In Service To Shadows by Joe Parrino – eBook Review [Bellarius]
Giving another look at a Tau Empire vs Space Marines story. Bellarius details his thoughts on In Service To Shadows.
“An ambitious tale which is let down by its page count.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Another story in the Damocles collection and following directly on from The Shape of the Hunt, In Service To Shadows sees focus turn from the White Scars to the Raven Guard. Several months on from the conflict on Voltoris, and the Imperial forces are preparing to make their presence known elsewhere. Some vessels are being deployed to distant battlefields, while others are pushing further into territory which has fallen under the influence of the Tau. Under the command of the Inquisition, Sergeant Talow’s units are sent to a world ready to fall to the xenos. However, things soon prove to be far worse than feared and soon the Raven Guard are facing enemies on all sides.
Considered to be the canon incarnation of the Reasonable Marines, at least in terms of tactics, the Raven Guard fight via very different means than other chapters. Less prone to the bombastic last stands, charges or relentless advances, they are far more concerned with stealth and subterfuge. It’s a very interesting angle for a force of superhuman in power armour to go with, but the details present do help sell you on the idea.
Very early on we are given suggestions of just how they operate, and work on battlefields. This is both shown in their aversion to open battle and decisions to make sudden withdrawals, but also their planning prior to arrival. The short briefing gives an impression of how such groups work, making it seem as if there is only a small combat squad present as an honour guard rather than an entire company.
Along with showing how the Raven Guard operates, the story also manages to get the Tau Fire Caste right for once. Treating them as a similarly mobile force who will bring in heavy units to where they are needed, they only fail when they are truly pinned down to a single position. Better yet, they do not simply have the Raven Guard run rings around them via stealth, allowing the story to dodge the ongoing “Everything is going to plan!” rut the similarly stealthy Alpha Legion are stuck in.
We also see combat described in a very different manner than before. In-keeping with the semi-stylistic descriptions of Shape of the Hunt, emphasising upon very short but sweet moments of combat. While the usual brutal descriptions would definitely favour a longer story with these marines, they work here because of the aforementioned tactics involved. Each engagement emphasising the brief moments of violence used.
The major themes here also do highlight why a world would turn to the Tau Empire without resorting to the mind control nonsense which has plagued past books. While only just touched upon, you are given reasons that Sarej would want to side with the xenos without resorting to the usual dystopian Imperium reasoning. Yes, that might be a good reason, but you can only use it so many times before it begins to wear thin. Adding a little variety here was a good move, but the problem is that the book fails to really make full use of the idea. This actually goes for a lot of elements involved.
The story often feels as if it is rushing through events with frequent time skips and jumps taking place. This results in a very disjointed narrative at times and doesn’t leave enough space to fully explore the themes present, with the ideas of the Imperium’s belief of peace being a lie being reduced from an interesting concept to a repeated statement. Furthermore, this often means that certain events and battles feel as if they lack significant impact due to no direct aftermath following them up. It does feel as if this was a much bigger story which has been squashed down and would have benefitted from being left to a novella rather than a short tale. This said, the narrative does present the idea of an ongoing guerrilla campaign over time. However, this isn’t the story’s biggest problem. That would be the following two points.
Firstly is the oddly blunt descriptions used at times. While the dialogue is perfectly serviceable and works for the short conversations because of the meaning behind the words, there are many descriptions which lack this quality. For example, in an early conversation Talow admits that he knows far more than he is letting on about the world and has heavily researched it. However, rather than saying something very briefly mentioning the hours spent examining the world, its history or truly detailing their preparation it states he knows “details, plans and secrets, but he kept them to himself.” It would be a minor change, but one which would give a better impression of the chapter by expressing very quickly the amount of effort put into their research on the world before landing.
The second point is the one which is going to cause more problems: The fact so much of the story is built upon The Shape of the Hunt. Throughout its brief length Talow, who was the marine who recovered Checheg, frequently refers to how the marines behaved and their own hunt. This only has any real impact if you listened to the audio drama and without it, many readers will feel as if they are missing out on a major part of a story. This could have been resolved with a sequence where Talow sits contemplating the previous events and fully recaps them, but that is not done here.
To be clear: The story is not bad but it does feel as if its short length is its worst enemy. There are definitely good bits here and for its cheap price it’s hard to argue it’s not worth buying. That said, it’s very clear this could have been a vastly better tale than what we received in the end with a few changes or perhaps even a narrower focus in some respects.
If you’re interested in the Raven Guard this isn’t a bad tale for the tactics and themes involved, but it’s nothing spectacular either.