The Shape of the Hunt by Joe Parrino – Audio Drama Review [Bellarius]
Reviewing something with M41’s White Scars for the first time, Bellarius analyses Joe Parrino’s The Shape of the Hunt.
“An essential purchase for any White Scars fan.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
If you have been listening to Black Library audio dramas for long enough, you’ll know they ultimately fall into two categories: Brief introspective pieces on characters and certain events, or full bore bolter porn the likes books rarely see. Corax physically punching a Predator tank into submission for example. While The Shape of the Hunt certainly has its fair share of combat, it breaks away from this tradition, using the characters involved to instead give a surprisingly in-depth look at the White Scars chapter for an audio drama.
Set in the aftermath of the Imperium’s push to drive Commander Shadowsun’s forces back into their domain, a Brotherhood of the Khan’s sons race across the planet. Fighting their way through stragglers, ambushes and retreating enemy forces, Suljuq Khan and Stormseer Checheg have their sights set on one target: Shadowsun herself. Their task – to intercept the kill the tau commander before she can escape.
While this sounds like your common or garden 40K tale, the introduction soon makes this clear it is anything but. An introduction by the Stormseer speaks of the events in a manner almost reminiscent of the Conan films, speaking to the audience directly following their mission’s end.
His manner of speech quickly establishes how truly different the White Scars are. They have continually been presented as a very different force from any other chapter, both due to their homeworld’s culture and also their almost isolated state from the rest of the Imperium. Behaving even more like the techno-barbarians they were regarded as by others in Scars, they are very individually identifiable and quickly stand out in your mind.
His manner of speech and the way his mind thinks is unique enough in of itself, steeped in spiritualistic terms unlike any other Imperial mind in Black Library, and even refers to the tau or other forces by completely different names. One brilliant example of this is when, after finishing off a convoy of traitors, the Scars intentionally put out all surrounding fires as they feel their enemy does not deserve any kind of funeral pyre. It goes a long way to making them stand out and turn them into an individual force, as do other traits such as the constant emphasis upon the joys of battle, which seem more like an enforced tradition at times.
The narration’s distinctive style carries over into the battles and scenes themselves which use extremely poetic details to describe battles, especially early on. While this would usually be a mark against any story, here it works. It makes it seem like a fireside fable and augments the framing device with Checheg speaking of the past. Though it, the White Scars are made to seem like a truly unique force with a totally different culture to all other chapters. Not, as has unfortunately been the case a few times, figures with marginally different background. We see in the story how this can benefit them, but also how they can truly be felled as a result of it.
Ironically despite it being a story about a force whose most distinctive attribute is speed, the story is more than willing to spend its time exploring these themes as they are carefully interwoven into the plot. It’s all the stronger as a result.
As this is shown from the White Scars’ perspective, something made very clear throughout, a little leeway can be given to certain depictions. This is greatly effective for two reasons:
Firstly, when the book explores the aspects of the White Scars’ beliefs in afterlife, death or certain other aspects it does not confirm nor deny their legitimacy. They are written in such a way the reader can either believe them entirely or put them down to a battle weary mind suffering from severe blood loss and trauma.
Secondly because of the figures involved, due to the White Scars’ biased nature in some respects they can afford to be given a slightly skewed representation. For example the tau are supposedly seen using their auxhilaries as fodder to slow down the White Scars, but we see little actual proof of that beyond the Khan’s speculations. These misjudgments and differing viewpoints become a major element within the plot and a core aspect of the tale which is brilliantly handled at the end.
It’s actually the combat which deserves praise for one thing – Keeping the space marines powerful without turning them into unstoppable juggernauts. All too many stories the space marines are written as almost invincible killers who will go down to nothing short of a krak missile to the face. Here there power is obvious, as is their skill at arms, but that degree of invincibility is nowhere near as high. It allows for both sides of the conflict to be treated with a good deal of respect. Also, for kroot to actually be shown as capable killers for a change.
However, the audio drama does suffer in a number of areas.
A few voices do start to slide into the borderline yellowface the White Scars suffered in Garro: Sword of Truth at times, which can be quite disconcerting despite the drama’s high quality. Similarly, while it has obviously been translated to audio format the script suffers from a few notable hiccups. At one point Checheg is supposed to be speaking in the language of Chogoris and misuses an Imperial word he is unfamiliar with. The unfortunate problem here is he is speaking English the entire time with no discernible shift in speech or style.
The descriptions and details of the story do seem to rely a little too heavily upon certain tribal or barbaric details. When talking about the White Scars or Raven Guard, emphasis is placed on the various fetishes or bone, feather or other substances and battle damage. Even when talking about Checheg himself, there is less talk about his features than the scars be bears and emphasising its weather beaten nature. As a result of this, the likes of the Fire Warriors, Battlesuits and general tau units suffer quite badly in the descriptive department due to their shine designs. As do the Gue’vesa, who are only truly notable thanks to having blue face paint. Yes, that’s unfortunately in there.
Atop of this, the combat itself can be oddly distant at times. While this does work for the story’s purposes, a few times it just seemed to lack some of the more distinct or grounded details about any battleground. This is especially true in the latter two engagements which felt as if they lacked an emphasis upon space or the distances of figures from one another. Similarly, environments often felt as if they lacked details which would have helped flesh them out. Many areas might have been open plains, but all to often they felt too much like open empty space without anything specific to latch onto, or for the reader to form an image in his mind.
Finally, there’s the characters themselves. Despite having a few defining traits and good moments, neither the Khan nor Checheg ever felt as if they stood out as individuals. Far too often they seemed more like individual examples of their chapter, personifying certain traits. While this has been present within other series, such books were also able to make the characters stand out on their own at the same time.
Despite the problems listed above however, this is a truly great audio drama. It’s a great companion piece to Stormseer and serves as a very interesting introduction to the White Scars as a chapter. With interesting ideas, great presentation and some of the best sound effects we have had in any audio drama to date it’s definitely a recommended tale. If you have any interest in Jaghatai Kahn’s forces at the end of M41 then definitely pick this one up.