BOOK REVIEW: Field of Dishonor, by David Weber

-Spoilers abound for previous books in the Honorverse. Click here for a full index of reviews-

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Publisher: Baen

Series: Honor Harrington (#4)

Genre: Space Opera/Military SF

Pages: 373

Publication Date: 1994

Verdict: 5/5

War is coming to Manticore, but that is no reason for the politicians to set aside their own squabbles. Not for the first time, Honor Harrington finds herself drawn in to the scheming against her will. But this time, she may just have been pushed too far…

Field of Dishonor picks up right where The Short Victorious War left off. Honor is returning home in triumph, and the scheming, skeevy and all round sinister Pavel Young is awaiting court martial for his latest act of cowardice. But while he has no friends in the navy, Young  has enough political influence to escape a death sentence. Seething from the dishonour brought on his name, he sets in motion a ruthless plan to destroy Honor and all she holds dear.

In this fourth instalment of the Honor Harrington series, Weber takes a step back from the battlefield to look at the civilian side of life. While the People’s Republic of Haven have started a conflict with Manticore, the Star Kingdom is yet to formally declare war on their aggressive neighbour. The political shenanigans surrounding the signing of this declaration form the bulk of the novel, and Honor herself is almost relegated to side character status for the first half.

It’s a bold move, sidelining your title character like this, but it pays off. Weber shows us a variety of viewpoints, both villainous and heroic, with a few in between as well. The Honorverse is, somewhat surprisingly, a place of binary morality. There is Good, and there is Evil. Pavel Young is a prime example of the latter, an utter villain with no redeeming qualities. This early on in the series, it works, but I for one would like to see a little more complexity come in to play as the universe develops.

When a tragedy of the spoiler variety strikes, Honor returns to the forefront. A lot has been made of Honor’s ruthless pragmatism, but here we see a side of her that has seldom been on display.  Aside from her ‘rescue’ of female prisoners at Grayson in The Honor of the Queen, this is the first real show of her infamous cold rage. It’s chilling to read, and opens up a whole new layer to the character.

The one thing that dis annoy me a little, was that everyone seems very much on Honor’s side, except for the aforementioned villains. Even when they oppose her, they do so halfheartedly, as if she’s some untouchable paragon. This time around, Weber gets away with it, but a little conflict between heroes wouldn’t go amiss down the road.

But that is a minor complaint in what is otherwise a great book. The glimpses we get of everyday life in Manticore are welcome, as is the closer examination of the complex political situation. Four books in and I finally feel I’m getting a grip on the competing factions. Coming from a nation which actually has a House of Lords and a House of Commons, I wonder if I’m at an advantage over Weber’s American readers. If the complexity here can be replicated elsewhere, then I’ll be a happy reader for some time yet.

Lack of battles aside, Field of Dishonor will certainly meet your expectations of an Honor Harrington, and may even exceed them.

BOOK REVIEW: Emily Eternal, by M.G. Wheaton

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Publisher: Hodder

Genre: Tomorrow Fiction/Apocalyptic

Pages: 292

Publication Date: 24/04/2019

Verdict: 4/5

The world is going to end. And while Emily can’t stop the sun killing us all, she can make these last few years a little more comfortable.

I’m generally a bit wary of books claiming to investigate what it means to be human. By all means have these themes running through your work, but if that’s the main selling point, it suggests to me that the book in question isn’t going to be very, well, fun. Happily, Emily Eternal manages to be both introspective and a rollicking adventure.

The titular Emily is an artificial consciousness (very particular about not being an Artificial Intelligence), working as a therapist in a university lab. Her main role is to help people come to terms with the impending death of the entire planet, and to be fair she’s pretty good at it. On the side, she’s also helping her creator come up with plans to ensure that something of the human race survives. I’m a big fan of stories about the legacies of civilisation, so this immediately had me hooked.

