SPSFC FINALIST REVIEW: Steel Guardian, by Cameron Coral

The time is finally upon us. The SPSFC has reached the finals, and we have a finalist review here for you today. This one is of Cameron Coral’s Steel Guardian. This book has an SPSFC rating of 7.00 out of 10. Today’s review comes to you courtesy of my fellow judge Ryan.

Lone Wolf and Cub, The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda, Block and a baby he doesn’t realize he should name. A time-honoured tradition is to take your cool protagonist and attach an infant they need to protect.

Of course, there is nothing that says ‘cool protagonist’ about Block, who is a CleanerBot. He excels in the war on grime but that’s about the extent of it. He is nonetheless a very enjoyable protagonist, an underdog not just because he’s a cleaning robot, but because he’s an old, outdated cleaning robot, and a cleaning robot who still has affection for humans. Most robots want humans killed or taken prisoner, and the feeling is mutual. Block is dealing with a variety of problems, and whether he fails or succeeds at any given task, it makes sense given his skill set—no sudden powers, no downloading kung fu.

While sheltering in an old school, Block comes across an IncubatorBot that has been infected with malware, by a human anti-robot division called Hemlock. Before it malfunctions, it gives him an infant, and then the school ends up in a crossfire between SoldierBots and Hemlock. Block escapes, but he suddenly has a baby and has no idea how to take care of it—and even if he did, resources are hard to come by.

(A minor issue: I’m not sure how old this baby is supposed to be. It had just come out of the incubator, but he’s feeding it crackers and water and ibuprofen. There’s a big difference between a newborn and a three-month old, a six-month old, a one-year old.)

Block’s immediate decision is to find it a human to take care of it. He has a test of worthiness to ascertain whether someone would make a fine parent to this baby, including asking them their favorite film, game, and earliest memory. But since humans are pretty scarce, he ends up purchasing a prisoner in the hopes that her maternal instincts will kick in.

Nova, the prisoner in question, is a great character, in that she utterly hates Block, and has no maternal instincts to speak of. She’s pretty pissed at Block’s assumption.

Their dynamic drives the rest of the book. Neither of them trusts the other, and with good cause, but they need to work together. They do a lot of traveling, and Block has heard of a land where humans and robots live in harmony. He convinces Nova to help him get there, despite their shared distrust. Her motives are unclear to him, and her answers to his worthiness test don’t point to a simple sense of ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy.’

His test brings back a lot of his own memories, as his time with humans was largely spent with the hotel manager where he worked. They’d watch movies and play chess. But there’s one memory deep within, this awful guilt that weighs on him. I’ve seen that kind of situation play out before—either he’s forced into an impossible choice, or he’s not quite capable of saving someone, and that guilt still resides. But the actual revelation was much smaller, and all the starker and more brilliant for that.

What should be Block’s greatest liabilities are, in a lot of ways, his greatest assets. The fact that he’s a CleanerBot means that humans are less likely to destroy him just in case—he’s no threat. Had he seemed more threatening, the story would have ended much worse. And as an old model he seems no threat to the robots either. He leverages his weakness into giving him a chance to use diplomacy, and though it’s outside of his realm of expertise, it seems their best hope.

I really enjoyed Steel Guardian. It was a great fun romp with some twists on old tropes.

There And Back Again: Looking Back at the Star Trek Voyager Relaunch

Voyager holds a unique place in the Star Trek canon. It is the only show that started with a goal – to bring the ship home to the Alpha Quadrant. (In theory, Deep Space Nine also had a set goal of bringing Bajor into the Federation, but this was largely forgotten as the show went along.) Though Voyager took a long and winding route with a fair bit of unrelated sightseeing along the way, the two-part finale ‘Endgame’ wrapped up the voyage rather conclusively, with a final shot of Voyager approaching Earth. And that was that. The end of the road. For all of two years.

