Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: Brothers of the Snake

    So what do you do when you finish reading the latest Eisenhorn saga installment and need more of that Abnett-fix? You could lose yourself in all of the Gaunt's Ghost books, but that feels like it might be work at this point. No, I wanted a short fix, so I turned to the book shelf and found that I had a hardcover copy of Brothers-of-the-Snake  which I recall that I found at a used book store in Louisville KY while on a business trip. So, I flipped it open and started reading, and damn it, like most other Abnett books, I just couldn't put it down.
    Understand, that Da Masta Cheef didn't give me a good review on this book, so I was a bit reluctant to dive into it. However, seeing how Abnett treats the Adeptus Astartes in his other books, I was overwhelmingly curious to see how he would handle Space Marines from their perspective. In his other books, regardless of the perspective that Abnett tells the story, the characters, typically humans, all would view the genetically-altered giant super-humans as demigods. Fearsome, powerful, demigods.

    And that's how he starts out this book. The world of Baal Solock is in a state of emergency. This rural, extremely low-tech backwater world has a bit of Xenos problem. So they call for help. And they get it. A pod lands and a single Marine arrives. Just one. Without spoiling this for those of you who might not have read this yet, let's just say that this first chapter shows you just what a single Space Marine is capable of doing. It is a fun, well written, and a bad-ass read!

    The second and subsequent chapters then illustrate how the Space Marines of the Iron Snakes battle squads function. The focus is on squad Damocles, in particular Brother Sergeant Priad's ascent to squad leader and how he prepares the battle-brothers under his command to be ready for war. The thing that is apparent, quickly apparent, is that the Iron Snakes are not a typical 'Codex' chapter. They are very much patterned to adhere to their customs and take their rituals quite seriously. They have a water ritual that they must perform each time that they land on a new world which becomes almost amusing at one point as they barely wait for the action to stop before making sure that that ritual is completed!

    Back in '92 White Dwarf presented a series of articles in the twilight hours of Warhammer 40,000 1st edition on the Space Wolves. Here for the 1st time we were introduced to all of the Space Wolf lore, including short stories by Bill King, character background, Chapter history and lore,  that would later be collected and expanded into the 1st Codex: Space Wolves. These stories showed us the rituals, and ways of the Space Wolves, their beliefs and their customs as well as why their army is formalized in such a unique way. Reading Brothers of the Snake gave me the same thrill that I had the first time that I read those White Dwarf issues! By the time I had finished with this book, I wanted to play this army! So, in contrast and comparison to the Space Wolves, the Iron Snakes have a unique chapter world, a watery death world with giant aquatic Dune-like serpents that Iron Snake prospects test themselves by catching with unique hooking devices and harpoons. Later we see that these serpent hunting harpoons are often taken into war, and used with devastating effect against horde armies. I found it fascinating and engaging.

    As this book unfolds, it feels like you're reading a short story omnibus, with each story subtly building on the last one as you are learning more about the members of Damocles Squad and Brother Sergeant Priad. The chapters that take place back at the Iron Snakes chapter base were particularly interesting as you got a sense of their organizational politics and law (don't know if you can tell, but I'm trying really hard not to throw out any spoilers here! LOL). You also get to see some the inner tensions and rivalries that seem to afflict the Iron Snakes. Also, the rituals and trials that new recruits are put through was interesting to as well, again, reminds me of some the Space Wolf writing by Bill King, the novel Space Wolf in particular, however, in contrast due to the Iron Snakes unique ways.

    As these chapters roll onward it ultimately builds to a near chapter-wide conflict as the Damocles reserve force tries to extract the Chapter Master and primary assault force from a world overwhelmed and caught in the cross hairs of a massive Ork civil war. It is here that Adnett shows us war on an epic scale, and shows us what demigods of war are truly capable of. Allow me to present an extract of a pause during one of the battles:

    The Snakes came to a standstill, gasping and sore, flushing ichor out of their helmets' valves, clearing optic slits of blood and shreds of meat. Slowly, they realised what they had accomplished. Behind them, for a distance of about three acres, the earth was piled six or seven deep with the enemy dead, stinking slopes and mounds of carrion, gurgling as waste and fluid leaked out and turned the ground beneath to a quagmire.

    Trust me, it's more epic in context!

    Another particular favorite aspect of this book is the introduction of Autolochus, a revered venerable dreadnought. He was awesome, and it reminded me, again, of the 1st time I had read the background on Bjorn Fellhand in the Space Wolf  codex. He also had some wonderful lines and moments:

    'When a Librarian dreams,' Autolochus rumbled, 'it pays to listen. If I'd listened to Nector, I wouldn't be four tonnes of scrap metal.'

    His influence, and power due to his age and legendary status,  is taken seriously by all at this meeting of chapter leaders who were trying to decide their next course of action in a system wide conflict.

    I was quite satisfied with the ending of this book, both glad that it was a self-contained story in one tome, and yet wishing that I wasn't saying bye to these new friends, and desiring to know what happened next in the legend of Priad, Damocles Squad and the Iron Snakes.

