Shadowhawk reviews the tie-in novella for the new 6th Edition Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game.
“An ambitious story about the Dark Angels and their quests for vengeance that will have you hooked.” ~The Founding Fields
I last played a game of 40k a little over three years ago, sometime before I moved back home to Dubai from Los Angeles. With the prices here being exorbitant and no dedicated local game store here, I haven’t had a chance to get back into the tabletop side of things, although I’ve kept myself conversant with the new and improved lore in the meantime. There is something about playing out games worth thousands of points across a gaming table with a friend, rolling the dice, shouting curses, whooping and yelling that just appeals to me. The fiction side of things doesn’t have that quality of course, but now and then BL puts out a book that comes damn close to that feeling. The last time this happened for me was the Assault on Black Reach novella by Nick Kyme, the tie-in to the 5th Edition of the game. So its kind of fitting that C Z Dunn’s Dark Vengeance does that again, with new factions and characters in the mix.
Dark Vengeanceevokes that tabletop gaming feel in that it is full of some random occurrences, stuff that would happen when your dice rolls go belly up and you watch with disappointment as that pesky opponent lives through a barrage that’d otherwise kill him/it. Another way is in the step-by-step nature of the narrative, which was like watching a gamer’s strategy unfold: bike squad on the flanks here, Terminators occupied over there, devastators in cover over there, that sort of thing. Perhaps it was the fact that I explicitly knew the novella was based out of a tabletop gaming scenario and that it is a complement to the new 6th edition starter set. The movements and actions of both sides, the Dark Angels loyalists against the Chaos cultists and Traitor Astartes of the Crimson Slaughter, felt very cinematic to me in that way. And that felt good. It was a great feeling.
Up above, I called this novella “ambitious”. The reason for that is that the story is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters, 12 to be exact, and the author has used multiple tenses and perspectives for them. So at one instance you could be reading first person present tense, and 2 pages later, the character changes and now you are reading third person past tense. Keeping all that straight and level could not have been easy, either for the author himself, or his editor. And you know what, I think this was the perfect style to tell this story in. It gives each character a different hook to get the reader with, and it once again evokes that feeling of tabletop gaming. For people who play the tabletop they know how different it is to have a bird’s eye view of the tabletop when considering overall strategy, compared to when you are model height, and look at the board from the model’s perspective, working out if you can see the target clearly through cover to get them with your plasma cannon (one instance of course!). So I’d say that the author has definitely succeeded in that regard.
However, while I don’t want this style to be a one-off, I don’t want it to become too common either. The novella is the perfect length for this style I think. Gav Thorpe did something similar for his novel Purging of Kadillus, which was also about the Dark Angels, but his character viewpoints fewer and as best as I recall, he didn’t change tenses and perspectives when moving between them. That’s two instances in total I know of. But yeah, this is a unique style and it should keep its uniqueness because while C Z Dunn pulled it off brilliantly, it is easy to see how this can NOT work out, and how some people can be put off by it.
In terms of the story and the characterisation, the novel was another hit for me. There are several layers to the story, ostensibly about the Dark Angels fighting against Chaos. But there are hints that it is much more, because there is an undercurrent of the Dark Angels’ hunt for the Fallen in the story. For the uninitiated, the Fallen are traitor Dark Angels from the days of the Horus Heresy, ten thousands years in the in-universe past. This is the Dark Angels’ biggest secret and they will, and can, do anything to keep it that way. Dark Vengeance also connects to Dunn’s recently released audio drama, Malediction, which was a straight-up Dark Angels story about the Fallen. Characters locations from the audio drama are mentioned quite a few times in the novella, and this connection makes this story part of a larger whole.
Company Master Balthasar, Interrogator-Chaplain Seraphicus, Librarian Turmiel, Ravenwing Sergeant Arion, Chaos Lord Heskia, and the Mortis Metalikus were all great characters. Usually, a reader connects with characters over a certain period of time, when they spend pages upon pages with them. That is obviously not the case here, for sometimes the chapters are as short as just 2 pages, and time spent with the characters is fleeting. But each chapter follows on and builds from the last, so for me the effect was the same. Dunn also balances this out by giving us insights into the characters’ past as they recount some momentous times of their careers, whether loyalist or traitor. This also goes back to the point about the connection with Malediction.
If there is a follow-up to this novella, although the story wraps up perfectly by the end of the last chapter (told by Librarian Turmiel), I’d love for some of these characters to come back, Baltasar and Seraphicus particularly. There have been several Dark Angels Company Masters and Interrogator-Chaplains in BL fiction over the years, characters such as Master Belial and Chaplain Boreas being some of the more famous, and so the danger was great that Balthasar and Seraphicus wouldn’t be so unique, but the fact is that they are. So if you have any concerns to that effect, don’t worry. You will not be disappointed with them.
One last thing about the ambitious nature of the novella: the two chapters with Librarian Turmiel are told in the first person future tense, and the character relates the story as time-frames. I really liked that although I was put off initially by it as it is such a…. strange…. way to tell a story. C Z Dunn has piled on one surprise after another and the reading experience was extremely rewarding for me.
While sometimes we are a given perhaps a little too much information about the characters, it is kept to a minimum, it never intrudes on the pace of the story. The mood is there, the atmosphere is there, and the tensions inherent in a Dark Angels story are all there as well.
Taking it all together, C Z Dunn has a pretty good handle on the Dark Angels in my opinion and I’d love for him to do a larger project with them. To the best of my knowledge, this is his third Dark Angels work, and there is a prequel audio drama to Dark Vengeance also out at the moment, The Ascension of Balthasar. I can’t wait to get that and listen through it.
Overall, I think that C Z Dunn is a great writer and that he compares very favourably to the majority of the established writers who are currently writing Black Library fiction. In addition to my wish above, about him doing more Dark Angels, I’d also like to see him tackle other factions within the Warhammer 40,000 universe, perhaps Imperial Guard or Inquisition. It’d be a good fit I think.
And that’s all I got. If you haven’t already got this novella, then do so! If you are fortunate, you can still grab a hardcover special release if you are a print-reader. Otherwise there is always the eBook!