Enter the Litverse. In 2003, Voyager returned with new stories set after the events of ‘Endgame,’ written by established Trek author Christie Golden. Homecoming and The Farther Shore saw the crew dealing with the immediate aftermath of their journey. Meeting old friends and family, dealing with a post-Dominion War Federation, and fighting off a Borg virus on top of things. The duology was followed by another pair of books just a year later. The Spirit Walk series saw Chakotay take command of Voyager, leading a new crew on missions through the Alpha Quadrant. These four books saw the sundering of the Voyager crew. Neelix had obviously been left in the Delta Quadrant, but Janeway was now behind the desk as the Admiral we glimpsed in Star Trek: Nemesis. Tuvok took up a teaching position at the Academy, while Seven and the Doctor joined a think tank. Tom and B’Elanna took a leave of absence to investigate the possibility of their child being the Klingon Messiah. It was left to Chakotay and Harry Kim to carry the Voyager flag, a task which they performed admirably. This early phase of the relaunch slotted the characters into existing Alpha Quadrant politics, making good use of the crew’s mixed-Maquis background. But with the characters so spread out, and lacking the singular mission statement of the show, it was quite a detour from Voyager as we knew it.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure of (though one has to imagine sales figures factor in somehow), these four books were all we got of Voyager for a long while. While the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine relaunches continued, Voyager was abandoned. However, the characters lived on in the shared Litverse. Tuvok became one of the main characters in the Titan series. Seven appeared or was referenced in numerous Borg-related stories, most notably David Mack’s Destiny trilogy. Most significantly of all, in the Next Generation relaunch novel Before Dishonor (which I will hopefully soon obtain a copy of) Admiral Janeway was killed off, the first major character to suffer such a fate in the Litverse. When David Mack kickstarted a new era of the Litverse with Destiny, he made reference to many Voyager adventures, and sowed the seeds for many more.

2009. One year after Destiny‘s release. The Voyager is itself relaunched. Christie Golden is no longer at the writer’s desk, but in her place we have Kirsten Beyer, who will be here until the end of the Litverse (and beyond, as she now works on the new range of Trek TV shows). It’s fitting that, even in Janeway’s absence, Voyager‘s missions were directed by a woman. The first of Beyer’s novels, Full Circle is a weighty tome with the unenviable task of fulfilling the promises set up in Spirit Walk while also chronicling the events of three years that have passed between books. As such, it’s a slightly messy, flashback-laden book that largely revolves around the trauma of Janeway’s death and the subsequent Borg invasion. This carries through into Unworthy, but this is also where Beyer truly makes her mark known. The scattered crew are pulled back together. Chakotay is in command, with Paris as his XO. Tuvok and Janeway remain absent, but the Doctor now has a holographic crew of his own, and Torres is once again Chief Engineer. Tasked with returning to the Delta Quadrant for proper exploration, the gang is finally back together. This leads into my favourite book of the relaunch, Children of the Storm, which is a proper strange-alien-of-the-week story. After a series of stumbles, Voyager was finally back on its feet.

But then came The Eternal Tide. When you see a dead character on the cover of a book, you know something significant is about to happen. Sure enough, Kathryn Janeway comes back from the dead (with a little help from Q) and over the course of this and Protectors, is soon back in command of Voyager. While I understand that Janeway’s resurrection was largely a popular move, for me it remains the wrong one. Over the past three novels, we’d seen the crew come to terms with their loss, and to forge new relations. All of that work was now undone, and it revealed something very important about the way Beyer approached the series. All of this occurred at a time when the Alpha Quadrant was becoming increasingly political. The Typhon Pact was coming into being, and every other book would feature politics and military action rather than science and exploration. Voyager, isolated once again on the far side of the galaxy, had a unique opportunity to get back to basics. But Beyer, while she writes enticing scientific mysteries, is more interested in the relations between members of crew. Of particular note, she finally made canon the romance between Janeway and Chakotay, but this is far from an isolated example. Even Harry Kim got a love interest. Seemingly the only character Beyer was not interested in developing further was poor Neelix, who is relegated to the odd guest appearance.

