I need a new tag-line joke for that one… Book review, no.1!

Salvation's Reach Cover

This post is about my experience with Salvation’s Reach, the latest installment of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of Warhammer 40k novels written by Dan Abnett and published by the Black Library imprint of Games Workshop UK.

It’s grim and dirty and bloody and at times very desperate military scifi with a focus on personal drama, the pitfalls of a military life in the war-torn, religiously and culturally fascist universe of the far-future, with a strong point of making battles horrific, gut-churning affairs not through bloody descriptions but through loss, fear, terror and the feeling of helplessness and desperation. This is, at time, off-set with healthy doses of pulp. Which, in turn, is often off-set by healthy doses of beloved characters dying in often pointless and meaningless ways. While they are Military literature, they are NOT pro-war. They manage this by showing the all-too-human side of even the most battle-hardened and world-weary career soldier in the Emperor’s Guard.

As I said: Salvation’s Reach is the newest novel. And it’s waaay to much a good read. I didn’t even need six hours in total to get through it. Not because it’s so short, but because I was totally bound to it. I forgot to sleep and eat while reading it.

And still, this review (and I mangle the meaning of the word quite strongly with this column) will focus on some things which I actively picked up as “good writing!”. Some things which other authors could do well to pick up from Mr. Abnett. They mostly deal with my old chestnut: Stupid-juice. Most novels are full with characters drinking copious amounts of said stupid-juice to remain ignorant of some huge, obvious plot-points, to keep the plot moving in the direction the author wants it to go. And in the process, the reader ends up hating the dim-witted fucks that are paraded as the protagonists. It’s not hard to NOT do this. A striking example is Pratchett’s “Monstrous Regiment”. But it still crops up often enough. So it was refreshing to see a mil-scifi novel, of all!, to NOT degenerate into this.

With the main thrust of my exposition gone, I will now commence quoting passages from the book and commenting on them. Warning: There MIGHT be spoilers. Just might.

First the biggest “winner”, near the end of the book.

“Afterwards, he could not account for it. It was a story he would tell, when suitably persuaded and after [a whiskey] or two, for the rest of his life. Kolea was destined to live out a soldier’s life, so that wasn’t a terribly long time, but it was long enough to make that day, that moment, an old story. Others told it in turn, after his death: Kolea, running the line like a madman, shield up, gun blasting. He was yelling something as he went and, depending who was telling the tale, what he yelled varied.”

Sometimes you manoeuvre yourself into a point in the story where you want to make a flash-forward. Sometimes that just happens. You hammer out a really excellent scene and some future-exposition would make it that much more poignant. Especially when it comes to books with higher-than-usual mortality rates. It happens. No writer can fully control the flow, no matter how many story-boards you use. When you write, the characters also write you. (*waves to Nietzsche*) So you put up that flash-forward, but doing so might be a spoiler for other books. Because if you should write “And even 80 years later, when he thought back to…” in book one of the series, no reader will take risk to that character serious any more.

Do it like Abnett did it here: Don’t specify WHEN the future is. Remind the reader that mortality is always a factor. Make others pick up the torch. Make sure that the reader knows that this character’s action will not be forgotten, even though he might die in the very next story arc. This was really well done. I smiled when I read it.

Then, there are two series of sub-plots that get some play from the start of the book, and which would be raped for artificial “drama” by many other authors through letting the involved characters act fuck-stupid and try to hide things or over-look obvious things.

No direct quotes, as they would spoiler a huge deal of the book’s surprises.

1) One main character faces the revelation that a consequence of an earlier act caught up to him. In a VERY tangible way. Instead of hiding it, though, he immediately proceeds to air out in the open, make it official, follows regulations and deals with the coming fallout in a professional and mostly calm manner. There are still people who want to use it against him. There is still tension. But at no point do we feel like someone we’ve come to respect in 12 novels and several short-stories suddenly caught the stupid-fever by trying to hide and obfuscate. When the scene arrived in which said character was alone in his quarters with the consequence in question, I was dreading the eventual moment of crowning stupidity. But it never came. It was blocked immediately and effectively. Robbing the story of none of its impact, none of its tension. But making it all the more natural and fitting. Very well done.

2) There’s a gang of malcontents, a small criminal and hate-filled conspiracy withing the 1st Tanith regiment, a band of bastards without any magnificence. Bastards for whom you wish nothing but a swift and painful death. And while they’re in the process of doing something criminal, a big fight breaks out in the area they are in. Mention of that act is immediately dropped and the fight and its immediate consequences are focused upon. Yet, in my mind I screamed: “They let the papers fall! There must be SOMETHING you can hang on them! They surely forgot to hide all evidence!” … And, what do you know? This happens. Some time later a new Commissar presents the regimental XO with damning evidence which was swept up after said fight. And here, also, there’s a small bit of personal drama in between all this, which also is resolved by… The involved people TALKING to each other. The slighted party doesn’t skulk around, trying to find hidden evidence of wrong-doing, and the person who at first hid something, immediately comes up with the truth when confronted by his partners anguish and anxiety. They actually talk things out, listen to each other and don’t jump to sudden, inexplicable conclusions. They act… Like actual human beings. Not like story-boards who scream a contrived plot of cloak-and-daggers at you.

Those three (point five) points really heightened my enjoyment of the book. The people felt much more real. Much more competent, WITHOUT resorting to Mary Sue behaviour and Deus Ex Machinas. It just all felt natural and… Human, for lack of a better word.