Around a third of the way through, things are kicked up a gear when the lab is attacked. This isn’t a spoiler, because the event is detailed on the blurb, but there is a lot of ground covered beforehand. With her main servers destroyed, Emily is forced to go on the run with student Jason and lawman Mayra. From there on it’s a race against time, evading sinister organisations, as Emily and her human friends try to fulfil her creator’s plans.

Emily is a fascinating character. Existing only as data, she can be seen by anyone wearing a special computer chip. For this reason, she mimics a human life, and presents as a human entity much of the time. These chips allow more than just sight, however. She can gather data from them, speak to the wearer and, most impressive, take control of the wearer’s body. This last is important, because it is the only way she can physically interact with the world. This ability leads to some fight scenes, as you’d expect, genetic manipulation, which you might not, and some truly bizarre sex scenes, which I definitely did not see coming.

The world itself is bleak, which you’d expect from a dying planet. Law and order are breaking down, the economy has already broken, and its an every man for himself wilderness out there. Thankfully, Wheaton avoids relating any of this dystopianism to current politics, which really would have distracted from the narrative. But in this dark world, Emily stands as a symbol of hope. Because in the end, hope is all that keeps people going.

Optimistic, emotionally charged, and full of action and ideas in equal measure, Emily Eternal is well worth your time.

BOOK REVIEW: Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell

 

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Publisher: Titan

Series: Embers of War (#1)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 408

Publication Date: 2018

Verdict: 4/5

The war is over, but for the crew of Trouble Dog, and the ship herself, the struggle continues. Because without war, what good is a soldier?

Iain M. Banks is a towering figure in SF, respected, praised and generally loved. But when I see his name in a blurb, when an author is compared to him, it generally turns me off the book in question. There’s just something about his subgenre of space opera that rubs me the wrong way. The post-scarcity, transhuman, AI ships who are human in all but shape worldbulding just doesn’t do it for me. Embers of War uses many of the same tropes and storytelling tics as Banks, but to much better effect. This isn’t reminiscent of Banks, it’s an improvement on him.

Embers of War follows the intelligent warship Trouble Dog, now working for the House of Reclamation, an order of scavengers and good Samaritans who travel the Galaxy doing good deeds. But Trouble Dog is also haunted by the massacres she perpetrated during the war, trying to atone for them by helping others. In this, she is similar to her crew, almost all of whom are former soldiers from the sae war, though not necessarily from the same side of the conflict. The crew are rivals as much as friends, and there’s a real Killjoys vibe running through the book, which is never a bad thing.

In fact, for a book largely about trauma and the lasting damage caused by war, Embers of War is surprisingly hopeful. The characters aren’t afraid to crack a joke, even in dire circumstances. But it doesn’t cross the line into outright comedy either. The characters take themselves seriously, just as real people do. And while the worldbuilding is fairly standard, the characters are, generally speaking, a lot of fun to hang around with. They’re interesting, diverse, and complex. Everything you could hope for in a fictional character.

With regards to the worldbuilding, there isn’t a whole lot to say. Much of it is painted in broad strokes. There are several political entities, made up by the members of various human groups and alien races. The aliens never feel truly alien, but then we don’t see all that much of them. Nod, the only alien in the main cast, is at least noticeably not a human, and Powell avoids the Star Trek problem of aliens being humans in funny suits with bumpy foreheads. But the worldbuilding never feels particularly deep. There’s a lot on the surface, but very little deeper down. Aside from the one mystery that drives the plot, there’s no real sense of history.

That’s a minor concern though. As the first of a trilogy, Embers of War does a stellar job of setting the scene and introducing its main cast. There’s scope for growth, and that’s probably better than being bogged down in details so early on. It probably won’t take you long to read, but you’ll definitely want more afterwards. It’s addictive, popcorn SF, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, a little lighthearted fun is exactly what you need from a book.

Overall, a promising start to a new trilogy, and a story that will soon be completed.