Acts of Contrition, Atonement, and A Pocket Full of Lies all promised consequences from Voyager‘s earlier seven-year jaunt. In these books, we meet an alliance of familiar antagonistic species. This is a great idea, but is soon revealed to have a more immediate cause in the form of a rogue hologram from Voyager‘s current mission. Furthermore, Janeway plays a central role in each book. Yes, all of the stories are well written and engaging, but it’s a shame that we don’t get to see other characters take the lead more often. B’Elanna perhaps, or novel-original counsellor Hugh Cambridge. Architects of Infinity proved the strongest of this run of novels, delving into the Krenim of ‘Year of Hell’ fame. Though as with any time-travel story, paradoxes abound.

After a length delay, and in the full knowledge that the Litverse was coming to an end, Beyer ended Voyager‘s relaunch with To Lose the Earth. This final novel was a swansong not only for the series, but for Harry Kim in particular. Having been so often underused since 1995, in 2020 Harry Kim finally had his day in the sun. To Lose the Earth is a phenomenal novel that manages to wrap up every character arc in more or less a satisfactory manner. The wedding of Janeway and Chakotay is a fitting tribute to the ‘shippers’ who kept the fandom alive for so long (much as it irks my sense of propriety), while Harry finds out that not everyone has the same idea of a happy ending. With the show having ended on that iconic shot of Voyager and Earth, it’s fitting that the relaunch ends with Voyager heading out into the known, further than any have been before.

The Voyager relaunch benefited greatly from having so few hands at the controls, and while Golden and Beyer have very different styles, together they have woven a fitting continuation of the show. While I don’t agree with every decision made, there is a lot more consistency here than in other parts of the Litverse. Particularly in Beyer’s run, Voyager maintained a sense of identity that the crossover series could never manage. And if you’ve read the whole relaunch and still want more Voyager, perhaps its a good thing that so many characters found their way into the Litverse at large.

SPSFC FINALIST REVIEW: Monster in the Dark, by K. T. Belt

The time is finally upon us. The SPSFC has reached the finals, and we have a finalist review here for you today. This one is of K T Belt’s Monster in the Dark. This book has an SPSFC rating of 4.75 out of 10. Today’s review comes to you courtesy of my fellow judge Ryan.

Carmen is just a little girl when she’s taken away from her family on her sixth birthday. There are hints from the get-go that things aren’t quite right, a sense of fear not just for their child, but fear of their child. The parents are passive about the whole scenario, sad but not willing to do anything to try to stop it. It’s made explicit that there’s no place they could hide or escape to in order to keep their daughter, but they don’t really try, either.

Carmen is a clairvoyant, and as such, she has to be trained by handlers in a specialized facility. She’s stripped of her name and called 111724 for the first part of the book. It’s pretty clear (and even spelled out in an early villainous monologue) that the goal is to forge them into something stronger and more useful, no matter what it takes.

When she finally gets a name at the facility, it’s Edge. Luckily, despite all the attempts of her handlers she always views herself as Carmen in her internal monologue or with people outside the facility.

She’s sent into battle repeatedly against Constructs, and manipulated by her handler. We watch her age from six year old to a young adult, and deal with a violent bully at the facility named Artemis.

There are references to spaceships and of course the protagonist is a clairvoyant, telekinetic and telepathic, but the book has little else in the way of science fiction tropes. The settings we see don’t contain much in the way of neat tech gizmos or big ideas. The book is very focused around the facility and the people in there, without much description of what this future looks like to people outside the facility.

The book reads very quickly. The book is part of a series, but I kept expecting either Carmen to fully rebel against the facility or end up working for it in a serialized manner, going on adventures and being led by the handler, and really, neither ended up happening. What we get is a bit more low-key, and maybe a bit more true to life than those action-hero plot-lines.

