Book Review: Betrayer

betrayer-coverContinuing my Horus Heresy kick, over the weekend I read Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.  I  was a little hesitant to grab this book but did so because it comes up on a number of best-of-series lists, not all of which are reliable (too much focus on action).  Turns out though Betrayer is very much possibly the best 40k/30k novel I’ve read, and certainly among the top.  Part of this I attribute to Dembski-Bowden apparently being an actual player of the game, something I don’t get from a number of the authors.  Not that it’s necessary, but it might bring an extra level of love to the work.

There are no spoilers in these thoughts.

Characters

Here that love’s paid off because he’s done the totally unexpected: Made the World Eaters, Angron, and especially Khârn possibly the most fascinating characters in the entire series.  My hesitation about the book was precisely because by the 40th century they never come across as particularly interesting.  Mindless killing machines, they do what they say—Kill!  Maim!  Burn!—and little else.  Their action sequences are boring, and they have basically no characterization to speak of.  Their appearance also raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, like how could such a bloodthirsty, disorganized fighting unit actually function?

The answer is barely.  This novel really explores in flashback and discussion the degradation of the legion and how costly their every minor victory has become.  A number of the characters spend a fair amount of time trying to come to grips with how precisely they can keep fighting when their extreme lack of discipline leaves them exposed and vulnerable any number of ways.  The action and training scenes demonstrate this well and between that, the characters’ discussions, and a healthy dose of the Warp, it’s an interesting progression that renders the 40k world more plausible (well, within the universe’s basic assumptions).

More importantly, Angron makes a good run here to be the most tragic of the Heresy characters.  That’s a big claim to make given Horus, but the novel makes it pretty credible.  My favorite though is Khârn.  He’s fascinating, and realizing that in the first couple pages is basically mind blowing given that I’d previously never found him particularly interesting.  He has a band of friends, many of them with their own solid characterizations—especially Argel Tal of the Word Bearers—and he has doubts, so many doubts.  Khârn’s so compelling, I’m almost motivated right now to go model up some Chaos Marine champion to represent him (I’m only 50/50 on his actual model).  Khârn’s depth and wisdom come across so well, it only highlights his glee and fury in battle.  The first, brief appearance of his catchphrase at a desperate moment is chilling: Kill, maim, burn.  Betrayer manages to make all of these utter villains extremely sympathetic and then next chapter they’re turning your stomach as they torture and murder with abandon, an excellent feat of writing.

Also excellently done, for the book that had every possibility of being the least humanized and the most purely testosterone driven given its very male lead legions and characters, there are a number of solid women characters.  In particular, Captain Sarrin of the Conqueror has a lot of pages and comes across strongly.  She’s key in manufacturing one of the standout scenes mentioned below, has a number of welcome interactions with her friend Khârn in the heat of battle, and it’s actually really cool to read with what glee and skill she goes about fighting the Imperialists.  In the grimdark future there is war and blood for everyone, not just men.

Fight!

As discussed regarding Know No Fear, 40k and especially the Heresy series has a ton of potential depth to it, and it’s the more character-study oriented novels that are the best.  All too often though they devolve into purely extended action sequences, as that novel does.  Here though a perfect balance is struck.  The action and character studies are so interwoven throughout the text, and often set within each other, that Betrayer never becomes a drawn out, boring slugfest, nor does it ever slow down and become purely dialog and thought with no chainswords or powerfists.  In terms of the technical execution of the plot and characters, the text’s arrangement is really well done.

Great Scenes

On top of all the overall excellence, the novel has a large number of great scenes.  Just a few of the most memorable, holding back the details:

  • Lorgar’s desperate battle to retrieve Angron, and the latter’s desperate struggle to then save the former.  This is the best primarch battle scene I can recall.  Forget inhumanly fast sword strikes and mega-punches.  There are goddamn vehicles being thrown like toys, and it’s not the least cheesy.
  • The legion’s censure of Delvarus after the battle of Armatura.  This opens with a great tense hangar bay standoff, once that captures that might alone is not always right, then pages later comes back with a darkly beautiful scene of fraternity, regret, and forgiveness.
  • Lhorke’s remembrance of Khârn and Argel Tal in the gladiator pits.  It’s a touching view of two soul brothers, ultimate warriors not yet mindless death machines, and has a rare touch of fun and mirth among a life of constant war.
  • Lorgar and Angron discussing the latter’s pre-heresy fight with Russ.  It has a sadness and quiet to it that’s heartfelt, with Lorgar pained because Angron doesn’t understand, and Angron pained because he does but can’t, shackled and crippled by his past.

Summary

Basically, go read it.  A fair bit of Heresy background and 40k foreknowledge is required to really appreciate everything.  Even having read a bunch and knowing a lot of 40k lore, even I wish just a little that I had read more of the Heresy series before reading this to catch all the references and character history.  But it’s got depth and action to spare so this is a minor concern.  Betrayer is an awesome novel that every 40k fan should really appreciate.

Kill. Maim. Burn.

Kill. Maim. Burn.

Update: Total sidenote, if the Khan model looked more like this conversion I’d be all about it.  The official model though is just a little to goofy and busy looking.  By absolutely no means the worst of the older GW sculpts, but after this read I really hope he gets an update or Forge World model sometime to be a bit more serious and dramatic.

Book Review: Know No Fear

know-no-fear-coverLast night and this morning I read the nineteenth book in the Horus Heresy seriesKnow No Fear by Dan Abnett.  The book records the first Battle of Calth, in which the Word Bearers attack the Ultramarines, the latter’s first intimation of the recently begun Horus Heresy.  There are no real spoilers among the thoughts below.

Battle

I was prompted to pick up this book by the recent limited release of the twenty-sixth novel in the series, Unremembered Empire, also by Abnett.  Previously I had only read up through the 4th book of the series.  Each of those four is solid to very good, and Unremembered Empires has been getting great comments, so I was intrigued to get back into the series.  That said, 40k books are highly variable in quality.  Some of the overriding themes and writing are great.  Many of the books though are poorly written battle reports of childishly imagined characters.  So, despite my love of the setting, I have no interest in reading all twenty-two of the other novels to get completely filled in before Empires comes out in paperback six months from now.

Looking to cherrypick the series, I read Know No Fear because it’s by Abnett, one of the stronger 40k writers, and it appeared on a few recommendations of must-read books in the series.  I can’t say I was disappointed.  It’s definitely among the stronger 40k books and a good, solid read.  The battle that occupies probably two-thirds of the novel is well done and moves along, never becoming the sort of tedious recounting better left to action movies from which many of the novels suffer.

That said, the battle does occupy two-thirds of the novel, and it’s definitely not the most interesting part.  Solid as the book is, it highlights some of the basic self-imposed limitations of the 40k writers.  The universe has the depth and breadth to incorporate some really great themes, and the novels often touch on these, but they never quite let go to really explore those.  Many, especially Abnett’s, start off with really interesting world and character building, and then devolve into a protracted fight sequence.  Know No Fear falls precisely into this fate.

World

That battle stuff is ok and entertaining, but what I really like is the first part of this book.

I think the Heresy series has a number of strategic factors driving its immense success.  One of these is the large, protracted, epic story arc.  It takes a really solid fabric and epic space opera universe to soak up 26 novels, bunches of short stories, and still have basically no end in sight for the inevitable conclusion everyone knows must come.  Another is that people enjoy reading history, which all of this is for players of the game.  There’s a pleasure to be had in knowing the basic outline but getting filled in on all the details.

A perhaps less obvious factor is that the series proceeds from a point in time before the 40k grimdark sets in.  At this time humanity is still making progress, there is both a hope and a reasonable expectation of a brighter future, the Imperium is not thoroughly downtrodden and oppressive, and not everything is war.  Ultimately people can only read so much misery and darkness before they tire of it.  The Heresy books, probably especially ones like this set around the prospering and civilized Ultramar, don’t have that same crushing bleakness to their background.

That brightness and engagement with the larger civic enterprise of building the Imperium also brings a lot of variety and texture to the story.  Among the current-timeline 40k novels, it’s no accident that the most popular books and series are based around the Inquisition and the Imperial Guard, like the Eisenhorn and Gaunt’s Ghosts books.  Those settings and characters offer a rich world with many different types of people and places.  In contrast, despite being the most popular faction in the 40k universe, Space Marines often make boring novels.  They kill stuff and hang out on their battle barge, and repeat.  They’re also all pretty much conditioned clones of each other, with comparatively limited variances.

The Heresy books step around that limitation.  The novels feature a lot more world building, characters outside the chapters, and the rebellion itself induces such a large fault line as to create differences among the characters.  I actually really enjoyed the “boring” stuff opening Know No Fear, like Space Marine Captain Ventanus and Sgt Selaton zipping about in a Landspeeder, getting stuck in traffic on their way to argue with the local dockworkers, or discussing the Imperial project with Tetrarch Lamiad in a futuristic, optimistic, empty museum.

Ventanus isn't sure what's going on, but he's sure he's not going to like it.

Ventanus isn’t sure what’s going on, but he’s sure he’s not going to like it.

Trans-Human

The other thing I really like about Know No Fear is that the opening portions really focus on the idea of the Space Marines as trans-human, and what that means.  To me this is one of the most interesting themes in 40k, and a major part of my love with the Space Marines.  In fact, this book repeatedly and often uses that specific term trans-human, which sticks out for me as a modern, civilized, scientific term.  Not that many people in the 21st century world would be familiar with this word, or are thinking about what it means, even though we really are approaching having to deal with such entities.  Similar holds for the 40k universe, where the word is rarely used, the Marines are much more frequently cast as super-soldiers, and people are pretty much concerned with not dying, as opposed to what living means.  In M30 however, this is a real, high level concept that occupies the more intellectual and world-cognizant of the Marines, this is a world thinking about the future and lofty ideas like what it means to be human.

Specifically, the term’s use highlights a key premise at the start of the book, that the Great Crusade is wrapping up, and now humanity needs to figure out how to go from there.  As the Space Marines perhaps most engaged with the world outside combat, many of the Ultramarines in Know No Fear have many discussions in the opening sections beginning to probe their thoughts about their place in a universe consisting of more than war.  What does it mean to be a defender of humanity that is not truly human?  Further, what happens if such a defender is no longer needed for defense?

Ultimately these are the kinds of questions the Heresy as a whole really gets to at its best points.  If there are men that truly know no fear, then there are also men that know only fear.  To me that is the central driver of the Heresy, those are the traitors.  Most simply fear death or pain, though they would never say it, and will make the most unholy bargains to avoid it.  Others fear powerlessness, and what could be more powerless than the universe’s greatest warrior in a time that knows no war?  Many fear being deemed inadequate by those they venerate most, as is clearly how the Word Bearers feel after their multiple rebukes by the Emperor.

Know No Fear gets at many of these points, and it’s the true strength of the book.  The opening sections feature not just a literature discussion of those topics, but the ultimate philosopher warriors of the 30th century, the Ultramarines, explicitly discussing them.  There’s a lot of talk about their Primarch’s attempts to prepare them to be useful for running governments rather than crusades.  In a great, telling display of the Ultramarines as intellectuals all, even the sergeants discuss how comparatively simple, bloody-minded Legions like the Word Bearers and World Eaters will fit into a peaceful age.

All of this stuff is great.  It’s what made Flight of the Eisenstein my favorite 40k novel, and it was really good to read in this novel.  It’s just a shame it’s all mostly dumped for a 200 page battle.

Style

A small thing I also really liked about this novel is that it opens with a crazy style, interspersing cold historical record in a very analytical framework of timestamps and notes with Primarch Guilliman’s much more poetical, abstract thoughts.  It’s a little tough to follow so I’m glad it phases out after the first chapter or so in favor of a more straightforward style of novel, but it’s really good.

Similarly, the internal looks at the Primarch are really enjoyable.  A good example is an early sequence of him working on what the reader will recognize as notes for the Codex Astartes, still far in the future, while he also thinks about his chapter masters and how even after all they’ve done they still don’t fully understand his powers.  Pretty awesomely and quite appropriately, Guilliman is actually one of the softer voices in the novel, and brings a fair bit of the humanity and even humor.  It’s small, but there’s a really nice point of comedic relief where he walks into a sanctum of his, finds an Ultramarine waiting there for a meeting with him that he had forgotten about for hours and hours, has a brief, unrelated discussion with him, and walks back out with the Marine left still waiting for the meeting.

Abnett also does a really good job here of making the Ultramarines stand out with their own unique character.  It’s definitely the most appealing I’ve ever found the poster boys of the 41st millenium, and they’ve always appealed to me a little for maintaining Ultramar as the bright point of the stagnant Imperium.  The constant scholarly discussions and Socratic teachings among themselves in all the small moments stand them apart, and the constant refrain of “Theoretical?” and “Practical?” in analyzing every problem gives them a voice and tone unique among the Legions.

Summary

All in all, I’m glad I read Know No Fear, and it meets my expectations of Abnett’s better 40k novels:  The inevitable extended battle sequence is good for what it is, but the opening part delivers the goods on world building and exploring the deeper, more interesting themes of the 40k universe.

I will say, the Heresy covers are getting harder and harder to tell exactly what the hell is going on.

I will say, the Heresy covers are getting harder and harder to tell exactly what the hell is going on.

Movie Review: Skyfall

Many spoilers are contained herein.  Do not proceed further unless you’ve seen the movie!  Seriously!  I am not responsible if you keep reading!

My initial take on Skyfall, the newest entrant to the James Bond oeuvre, is dynamically neutral: Some amazing components, unbalanced by some terrible aspects.

It’s unquestionably better than almost all previous Bonds, nearly all of which pre-Craig I like much more as concepts than actual movies.  It’s also definitely better than Quantum of Solace, which I found regrettably largely forgettable.  Harder to compare is Casino Royale.  Skyfall doesn’t have the shock and signature scenes of the latter.  It does though have the same depth and vigorous exploration of both world themes and meta-reflection on Bond.

I want to like Skyfall a lot because it’s explicitly trying to get at and discuss critical issues around and of the Bond franchise.  Just like the past two movies, much attention is paid to the changed geo-political world post-Cold War, and the power of computers and the role of spies and physical violence in the information age.  But it also much more overtly tackles another theme of the three: The decline and changed nature of England specifically, and to a lesser extent imperialism in general, as well as the men of empire and how they’re built and deconstructed.  The movie also digs deeper into the relationship between Bond and M.

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

All of this is great, and is done in some really nice scenes with good symbology: Bond and Q at  the National Gallery, M testifying before the ministers, Silva’s fantastic island lair, the highly survivable Churchill pug and bunker.  You are at a great movie when you’re watching a serious blockbuster action flick that has as its foundational touchstones Churchill, Turner’s The Fighting TemeraireTennyson’s Ulysses, and Shelley’s Ozymandias.  Incredible stuff.

Unfortunately though, to me there are several serious missteps that negatively deflect the movie from those meditations.

Women

Most disappointingly, Skyfall seemed distinctly a step back for the franchise in its treatment of women, a big claim to make given its fundamental aspects and history.  It’s an arguable position, but I thought the general tone fell that way.

It started with Bond telling Eve that some people just aren’t cut out for field work, for no obvious reason. True, she’d accidentally shot Bond, but she’d been clear that it wasn’t a clean shot and M made the decision to take the risk.  Eve never seemed rattled or incompetent during the chase. I just didn’t see any real justification for Bond to say that other than her being a woman and him a huge ass of a throwback. When Mallory says the same to Bond I don’t think anyone would question that working a desk is a downgrade and not an option for Bond.  Eve doesn’t get even remotely the same consideration.

It’s good that the franchise has re-established Moneypenny as a more credible, empowered entity, and one no longer desperately fawning over Bond. However, it’s unfortunate that in doing so the film converts Eve from a competent female field agent, fairly rare both in the franchise and in general, into a desk jockey.

As good a place as any to sit and think about what a jerk you’ve been.

Much more serious though is Sévérine. This is an obviously severely traumatized woman who’s been a sex slave since she was a small child, and is now the captive property of a deranged super-villain. Bond’s first and only instinct is to get naked and sneak up on her in the shower… The film of course immediately rewards this privacy invasion and insensitivity. I thought it was offensive and unsophisticated on Bond’s part, but more importantly on the film’s part, and an extremely unfortunate scene in its execution. Of course Sévérine is also shortly thereafter summarily killed as the inconsequential aftereffect of a madman’s parlor game. Not only does Bond not react, the film doesn’t react. She’s killed in a moment’s blink, awkwardly slumps there in an undignified death, and immediately becomes as much part of the background as the broken Ozymandias surrounding her.

Sévérine.

This handling of Sévérine exemplified the franchise’s much-deplored historical treatment of Bond girls: They have no agency or background of their own, exist only to serve Bond sexually, and are immediately discarded upon their inevitable death. To be clear, I’d be fine if the film’s argument is that Bond has this inhuman aspect about him. It makes him a more unpleasant character than people might want to admit, but that’s his legacy, and after the two previous movies one well constructed and carrying some depth and shading.  A major draw of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace was precisely their long study of how Bond wound up that way.

But the film itself treats Sévérine as an object, and a disposable one at that. There’s a difference, it’s an important one, and that’s the major problem with the franchise: Not that Bond treats women this way, but that the films do.

“Someone usually dies.”

Believability

The film’s closing treatment of M was also a letdown in accord with the general dumbing-down of its female characters.  To me it also over-stretched the suspension of disbelief.  It was ridiculous that she and Kincade went traipsing through the pitch black moor with flashlight blazing. Granted she had been shot, but overall it painted her with a disappointing air of incompetence in her last moments. I’ve never had MI6 training and my immediate thoughts as soon as Kincade picked up the light were: “That’s going to be visible for miles on the moor…” and “It’s going to be really stupid if Silva can track them because they’re bumbling around with the light.”

In general, I thought there were several instances like this of characters acting with a level of incompetence entirely out of line with their characters. As another example, who in their right mind would just connect the laptop of a super-villain and known uber-uber-hacker to the primary MI6 network, as Q does? That wouldn’t even fly in any actually existing modern day DoD facility, and their administrators aren’t exactly computing super-geniuses. You could probably argue that Q felt he could contain it but if so that point and its arrogance should have been made explicit. As-is, he just came off as a hugely incompetent idiot despite the franchise’s obvious intent to the contrary.

“Wait, whaaaat? I shouldn’t connect the hacker’s laptop to our whole network? Why ever not?”

The final standoff at the Skyfall estate I also found to be somewhat more outlandish than the majority of the three most recent movies, and specifically the first two thirds of this one.  It wasn’t terrible, but it was all a bit too clean, impersonal, and magically easy for the Craig-era Bond.  The Kincade character also came out of nowhere and, although not unreasonable, diluted what should have been a focus on M, Bond, and Silva.  The whole thing also reeked implausibly of Batman.  Although presumably faithful to the novels, most of Bond’s background revealed here should have been avoided in favor of not painting him as the government sponsored UK caped crusader…

As another small point that bothered me quite a bit, I felt like there were consistency problems with Bond’s gunshot wounds. The amount of scarring and its placement seemed to vary over the course of the film, though I’d have to watch again to double check.

Shanghai

The film does though do many things really well.  As noted in the opening, it is a great exploration of personal and imperial decline, as well as espionage and security in the information age.  A number of arguably smaller but still thought provoking moments are also sprinkled throughout those bigger themes.  In particular, it said a lot about M and raised a number of questions about how to view her when she revealed she’d purposefully given up Silva to the Chinese.

Silva is also perhaps the most interesting and well motivated Bond villain ever. His crusade is so personal as to be worlds more believable, credible, and threatening than any I can recall. The literate play is also great with him as the consummate foil for Bond, embracing, extending, and reflecting all the latter’s traits: Bisexual slaver, betrayed agent, hyper-competent professional, powerhouse of the cyber rather than physical, natty dresser. It doesn’t hurt that he has the most interesting lair of all the Bond villains, his abandoned island with its shattered propaganda statues and exposed racks of server equipment.

“Mmm, yes, you’re a good little Eton boy, aren’t you? Mmm, delicious!”

Somewhat more superficially, the entire sequence from Bond entering Shanghai through to capturing Silva featured gorgeous exotic backgrounds and framing.  Lighting is a huge part of this and is done superbly in the establishing shots throughout the mega-city, the car surveillance, the shadow fight with Patrice, the casino. It’s all beautiful, menacing, and generates enormous unique character for each venue. The darkened fight with Patrice also features captivating, novel choreography. Bond and his villains have come a long way from Cold War gunfights and Greco-Roman homoerotic wrastlin’.

Stupid sniper, gorgeous scene.

One day 676 will look like this, and driving to work will be AWESOME.

If Sugarhouse Casino over on Delaware Ave looked like this, I would go all the time.

Verdict

Ultimately, Skyfall is definitely worth watching and almost a truly great movie, it’s just uneven. In some ways it excellently carries forward the project embarked upon with Casino Royale to modernize and deepen the franchise, giving depth to both the world and its characters as it explores significant themes.  It’s exactly what I’m always looking for: A serious action movie that’s also serious literature.  In other ways though it takes several steps back from that progression, in particular the franchise’s limited successes at depicting women as actual human beings, and skin-deep portrayal of Bond as invulnerable, infinitely capable superman.  I would guess some of those negative issues will fall away a bit over time in recalling this specific movie, but they set some troubling precedents for the trajectory of future Bond installments.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

PS: As last small points, all the small franchise references managed to be just quiet enough to not be annoying, and are fairly cute for a 50th anniversary movie.  However, I would have been way more excited and would have more readily overlooked some of the outlandish nature of the Skyfall estate scenes if the producers had been able to engage Sean Connery as Kincade…