It’s not a good point to start your journey into the 40k-‘verse. Mostly because it relies on established characters from many novels before, so many of the iner-personal stories will be lost on you. What I WILL say, though, that it’s a good indicator of what to expect. Those are bloody, violent, human adventures. You CARE for the people in those stories. You cheer for them. You cry when some are lost. You howl in rage when they are betrayed. If you like dark fantasy akin to A Song of Ice and Fire you and can stomach SciFi, you will thoroughly enjoy the whole series. If you already like SciFi and can stomach (or even revel in!) backstabbing, loss and military adventure, you will also love them.

And it’s easy to start, too.

Two ways, even:
http://www.amazon.de/First-Only-Warhammer-000-Novels/dp/0671783750/ref=cm_lmf_tit_1_rsrsrs0 [This is the first novel, on its own. Cheap.]
http://www.amazon.de/Gaunts-Ghosts-Founding-Novels/dp/1844163695/ref=cm_lmf_tit_13_rsrsrs0 [This is an omnibus of the first three novels and two short stories, giving you the whole beginning. Slightly less cheap, but more meat to dig in.]

In closing, four quotes mostly out of context. Two showcasing the realities and style of the 40k universe and two to lighten the mood.

First, the 40k mood-setting ones.

The Armaduke could not outpace the free-running torpedoes delivered from the Ominator. It could only hope the warheads found something else first.
‘May the God-Emperor forgive me,’ said [Captain] Spika.
The Armaduke, engines searing white hot, turned the ship in behind the listing bulk of the stricken Benedicamus Domino. The sundered hull of the wounded frigate eclipsed Spika’s ship.
Spika knew that there were likely to be ten or even fifteen thousand crewmen still alive on the Domino. But the Domino was past saving. The Armaduke was still alive.
The warheads, thirty of them, rained into the starboard side of the keeling ship, which had been knocked side-on into the path of the enemy by the first strike. Only wisps of shield remained. Two torpedoes detonated as they ploughed into the dense, glittering debris field that fogged the vacuum beside the Domino like a cloud of blood beside a floating body. Another triggered as it struck the hard, pressurised release of environment gases squirting through the Domino’s burst hull.
All three detonations, miniature starbursts too bright to look at, disappeared a moment later as the other twenty-seven warheads encountered the primary hull. Concentric rings of shockwave and overpressure criss-crossed, and twisted the fabric of the hull apart, like raindrops rippling the still surface of a pool. Light bloomed, a supernova, a ferocious pink-tinged white that scared away the blackness of the void like a sunrise and turned the Benedicamus Domino into a sharp-edged black silhouette.
The frigate perished.

A weaponwright, his head braced and held painfully erect in a frame of wire and brass, lifted his gaze from the cogitator he was dismantling at a bench and looked at them. His fingers had been amputated and tools implanted in their place. Machine oil trickled out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Voi shet jadhoj’k?’ he asked, perplexed by the appearance of people he didn’t recognise.
Mkoll put his dagger through the wretch’s heart.

This is 40k. It is not a nice place to be.

But it is a highly exciting and at times humorous place to be, for the reader.

‘Anything else?’ asked Gaunt.
‘Transfers behind just before midnight local,’ said Beltayn. He handed Gaunt a data-slate. ‘Our transport has been confirmed as the Highness Ser Armaduke. It’s a frigate, Tempest-class. Whatever that means.’
‘So the Fleet couldn’t spare a battle cruiser after all.’
‘No, sir. Actually, the Fleet didn’t spare this either. As I understand it, the Highness Ser Armaduke was substantially damaged during the Khulan Wars and has been in the depot reserve for the last twenty-seven years. It’s had what I’ve been told is called “modification refit”, but its performance still doesn’t allow it to be fully Fleet certified.’
‘You’re saying it’s a piece of scrap that would otherwise have gone to the breakers?’
‘I’m not saying that, sir,’ said Beltayn, ‘because I know nothing about the Navy or shiftship doings. I’m just a common lasman, sir.’
Gaunt looked at the documents on the slate.
‘Oh, the faith they show in us. Giving us a ship they don’t mind losing because they’re pretty certain it’s going to be lost.’
‘I’ll remember to keep that insight to myself, shall I?’ asked Beltayn.
‘Yes, please,’ said Gaunt handing the slate back. ‘Anything else?’
‘No, sir.’
Gaunt gestured up in the direction of the double-headed eagle that was perched on the head of a large statue of Saint Kiodrus nearby. The eagle ruffled its wings and shuffled on its marble perch.
‘Not even that?’
‘Doesn’t belong to me, sir,’ said Beltayn, ‘and I didn’t put it there.’

[I imagine a very specific, resigned tone of voice for this in Beltayn’s part. And this makes it all awesome.]

The White Scar, Sar Af, appeared out of the smoke, driving the breaking Archenemy troopers in front of him. He was blasting with his boltgun, disrupting their unit cohesion and driving their line around so that it buckled and withered under the Ghosts’ fire.
He spotted Kolea.
‘What is keeping you?’ Sar Af bellowed.
‘We were occupied,’ Kolea yelled back.
‘With what?’
‘The usual,’ shouted Kolea. [“The Usual” was a concentrated front of fortified, highly-disciplined troops keeping them at-bay and inflicting harsh losses.]
Sar Af shrugged his huge shoulderplates. He turned and blasted bolt rounds into the weakened enemy positions to his right.
‘Come on if you are coming!’ he yelled. ‘We will not wait any longer. I told Eadwine I would come back to find out if you had a good excuse for not keeping up.’
‘Like what?’
‘Like being dead! Now come on, Emperor curse you!’

In this novel, there are three Astartes. Space Marines. Posthuman warrior-monks.
They are stoic and unfeeling in most of the other 40k fiction. Here though… Here they come to light. And they are imposing, awesome, magnificent bastards.

Dan Abnett – Salvation’s Reach.
Dan Abnett’s “Gaunt’s Ghost” series.
Read it.
It is good.
It is fun.
It is very well written and composed.