BOOK REVIEW: Rites of Passage, by Mike Brooks

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Publisher: Black Library

Genre: Space Opera/Grimdark

Pages: 266

Publication Date: 07/09/2019

Verdict: 5/5

Her husband dead (by her own command) Chettamandey Brobantis faces an uphill battle to emerge as the new leader of her Navigator House. And when planets start disappearing, things only get more complicated . . .

Mike Brooks’ debut Warhammer 40,000 novel is a brilliant weaving of grimdark cultists and family politics. The inner workings of the mysterious Navigators is a realm seldom explored in the military-focused offerings from Black Library. And while it is generally the military side of things that draws me in, Rites of Passage is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.

By writing about a region so seldom explored, Brooks is able to tread new ground. An impressive feat for a setting with two decades of fiction to its name. It’s also fairly self-contained. There are references to events in the wider Imperium, and a prequel short story can be found in the recent Underhive anthology, but none of that is required reading. Even if you are absolutely new to Warhammer or the Black library, you could pick this off the shelf and dive right in. Could, and definitely should.

But just because it is a standalone, doesn’t mean the stakes are any smaller. It’s no mean feat to remove a planet from existence, even in the fantastical 40,000 setting. So when it becomes clear that Chetta’s own homeworld may be next, the pressure is on. For such a short book, there are a lot of plot threads operating simultaneously. The war for inheritance and the threat to the Navigator’s planet are just the major ones. There are countless interpersonal conflicts being thrown around too, but none of them ever feel inconsequential. This, more than any other Warhammer novel I’ve read recently, thrives on the relationships between its protagonists. And its antagonists too, for that matter.

I’m familiar with Brooks from his Keiko trilogy, and I have to say his writing is a perfect fit for the Warhammer setting. The action scenes are faultless, the pacing brisk, and the threat is ever-present. This isn’t the sort of book where you know everything will be fine in the end, even if you do sort-of know that there will be no major upsets to the universe without Games Workshop advertising it thoroughly beforehand. But when the shooting starts, the larger threats take a back seat. Brooks’ characters are likable enough, in a roguish sort of way, that you’ll care more for them than yet another planet-destroying disaster.

One final point I would like to make, is the diversity on display here. being based on a game of mass-produced metal soldiers, the Warhammer universe has historically tended to be fairly homogenous. But no more. In Rites of Passage alone, we have at least two openly gay characters, and Chetta herself is (and I hope I’m reading it correctly) an elderly black woman. Quite far from the protagonists you might expect of the grim, dark future. But what matters is not that they are there, it’s that nothing is made of it. These characters simply exists. This, ladies, gentleman and others, is diversity done right.

Rites of Passage is amazing, both as a standalone and a part of the wider 40,000 universe. The only problem, is that there isn’t more of it.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

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Publisher: Gollancz

Series: The Hyperion Cantos (#1)

Genre: Space Opera/Literary SF

Pages: 473

Publication Date: 1989

Verdict: 4/5

Seven pilgrims make their way to ancient Hyperion, to confront the dreaded Shrike and the Time Tombs. But what drives them on, and what will drive them apart?

Hyperion is a novel that wears its influences proudly, like medals on its sizable chest. The comparisons with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are not only earned, they are invited. The framing narrative of a group of unlikely pilgrims embarking on a long journey is a simple one, at least on the face of it, and serves its purpose well. because the focus of Hyperion is not the overarching story, but the tales those pilgrims have to tell along the way. In many ways, it’s more an anthology than a novel. And that means it has an anthology’s main problem: Gather enough stories, and they won’t all be winners.

‘The Scholar’s Tale’ and ‘The Priest’s Tale’ are my personal favourites. The former is a story of scientific investigation, as a lone priest tries to uncover the truth of a primitive tribe. Of all the stories, this feels the most pulp-ish, and would not be out of place in a Forties magazine. The latter story tells of a child aging backwards due to an encounter with time-warping energies. Time travel stories are almost always interesting, and this is no exception. It’s also the most tragic of the stories, and the better for it.

