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Gaunt’s Ghosts

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Salvation’s Reach is the latest book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novels. As a review of one book in series of thirteen would be a bit useless to those of you who’ve aren’t familar with them, let’s take a quick look at the series as a whole.

The books are set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and focuses on the fate of a specific regiment of Imperial Guardsmen; The Tanith First and Only. These are just regular guys, armed with fairly standard equipment and weapons, facing an uncaring galaxy filled with hostile monsters and hidden horror. They are humble riflemen, doing their duty to protect their civilisation, with very little hope of long term survival. Those familiar with the Sharpe series may recognise some elements here; the first few stories were pitched as ‘Sharpe in Space’. It’s a fair summary, though not a very descriptive one. The two are very different from each other in many respects, however, both are character-lead action dramas with high body counts.

The series began life as a collection of short stories in the magazine Inferno1, and this means they tend to have an episodic nature. This is actually rather handy, as it means you can digest the stories in bite-sized chunks. (I recommend reading them on an e-reader whilst travelling). You can put them down for a while, but the stories are deeply more-ish.

Grim. Dark. Gothic. And a page turner. Stock up on them for a long journey.

The earlier books in the series (collected together in an anthology called The Founding) are also the weakest, but no less interesting. As the first anthology concludes, you can tell that the author, Dan Abnett, is just starting to get into the swing of things. The writing begins with at a pretty good quality, but as the series progresses, the narrative gets much better and becomes much more fun. It’s intensely satisfying to see an author whom you like to begin with improve, and the Gaunt’s Ghosts delivers this in spades. Each anthology improves on the other, as we learn more about the world they are in and the people that surround the regiment.

As this is a tale of war and warriors, the body count is very high. Abnett fiendishly keeps key characters around long enough for you to become familiar and fond of them. He’ll hint at dark fates for his characters (after all, this is a war story), and just when you think your favourites are safe, something awful happens to them. It’s part of the fun. The churn of shocks, bluffs, revelations and funerals are the life-blood of this series. As you become more convinced of the indomitability of certain heroes, something happens to change everything. It’s grim. It’s dark. But it’s also about people surviving in extraordinary ways. Gaunt’s Ghosts is a series about heroes, but flawed, fractured heroes who keep going. “Only in death does duty end” as the books so succinctly put it.

So what about Salvation’s Reach ? More shocks, more revelations. More people die and we learn more about the world. Is it the same as the last dozen? Not a bit of it, because part of the appeal of the series is it uses the massive galaxy it’s set in as a backdrop to the drama. Did I devour it during the spare moments? Of course I did, it’s what I’ve come to expect from the series. Did it leave me wanting more? Yes. More please.


1: An ambitious short story magazine, with a focus on the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K worlds. Sadly, like many anthology periodicals, it’s no longer around. However, the same people behind Inferno do produce a regular e-zine called Hammer and Bolter, which fulfils the same sort of purpose. Which is good, as short story anthologies allow both readers and publishers to find new talent.

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The Gildar Rift

November 28, 2011 3 comments

Sarah Cawkwell’s debut novel, The Gildar Rift has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the Warhammer 40,0001 books, as the author’s previous short stories (which can be found regularly in the e-zine Hammer and Bolter ) have been very well received. Cawkwell’s style combines the over-the-top elements of the popular sci-fi setting with character driven plot and a keen eye on this heavily baroque world. This is the sort of thing that fans of Black Library2 books like a lot; the 40K fandom likes it’s big, power armoured super-humans to be actual people you care about, rather than just blobs of male-power fantasy.

So it comes as no surprise that, The Gildar Rift is pretty damned good. It’s another one of those Space Marine Battles3 stories, this time focusing on a conflict near the titular Gildar Rift, an unstable region of space prone to raids by Demon-worshipping space pirates known as The Red Corsairs. Defending this region of space are the Silver Skulls who are religious and steadfast space-knights, who rely on superstition for guidance. (Yes, that’s right. Demonic pirates in power armour in space. Wielding chain-saw swords. Fighting knights in shining power armour. In space. Who also wield chain-saw swords. This is why people love this setting so much).

Gildar Rift features Huron Blackheart, who is one of the more interesting villiains of the setting

The action splits three ways; we get starship battles, gritty land war and internal conflict from both factions. The starship battles are glorious, I do enjoy reading about big things going boom and Cawkwell4 mixes the vastness of space with the sort of edge-of-your-seat action usually reserved for the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean. The ground war element is very dynamic; plots and counter plans on both sides mean that the action is constantly rolling, and each leads to a dramatic conflict, rather than simply one long drawn-out fight. This gives us time to care about the heroes, adding weight to the narrative.

Running through these scenes of war are two subplots that give us stronger insight into both sides. The bad-guys get a tale of treachery and deceit, punctuated by evil cackles and barking-mad monologuing. Meanwhile, the heroes get a rather touching tale of hi-tech heresy and the search for one’s place in the universe.