    So, a return to my review template:

  • Did I like it? Yes! I loved it!
  • Was it hard to put down? Absolutely. I lost a lot of sleep reading this on the nights that I could find time, tearing through this hungrily.
  • Could I care about the characters? Surprisingly, yeah. Abnett is notorious for introducing  a group of characters, describing them and infusing them with character, trappings and sometimes even a bit of idiom, only to have them killed in some manner. Snuffed like colorful candles. My favorite example is his WHF pirate novel Fell Cargo (I loved this book, but man what an insane body count!) and I recall reading his early Gaunt's Ghost stories in Inferno that had named characters dying left and right. So, yeah, you go into any Black Library publication knowing that no one is safe, especially in short stories and one-off novels, but in Abnett's books in particular no one is safe! But that's part of the thrill on this ride, and the risk, as damn him, Adnett can't help but make you like his characters. So, yeah, I cared about some of these characters and shared in their loss when a warrior would fall, because it does happen. 
  • 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? In this one, yeah. Abnett's kind of got his own sub-universe set in the 40K universe, but it sticks to the established 40K cannon and spirit. If anything, I often feel that he adds and builds to the mythos. Having said that, I only wish my Space Marines were half as awesome on the table-top as they are in his writing!
  • Was I being talked down too? No, if anything Abnett is good at making the reader feel comfortable in the 40K universe without dumbing it down. Seriously, there is a short story Space Marine anthology that I have been limping through for a while now that has examples of the type of ways to not tell Space Marine stories. Seriously, I used to like the Salamanders until I tried to read their fiction... 
  • How predictable is this story? Not very. The broken apart, short-story compilation feel of the first 2/3s of the book really worked well at presenting the story in a way that you couldn't predict over-all. When it all comes together, I wouldn't call it mind-blowing, but definitely satisfying. I do hope Dan Abnett has another Iron Snakes story to tell us as some point. I would like to see them take the fight to the primuls and finish what the Orks started.
  • Do I recommend reading this book? Well, if you made it this far, I think you get that I have a positive vibe about it. Yeah. Especially good as an introduction to people new to the Warhammer 40,000 universe and Space Marines. Although this isn't an army that has it's own rulebook like that Dark Angels or Space Wolves, it is a solid examination of the character of what makes a Space Marine, how the citizens of the Imperium look upon them, and it's a damn fine read. After I finished reading it, I bought a paperback copy for a friend as a birthday present and, well, he devoured it! He loved it, and raved about how it was the best 40K fiction he has read so far (he hasn't read Eisnehorn yet). So, yes, I recommend Brothers of the Snake. Highly.


rogue.trader.voril said...

I read this as it was a brand new hardback, and I LOVED it! I really enjoyed the Librarian. Usually librarians are portrayed as dour, humorless, solitary individuals, but Petrok has a twisted dark sense of humor that I couldn't help but love. At one point makes a joke of killing some chapter surfs and sticking them in the closet... or something like that. Brilliant Abnett book. Maybe someday we'll see Forgeworld use them in a campaign.

Da Masta Cheef said...

"shows you just what a single Space Marine is capable of doing."

lol, until they land on the table top.

Nope, didn't like it, but to each his own. I loved Abnett's Double Eagle & Rob couldn't even get halfway thru it.

I do agree on the Salamanders though. The best part of their first novel (the only one I've read) was the portrayal of the Marines Malevolent. As for the Salamanders themselves? They're basically nothing but high school drama in power armor.

neverness said...

@ cheef Yeah, the short story anthology, Legends of the Space Marines, has a short story in it called 'Hell Night' written by Nick Kyme. The guy is a BL editor, so I expected good things from him. Instead we get jock-o-ramma brat-feast in power armor fighting ghosts. I was actually frustrated by this story. There are others in this book that are decent stories, but Hell Night was the lead story and is horrible. SO bad I refuse to tough the Salamander books. Shame, because I love the covers! LOL
@RTV. Petrok was great! However I was conflicted with how to pronounce his name: "Pet-Rock" or "PEE-trok"?, or "P'Trok"? LOL. Regardless, he was an awesome character.

Da Masta Cheef said...

Yeah I've read that anthology,and once again, the Salamanders were terrible to read about. Like most of GW's anthologies, its a 50/50 hit & miss. Best of hammer and bolter Vol. 1 was for the most part pretty good, once you get past the apparently requisite recycled few stories towards the beginning of it.

rogue.trader.voril said...

Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden was another one I liked. Chaplain Grimaldus is a bad motha ---, when he tells a squad of Salamanders to get the hell out of his war zone. He is asked by a Sister of Battle about his souls armor (rosarius) and he said it never did work and shrugged it off, along with enough firepower to level half of east block. Good story, good fights, and good amount of humor.

Murl said...

Yeah, I couldn't get into brotherhood at all. Just didn't click...

neverness said...

It's a shame Murl, it turns into a rather bad-ass story.