Unfortunately ‘The Poet’s Tale’ is a far weaker affair. There are few things that interest me less than writers writing about writers, and this is a prime example of why. The indulgences are self-aware, full of knowing winks to the reader, but that makes them no less annoying. For all Silenius’ sins as a writer and poet, and his tale is full of them, by far his worst crime is how boring he is.

The other half of the stories are decent, if not spectacular, recounting adventures among the stars, the realities of wars fought across time and space, and even a noir-ish detective story. It’s hard to see them all existing within the same continuity, to be honest. But that’s part of the point with these stories, isn’t it? Not knowing whether the author is being truthful, or if they even know what the truth is. It’s a literary tradition as old as time.

And that’s the source of so much of my dissatisfaction with the book. Every time it feels like there is forward momentum, that the plot is finally moving, I’m thrown out as Simmons pulls the rug from under my feet. This is a very literary book, seeming to revel in its own smugness. I get the references, and I can see a lot of what Simmons is doing, but it doesn’t make for a terribly enjoyable read.

Which is a shame, because the overall story is a strong one. I would love to see more of the Hyperion universe. I want to know more about the Shrike, and the Hegemony, and the Ousters and the Time Tombs. There’s a whole world waiting to be explored, and I will gladly read the next installment in the hope that exploration does indeed occur.

Overall, this is a book with a lot of promise. Sadly, those promises are not fulfilled here, but the world is vast and intriguing enough to merit further reading.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Lost Fairy, by Paul Shapera

-If you’re here for music, dive right in. If you want to follow the story of New Albion, a review of the previous installment can be found here

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Series: Fairypunk (#3)

Genre: Fairypunk

Runtime: 1hr 9mins

Cast: Liel Bar-Z, Psyche Chimera, Vivian Moonic, Oliver Marsh, Lauren Osborn

Verdict: 5/5

The final act of Paul Shapera’s third Shaperaverse trilogy is everything I hoped for, and then a whole lot more. It’s a glorious explosion of ideas which, in all honesty, should not work half as well as they do. Throw together post-humanism, jazz, fairies, techno, cyborgs, split personalities and the nature of storytelling, then wrap it in catchy lyrics, experimental narratives and raw emotion, and you’ll have all the ingredients needed for this series. Thankfully, Shapera continues to be the best musical chef around, and the payoff is spectacular.

As with the previous installments, The Lost Fairy is a standalone story that ties in to a larger world. Characters continue to cross over from other albums in ways both familiar and new. Fans of The New Albion Radio Hour and Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret are in for a particular treat. Jane the Cyborg, the Meme and the Mayor are all back from the previous volume too. We also get new characters, such as Jesse and Jakob Janssen, two minds within one body, traumatised and enraged by a war with the fairies. And of course the ever-brilliant Lauren Osborn is back in yet another role as the titular fairy.

Until now, most of my favourite Shapera tunes have been the solo ballads of ‘Hello AI’ and ‘The Sheriff’, or the battle-cry chanting of the Blood Red Dogs. But in The Lost Fairy, it’s the duets which shine. Bar-Z and Osborn complement each other perfectly, bringing out the best in both voices and characters. Oliver Marsh has the unenviable task of duetting with himself as the Janssens, yet pulls it off spectacularly, each half having distinct tone and temperament. Then there’s the bizzareness of ‘The Dwarves’, with its throat singing and chanting. It’s all a bit good, really.

But the undisputed star of the show continues to be Psyche Chimera as Han-Mi, the not-so remote narrator of the tale. her narration is as enchanting as ever, but this time around she has two musical numbers as well, and both are brilliant. ‘Intervention’ is a haunting callback to the past, and is followed by the most emotional dialogue of any Shapera album to date. And then there’s ‘Put on a Show’, the album closer. It’s a sweet, simple affair, imbued with more emotion than I’d thought possible. It is, to be blunt, absolutely beautiful, and I wish I could hear it for the first time every day.

