The Gothic War by Gordon Rennie – Omnibus Review [Bellarius]
Going back to the beginning, Bellarius analyses Gordon Rennie’s tie-in duology depicting the main conflict throughout Battlefleet Gothic.
“Bloody, violent, grimy and with plenty of Chaos. Classic 40K action of the best kind.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
When it comes to Black Library, there are a few key novels which are signified as being massive game changers for the franchise and fan favourites. Ian Watson’s Space Marine, Dan Abnett’s First and Only, and Graham McNeill’s Storm of Iron are the traditional ones, but the Gothic War duology is sadly forgotten these days. While likely down to a lack of reprints until recently, the sad truth is that it’s one of the best novels of its kind and covers a subject so often skipped by many authors: Naval life and battle. True, many books do feature this to a fair degree, but so few are exclusively set on warships, and both Execution Hour and Shadow Point are perfect examples of how to truly nail this.
Set during Abaddon’s Twelfth Black Crusade, the series follows the crew of the Lord Solar Macharius as they are deployed to help turn the tide in a slowly losing battle against the traitor fleets. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned on countless occasions, the vessel and her captain, Leoten Semper, keep winning battles time and time again. However, as the ever traitorous Eldar offer an alliance against Chaos and the Planet Killer continues on its ponderous course towards heavily inhabited worlds, can even the most staunch of Imperial commanders hope to turn the tide?
Usually when it comes to an omnibus this would be broken down into a novel by novel analysis, as with the Soul Drinkers saga, but both books share many of the same qualities. As such this is going to be a more general discussion of the series on the whole.
Now, being a classic Black Library story this is far more Trollslayer than it is The First Heretic. Everything present in here isn’t so much focused on characterisation as it is action and much of the story focuses far more upon the battles, running events and personal stories than it is about deep character examination or internal feuding. While many points in the story will stop to briefly examine the histories behind certain characters or even set up fights between one another, these are kept more to the background in favour of the combat. While this would usually be a detrimental failing of a book, it instead works in its favour, largely thanks to the style it is presented in. Being more famous for his writing on comics than novels to many, Rennie’s series here is heavily broken up into very loosely connected but largely independent tales. The first several parts of Execution Hour are effectively skirmishes, more isolated than part of some running story and you could easily see this as a part of some omnibus or running trilogy such as the early Constantine trade. It’s better suited to light or short bursts of reading to be sure, but it’s hardly a failing in of itself.
While the stories are much smaller in scale, they help to give a very quick impression of the crew, the combat and Rennie’s very visual forms of storytelling and punchy descriptions help to bring the story to real life. While it might lack the slow speeds or precision descriptions of ship to ship combat found in Ben Counter’s works, and often forgets the ranges which enemy ships engage one another in Warhammer, it retains the energy and speed to keep the reader engrossed. No one quite depicts a strike cruiser rushing an enemy formation or barrages of missiles striking their target quite like what’s found here.
In addition to this the setting is far grimier and willing to show a far less perfect Imperium than many later novels. While writers would later fully embrace the idea of biased storytelling influencing how the Imperium was shown, the technology here is far more run down and it reflects more of the idealised fascist society you’d expect in Starship Troopers than anything else. This actually makes the work seem all the more alive despite its occasionally cartoonish trappings, and while Chaos is still shown as the big enemy it’s far more villainous than you’d expect to find in later stories.
Perhaps the biggest thing of note however is the early appearance of Abaddon the Despoiler. While only briefly showing up in the book, Abaddon here is very much the classic villain in every sense but very intelligent and very powerful. Enigmatic to the last, he shows up here as more the dark lord than semi-reasonable hero of Dembski-Bowden’s works, and there is rarely a moment where he does not outshine the story. While very little of his background is gone into, what little we get is truly memorable.
Unfortunately if there is a serious point to criticise, it’s that there isn’t enough of an impact when it comes to the villains. While Abaddon remains his perpetually awesome brooding self and the early battle against an old vessel once allied with the Macharius are both memorable, there’s no single antagonist to help keep the tale going. Even the traitor astartes planning to use a world’s destruction to his own ends and a manipulative Imperial servant don’t stand out, and the story feels a little more empty without that looming foe. Shadow Point is more ambitious, but this same flaw seems to largely apply, and it’s more a general war you’re invested in over any single antagonist. Atop of this, while the combat is frantic and remains furiously detailed, sometimes it can seem oddly short. Despite the scale of the vessels involved, too often even the vast capital ships seem like they’re written as frigates with their speed and style of combat. Those more used to what was shown in Dark Mechanicus or Xenos will definitely be thrown off by this.
At the end of the day, The Gothic War omnibus is different, a little more pulp than high literature in many respects, but far from bad in any way. If you’re after some bite-sized reading which is broken down into multiple running tales and desire some high grade bolter porn, this is definitely one well worth looking into. Despite the trade’s high price tag, it’s well worth a purchase.