The book is also filled with some lovely touches to the setting. From a subtle shout-outs to fans to pointed observations on the domestic side of the world, this book is a stunning debut, and also a good entry point for those looking to get into Black Library books.


1: Yes, it’s another review featuring 40K. You may have gathered by now, what with the retro-sci-fi game I’m creating, the Doctor Who love and the reviews of 40K books that I love British Sci-Fi.
2: The Black Library is the name of the book publishing arm of Games Workshop. Over the years, it’s nurtured a goodly amount of British genre writing talent, and has helped spawn a number of other British genre publishers. Or to put it another way, well done Black Library, keep up the good work.
3: I reviewed Nick Kyme’s Fall of Damnos a while ago.
4: I’m only aware of a handful of women who’ve written for the Black Library, and by utter coincidence, I’ve met two of them (Sarah Cawkwell and Debbie Gallagher) at LARP events. Both women tried to kill me, but that’s fair enough, people are always trying to kill me at LARP events. It’s a talent of mine.

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Hive of the Dead

November 7, 2011 2 comments

Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson1 have a lot to answer for. Their Fighting Fantasy game books are a prime cause for me becoming the sort of geek I am today, and a significant portion of my childhood was spent flipping rapidly from page to page, as directed by the text. To this day, the phrase “Turn to Page 400” is nerd-code for victory.2

Jackson and Livingstone also founded UK games company, Games Workshop. So it may come as a surprise to some of you that there hasn’t been an adventure game book set in any of the worlds of Warhammer. That is, until recently; Hive of the Dead is set in the grim darkness of Warhammer 40,000 and puts you in the shoes of an Imperial Guardsman who has lost his memory and who happens to be trapped in a zombie-infested command centre. From the get-go, the story is tense and action-packed, and filled to the brim with references to the zombie genre.

(c) Black Library

Fighting zombies with lasguns = buckets of fun

Let us all be honest here, anyone who’s played these games know that, unofficially, they come with three modes; Easy, Normal and Nightmare. Nightmare mode requires you to redo the book from start after every failure, following the rules strictly, rolling the dice and making a record of every item lost and gained. Normal mode simply requires you to use the rules as written whilst keeping your fingers in various pages in case you make a mis-step and die. Mostly however, we all play them on Easy mode: we ignore the rules that disrupt the fun, and aren’t afraid to back track to find more juicy bits of the game to play with. Or to put it another way, everybody cheats with these things.

I began the game in Nightmare mode, and quickly devolved into Easy mode after several tries. Your brave guardsman is quite squishy, and some of the battles you get into are quite brutal (and without spoiling the story for you, heroically difficult). That said, some of the scenes made me get the dice out simply to see what happens. It’s filled with fun little set pieces and references, and has the sort of pacing you’d expect from an action-adventure story.
It does have some flaws; it’s print-on-demand so it isn’t cheap (but is excellent quality), and you will need to download the errata (which is handily on the ordering page, along with a spare character sheet) and the combat system requires a lot of dice rolling. However, author C Z Dunn has made good on the fun the book promises. I got a lot of joy out of it and went back quite a few times to see if I’d missed anything along the way, and I hope they produce more.


1: The British one, not the Texan. Both wrote Fighting Fantasy books, though the British guy sort of invented the idea. Also, both have owned interesting beards.
2: Typically, page 400 was the last page of the book, and described your hard won victory. For those of you who don’t know what ‘Fighting Fantasy’ books are, they’re novels that require the reader to make decisions as to how the story will play out. The reader is presented with a list of options, and chooses their path by turning to the page relevant to their choice. They mix the joy of reading fantasy novels with the fun of gaming, and were a delight to young geeks throughout the 80’s.

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Robo-Skeletons Versus Epic Heroes

October 31, 2011 4 comments

Well, it’s the season to be spooky, so I’d thought I’d finally get round to a book that surprised me and that I enjoyed quite a bit; The Fall of Damnos 1 by Nick Kyme.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting a lot from the book; it’s a novel set in the 40K2 universe, and features the near-perfect warriors of humanity, The Ultramarines3 bashing the hell out of spooky robotic skeleton monsters, the Necrons4. The plot is quite straight forward; ancient mechanical horror rises from the depths of the densely populated mining world Damnos, and Space Marines turn up to punch said antediluvian menace in the face. I was expecting an action packed diversion, a rip roaring tale of adventure starring lantern jawed heroes smacking villainous villains, peppered with gritty darkness .

By the way; In this story, Damnos falls Just so you know.

And I got all that. What I wasn’t expecting was to walk away feeling sympathy for all of the characters, including the Necrons. The trick to a good action story is to make the reader/viewer/listener care about characters involved, and The Fall of Damnos does this by giving us an insight into the daily routine of the main characters, we see Ultramarines politicking in a ‘Greco-Romans in Space’ sort of way, we see the inhabitants of the doomed planet getting on with the daily routine and most interesting of all, we see the Necrons politicking and vying for favour and power within their own ranks. Given that Necrons are basically gothic cyborgs, this is a bit of a treat. It’s nice to see the evil robot monsters get a chance to actually be villains, rather than yet another faceless threat.

