Shadowhawk reviews the latest audio drama from Black Library, one that goes fully old-school for some great nostalgia kicks.
“If you’ve ever wanted to experience the old and classic Bloodquest comics in a new way, then Ben Counter’s latest should be your first stop.”~The Founding Fields
The first Blood Angels fiction I ever read, that I can remember at any rate, were the two short novels by James Swallow, Deus Encarmine and Deus Sanguinius . In those pages, Swallow takes the reader for a ride as he explores how a Space Marine chapter could fall into petty internal strafes and a bloody civil war, all at the behest of greater powers. The two novels had a lot going for them, but they are unfortunately just decent. They do a great job of showing off the chapter culture and what not, but the thin characterisation of the villains takes away a lot of the enjoyment, not to mention some decisions made by various characters that make you go “wait, did he just do that?”. I came away from those novels with a healthy respect for the Blood Angels however, and a desire to read more. And that’s where the Bloodquest comics by Gordon Rennie come in. Those books took my love of the Blood Angels to a whole new level, and they are still, after all these years, some of my favourite comics ever.
Now, it’s been an age since I’ve read them, so I can’t exactly say when Prisoners of the Eye of Terror takes place, but I’ll hazard a guess nonetheless that it’s between the second and third graphic novels. All the same, if the audio is your first experience with Bloodquest , then all you need to know is that the hero is Captain Leonatos, a hero of the Blood Angels Chapter, now exiled and on a quest to retrieve the Blade Encarmine, a great relic of the chapter. He is joined by several battle-brothers on this quest and so far they have fought against Orks, pirates and daemons. When Prisoners of the Eye of Terror starts, the group has been on the daemon world of Eidolon for a while, and here they run into some unlikely allies, allies with a long history of co-service with the Blood Angels.
The most striking aspect of the audio is the whole old-school factor. Ben Counter’s script and dialogue evoke the feel of the old comics, and they are both reminiscent of a more heroic style. Like a good sword and sorcery novel with grand dialogue and improbable situations where the hero fights against wizards and the like. The connection is immediate, and Ben’s style is quite consistent throughout the audio drama. The characterisation of the daemon characters in the script is also another connection to that style. True to form as demons in any kind of fantasy fiction, the daemons here are a bunch of scheming, stab-you-in-the-back, sort given to bluster-full dialogue. The first sequence involving the two daemon guards of the prison fortress of Muul is one of the best in the entire audio drama. I love the utter simplicity of the sequence, as well as the utter brazenness of Leonatos and Cloten in their dealing with the daemons.
The heroics and trials of Leonatos and his allies make for a welcome experience. As I’ve said, it’s all very old-school and so lacks the deep exploration of 40k themes and tropes, etc, but then that’s what I see as the selling point of the audio drama. For anyone who has read the 40k fiction of that time, such as the Ragnar novels by William King, or the first few Gaunt’s Ghosts novels by Dan Abnett for example, this is all of that, ratcheted up to eleven. The nostalgia is definitely something that I need more of.
As Gordon did with his comics, so does Ben with the audio. He gives all the characters a great outing, particularly Proteus and Leonatos. From what I remember, the characterisation is fairly consistent, more so for the fact that despite being on a daemon world and surrounded by such fiends on all sides, the Blood Angels still fight a constant battle to keep their honour and stay true to their oaths. As a mid-point within the series, the audio drama works really well in that regard. And as a snapshot of greater events, I liked the fact that Leonatos was the primary protagonist here, compared to the comics where the focus often shifted around between him and his allies. Under Ben Counter, Leonatos is always in the forefront of events.
Lord Hexus, the daemon who lords over Muul made for an excellent villain. He speaks the most endearing pieces of (a bit) clichéd dialogue in an accent that I would place as somewhat Scottish. Damn good mix that one. His battle against Leonatos is very fast-paced and full of great bits. Imagining the scene playing out as a video is pretty easy, given how well Ben describes the entire scene sequence. The voice-over for Hexus was, in all honesty, totally fun. At a guess, since I’m unfamiliar with his name in BL audios, I’d say that he is voiced by Tim Benting, doing his first BL audio drama.
