Throne of Lies by Aaron Dembski-Bowden – Audio Drama Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second installment in the Night Lords series, an audio drama, that continues the tale of Talos and his brethren of First Claw.
“An audio drama that is just on the cusp of potential that delivers its goods in a rather roundabout way.” ~ The Founding Fields
Of all the Black Library audio dramas I have listened to in the last half year or so, there has been only one that I didn’t really like: Nick Kyme’s Fireborn which is part of his Tome of Fire series. I am quite a big fan of the novels but that audio drama just didn’t work for me, either story-wise or voice-work-wise. And so given my apprehensions after finishing Soul Hunter, the first novel of the Night Lords series, I was hesitant about Throne of Lies. It came highly-recommended of course, just like its predecessor, so I wasn’t overly optimistic about this one either at the start.
Regretfully, unlike Soul Hunter, I didn’t like Throne of Lies. And that’s a combination of things too.
The audio drama starts off well enough really as we are treated to a rather atmospheric opening with Octavia, the Tenth Company’s latest Navigator, guiding the company’s strike cruiser through some extremely turbulent warp tides and what could have been a very Cthulhu-ish warp-monster. Its a very tight and enjoyable sequence and I did rather get quick a kick out of it. The interactions between Octavia and the strike cruiser’s machine spirit as well as the actual act of guiding a vessel through the warp are very much untouched material in the larger body of Black Library fiction. Incidentally, the former of those is another good reason for why Sarah Cawkwell’s The Gildar Rift was so damn awesome. A strike cruiser’s machine spirit, whether loyalist or traitor, is a very potent being in its own right. And both John Banks as the narrator and Aaron as the writer join hands really well to deliver on it.
After that however, the audio drama goes mostly downhill. The biggest culprit here is the medium. Throne of Lies is a short-ish audio drama and unfortunately for it, the story is quite clearly part of a larger whole that has been edited and cut to make it fit the audio format.
One of my criticisms of the audio drama as a whole is why Octavia and Septimus are actually in it for? We have that fantastic opening scene by her and then that’s it because later on my interest in her character waned entirely. She didn’t have anything significant to add to the story either because her conversation with Septimus later on is pretty much echoed in a conversation between Talos and his First Claw brethren. It became redundant. They are both filler characters, commenting as outside observers into the legion and their contribution adds nothing to the whole. I would have preferred for the conversation between the two of them regarding Octavia’s headstrong and defiant attitude to be explored further. What really are the effects and where is this bullheadedness going to take her?
Another is that Beth Chambers’s voice doesn’t do anything for me at all either after, again, that fantastic opening scene. She does three different voices for the audio drama and regretfully, they all sound the same. The only way you know they are different characters is because you are told they are different characters. Contrast to John Banks’s excellent work, both for Throne of Lies and The Madness Within or any of the other voice-over artists who have performed for Black Library audio dramas. The noticeable variation in tone and pitch and style as it should be just isn’t there. Eerily, her second and third voices are pretty much exactly the same. This really dragged down the audio drama for me.
The second half of Throne of Lies is also sort of a jumble and lackluster as well. The plot involves the gathering of all the nearby warbands of the Night Lords legion and a joint-assault against an old, old enemy. But the sense of scale just isn’t there and what little there is doesn’t have any impact on me. Aaron uses both Septimus and Talos to reflect that aspect but all we get are numbers, not images. Again, this is very much down to the fact that the audio drama has clearly been edited/cut down to fit the medium as well, I would hazard to guess, a certain time limit. Another 20-30 minutes would have worked really well and most of the issues that I am addressing wouldn’t be there to begin with.
Another thing is that there was a little too much reliance by the plot on Talos’s unique gift: his visions. They were a curse borne by Konrad Curze himself and they are a curse borne by Talos as well. We had at least two instances of Talos using his visions to the benefit of the Tenth Company in Soul Hunter and it is something that has continued here. I’m all for good and interesting plot hooks but I am sorry to say that this didn’t really work for me. The repetition is what got me. It is used too conveniently in fact and it just works to further hammer in that there is a lot more backstory going on. When compared to The Madness Within or Thorn and Talon, this was a big negative for Throne of Lies.
The pacing also threw me off since there are so many differences in points of view throughout the novel, flowing endlessly between the omniscient narrator and the various characters and over a significant amount of time as well. Throne of Lies, in this respect, is more like several flash fiction stories connected together by a thiny-arcing plot that only really serves up at the end.
However, enough with the negativity and on to positive things. Such as what did I like about this audio drama?
The first of course would be that opening scene with Octavia. Masterfully written and masterfully performed by both Beth and John, although it could have been a smidge better if Beth had kept Octavia rather more aggressive than she was towards the end of the scene. Octavia is a defiant-in-the-face-of-authority character in this scene and her edge should have been sustained throughout. That said, still a damn good opening scene.
John Banks. He was magnificent voicing the Crimson Fists in Steve Lyons’s The Madness Within and he is magnificent here as well voicing the omniscient narrator and, I believe, Talos as well among others. He definitely brings the audio drama to life and it is something that I quite enjoyed. He gets that arrogance, the contempt of the characters just right.
A bit before the climax and the “big” action starts, there is a particular scene where the Night Lords all gather and find an inconvenient enemy opposing them. The, well, “subjugation” of said enemy was interesting to see because for me it highlighted the scavenger mentality of the legion and really hit that point home. Without cohesion, without a strong leader, the Night Lords are all split off into multiple warbands and they do what they have to survive and replenish their multitude of losses. This is a theme that is carried on from Soul Hunter and just as in the novel, it is an integral part of the legion post-Heresy.
The climax itself, involving Talos, the Exalted, other Night Lords and a particular hololithic recording. This was the most eerie scene in the entire audio drama. Just like the opening with Octavia, this one is poignant and very, very emotionally strong if you are familiar with the legion’s history. Of course, there is also the “end” of the climax when all the helmeted Night Lords are chanting their ages old mantra inside that empty room: “Ave Dominus Vox“. Over and over again. Repetition of certain dialogue snippets over and over in quich succession can be very useful and appropriate and it is used to great effect here. You can’t help but start chanting alongside the Night Lords. That’s how good this scene is.
And finally, there is the difference between the voices of the Night Lords when they are wearing their helmets and when they are not. It is a small subtle difference and you may even miss it on a first listen-through but it is there. Few people, whether writers of readers/listeners or voice-actors realise that that difference is there. Aaron is one of the writers who uses such small things to his advantage and combined with the work of the voice-actors, this is another positive for the audio drama.
With that said, I would rate Throne of Lies at 6/10. All the positives of the audio drama unfortunately do not outweigh the negatives for me. And this is mostly the story itself which failed for me. It could have been tighter, especially if we had had more “action” from the Night Lords themselves and a bit stronger dialogue. But it is what it is. Aaron has another audio drama coming out this year, Horus Heresy: Butcher’s Nails, which is about Primarch Angron of the World Eaters. This one should be quite interesting since it is a completely different timeline and different characters altogether.
Finally, I would recommend Throne of Lies only to people who are familiar with Aaron’s previous work for Black Library, that is, you have at least read Soul Hunter. The audio drama is not a strictly integral part of the Night Lords series but it does require you to know about events and characters from Soul Hunter. For everyone else, I leave it to you to decide if you should pick this up if you haven’t read the novel preceeding it. I wouldn’t recommend but then, your mileage may vary.