Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reviews: Outcast Dead, Eisenhorn, Ravenor, Hive of the Dead, Aurelian, Snuff

Real life, by way of jury duty, has gotten in the way of late - but it did afford me time to get some reading done.

The Outcast Dead
, by Graham McNiell.

This book is a must buy for fans of the Heresy series, and fans of 40k lore. Some of the important things it lays out include the exact timeline of the Isstvaan attacks in relation to Magnus' stuffing around, and a lot of vital background on the workings of the formative Imperium.

Following Astropath Kai Zulane as he comes to grips with a terrible secret that could dictate the course of war (or end it entirely), the story shows how the ideals of the Imperial Truth are often at odds with the actions of its most trusted guardians.
The Outcast Dead themselves are a group of marines stationed on Terra, belonging to the mysterious Crusader Host. McNiell does his trademark 'refer obliquely to something and wait to explain it in another book' trick here, but it's not especially intrusive or distracting to the narrative.

Possibly the best part of the book, for me at least, is making the Emperor more human. In most of his appearances, especially in the early books (and the awful Last Church [ironically also by McNiell]) The Emperor was often portrayed as either excessively God-like, with everyone falling to their knees and weeping, or as a jerkface (who has the face of a jerk). This also extended to the Primarchs to a lesser degree.
The obvious problem with this is that he becomes either unrelatable or unlikable, not to mention the plot hole of 'why is there political strife on Terra when the Emperor just needs to show up and bling out and everyone falls before him weeping (always with the weeping)?' This is the problem of having to tell the really important stuff - ie Horus' fall - first, when it would have been better served to get a handle on the universe 30k style and then get to the good stuff. But that wouldn't sell books as much though. It's like when a new miniature line releases all the important characters first, and they end up looking really bad compared to later sculpts.

But I digress.

Having the Emperor shown in a sympathetic light makes it seem more tragic, and isn't the whole story meant to be bad for humanity? I'd love to quote some of the Emperor's best lines, but they're pretty spoilerific, so I'll abstain.

The book isn't without its faults, the fight between a World Eater and a Custodes is often highlighted, as is the Death Guard's resistance to injury, but they're fairly minor and easily overshadowed by the positives.


Eisenhorn and Ravenor Ombnibii, by Dan Abnett.

Six books, so I'll just be covering them all briefly. The Eisenhorn series tells the tale of Gregor Eisenhorn, and his pursuit of various enemies of mankind. A first person narrative it follows Eisenhorns' thoughts and has quite a bit of internal monologuing and reflection. This is one of the book's strong points as you certainly get a feel for the Inquisitor's mindset.

Ravenor, however, switches between first person of the eponymous Inquisitor and third person for his team of loyal minions. I found this a superior method to the wholly first person: as the books are essentially crime novels having the crime stretched out over three novels left the first person feeling a little thin - there's only so much reflection a man can do.

One of the things that really dissapointed me in the seires was that the Inquisitors, supposedly super smart and cunning held the idiot ball far too often.

There were a couple of times I wanted to sceam at them "how are you in the slightest bit surprised by this!" One example is Ravenor, despite having extremely good reason to suspect he's got a psyker on board and that they may be extremely dangerous, completely fails to monitor them in any meaningful way. And when one of his minions brings news of possibly prescient dreams to him, he doesn't seem particularly interested.
Their minions are equally culpable sometimes, not bringing up their colleagues acting strangely when there's a daemonic entity on the loose etc.


Second thing is that Eisenhorn's supposedly unbreakable custom battle cant is laughably easy to descipher. Obviously this is for ease of reading, but I think it would have been better served to be formatted differently, such as how Mechanicus speach is ++marked out on the page++ or the like.

Still, the books are a most excellent, given I read all six in two days, so if you haven't read them definately pick them up.

Eisenhorn: 7.5/10

Ravenor: 8/10

Hive of the Dead gamebook, by Christian Dunn.

For those who don't know, a gamebook is basically a choose-your-own-adventure with dice for when you run into monsters.

Hive of the Dead is a simple tale, where YOU are the hero ('you' is always written in capitals in these things). A Guardsman afflicted with amnesia in a hive filled with plague zombies, you have to escape with your life.