SPSFC At Boundary’s Edge: Finalist Gut Reactions 5-7

These are my personal initial impressions of the SPSFC Finalists. These reactions are not necessarily indicative of the team’s overall rating, and are subject to change as I take a deeper look at each book. Full reviews and final team ratings will be posted once every judge has had the opportunity to read and discuss the book. As always, readers are encouraged to read the books themselves and make up their own minds.

Captain Wu, by Patrice Fitzgerald & Jack Lyster

6.5/10

One of few books in this years competition with more than one author, Captain Wu is a proper space opera romp. It’s loud and flashy, with all the tropes of the genre that you’d expect. While it’s not terribly original, it is a whole lot of fun. The characters are refreshingly diverse, with the titular Wu being a sexagenarian woman of Asian descent. She doesn’t come across as feeling that old, but I know there are readers out there who will appreciate the representation.

In The Orbit of Sirens, by T. A. Bruno

7/10

Probably the most confidently written book I’ve read in the competition, this is also one of the most professionally presented. tell me this was traditionally published, and I’d have no doubts about it. It’s another space opera, which makes it a good fit for me, with great aliens and surprisingly alien worlds. The structure does knock it down a lot for me, with a lot of flashbacks and alternating timelines. Even so, it’s one of my favourites.

Monster in the Dark, by K. T. Belt

3/10

If you want relentlessly bleak coming of age stories, then this is the book for you. The protagonist’s life is essentially one long torture scene. As someone who doesn’t like nihilism or child protagonists very much, it was a struggle for me to remain interested in this one. Heavily dystopian, this was just a very bad fit for me on all accounts.

And there we have it. All my gut reactions are now public, and our judging team has completed scoring every finalist. I’m compiling scores and finalising reviews as you read this, so the full team reviews will be with you very shortly.

BOOK REVIEW: Enemy of My Enemy, by Christie Golden

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Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Spirit Walk (#2)
  • Part of the Litverse
  • Focuses on the Voyager crew
  • Published by Pocket Books in 2004
  • A Space Opera
  • 292 pages

Captain Chakotay has been abducted by the mad scientist Crell Moset. In his place, in command of Voyager, sits a Changeling with an agenda of their own. Only a few suspect the depths of the deception, and even they may not be able to prevent his plans coming to fruition . . .

This was an odd book to read, for reasons completely beyond its own control. The Voyager relaunch was the first Litverse series I tackled, when I read Children of the Storm and The Eternal Tide about a decade ago. Back then a lot of the context eluded me (not least the death of Janeway), and I drifted away from Star Trek books for a long time. It was only in 2020 that I revisited the start of that story arc with Full Circle, and from there read through to the very last Litverse Voyager novel, To Lose the Earth. That, I thought, would be the complete story. But then I decided to take a step back. There were four Voyager novels set between ‘Endgame’ and Full Circle, all written by Christie Golden. They didn’t quite seem to gain the same plaudits as the Beyer novels, but I’m a completionism at heart, and wanted to read them all the same. And so it is that my final post-‘Endgame’ piece of reading is not really a climax, but the middle of a story. More than that, it’s the middle of a story that was picked up by another author, which makes from from very strange reading.

The best part of Old Wounds was seeing Chakotay take command of Voyager. Somewhat disappointingly, there’s little of that on display here. Chakotay is a prisoner, and spends much of the novel’s final act on a ‘spirit walk,’ which is where Golden again shows both more care for Native traditions than the show managed, while also pushing the spiritual element further than I enjoy in Star Trek. But before we get there, we get some truly excellent scenes of Chakotay and his Cardassian captor in conversation. Chakotay was always a calm and reassuring presence on the bridge, and that is amplified here as he takes a more diplomatic approach to a Cardassian than you might expect from a former Maquis. The anger is still there, yes, but now it is tempered by wisdom and experience.

