Shadowhawk reviews the first three online only audio drama exclusives – Bloodspire by C Z Dunn, Deathwolf by Andy Smillie, and Grey Angel by John French.
“Offering something for everyone, these audio exclusives are a great way forward to provide exciting new material in a shorter and more immediate format.” ~The Founding Fields
Blood Angels: Bloodspire by C Z Dunn
“This is a story that proves you can still have a cracking Blood Angels tale that doesn’t depend on the Black Rage/Red Thirst to be cool.”
Bloodspire is the first of these online audio exclusives, part of the Space Marine Battles range as the premise is taken from the 5th Edition Blood Angels codex. It tells of the Axonar Spirewar, an incident that took place in 830.M41 and was instigated by the Axonar aristocracy as they rebelled in order to stop their psyker tithes to the Imperium. The codex blurb for this is incident is as follows:
Dante sends the 3rd and 4th Companies to quell rebellion on the hive world of Axonar. Deeming the defences at the base of the hive cities to be too formidable for a direct assault, Captain Metraen orders a series of low-orbit jump pack insertions onto the upper spires. Trapped behind their own defences, the rebels are swiftly crushed.
Bloodspire was a really enjoyable audio drama. As part of the SMB range, it has plenty of set piece action scenes that are brilliantly written by C Z Dunn. The voice-acting by Rupert Degas and Chris Fairbank add on to that and provide plenty of drama and fun.
What the author does with this story is add meat to the bones of the codex entry, giving the rebels a reason to throw off the yoke of the Imperium. The descriptions of the battles, the characterisation of Captain Metraen, Sergeant Tycho, Sergeant Cadula and Captain Castigon, the utter ruthlessness and efficiency of the Blood Angels, it all makes for for a great story. In terms of the characterisation, Tycho was definitely my favourite. He is the capable, senior-sergeant of Metraen’s company, with an attitude and mindset to match, plus a certain badassery in that he can talk down a Captain. He is almost…. scary.
This is a really short audio drama, only about 30 minutes long, and as such, it doesn’t leave much room for a truly immersive story. Still, C Z Dunn has packed enough here to interest any listener. The scene with the Blood Angels deploying en masse, almost two entire companies’ worth, was just totally fangasmic. C Z Dunn captures the lethality of the moment perfectly and I rue the fact that he doesn’t get much time to really explore that sequence. A Space Marine jump-pack orbital assault is like a hammer slamming down on a piece of cake. The Blood Angels make that look effortles, as if the whole process is more than just second nature to them.
For narrator Sean Barrett, this is one of his better efforts. His narration flows almost smoothly, and there are little of his usual awkward sentence pauses that break that very flow. He also manages to put in more excitement into his voice, almost making me believe that he is that excited about the story. A great, credible effort. Rupert Degas and Chris Fairbank deliver admirably on their voicing responsibilities. My favourites are definitely Captain Metraen of the 3rd Company and First-Sergeant Tycho, the latter with a Russian-sounding voice that I really liked. Incidentally, Captain Castigon has a stronger Russian accent, one that is also used for Kharn the Betrayer in Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Horus Heresy: Butcher’s Nails and Anthony Reynolds’ World Eaters: Chosen of Khorne. I fully support more regional international accents in Black Library audios than just British regional ones.
All in all, a fantastic audio drama that I really liked. The format is mostly appropriate to the story but I think that it would be far better in a bigger time-length, as a full-length audio drama in fact. What matters most though, is that C Z Dunn really gets the audio side of Black Library publications, he also wrote the Dark Angels audio drama Malediction which was released earlier this year, and I look forward to lot more from him.
“Let us go now to glory, or let us go now to death.” – Captain Castigon, Blood Angels 4th Company, Axonar Spirewar
Space Wolves: Deathwolf by Andy Smillie
“An interesting look into the Space Wolves that is decent but doesn’t impress as much as it could have.”