Of the other voices on the audio, I can place a few more I think: Gareth Armstrong as the Scout Cloten, David Timson as the narrator and Demosthenes Cain, Saul Reichlin as Leonatos, and Chris Fairbank as Colonel Tybalt of the Cadmian Janissaries. Not sure if I’ve gotten them right, so if anyone else has heard the audio drama, feel free to correct me!
As far as all of Heavy Entertainment’s audio dramas for Black Library go – Perfection, Malediction, Chosen of Khorne, etc – I would put Bloodquest: Prisoners of the Eye of Terror as the best they have done. The voice-overs are perfect all around. The sound effects are plentiful (not too much though, as it should be), and appropriate in all the right places. The narration is certainly the best. I’ve had issue in the past with the Saul Reichlin-voiced audio dramas, in that his narration is never the most exciting and he has the weirdest pauses in between his narration. This audio is head and shoulders above that issue though, and for that reason alone, I rate it very highly. Good narration is always the key to a great audio drama, since it’s the narrator’s voice that often begins and ends it, and acts as the bridge between all the different scenes.
As a story about Space Marines and daemons and the setting being a daemon-world, Ben Counter captures all the defining aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 here.Bloodquest: Prisoners of the Eye of Terror is a Warhammer 40,000 story through and through, with all that entails. It has a really weird depiction of Chaos, in that it is ever-changing with lots of different facets to it, and what not. And the daemons aren’t your typical sort of Bloodthirsters and Bloodletters and so on. Hexus, for one, is definitely no Bloodthirster, but is a bit of a unique specimen. Space Marines laying down the smack on daemons, with a double-dose helping of awesome and badass, is another thing I gladly (and very cheekily) call typical, perfect 40k. So there’s that too. The short of it all is that from the get go, the “40k feeling” is strong with this one.
One thing I’ve neglected to mention so far is that the narrator of the audio isn’t your typical omniscient narrator, it is Demosthenes Kain. He is a lore-keeper of sorts for the Cadmian Janissaries, one of the aforementioned allies that Leonatos and his brothers find and befriend in Muul. His perspective, and his narration (the way he does it that is), are a big part of the puzzle that is this audio drama. There is no straightforward story here, being in part about old grudges and old hatreds that are finally atoned for. The last track on the audio is a scene between Commander Dante, the Chapter Master of the Blood Angels, and Lord Mephiston, the Chapter’s Chief Librarian. Their discussion of the events of the audio provides a very interesting commentary on all of it, and highlights another staple of 40k fiction: the unreliability of the warp. Their discussion also touches upon the simple fact of a soldier’s life: morale and his willingness to keep going, to continue to fight against the odds. Makes for an excellent ending.
As best as I can tell, there is only a single flaw with the audio, one that seems to be a minor detail but is actually a big plot hole within the script. It deals with an injury that Leonatos suffers, and how this affects events later on in the audio. It really bothered me because it came across as a contrived and extremely convenient plot-device to make sure that the good guys win the day. I won’t mention it, as that’d be a rather big spoiler for the audio and if you are aware of it already, then it will muddy up your enjoyment of the climax, but suffice to say that this could have been handled far better than it was.
I could talk more about the audio, but I’ll stop here. Any more, and I would really just start to get too much into the minutiae of things. And to do that would be to spoil the fun of the whole thing. So take it from me that Bloodquest: Prisoners of the Eye of Terroris an absolute blast of an experience. Along with his novella Endeavour of Will that he did for the Architect of Fate anthology (the Space Marine Battles range), things are looking really good for Ben Counter as far as his return to writing 40k fiction. There’s also the fact that he has his first Warhammer Fantasynovel out soon for the Warhammer Heroesrange: Van Horstmann. Quite looking forward to that one!