaked history), and the ending was connected very well both to Know No Fear and the Oll story.
The others, sadly, just weren't that good. There's a short bit about Marduk from the Word Bearers series- I want to read the other two books in that, but I haven't had the chance to- that said, the story was OK at best (though perhaps that's because I haven't read all of Marduk's adventures). Then there's the first story about Erebus learning about the ceremonial knives and such- the story kind of just goes nowhere. Unfortunately, the rest of the anthology is the same, with stories about the "Underground War" that are just kind of dull. Worst of all, the short story by Dembski-Bowden is fairly bad. Its about a Word Bearer that realizes that Lorgar has screwed a good chunk of the legion- a Chaos fanatic having a crisis of faith. While this is a cleaver conceit, again it just kind of goes nowhere because of the rather poor ending (it kinda never happened). I think Dembski-Bowden should keep to telling longer stories (Night Lords? Word Bearers? World Eaters? Grey Knights? He's good with all of them!).
So, this is a big disappointment- a couple of good stories can't save the whole- See, I have low expectations when it comes to things like Treacheries of the Space Marines... but when it's Horus Heresy AND about Calth- I was hoping for more. As it stands, I'll give it 2 out of 4 Marks of Chaos.
Space Wolves: Blood of Asaheim (BoA) by Chris Wright: While I had enjoyed Wright's previous book, Battle of the Fang, I regarded it more as a conclusion to Thousand Sons and Prospero Burns than anything else (and it was indeed a worth companion to those two, no doubt). After I finished Mark of Calth, I really wanted something that would be good- to get the bad taste of Calth out of my mouth. Now, I wasn't sure what to pick- I had heard that BoA was really good- when I checked the description, it said that a Space Wolf squad was going up against the Plague Marines... my biggest (and favorite) army. Well, that piqued my interest. Now, would it be any good?
Oh hell yeah. This book was absolutely fantastic. One of the best Black Library books I have ever read- I'd put it up there with the best from McNeil, Abnett, and Dembksi-Bowden. The book is one part zombie/horror story, one part epic city siege, reminding me of the attack on Gondor from Lord of the Rings. Basically, a small squad of Space Wolves called Jarnhamar has been sent to aid a battalion of Sisters of Battle on a world that is under attack (they don't know what, as astropathic communication has failed). The squad gets there and discover that the forces of Nurgle are all over the place- as the plague spreads, the defenders become infected and become part of the invading host- growing like a cancer until only the holy shrine city remains. The Space Wolves face overwhelming odds, as they must not only fight such a massive force without any further aid, but they must also bolster the defenses and boost the human morale. They face further complications in dealing with the Sisters of Battle, with whom the Wolves don't have a good track record. The result is a tense and action packed story, with a real see-saw battle that sees zombies, cultists, siege engines, and of course, a handful of Plague Marines running rampant.
While all of that is great, it would be for naught if the main characters weren't interesting, and here is where Wright really, truly shines. This cadre of Space Wolves is one of the best set of characters I have come across in the Black Library. Gunnlaugur is the leader of Jarnhamar, and frankly, things have been better for them. They have lost several members of the pack, and they have been constantly been sent on missions, without any real respite. They have been worn down, inevitably and inexorably, by the constant warfare of the 41st millennium. They are fighters and warriors without peer, but they are getting strained and wearied.
What makes this squad work is the through line in the book- people questioning their place (in the squad, in the scheme of things, etc.). Gunnlaugur is the leader by default, as the previous Wolf Guard died years before without selecting a successor. Gunnlaugur is brave and strong, but he is haunted by self doubt. This is only exacerbated when Ingvar comes back to the squad. Ingvar seemed to be the natural leader, but he had been selected for the Deathwatch. Now, 50 years later he is back, and he is questioning his place- he's a wolf, but he has learned so much from other chapters in the Deathwatch- he now questions the teachings of Russ. Further, he questions Gunnlaugur' s decisions, which puts the two characters at odds, and makes for great tension at key points. The rest of the Wolf squad is equally good, such as Halfoi, the young Blood Claw recruit who isn't sure about being in such a squad of old-timers, and Jorundur, the oldest Wolf, who is growing more and more weary (and sarcastic). The other members include Valtyir the swordsman who must constantly prove his worth, and one wolf who has a secret that may cost the squad dearly.
The interactions among the squad are great- sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, but always compelling. They are both super human and sympathetic all at the same time. They are brash and heroic, but not invincible. However, the main idea of "knowing your place" is present for each character, and I think its great that a Black Library book is capable of asking a bigger question. Drawing on that further is the parallel that is made between Jarnhamar squad and the Death Guard. Wright portrays the Death Guard is impossibly ancient and weary. They are tired of war, tired of endless strife, but they believe that they know their "place", which is to tear the Imperium down, and spread that weariness and illness throughout. If Wright wants to write a book from the Plague Marine perspective (a la Dembski-Bowden's Night Lords trilogy) he has my full support!
I don't want to give away the ending (or some of the twists in between), but I believe that it is just one of the better stories from the Black Library. The book is, of course, just the beginning for squad Jarnhamar, and I can't wait to see more! I give it 4 out of 4 Marks of Chaos.
I was so inspired by Ingvar and his Deathwatch background that I have decided to read the book Deathwatch next. I'll let you know how that goes. Until next time...