The second Space Marine Battles audio drama, Deathwolf tells the story of a bloody clash between the Space Wolves under Wolf Lord Erik Morkai and a cabal of Dark Eldar under Archon Vrannak. Instigated by a soul harvest raid by the xenos in 822.M41, this battle took place in the Luetin Necropolis world. The codex blurb for this is incident is as follows:
The piratical Kabal of the Shattered Hand flies unhindered over the defence networks of the Luetin Necropolis. They have barely begun their bloody work when they are ambushed in turn, the Great Company of Erik Morkai hurling themselves from the windows above and boarding the jagged transports of the xenos raiders.
As I said, Deathwolf is rather decent, neither too good, nor too bad. The thing is that while the premise is interesting, the writing doesn’t work so well for me. From the first words, a few things really jarred for me, and some instances of the voice-acting didn’t help either because they seemed out of place.
We are first introduced to a Dark Eldar Mandrake named Gomorr as he goes about killing some militia on Luetin. Andy Smillie starts several of these early sentences with the character’s name, and that really jars and breaks the flow of things. “Gomorr did this, Gomorr did that”. That’s something that doesn’t work for me at all and breaks my immersion into the story. It actually prevents me from getting into the story at all as this is the first section.
On the plot stage, what bothered me was that Thorolf Icewalker’s scenes seemed too incidental, being there just for the sake of it. I think his mid-arc is instrumental into breaking a plot-lock for Eri Morkai the Deathwolf later on in the audio, but it could go either way. Not very convincing, simply put. His end-arc however is written really well and sets up a possible story involving him, something that I’d really be interested in reading/listening.
Overall, Deathwolf is an ok enough depiction of the Space Wolves and the Dark Eldar but I think that this is a story that is really hurt by the short format, shorter than usual. More room to explore the characters would have really helped the story, making it a much more convincing experience. In terms of story effect, I’d say that Andy’s eShort Immortalis, a Flesh Tearers story, is much more punchier and enjoyable.
However, there are a few good scenes in the audio, such as the final scenes with Thorolf, and Erik’s action-packed duel with Vrannak, a female Archon who is all too rare in Black Library fiction. More of that please! Jon Sullivan’s cover art captures the duel pretty well, although Erik’s size is a bit too unrealistic I think, for it makes him look too large.
In terms of the voice-acting, Sean Barrett’s opener is rather dry and boring, as if he is tiring. He improves later on in the audio, but not by much. Definitely not as good as some of his other work. Charlotte Page did a great job as Vrannak however, for she captured the hissing, growling, snarling voice that I associate with all Dark Eldar really well. David Timson, Rupert Degas and Chris Fairbank were, again, decent. Nothing special. The Nordic voices I associate with Space Wolves appear to be half-Nordic, half-Russian. Makes for an interesting listen to.
In the end, I think that Andy shows promise and would like to read more of his work, but that Space Wolves are not a best display of his skills. He captured the feel of the Flesh Tearers’ chapter culture in Immortalis much better than he has done with the Space Wolves here. And he also writes the Dark Eldar really well, so I’m open to seeing more of him in that respect as well.
“I am Vrannak, remember that name mon-keigh (monkey).” -Archon Vrannak of the Shattered Hand, Luetin Necropolis Raid
Horus Heresy: Grey Angel by John French
“A perfect snapshot of the ongoing Heresy narrative, Grey Angel is definitely a worthy story of being one of the best audios that BL has made to date.”
Grey Angel is a sequel story to the Nathaniel Garro: Legion of One audio by James Swallow and the short story The Last Remembrancer by John French. While John has written this one as well, it does have a lot to live up to, coming on the heels of the former which I actually hold as one of the top BL audios to date. What really set Legion of One apart from its “peers” was the quality of the voice-acting, performed exclusively by Toby Longworth who is the most experienced of all of the voice-actors who’ve worked for BL over the years.