This is not the end of the Shaperaverse, but it is a good place to pause for a moment, and think back on the 10+ hours that have been so far. Just writing that makes the ‘verse sound small, but’s honestly one of the most expansive worlds I’ve encountered, not just in audio but in the genre. There is so much sprawl I’ve lost track of it, but every re-listen reveals new secrets. Callbacks and foreshadowing abound. And boy do i do a lot of re-listening. On a creative level, it’s a wonder to behold. On a musical one, it’s near perfect.

There’s more to come, and while it’s hard to see how the current body can be improved on, I have no doubt Shapera will do just that.

BOOK REVIEW: Shadow And Claw, by Gene Wolfe

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Publisher: Gollancz

Series: The Book of the New Sun (#1-2)

Genre: Science Fantasy

Pages: 597

Publication Date: 2011

Verdict: 3/5

 

Severian is a torturer by trade, but that is not his nature. Exiled from his guild, he finds himself cast out into the strange landscape beyond the city he once called home . . .

 

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and the following series are undeniably important works of science fiction, and indeed literature as a whole. It takes the classic idea of the Hero’s Journey and mine sit for all it is worth. In a way, it’s almost a how-to when it comes to writing the archetypal coming-of-age, while still being innovative and stylistically unique. There is absolutely no way in which I can genuinely call this a bad book. What I can say, regrettably, is that I did not enjoy it.

The main reason for this is the writing itself. Going into the book, I knew of its reputation. The way it uses an unreliable narrator to create multiple layers to the narrative is something I’ve seen championed again and again. Unfortunately, I find Wolfe’s style of writing utterly impenetrable. He has a prose so purple it rivals Lovecraft in its obscurity of terms and overuse of poetic turns of phrase. It’s brilliantly written, I recognise that, but it is difficult to read. The language, while flavourful, does not flow for me the way it clearly does for so many others. Every time I thought I was getting into it, I came again to a shuddering halt.

Then we have the world. The lore is only presented through Severian’s eyes, and so is coloured by his perspective. There is clearly a lot going on in the background, like an ocean of ideas. But if it is an ocean, then I’m a stone skipping over the surface. For all Severian’s conversational style, and the way Wolfe brings us into his confidence, it never felt like I was being welcomed into the world. The writing, rather than being an invitation, forms a barrier forbidding entry. Wolfe clearly wants his readers to work for an understanding, but I see no incentives to do that.

There are other problems I had too. Severian is raised by torturers, yet the torture never comes across as terribly bad. Obviously it is. People are violated, mutilated and killed, but almost exclusively this is discussed and not shown. A subject like this is one of the few where I think the old adage ‘show don’t tell’ is accurate. maybe there’s a reason for it I’m not getting, but it just feels like Wolfe is shying away from his own worldbuilding. Then is a very strnage part in the second book where a massive chunk of the narrative takes the form of a play, presented in script form. At times, it’s more like a thought experiment than a novel.

This is a shame, because the story itself is a good one. Watching a lone torturer exploring the surface of a dying planet should be interesting, and at time sit is. the characters Severian comes across in his trvaels are an interesting assortment, but none stay long enough to drag me back into the narrative before Severian is wandering again.

 

Ultimately, i think my main problem is one of time. The Book of the New Sun is so groundbreaking, it has spawned countless successors. And I like those successors so much more.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Green Life, by David Llewelyn

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Series: Torchwood (#26)

Genre: SF Horror

Publisher: Big Finish

Runtime: 75mins

Cast: John Barrowman, Katy Manning, Stewart Bevan

Verdict: 5/5

Proper food. Proper grub. The small Welsh town of Llanfairfach has become the centre of a food revolution. But if all is what it seems, why is Torchwood investigating?

