Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Review 1 - Blood Angels Deus Encarmine

For a change of pace, a book review:

Blood Angels Deus Encarmine by James Swallow - 2004 Black Library Publications

Overview: There are a lot of books set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Most of them focus on the Space Marines. This book is the first one about the Blood Angels chapter of the Space Marines. The main character is a regular tactical marine and the story begins with him on garrison duty. Complications ensue and by the end of the book there appears to be a growing split in the ranks of the chapter. The main opponent is a unit of Word Bearer Chaos Marines and there is an Inquisitor involved in the proceedings too.

The Good: It's refreshing to read a tale about a Marine who is not the best ever, the chosen one, a new recruit, or a chapter master. This is mainly a tale about a regular grunt marine, at least it starts off that way.

It's also nice to see the Blood Angels getting some attention in the fiction line as they were one of the first chapters mentioned in the Warhammer 40,000 game.

Another nice item was that the marines do not automatically win simply by showing up - they spend a fair amount of the novel on their heels.

The Word Bearers are also nicely painted as corrupt, evil but having goals and motivations of their own.

The Bad: The book begins well enough focusing on Brother Rafen who is a tactical marine and the main character. Soon enough though, we are getting first person views from other marines, the leader of the enemy unit, an assistant to that leader, one of the evil marines, the captain of a marine strike cruiser, and an inquisitor! That's a lot of jumping around for a 250 page novel and it hurts the narrative flow when one character voices his plan for the next battle then we jump to a character wondering what that enemy is going to do in that battle, which is what we just read!

Also, there is absolutely nothing special about the alleged main character other than him being a space marine. At the end of the story he has doubts about the way things are going but he doesn't actually do anything with the doubts he has been expressing for most of the novel - in fact, he does commit one defiant act to try and make things right but then he throws in with the group he has doubts about! Contradictory? Yes! Even that isn't really a decision consciously made, it's mainly just him going along with it because he fears the consequences if he doesn't. As a character he is indecisive and just goes along with whatever is happening which makes for a not particularly interesting hero. You could almost make a case that this is supposed to be more of an everyman/regular guy's point of view take on the universe and the events of the novel but he is still a superhuman space marine - I don't think it's a strong argument to make.

Another issue is that the Blood Angels are mainly known for/distinguished by their tainted gene seed which basically turns them into vampires as they age. This is a huge, angsty angle for the Blood Angels chapter and while it does appear in the novel it is barely touched upon and seems somewhat bolted-on. There is a part of the story where the black rage and the death company figure into things but the rage is not pictured as the normal inevitable decline but it is artificially introduced by some magic potion used by one of the characters! I had a small problem with this as it is deviating from the background pretty significantly.

One oddity is that the Blood Angels have several interesting special characters that have been detailed over the years in the game and none of them appear in the novel except in a small "meanwhile back at the ranch" scene near the end of the book. This isn't necessarily bad but it is different from many other 40k novels. If the main character had been stronger this would not have been a problem but there is no one at the center of this novel and focusing on Captain Tycho or Corbulo could have been much more interesting.

The final issue I had with the book is that we end up with a lot of smart, experienced people making bad decisions - Rafen, Arkio, Inquisitor Stele, Sgt, Koris, even the Word Bearers. To get to where we are at the end of this novel, multiple stupid decisions have to be made. Some even have suspicions or wonder how something happened - which clearly indicates something is going on that they do not see or get - yet they go ahead and make a decision based on clearly flawed or incomplete information. It seems out of character each time it happens and it weakens the story considerably.

Final Comments: This is a very run-of-the-mill 40k novel. It's not harmful or bad in and of itself, but if it was my first 40k novel I would not be looking for more. There is nothing special about it and nothing that really ties it to the Blood Angels chapter - it could have been written about any chapter of marines. Plus, speaking as a DM and gamer c'mon - Vampire Space Marines fighting Evil Chaos Space Marines! It should be great, but they somehow manage to make this unexciting and bland.

Main Characters: Boring. Not essential to the plot

Supporting Characters: Interesting, probably the best part of the book

Plot: Complicated but weak (dependent on bad decisions by smart people) and not completely revealed in one book! Stay tuned for book 2 when you will finally find out what is actually going on!

Action Scenes: Adequate but unexciting. Very average.

Resolution: There is a small resolution for the main character at the end but it's clearly not the focus of the story, merely one step to getting there.

Overall: Very Disappointing

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