This is a story that attempts to answer one of the most important questions facing Primarch Rogal Dorn of the Imperial Fists: are the Dark Angels Caliban loyal or traitors? The Emperor’s Praetorian sends two of his most trusted agents, the former Luna Wolf, Captain Iacton Qruze, and the Space Marine we know of as Cerberus, whom we first met in Legion of One. I could tell you the real identity of this character but that constitutes a rather big spoiler for Legion of One so I’ll just leave you with this: the dead may rise again. The two warriors infiltrate Caliban, attempting to determine the loyalties of their fellow Astartes, and their leader on the world: the great hero of the First Legion, Lord Luther, former second-in-command to Primarch Lion El’Jonson.
The tensions that grip this story are enthralling from the get-go, introduced as we are to Cerberus being held chained within the lowermost dungeons of the Dark Angels fortress-monastery of Aldurukh. This is one of the paciest stories I’ve ever listened to. John French starts at a great high, and that continues throughout the audio; it actually gets pacier as it progresses. This is a thrilling ride and you never want to get off it. John French has written some really great stuff for Black Library, such as his short story The Last Remembrancer for the Age of Darkness anthology, and the novella Fateweaver for the Architect of Fate anthology, and he continues his strong streak with this audio.
As far as I’m concerned, John French proves here why he deserves to be on the Horus Heresy team, and the only way forward for him is to go up. His talent, whether it is in the detailed, immersive descriptions of his characters and locations, or the characterisations, or the moods and atmosphere he generates, shines through for the entire length of this 35-minute audio.
The voice-acting is some of the best as well. After a rather long break, Toby Longworth is back to voicing duties as he stands in for Cerberus, delivering a much different performance than he did in Legion for the same character. Cerberus this time is a more mentally-balanced character than he was before and Toby’s voice-work captures that admirably. Toby will be returning later this year for James Swallow’s Garro: Sword of Truth and I can’t wait for that. Toby has done great work as the former Death Guard Captain (among other credits) and a story of Garro’s first meeting with the World Eater Macer Varren is one of my most anticipated BL audios of the year. Joining Toby is John Banks (The Madness Within, The Throne of Lies) as Luther and unnamed Dark Angels Astartes whose identity to me is no surprise, given the subject matter of the audio drama. John has captured Luther’s aristocratic, careful, considered nature perfectly. You can really feel that he is Luther, John is that good here. He has been absent from BL audios for a long time and I can only hope that he returns once more soon. New voice-actor, joining the other two, is Ramon Tikaram as the narrator. To be entirely honest, I think that Ramon is one of the best narrators that BL has had on its audios in a long time. His style is different to that of Toby and John, both of whom have performed in that capacity before, and yet is as good as theirs. Sharp, clipped tones that really convey the mood and atmosphere of the story he is narrating. He really gets his work and that’s great! And I believe that he also has voiced Qruze, giving him a sharp voice that I actually think sits really well with the character, even though he was formerly a jaded old-timer.
Story-wise, my only single gripe with the audio is that it doesn’t add much to the on-going Heresy narrative. It is cool as a snapshot and has some rather interesting implications, especially where the Dark Angels’ loyalties are concerned, but otherwise it doesn’t further story much. That I could tell.
On some further thinking, I’d also say that a certain decision by Cerberus, to not share a particular bit of information, was rather surprising and abrupt. I remain unconvinced of his decision to not do so.
Otherwise, what really sets Grey Angel apart is that John really delves into the psyche of his characters: we are treated to Luther’s not-so veiled feelings of his abandonment, Cerberus’ own abandonment at the hands of his former brothers, and Qruze’s new-found loyalty and dedication to Rogal Dorn. There are some really great moments between all of them, particularly between Luther and Cerberus which form the meat of the story.
In the end, all I can say is that I really want this entire team to come together again: John French, Toby Longworth, John Banks, Ramon Tikaram, Cerberus, Luther, Qruze. The audio is short, but it is as good as some of my favourites: The Raven’s Flight, Legion of One, The Madness Within.
“Forgiveness, lad. He has lost the chance for forgiveness.” -Iacton Qruze