I’m a massive fan of the Jon Pertwee era, and The Green Death (aka ‘The One with the Maggots’) is one of the greatest stories in Doctor Who’s long history. With UNIT, Jo Grant and the Doctor investigating a shady company in rural Wales, it encapsulates everything that I love about the Third Doctor’s tenure. So when I found that Big Finish had released an audio sequel, I knew I had to pick it up. This time around there is no UNIT to be found, though they are referenced. Nor is there a Doctor in sight. No, this time around the only ones who can investigate are Torchwood’s Captain jack Harkness, and the irreplaceable Jo Jones (nee Grant).

Now, you may think that Jo is an odd fit for the swearing, sex and violence-drenched world of Torchwood, and I thought the exact same thing. But worry not, because Katy manning and John Barrowman are clearly having the time of their lives in the recording studio, and their chemistry crackles both in character and out, as showed by the ten minute group interview at the end of the CD. For all the genteel refinement that epitomises the Pertwee Era, Jo slides effortlessly into the grittier world of the twenty-first century without losing any of the heart and enthusiasm that made her so iconic. Whether it’s furiously smashing computers or apologising to maggots as they are run over, Jo is never anything less than a delight.

Make no mistakes though, for all that this is a clear and loving sequel to a Doctor Who classic, it is still undeniably a Torchwood story. If the swearing and violence doesn’t convince you of that, then the weightier themes certainly will. Like the series that spwaned it, this audio drama refuses to shy away from the dirtier side of dealing with threats both alien and other. There are endings, yes, but don’t expect them to be happy. Protecting the world is a messy job, and requires compromises that the Doctor would never agree to. Jack Harkness may be the man who cannot die, but he is not the towering figure of myth that the Doctor is. He and Torchwood fight things on a much more human level, and The Green Life uses that to full effect.

Although this is the 26th in the Torchwood series, it is a perfect standalone. All the 26 signifies is that there are 25 others out there to hunt down, which I will definitely be doing. These smaller scale stories are perfect for audio, while retaining the episodic feel that made the TV series so good. Even if you haven’t followed all the expanded adventures of the audio Torchwood series, as I haven’t, you can dive straight in here and enjoy it as a standalone piece. Though it will definitely help if you’ve seen The Green Death.

Whether you are a fan of Doctor Who, Torchwood, or just good squelching horror audio, this is definitely worth the price of admission.

BOOK REVIEW: The Short Victorious War, by David Weber

-This review is likely to contain spoilers for previous books in the Honorverse. Click here to find an index of reviews for those books-

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Publisher: Baen

Series: Honor Harrington (#3)

Genre: Space Opera/Military SF

Pages: 360

Publication Date: 1994

Verdict: 5/5

 

Desperate to fill their empty coffers, the People’s Republic of Haven launch a surprise attack against the Star Kingdom of Manticore. What they forget, is that it is defended by Honor Harrington, a woman who does not take kindly to acts of aggression . . .

 

Three books in, and the Honor Harrington series delivers its best instalment yet. Up until now, the action has been fairly concentrated. A minor skirmish in On Basilisk Station, a proxy war in The Honor of the Queen. This time around, we’re in the big leagues. Haven is no longer interested in minor strikes, this attack is meant to bring Manticore to its knees It’s no great spoiler that they won’t succeed this early in the series, but boy do they come close.

Though the book is as short as Haven’s desired war, there’s a lot going on within. First of all there is the continuing growth of Honor Harrington herself as she recovers from the wounds she suffered on grayson, and comes to terms with her increased bond with nimitz the tree-cat. Nimitz himself still feels like he’s wandered in from another book entirely, but as the series goes on his presence becomes less obtrusive. While he’s still my least favourite part of the Honorverse, I guess I’m getting used to having him around, much like Honor’s crew.

As well as her personal growth as an individual, as she continues to grapple with the realities of command, we see Honor developing relationships with those around her. She can still be as cold and isolated as she was in On Basilisk Station, but now there’s a softer edge to her. She has friends now, and even the beginnings of a romantic partnership. Of course, all this is sent into upheaval by the arrival of an old enemy in the later stages of the book. The shadow of Pavel Young looms large indeed.