Back on the ship, the stars of the show are Harry Kim and Litverse original Doctor Kaz. The only two aware of the Changeling’s impersonation, they get to engage in some traditional cat-and-mouse adventures, each side trying to outwit the other. Coupled with the political intrigue faced by Janeway and Paris, this makes for a suitably space operatic end to the series. Running behind all the action and subterfuge, there is also a broader plot. In the aftermath of the Dominion War, some planets are seeking to leave the Federation. Then there is the ongoing kuvah’magh prophecy being investigated by Torres. There is a lot packed into this book, which makes the long hiatus between Enemy of My Enemy and Full Circle, and the change in author, all the more unfortunate.

Though it marks the end of my journey through the Voyager relaunch, Enemy of My Enemy feels more like the two-part premiere of a series than a rousing finale. Much of that is an artefact of the manner in which I have read the books, but it is still a lot of setup for events that do not come to pass as advertised.

I’ll be back soon with an overview of the entire Voyager relaunch but until then, here’s to the journey.

BOOK REVIEW: Old Wounds, by Christie Golden

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Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Spirit Walk (#1)
  • Part of the Litverse
  • Focuses on the Voyager crew
  • Published by Pocket Books in 2004
  • A Space Opera
  • 273 pages

Under the command of newly-minted Captain Chakotay, Voyager returns to action. Their first mission is to relocate a group of colonists. But will Chakotay allow his Maquis past to influence his leadership, or will his first command be cut short by betrayal from within . . .

After an opening duology set on Earth, Spirit Walk is where Voyager lives up to its name. But aside from the fact that it’s got interplanetary travel, it’s all change for the ship and its crew. Janeway is now a deskbound Admiral. Tuvok is now a lecturer at Starfleet Academy Tom and B’Elanna are on the Klingon world of Boreth. The Doctor and Seven work in a think tank. Neelix is mentioned only in passing. All of this leaves Captain Chakotay and Lieutenant Kim (now head of security) as the only main characters from the show still serving on the titular starship. Given how these two characters were often underserved in the show, it’s no surprise that the best parts of the story are the parts that focus on them. Captain Chakotay in particular is at the most interesting his character has ever been, and it’s a shame we never got more of it.

Part of what makes Old Wounds work is how it mines the Maquis element of Voyager. The split between Maquis and Starfleet was a big part of the show’s build-up, but it essentially disappeared after the first season. In the end, it was Deep Space Nine that did the most with the idea. So perhaps it’s not that surprising to learn that this book feels more like a successor to Deep Space Nine than Voyager. We have Crell Moset, seen in hologram form in Voyager, but in the flesh here. A Cardassian scientist, his story brings back the worst excesses of the Bajoran occupation. Then there’s the continuation of the demilitarised zone, and the civilians trapped there. In the opening scenes, we get a cameo from Picard and Riker, but it really wouldn’t be out of place to see Sisko and Kira take their place. If Old Wounds does anything right, it’s tying the three 24th century shows together in a way that is completely natural.

One part that doesn’t work so well for me is the way Golden treats the more spiritual aspects of the story. Chakotay’s muddled heritage is the legacy of an advisor who turned out to be a con artist (behind the scenes of Voyager is a wild place), and so any story that tries to make sense of this will run into some problems. I’m no expert, but for what it’s worth, Golden appears to have done her research. I’m just not sure treating mystical entities as definably real is the right way to go. And that goes twofold for the Paris-Torres couple and their Klingon Messiah daughter. Klingons are far from my favourite part of the Star Trek canon, and the kuvah’magh was a better idea when it was the obsession of a handful of fanatics, than when it is demonstrable accurate prophecy.