It’s not without its flaws; Kyme spices up the Ultramarines by giving them a bit more of political bent, and this isn’t explored strongly enough to be compelling. As fun as a 40K version of HBO’s Rome would be, Fall of Damnos really doesn’t have the space to cram it in, this is a book about big men with big guns shooting horrific monsters. The Ultramarines felt fairly interchangeable to me, and though this paralleled nicely with the robotic hordes, this element didn’t engage me strongly enough to work. Personally, I found the characters that happened to be ordinary people the most interesting; dragged into a war between titans, the human characters, from the plucky resistance fighters to the despair driven commander moved the story forward for me.

If you like the 40K setting, and like well written space marine battles, this is for you.


1: I deliberated a lot about writing book reviews; I’m a writer myself, and I’m especially interested in so called tie-in novels because I do love playing in other peoples creative sand-pits.
2: The fun thing about “tie-in” fiction is that the author can add depth to an existing world, yet they only have to explain aspects of the world that are relevant to the current story. That means the writer can litter the book with references for the fans, without alienating new readers. Its nifty, and I like it, though critics of “tie-in” fiction misunderstand this element entirely.
3: In the past, I’ve described the Ultramarines as “The Manchester United of the Astartes”. By which I mean they’re so popular and ubiquitous that people fall over themselves to find reasons to dislike them, because fans always like to whinge about the team at the top. The football metaphor doesn’t really work for other space marines, so I am unable to work out which chapter recently defeated the Ultramarine 6-1 in an Inter-Astartes Soccer Match. Probably the Imperial Fists.
4: Necrons are a peculiar mix of Undead monsters, cybernetics-gone-wrong and horror-from-beyond-time. They fit the classic sci-fi cliché of Cybermen and Borg, but also have an occult twist to them that reminds me of the darker sort of Cthullhu Mythos story.

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Let’s stomp some Orks…

October 3, 2011 1 comment

The recently launched Onlive Service gave me the opportunity to try out a recently released video game for the princely sum of £1. Being a massive nerd, I chose Relic Entertainment’s Space Marine. Onlive works by live-streaming the game onto your PC, which means you get to play games that use high-end graphics on any sort of PC, provided you’ve got a decent internet connection.1.

Space Marine is a big bucket of fun. It’s not subtle. It’s not going to win awards for clever storytelling, innovative game design or revolutionary insights into First-Person Shooters. What it does do, very well, it let you play a nine-foot tall genetically engineered super-soldier clad in power armour wielding a chain-sword.2 You run round killing Orks in brutal, almost comical ways, and when you’ve killed enough Orks, you pick up a jet-pack and big glowing hammer kill some more Orks.

The game is breath-taking in its simplicity. You shoot the baddies, and when you’ve ran out of bullets, you hit them with some sort of cool melee weapon. It’s brutal. It’s violent. It’s highly entertaining. At the same time, it evokes the grime and futility of the 40K setting; a world where we’ve conquered the stars, yet mankind is trapped in a Dark Ages mentality, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces that want to see the galaxy burn.

Captain Titus (c) Games Workshop

Ultramarines; The Manchester United of Space Marines

The plot focuses on Ultramarine Captain Titus, and his two squad mates, given the daunting task of preventing invading Orks from looting the most valuable assets from a world under siege. It comes with a supporting cast of normal, everyday humans (The Imperial Guard) who are mostly there to look strong, brave and die horribly. They also make for the most compelling characters in the game.

Level design is a little dull in places, but as the game is set on planet-sized factory, that’s forgiveable. Still, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, people seem to use a lot of lifts. The cut-scenes aren’t terribly intrusive, and exist to not only herd the player toward the fun, but also add to the overall atmosphere. They are a handful of stand-out sequences (particularly one on the train), though it’d be lovely to see more. Dawn of War fans will be pleased to know that they are some nods to that series of games, and lends a consistent feel to the ongoing narrative. Warhammer 40K is at it’s a best when you get a feel for the how incredibly big the setting is.

It’s a fairly short game, taking about eight to ten hours to get through, and it really does feel like it needs a sequel (and much more plot). Still, Space Marine is worth a look, if you like first-person shooters, and definitely worth a look if you like FPS and Warhammer 40K.


1: Onlive works fine as a service. There is a very short wait to get your selected game to load during peak times, and it dropped out on me once during ten hours worth of play. That’s pretty good. My only criticism is that other users can watch you play and vote on how well you’re doing. This is bad, because I suck at video games. However, you can be easily turn off this function, which means I can hide my shame.
2: A chain-sword is a chain-saw sword, obviously. American science-fantasy gives us light-sabres. British science-fantasy gives us chain-swords, which are way cooler by a magnitude by awesome. This is why Warhammer 40K is better than Star Wars. Fact.

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