This is all well and good, I hear you say. But what about the explosions and space battles? Don’t worry, Weber’s got you covered. Now that a lot of the worldbuilding has been established, Weber can safely start upsetting the status quo of his world. There are two main threads to the action, the first of which is of course the invasion itself. For most of the book we only get snippets of the action. A scene here and there, politicians and admirals reading each other lists of systems attacked. But then we get the big battle between Honor’s forces and those of the Havenites. It’s clear by this point that Weber likes to have his protagonist outmanned and outgunned, but it’s a formula that is yet to grow stale. As dozens of warships clash, there is a lot of head-hopping, showing us the battle through the eyes of both sides. There are times when this can get a little confusing, but I think that’s sort of the point. Battles are chaotic, and rarely clear-cut affairs.

The second thread is the internal politics of Haven itself, and an attempted rebellion in that polity. I won’t say if it’s a success or not, but suffice it to say that this thread seems to be building up for something in later books. There are a lot of new names to learn in this strand, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of them throughout the series.

 

After a slightly slow buildup, the Honorverse is now living up to its reputation. With so many more volumes to go, I hope this upward trajectory continues.

AUDIO REVIEW: Our Martyred Lady, by Gav Thorpe

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Series: Our Martyred Lady (#1-4)

Genre: Grimdark SF

Publisher: Black Library

Runtime: 4hrs 15mins

Cast: Catherine Tate, Emma Gregory, Cliff Chapman, Steve Conlin, Andrew Fettes, Matthew Hunt, Toby Longworth, Carla Mendonca, Richard Reed, David Sibley, Ramon Tikram, Jo Woodcock

Verdict: 4/5

 

The Imperium of Man is facing a time of great upheaval. As heresy and betrayal run rampant, can inquisitor Greyfax and the immortal Saint Celestine put aside their disputes and prevent the Imperium falling into even deeper darkness?

 

This four-part audio series is undoubtedly the most lavish piece Black Library have ever put out.  Leaving aside the sprawling cast of BL regular voice actors and special guests for the time being, this is physically a thing of beauty. Unless you opt for digital, you can only get the series as a boxed set, complete with interior artwork, behind the scenes photos and a full CD of special features. Of course this is a little more costly than some may like, but in my opinion it’s completely justified. If you’re a collector, physical is definitely the way to go.

As you might expect from a four-hour epic, Our Martyred Lady gets off to a something of a slow start. With so many voices to keep track of and a strong orchestral score, it’s a little hard to get into at first. Indeed, for the first CD I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy the series. However, the remaining parts more than pick up the pace, proceeding quickly toward a thrilling climax.

As usual, Black Library have assembled an incredible cast. Regular actors such as Toby Longworth and Jo Woodcock are on stellar form as always, and Emma Gregory pulls off a fantastic role as the titular Saint Celestine, absolutely selling both the faith and the sorrow her duty to the God-Emperor requires. But the big name here is undoubtedly Catherine Tate. Having a comedian in such a grim setting seems odd at first, although Tate does have the Sci-Fi experience of Doctor Who under her belt. For all that the casting surprised me, however, I needn’t have doubted. Tate has the sketch comedian’s gift for cementing a character’s place with just a few quick lines of dialogue. Her Greyfax is a sniping one, uniquely Tate’s, but never feeling out of place.

If you’re new to Black Library, or the 40k universe in general, this may not be the best place to start. There is a lot of lore contained herein, and the more you understand the better you will enjoy the end product. But if you’re already invested in the setting, then you will have a lot to enjoy here. Controversial as recent developments in the setting have been, Our Martyred Lady makes the most of the destruction of Cadia, the rise of the Primaris, and the ongoing schism in the grim, dark future of the forty-first millennium. The dread and the paranoia are palpable, and this is a spy thriller as much as it is a typical 40k war story.

 

Despite a slow start and a lore-heavy nature, Our Martyred Lady is a landmark achievement. There’s no word yet on further instalments, but if and when they come, I’ll be more than happy to add them to the shelf.