That’s a minor quibble however, and Old Wounds far exceeds the handful of chapters we spend on Boreth. The Spirit Walk duology may split the characters to the four corners of the Federation, but when we’re on Voyager, it’s a great story.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Full Circle, by Kirsten Beyer
Mars, by Ben Bova
Homecoming, by Christie Golden

BOOK REVIEW: Blood Rite, by Rachel Harrison

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Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novella
  • Focuses on the Blood Angels
  • Published by Black Library in 2019
  • A Grimdark war story
  • 152 pages

The Blood Angels. Masterful warriors, and heroes of the Imperium. But these legendary soldiers are beset by an enemy they cannot overcome. A darkness within their own blood, passed down through generations, and rearing its head at every bloody opportunity . . .

Novellas are a great way of exploring a character, an event, or an idea, all without needing to pad it out with unnecessary details. It’s a format science friction the genre of ideas – is uniquely suited for. Despite this, there are few publishers (and indeed authors) who regularly put out shorter works of fiction. Anthologies, yes. But rarely novellas. Tor.com have a strong novella line, and Solaris are getting in on the action too. But most of the novellas I read these days are from Black Library. These novellas are usually little slices of the larger universe, but sometimes they really standout. Blood Rite isn’t one of those standouts, but it’s still a fun little story. If your definition of fun includes bloodshed, murder cults, and gore. Which, if you’re reading Warhammer 40,000 fiction, it probably does.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll probably know that I’ve sworn off Space Marine content. Multiple times. Every time I finish a Space Marine novel, I tell myself it’ll be the last one. But every time I go to a Warhammer store, I end up with a chunky, ceramite-clad supersoldier staring at me from the book covers in my shopping bag. What can I say? I’m a weak man.

Blood Rite doesn’t break any boundaries. If you know what a Blood Angel is, then you’ll know what to expect from this book. If you don’t, then here’s a summary. Blood Angels are a breed of Space Marine who are cursed with space vampirism. Yes, it’s odd. Welcome to Warhammer 40,000. In Blood Rite, as with most Blood Angel tales, that curse in their bloodline comes to the forefront. In particular, it’s brought into contrast with that other blood related Warhammer phrase ‘Blood for the Blood God.’ Being a primarily action-driven novella, the story doesn’t go terribly deep into the similarities between Space Marines and traitorous heretics. Nevertheless, it raises the bar for future novellas.

Blood Rite isn’t an especially memorable story, but it is an entertaining one. And with a price as low as its page count, it’s hard to find anything to complain about. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m swearing off Space Marine stories. Again.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Honourbound, by Rachel Harrison
Mark of Faith, by Rachel Harrison
The Complete Rafen Omnibus, by James Swallow

BOOK REVIEW: Eyes of the Void, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • The Final Architecture (#2)
  • Published by Tor Books
  • First published in 2022
  • A grand Space Opera
  • 576 pages

The Architects have returned, but only Idris knows the terrifying truth. That something is controlling them. His quest for answers leads him deep into alien space. But even Idris cannot escape humanity. Nor the war that is about to come . . .

There is no such thing as an objective review. Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar. Even something as seemingly objective as grammar really boils down to personal taste. One reader’s ground-breaking structure is another’s awful mess. Further complicating the issue is the fact that reading does not occur in a vacuum. No two readers approach a book in the same circumstances. What one sees as charming, another sees as cloying and sentimental. When you review a book, you have to account for personal taste. I don’t ascribe to the philosophy of mood reading, but if I have a headache, of course books become harder to follow. Then there are more general points. Tropes I dislike. Narrative techniques that annoy me. No one is immune to these foibles, and they crop up whenever you least expect them. All of this preamble goes some way to accounting for my reaction to Eyes of the Void. Because while Tchaikovsky is one of my favourite authors, and I very much enjoyed the previous book in the trilogy, Eyes of the Void did very little for me. And I don’t know exactly why that’s the case.

Eyes of the Void continues the work set out by Shards of Earth. A scrappy crew try and stay one step ahead of their enemies while also uncovering a threat to galactic stability. The formula is a good one, proven many times over. And maybe that’s the issue. Tchaikovsky is one of the most inventive science fiction authors out there. But this is much more of a traditional space opera than his other work. All the ideas are executed very well, but a lot of them are ones I’ve seen before. Novelty isn’t the only thing that draws me to a book, but it does help. There are snatches of brilliance here. The Essiel remain a great species to investigate, and we do get more of them in this book, and the genetic engineering angle is a lot more balanced than a lot of contemporary writers.

Stories about ships and their crews require an interesting crew to work, and while Shards of Earth was largely told from two perspectives, in this sequel everyone gets in on the narrative game. Maybe there are too many viewpoints, actually. They’re clearly marked out so there’s no inter-paragraph head hopping, but there are still a lot of voices competing for attention. Having so many viewpoints in the same narrative role (that of Idris’ crew) brings the first half of the book to a crawl. Things do become much more interesting in the second half, as Tchaikovsky breaks out the big science fiction concepts for which he is known, but getting there is tough going if you’re not invested in the ragtag heroes.

Eyes of the Void is not a weak enough novel to make me drop the series, and I fully intend to read each Tchaikovsky novel and novella as they are released. But it is a rather disappointing wobble in a series that started off so strongly.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also enjoy:
Creation Engine, by Andrew Bannister
Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell
The Stars Now Unclaimed, by Drew Williams

AUDIO REVIEW: Terminal Overkill, by Justin D Hill

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Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • Narrated by Emma Noakes
  • A Standalone Novel
  • Focuses on Necromunda
  • Published by Black Library in 2019
  • A Grimdark Coming-of-Age
  • 9hrs 5mins

When her mother is murdered during a brutal gang war, young Brielle finds herself lost in the Underhive. But if there’s one thing her mother taught her, it’s how to survive. And if there’s one thing Brielle wants, it’s revenge . . .

Up until a few years ago, Black Library put out an impressive range of audio dramas. With a full cast and sound effects, they were a unique format that really put the listener into the heart of the action. they were also my only foray into the audio format. Those audio dramas appear to have been discontinued, which is a real shame, but Black Library are still releasing more traditional audiobooks. Having been pulled back into Star Wars by the audio format, I decided to take a punt with a more grimdark offering. And where better to start than with one of only two novels I am yet to read by one of my favourite Black Library authors?

The good news is that Justin D Hill brings the same overwhelming sense of tragedy to the corridors of Necromunda as he does to the battlefields of Cadia. More than any other corner of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Necromunda drives home what it is to be an average citizen in the grim dark future. Here is a city of unimaginable depth and population, where fighting between gangs and noble houses are constant, and inseparable. Now, this is a microcosm of the larger Warhammer setting in more than one way. On the one hand, it is the dark fate that could befall any planet left to rot by imperial excesses. On the other, it has small scale warfare because the game it simulates is more squad-based than the massed battles of Warhammer 40,000 in general. Either way, it’s fertile breeding ground for conflict. And conflict drives many of the best stories.

In spite of all this setup – the opening act spends some time introducing various characters and factions – Brielle’s journey through the Underhive is largely a solitary one. Most of the novel is a travelogue of sorts. Each act chronicling her arrival in a new region of the great city. Of course, each one has its own threats and enemies. This gives the book a curiously episodic feel. Brielle’s first contact with the Underhive, and a man named Dahong, is possibly some of the most stomach-churningly depressing materiel ever put to Black Library paper. It’s a rough section for both Brielle and the listener, but it’s an interesting choice to have the protagonist’s lowest ebb come about so early in the story. From here, Brielle becomes more active, seeking out Goliaths, spider cultists, and of course, the man who killed her mother.

I’m a traditionalist whop prefers old fashioned print to audio, so when I listen to an audiobook, I want something I can’t get from ink on a page. Terminal Overkill is a purely narrative audiobook, with no sound effects of music, both of which I admit I was hoping for. But there are parts of the text that work better in audio than on paper. Moments where Brielle addresses the listener directly. ‘Look here. This is where I was wounded.‘ Bringing the listener into the story is a great way of making audiobooks more engaging.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the narrator herself. Any audiobook is made or broken by the narrator. This is even more true in first-person narratives. Put simply, Emma Noakes is a great performer, bringing Brielle to life in a way no voice in my head ever could. The various creatures and characters of Necromunda each have their own twisted voice too, but it’s Brielle’s that carries you through it all. As I listened, I was surprised by how much time the book covers, but Noakes is equally at home with the broken and jaded Brielle of the later acts as she is with the infant seen in flashbacks.

I still have reservations about the audiobook form (the lack of control over the pacing is foremost among them), but Terminal Overkill is a strong slice of darkness from a city on the edge of chaos.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also like:
Road to Redemption, by Mike Brooks
The Bookkeeper’s Skull, by Justin D Hill
Cage of Souls, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

BOOK REVIEW: The Triumph of Saint Katherine, by Danie Ware

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Rating: 4 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • Focuses on the Sisters of Battle
  • Published by Black Library in 2022
  • A Grimdark war story
  • 181 pages

In a galaxy aflame with war, faith is more powerful than any weapon. The blessed Saint Katherine knew this, but now she is fallen. Yet through the power of faith, Katherine may be reborn. And through faith, the day may yet be won . . .

Danie Ware has quickly made a name for herself among Black Library readers as the rising star of the Sisters of Battle. Her stories of Sister Augusta are told across numerous novellas and short stories (soon to be gathered in on omnibus), and they are a great example of Warhammer 40,000’s unique blend of hopelessly endless war and stunning acts of faith. The Triumph of Saint Katherine is Ware’s first novel-length offering for Black Library, and while it does not feature Augusta, it continues the work commenced with those stories. Because in the grim, dark future, everyone needs to keep the faith.

On a structural level, I adore this book. It’s one of Black Library’s short novels, about twice the length of their novellas, but it packs in a lot more than you might expect. In under two hundred pages we are witness to half a dozen battlefields and acts of heroism by the titular Saint. How is this achieved? I hear you ask. Well, it’s all thanks to one of my favourite narrative conceits. The framing narrative. In the present, we see a young Sister of Battle discover she may be the new incarnation of Saint Katherine. In all honesty, I don’t fully understand the rebirth angle going on here, but then neither does she. In order to have her faith affirmed, she takes part in a ceremony that sees six Sisters (herself included) recount tales of Katherine’s heroic deeds.

That’s right. We’re telling stories around the campfire. It’s a technique that Ware uses well, creating an in-universe anthology of stories that may be entirely or only partially true, depending on one’s perspective. Each one offers some insight into Katherine’s life (and death), while also exploring the role of the Adepta Sororitas within the larger Imperium. It’s the uncertainty of their veracity that really adds to the appeal of this spoken-word hagiography. Because what really matters isn’t the exact reality of the stories. It’s the belief they inspire that gives them their power.

As with several other recent releases, The triumph of Saint Katherine dives into the power of religion in a universe that has gods both real and less-provably-tangible. It’s great to see this level of detail, especially when it is done in such a way as to maintain many of the mysteries of the setting. For a world that has its roots in a game with hard and fast rules, it’s thankfully refreshing to see Warhammer 40,000 keeping the cosmic powers more nebulous. The God-Emperor may not have combat stats, but his daughters do. This isn’t a book about that specifically, but it is about how that intangible power is transformed into something rather more direct. Faith in a higher power has always driven humanity to great and terrible things, and the Sisters of Battle are no different.

Overall, this is another strong entry in Ware’s canon of Black Library offerings, and I look forward to seeing what comes next. After all, it’s about time the Sisters of Battle had a proper-length series.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also enjoy:
Ephrael Stern: The Heretic Saint, by David Annandale
Mark of Faith, by Rachel Harrison
Sisters of Battle, by James Swallow