I'm a big fan of gamebooks, so rather than reviewing the plot (which is almost always paper thin), I'll be discussing the construction and assembly of the book. Like the Fighting Fantasy series, Hive of the Dead is 400 paragraphs long, where each paragraph is part of the descision tree. This is a good length, and Dunn has a great mechanic where there is the occasional non-linear loop.
What I mean is where you have a choice early on to either: pick up a gun, look at a map, or use a radio, many gamebooks would have you do one then continue, or return to the original choice paragraph. What Dunn has done is to have each choice branch off, so you get different results depending in what order you do things.

For example if you look at the map and then the radio, when you go to pick up the gun a zombie attacks before you can grab it. But if you pick up the gun first a zombie will attack when you look at the map etc.

On the flipside the story is very linear and rather short. One of the biggest issues I have is that for each combat there is a 'turn to xx' if you lose. Each combat does have its own entertaining description of your death but they are, frankly, unneccessary and the paragraphs would have been better spent on their being more stuff to do.
As I said the story is quite linear, and there are a few false choices, where aside from a little flavour text change there is no real difference to the gameplay or events.

The writing, however, is generally good and written in a frequently tongue in cheek manner ("to disagree politely, turn to xx - to disagree impolitely and attack them, turn to xx). It does have the odd flat spot in the text, but its not too terrible.

The combat system itself is quite unweildy, being a stripped down version of 40k in some ways, and being overly fiddly for my tastes. There are damage multipliers, initiative, ranges and all sorts of things (and an advanced rules section). When 99% of the enemies are identical plague zombies, it is a bit ridiculous and is overengineered in my opinion.

For the Black Library's first gamebook it holds up well against the early Fighting Fantasy books (and isn't as insanely hard or frustrating), but the later books in the series show that BL has a great oportunity ahead of it. I'll definately be buying the next one.


Aurellion, Gold edition, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.

The book that broke Black Library, and got us all free shipping. The book itself is essentially Inferno 40k, with a Daemon in place of Virgil. It gives reason for Lorgar's fall, as well as detailing the manipulations of chaos to make it happen.

But was it worth $70, or was the silver enough? I had a chance to look at both versions, and I'm not so sure the gold was worth the extra moulah. For the extra $35 you got some art, a signature and a placeholder. I mean I love a good exclusive, but the asking price is possibly a bit much, given the silver was so extensively cheaper. One odd thing was that the front of the dust jacket for the gold was tucked in to the back, so it covered the whole book - yet the silver didn't do this. One off oddity, or some strange thing that just made reading the book a little bit more inconvenient? Eh, either way it was a good read and an interesting, though not essential, piece of lore.

6.5/10 - this is based on the Gold, including relative worth of price. The silver could add a point.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett.

The latest in Pratchett's Discworld series, Snuff is the story of Sam Vime's holiday to the country. It's a little bit Jane Austin, a little bit Midsomer Murders and a lot of fun.

Vimes is easily my favourite of the Discworld protagonists (just ahead of Moist), and Pratchett does not fail to deliver. There is humour aplenty, and a great mystery afoot with strange doings a'transpirin in the village (tis a local village, for local people). Here we discover the workings of one of the few traditional fantasy races not yet seen on the Disc - goblins. As can be expected from Pratchett they aren't what you'd expect, and there is no clear good versus evil except for Vimes versus crime, but that's to be expected.

The only potential downside for a new reader is that there isn't a great deal of time explaining the fairly extensive background (Vetinarii, the clacks, Old Stoneface etc), but the story is carried by the very real feeling characters and great dialogue so even if you don't know what's going on you'll certainly get the idea.

As I mentioned above about the Eisenhorn/Ravenor idiot ball situation, there is none of that here - it is a detective story at its core, and is constructed as such. Vimes investigates, he thinks and ponders, and when he does something stupid that gave his enemy an advantage he thinks 'argh, I've done something stupid that has given my enemy an advantage' rather than it being ignored. This is the book (and Pratchett's) great strength - the characters really feel like real people, and it is very easy to get deep into the story.


So that's what's been eating up my time lately... well, that and: