Friday, May 23, 2014

Book Review: Ravenwing (& Angels of Darkness)


I will try not to ruin any surprises with this review dissection, but there will be some things I will just be forced to talk about.
I dislike this image... 
 This review is about Gav Thorpe's Ravenwing (Book One of the Legacy of Caliban) by Black Library. It is a sequel (sorta) to his first foray into the intrigue and zeal of the Dark Angels, Angels-of-Darkness. However reading that book isn't necessarily required reading if you want to pick up Ravenwing, but it is highly encouraged. At the time of this posting Ravenwing is still readily available, whereas Angels of Darkness is a lot tougher to find. (Unless you like ebooks).

It's probably not likely that if you're reading this post that you don't know who the Dark Angels are, but just in case you don't, go over to to learn more about them. In fact, before you touch any Warhammer 40,000 novels I would recommend at least a broad skim through a wiki like that or the current core rulebook for the game. But for those of us who have been keeping up with the evolving Dark Angel lore since the late '80s, sometimes these books can get a bit annoying. Especially when a writer feels that his 'artistic license' gives them free-reign to change what has been firmly established in the Warhammer40K lore for decades.

I don't feel that Gav Thorpe is one of those writers. Gav started out as a Game Designer for the GW Design Studio and wrote a lot of the source material for the game of which BL's novels expand on or plays with. I'm not going to list his greatest hits or his greatest misses, but if you roll your eyes at the eldar term for mocking humans, "monkeigh", well that's a Gav contribution. After Gav left GW to become a writer I was a bit reluctant to pick up his works, until I stumbled upon Grudgebearer a few years back. The 1st chapter of which read like one of the more dismissive Inferno! short stories, but after that the book became more and more awesome. I think quite honestly that it has been my favorite BL novel to date, and that says a lot considering how much I enjoy the Eisenhorn and Cain novels! So, with that standard of enjoyment set high, I followed it up with Angel's of Darkness.


Reprint cover.

Angels of Darkness, I feel, has to be talked about a little bit before one talks about Ravenwing, as it does set the stage for what becomes the goals for the protagonists in it. Angels of Darkness was the story about Interrogator Chaplain Boreas. Gav wrote this book so that the chapter's alternated between a flashback of Boreas' first time having to draw a confession from a Fallen Dark Angel, Astelan, and to his current situation on Piscina IV. A chance encounter leads Boreas and his team away from their base of operations into a distraction set by the Fallen, all the while the confessions of Astelan continue to haunt and torment him, until ultimately once the Fallen's final trap is revealed, Boreas and his team are tricked into making the ultimate sacrifice for the people of Piscinia IV. -That was a very brief summary, and I hope that I did not do this brilliant and highly recommended novel an injustice with it.

Ravenwing on the other hand, I felt did a major injustice to the sacrifice of Boreas. Knowing that this was a sequel to Angels of Darkness, I felt, as I started reading this book, a great sense of "get on with it already" as I read through the first 60+ pages of what was basically War Porn. The type of stuff that makes reading Space Marine anthologies so challenging for me. Don't get me wrong, I like action, but if I'm going to have a writer choose a specific character to follow around a battlefield in a 3rd person narrative, please establish why I should give a shit about him first. As it was, and the way this book was promoted, I assumed this book was about the Ravenwing's Grandmaster, Sammael, and Corvus, his awesome jetbike, a character from the miniature game who we as readers and players might sort of know, and to some extent we do. But I wanted to follow him more, get into more of his history and background, but we just don't. I was hoping to learn more about the Ravenwing's past use of Jetbikes but no.  Instead we're following Annael, a fairly newly inducted member of the Ravenwing. And then we have Telemenus, whom we follow as well, who is not even in the Ravenwing but is in the 5th company. It felt like stalling to me as I just wanted to get on with finding out about Boreas. In retrospect, I might have really enjoyed this book if I had read Angels of Darkness after Ravenwing.

I felt the first 50-60 pages of this book could have been told in far less pages if paced better and I felt the introduction of these other two character's could have been handled better. But there is a method to what Gav was doing here: the three points of view that we follow represent the circles of secrecy that is the Dark Angel hierarchy.

 The 5th Company, your basic Dark Angel Space Marine, knows next to nothing about their chapter's past or the events that tore their legion apart in the waning days of the Horus Heresy. Yet they are called upon to follow the 2nd and 1st companies (Ravenwing and Deathwing respectively) who do know about this dark past, and support them in a battlefield role that often makes no sense to them. For example objectives are given to them that the Ravenwing doesn't seem to give a care about, and to them, the Ravenwing appear as glory-hounding frat boys with big cool toys who show up for the easy win once the 5th company has accomplished the grueling grunt work. By the end of the novel, I found the 5th company to actually be more interesting than the Ravenwing characters that this books is named after, and Telemenus (I keep wanting to call him Telemundo LOL) stands out to me as very interesting and sort of bad-ass character but not in a fan-boy over-the-top kind of way.

Then we have Annael, the new guy to the Ravenwing. Honestly I just didn't care about him much, or the Ravenwing, who, like I said, are perceived as glory-hogs and for the most part kind of come off this way accept to Annael, who just seems way too naïve even to be doing what he's doing. By the end of the book, he does get to finally shine a little but I won't spoil how. But basically, I felt that we could've ultimately dropped him from the book and focused on Telemenus's and Sammael's perspectives instead.

Sammael, the Ravenwing Grandmaster, is the 3rd major point of view that we follow, and it's his that is the most important. Along with the company psyker and Malcifer the Interrogator Chaplain, we see how Sammael's command decisions are made and determined. It is in the chapters pertaining to Sammael that this story actually moves. Seriously, I'm tempted to do an experiment by re-reading only the Sammael chapters just to see if the story reads better or not. I'm damned sure the pacing would improve! More importantly, we see what some the Ravenwing don't fully comprehend, and what no one in the 5th company comprehends, in regards to the decisions that Sammael must make in his quest to track down The Fallen.

Original cover
After the 60+ pages of war porn, the guy they capture and torture gives them a clue that takes them on to a new course to good old Piscina IV. It's here that  the 5th company are led to believe that they are there to stop a siege on Kadillus (the big capital city on Piscina IV) when really the Ravenwing are there to figure out why a distress signal is coming from their base of operations there and figure out what became of the Dark Angels that were stationed in it. After some time, they work their way in and essentially spoil the ending to Angels of Darkness in the same way that Alien3 ruined Aliens. I won't say how, as ultimately this spoiling does motivate the rest of the book as the Ravenwing take the clues gathered by Boreas' journal entries to try to chase down the Fallen that took down Boreas and his fellow Dark Angels. 

Suddenly, things get interesting, and we're led to a planet with a space station that is held by renegades of some sort, who attempt to escape. We have a chapter or two of some rather tasty space battles in a Battlefleet Gothic vein that I was quite excited to read, but it was not only too simplistic in the telling, but over far too quickly. Before we know it they're launching teams of marines into a space station full of under powered  goons who have no hope of stopping the Dark Angels. Although better written than the 1st chunk of the book, it was still slowly paced war porn that seemed to take too long to get to the goal of moving the story forward, however it was a bit more engaging, if not teasing, with it's subtle revelations. Finally we get to where the 5th company, who have their target in sight, are told by the Ravenwing to hold their position while they basicly "handle it from here" which builds quickly into a very tense scene where it looks like they are about to completely turn on each other. This scene was a big reset button on the book I thought, and really upped the tensions that Gav was slowly (and I feel maybe too subtly) building up. 

The character building I wish I had at the beginning of the book finally happens in the last 1/3 of the book, as we see the Dark Angels continue their hunt for the Fallen. I shall not spoil what happens next, only to say that they encounter the Death Guard, and the encounter is the best written fight sequence in the book, and yet, it's far too short, in particular the final battle. 

The book has a satisfying ending, leading and setting up the next book in this series, Master of Sanctity which as of the time of this writing hasn't been released yet. I'm hoping that we see some of the descendants from Ezekial's people from the Deathwing short story by William King and Bryan Ansell. -Just because. ;)

  • Did I like it? It wasn't the worst BL book (*cough -Runefang- Cough*) or story I ever read initially, but this book did eventually win me over, but it took awhile to get there.
  • Was it hard to put down? Not really. After the revelations on Piscina IV, I was so bummed by this chapter that I set the book down for awhile to read a few Ian Flemming James Bond novels, and it's saying something when I would rather read Bond's golfing shenanigans against Auric Goldfinger than pick this book back up, but eventually I did.
  • Could I care about the characters? At first no. But I started to really be impressed with Telemenus. I kind of didn't care if Annael lived or died, and Sammael almost came off as a generic Space Marine leader with a cool ride. His inner circle were a bit more interesting I thought. A lot of the secondary characters in this book were interesting however a lot of them had far too similar names (i.e. beginning with an 's' and ending with '-iel') which makes me want to write to Gav's blog with a link to the Dictionary of Angels that I bought 20 years ago as reference (for the Vampire: The Masquerade game oddly enough) to show him that there are a lot more angel name variations than just the dozen he's aware of. It was confusing sometimes, and a list of characters (Dramatis Personae) like they have for the Horus Heresy novels would have been very helpful here. Telemenus stood out, not only because he was cool, but because his name was unique and not easy to confuse with another character. Which is strange that a very unique typo occurs toward the end of the book where Telemenus is suddenly with the Ravenwing (what? huh?) and then a page and a half later at the start of the next chapter he's readying for drop pod deployment with the rest of his 5th company unit. I'm gonna blame the editors and proof readers for that one though! 
  • Did the writer truly grasp how the 'world' of the 41st millennium works in the sense that it doesn't betray or retcon previously established (as I know it) lore? Or is this the work of a hack chasing a paycheck vs. establishing his mark on the ever-expanding 40k universe? Gosh. Eek. OK, to be fair, by now Gav Thorpe is definitely, without question, an authority on both Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 lore. But this book is not his best work. it's primarily due to the stretched pacing of the chapter upon chapter of war porn, when, although action is nice to read in an action book, the plot could have used more focus as could the character development. I get the sense that if he had more time, he really could have shaped this up a bit firmer. This was released around the time of the 6th edition Dark Angels Codex and I suspect the deadline was pushed hard on him, but this is only speculation on my part...
  • Was I being talked down too? No. This was thankfully avoided, as it probably would have remained an unfinished read for me if that tone was present...
  • How predictable is this story? Ravenwing was fairly predictable. The few curve balls that we were thrown were still soft balls. I was pleasantly surprised by the space battle and the fight in the space station started off interestingly enough. It doesn't have the whammy-effect that Angels of Darkness had but the ending and last few chapters were arguably the best in the book and now I am looking forward to the next part. I just hope that the objections I had with this one aren't magnified in it's sequel. 
  • Do I recommend this book? If you like Dark Angels, yes. If you like Space Marine war porn and reading about marines tearing orcs, renegades and insurgents apart with their bolters, than you'll like this book. If you want to learn very specific things about the Ravenwing, oddly, there isn't much revealed here (other than maybe that they like to name their bikes?) If you read and loved Angels of Darkness, I urge you to tread with caution as there is a 50/50 chance you won't like how Boreas' legacy is handled. As for me, I am going to stick with this series, and I will probably read Purging of Kallidus as well. 
For more of my reviews, go here.  

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