Void Stalker by Aaron-Dembski Bowden Review [EJ Davies]
EJ Davies takes a look at the almost released Void Stalker, the third novel in the Night Lords series penned by firm fan favourite Aaron Dembski-Bowden.
“Compelling, tragic, visceral, and brutal; this novel truly bears all the hallmarks of the Dembski-Bowden and ends the saga on the only note it could. Grippingly awesome.” ~ The Founding Fields.
The blurb, from BL:
“The hunters have become the hunted. The Night Lords flee to the dark fringes of the Imperium to escape their relentless pursuers – the eldar of Craftworld Ulthwé. Their flight takes them to the carrion world of Tsagualsa, where their primarch died and their Legion was broken. There, history will repeat itself as a deadly assassin stalks the shadows, and the Night Lords are drawn into a battle they are destined to lose.”
Saying this book is basically about the Night Lords escaping the Blood Reaver with the ship Echo of Damnation and finding themselves back at Tsagualsa pursued by eldar and they fight is, to me, like saying the The Social Network is a film about Facebook. It’s an over-simplification, it’s too easy, it’s just a summary – a glimpse of events.
What the book truly is about, to me, is a Legion lost within itself struggling to find direction and purpose in a galaxy that has known nearly 10,000 years of unending, indeterminate war. The VIII Legion, coming from the morally bankrupt world of Nostramo – long since destroyed by their primarch – have been ever searching for leadership, raiding like pirates, and scurrying from every battle unless victory was certain. They are paupers, beggars, scraps on the fringe of the galaxy waiting for their time to rise, and a war to unleash their vengeance against the Golden Throne, and so the Imperium might once again tremble at their name.
I’ve been a firm fan of Aaron’s since picking up Soul Hunter at my first Black Library Live! event in 2010, and truly encountering a novel I could not put down for the first time since reading To Kill A Mockingbird aged fifteen. I bloody loved that book. It was a breath of fresh air into a genre, and a publisher that needed something new kicking in to it and needed its profile raised somewhat. Aaron is a second generation author, by that I mean he’s grown up with the books, the models, and the material; whereas Dan, Graham, and Gav have worked with and developed the material – their take is much different that someone coming from the child-like fandom of it. I’m not saying they don’t have that, but Aaron’s experiences give him a fresh approach. It’s clear he’s been deeply enamoured with the sheer mind boggling scale and size of everything, he has still – I believe – retained that core love of the source. With every piece I read by Aaron, he manages to astound me further with just how far, and how brutal his vision of this universe is. Every battle, as sparse as they are, is told in visceral detail not sparing the gore, blood, and injuries. Every manoeuvre, scenario, or scheme serves its purpose to the greater story. In essence, there is no filler material to bulk up a word count – just pure unadulterated savage joy.
Again, to go back to my movie reference: while the summary may give a quick précis of the events, it does not once deal with – what I believe – to be the true essence of the book. The relationships between First Claw, and between the Claws in the wake of the events in Blood Reaver, is what sets this novel above and beyond. Throughout the novel we get to see the shifting alliances and subterfuge aboard the Echo, the developing romance between slaves Sepitmus and Octavia is played out against the events of the Night Lord’s return to Tsagualsa – and the revelation at the end of Blood Reaver makes itself known to readers and the weighty implication of this are felt in the last pages of the book. Cyrion’s trademark sarcastic charm is in evidence, and is played well throughout; Uzas’ incessant babbling actually is short lived this time out and his moments of clarity all the more revealing for it; Xarl is as Xarl does – he’s pure and unrelenting bad-assery in all its glory; Mercutian’s appearances are somewhat brief, but his own unique personality brings another dimension to First Claw; Deltrian – a tech adept of the VIII Legion – begins to show his true colours through in some rather spectacular ways; and newcomer Variel adds another voice to the wonderful tone that comprises the central cast. But it’s Talos, our unlikely hero, with whom the greatest breadth of the story lies. Finally, he begins to realise his father’s true understanding of the Legion, and why it was that Nostramo was destroyed; and what future there needs to be for such a Legion. Through his visions we see an inkling of the future – but this being Aaron, things are rarely that predictable.
Aaron’s writing style is taken out for a good run here. His battles are descriptive, his characters are well-drawn, fleshed out, given all the back history they could possibly require, and then some; and take actions that still made me wince but justify them in the grander scheme of things. Writers have attempted to take on Chaos Legions/Chapters before and make them sympathetic, but few (in my opinion) have come close to the success that Mr. D-B has achieved with this series. He has essentially taken the worst elements of human society, embodied them in a Legion that set itself against the Emperor, and made us like – if not, love – them. The conclusion of this book is no less brilliant for it have three epilogues – each one shedding more light on future events from the novel’s timeline. The final encounter with the Eldar is awesome, told and pitched perfectly – AND with still more scheming despite the battle raging around them.
The books have been essential reading for me. Even Blood Reaver, which could have felt like the ‘second act of a trilogy’ novel – and didn’t, was a real page turner. It has been a real privilege spending time with these characters, and learning of their eventual fates. It is clear to me through his writing that Aaron just thinks in a completely different dimension to anyone I’ve ever met. I love his writing for that.
A solidly excellent read – which is well worth the price you pay for it. Void Stalker is available to download now from Black Library, and will be available to purchase in the next couple of days.
If you’re interested in catching up with the other exploits of First Claw, be sure to check out The Core (available in the Fear The Alien omnibus), and the Throne of Lies audio drama.