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Looking at Black Library’s latest novella, Shadowsun: The Last of Kiru’s Line by Braden Campbell, Bellarius’ analyses its problems.
“An ultimately failed effort to develop Shadowsun’s character, undermined by a flawed presentation of the tau themselves.” – The Founding Fields
Shadowsun: The Last of Kiru’s Line is a novella which could have easily worked but failed due to the direction it took. As an isolated short story it is adequate. Nothing exceptionally outstanding but fine for a few read throughs. As a character piece on the other hand, as the first book to have both a tau protagonist and show things from their perspective since Fire Warrior, it falls short of the mark. You can see the talent there, you can see the reasoning behind Braden Campbell’s decisions, you can see why the story was written in this way, but for all that there are big flaws in what he’s writing.
The story this time follows the commander’s attempts expanding the Empire further into the Imperium during the Third Sphere Expansion. Despite previous successes against the backwater human worlds, the tau fleet is hit by a surprise attack which cripples Shadowsun’s flagship and leaves her stranded on the planet below. With limited supplies, few troops and an encroaching Imperial Guard force hounding her every step, she must take an unlikely route to victory. Yet a greater decision hangs over her. With the death of her siblings in recent conflicts and the last of her line, she must decide between leaving to continue her bloodline or continue her service furthering the Greater Good.
The problems mentioned above are exemplified in its characters. Like Fire Warrior the novella makes the point of distinguishing between the human and aliens involved with multiple differences and distinguishing traits to differ them from one another. At the same time they’re written to be their own characters as much as possible within the short story. While not featuring the most diverse ensemble of figures despite the setting, with perhaps five in total present, there is a feeling of the book trying to use them to create a layered story within the space allowed.
Shadowsun herself is perhaps the best example of this between her actions, decisions and character development. Within the first chapter she has a very striking impression upon the reader, balancing out her ambition, desire for victory and no small degree of arrogance born out of her successes. The arrogance itself is used as a point to try and represent her perspective of the world and by extension that of the tau, but it’s here that cracks in what Campbell was trying to do start to appear. While it does help to characterise her and gives greater leeway for her development, it often veers into contradicting her person.
The book tries to make a point of Shadowsun’s duty and role to the Empire but much of the time this is driven towards thoughts of herself and how much of a legacy she might leave upon the world. More than once she effectively daydreams about statues being made in her honour after her death. While this was intended to serve a purpose with her decision in the conclusion, it contradicts the “cog in a machine” mentality and dogma which define the tau and makes many of her remarks seem out of place. The same goes with her talk about the planet’s beauty and of humans, many times they contradict one another or shift on a whim making her look like a hypocrite or sometimes overly petty. While probably intended as character development it isn’t written in a way in which her decisions develop and gradually change.
The same goes for the Imperial major character to a lesser degree, Colonel Hollett, whose motivations seem very questionable when they are revealed. He seems to be assisting the tau to save something dear to himself but when you actually put some thought into it he’s losing something vastly greater. This is only exemplified by a scene in which the tau openly mock his beliefs in the Emperor, we’ll get to that in a minute, and commit a form of sacrilege.
The more you think about what he’s doing the less sense things make. These wouldn’t be quite so bad were the novella not so heavily character driven.
Perhaps the worst aspect however is the way the book treats the tau themselves and has a case of severe artistic licence when it comes to the canon. The aforementioned bit with the Emperor? The scene might make sense until you consider that it’s been long established the tau don’t care about the religion of others. So long as they follow the Greater Good and accept their place within the Empire they don’t give a damn about who a person prays to. Another point is soon introduced with tau technology where messages are repeatedly broadcast to the whole of the empire and to T’au itself and replies are given within hours. Whereas previously they were long established to be required to use message boats for long distance communication, they just send e-mails and get responses within a day or two. More of these just keep happening until they build up into bigger problems and become severely immersion breaking for anyone with knowledge of the alien race.
Now you might think this was an entirely bad tale, but no. When you ignore the canon and character problems to focus upon the plot you can see talented writing. Elements both major and minor are introduced long before they come into play in a very fluid manner, both keeping up the novella’s fast pace and allowing for rapid development. Furthermore the book is extremely tightly and well-structured in how each event builds and flows into one another, creating the sense of a much greater story than would usually be allowed for such a small number of words. Unfortunately neither of these mean much when the novella’s content has so many problems, leaving the infrequent battle scenes only aspects to truly appreciate.
There really isn’t much fun to be had with this one. While it has good intentions it definitely needed a few rewrites and an editor who knew the tau better before it was released. As it stands for both character drama and as an example of the tau way of thinking you’re better off buying a copy of Fire Warrior and reading that.