Alone by Joe Parrino – Audio Drama Review [Bellarius]
Looking into another of the Black Library’s audio dramas, Bellarius details the strengths and weaknesses of Alone by Joe Parrino.
“One of the single best examples of Space Marine horror to date” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Of all that you can say about his stories, Joe Parrino seems to be at his best when he is handling spiritual or otherworldly themes. This is in part thanks to his writing style, having a firm grip upon presenting the unknown or creeping themes, but also in that his characters always seem to be at their strongest when facing what lies beyond. Witness stood out thanks to its Lovecraftian descriptions and depiction of the Grey Knights, while by comparison In Service To Shadows failed to resonate so strongly thanks to its xenos villains. Equally, while The Shape of the Hunt succeeded in presenting an interesting and balanced depiction of the White Scars, it was their spiritualism and aspects of tribalism which made them memorable. As a result of this, Alone proves to be one of his stronger stories, focusing squarely upon Chaos and a lone warrior hunting through the bowls of a damned vessel.
Having been separated from his battle brothers, Librarian Ithkos of the Raven Guard prowls amid ruined shrines and desolated halls for signs of survivors. Through his comm. bead, the astartes hears the whispers of the dead, and in every shadow something unspeakable lies in wait. As time runs out and space itself seems to warp about him through the corrupted vessel, Ithkos fights to survive and re-join his company. Yet when hints of survivors are found potentially still hidden away aboard the doomed ship, just what price might he be forced to pay in return for their safekeeping?
The obvious problem with trying to write a story about the astartes like this is that it’s ultimately a horror tale. It’s Event Horizon crossed with The Shining, with isolation and damnable spirits haunting every deck of the ship, yet in every sense this should be the wrong protagonist. After all, there is good reason why they are renowned to “know no fear” and they are easily among humanity’s greatest champions. Trying to break that trend or making them too human can easily break immersion, yet the story manages to find a way around this. It strikes just enough of a balance between horrific threat and an astartes’ natural stoicism by calling upon classic horror tropes. Old visuals and classic motifs are implemented here to ensure that there is a cord struck with the listener. Never delving truly into cliches but at the same time using the right kind of terms, built up imagery and words to construct a sense of ever present danger in the reader’s mind.
What’s more is that much of the story goes with Ithkos surrounded by an ever present threat, yet ensures he is never given anything to directly fight. After all, a gene-forged super-soldier clad in ceramite armour and wielding a gyrojet rocket pistol and mind bullets is a threat to anything with true substance. Keeping something in the shadows or just barely on the edge of perception however, that gives the impression of something stalking him. Some ancient being, toying with some captive warrior by speaking through the voices of his dead comrades and observing him from the distant shadows. Something which is waiting for an opening, for the right moment to truly bring him low. This is emphasised very early on when the daemon attempts to tear information from Ithkos’ mind. It is driven out quickly, but it’s still powerful enough to take some details it required and continue to taunt him. It shows the protagonist is still an astartes, but he remains under threat by a powerful enemy without substance. Even when an enemy he can physically fight presents itself, the writing still brings some creepy imagery to mind, such as inhuman hands clinging to the edge of Ithkos’ shield and trying to peel it from his hands. Plus, while the story does not dwell upon it, there is the obvious horror of a stealthy warrior of Corax being trapped in a place where every shadow is his foe and his every movement watched.
Kudos definitely also needs to be given to the sound crew on this one. We’ve spoken before about how the growing quality of the music and sound effects in these audios, yet this one proves to be especially successful. Timing of musical cues, effects and a constant background soundtrack is even more critical in horror than drama or warfare, and thankfully what’s here is a cut above previous productions. With a wide variety of audio effects and themes available, there is a constant sense of movement and pacing to the story, yet still finds the time to cut out to focus upon the voice actor’s performances. Said performances are delivered by the usual suspects, each very familiar to fans of to Warhammer 40,000 by this point, with Gareth Armstrong delivering the narration and Ithkos, then Jonathan Keeble and Robin Bowerman voicing the secondary characters. Each puts in the strong performances you would expect, yet at the same time it’s not all that perfect. As with Mortarion’s Heart, the issue here arises from the voices of the villains, which simply do not quite fit them. This is in part down to some of the vocal effects used to distinguish beings of the Warp which, while improved from past outings, are still oddly off-kilter, but also in part down to ruining a certain twist. The second Ithkos finds a certain character, you’ll know they’re a villain purely thanks to the actor’s delivery.
Further problems and cracks begin to emerge within the story as it progresses, veering from horror and turning more towards traditional bolter porn. It’s not that they’re badly delivered, quite the opposite, but there’s no real gradual transformation from one type of story to the next. You really do have the tale effectively leap from a slow burning horror tale with moments of combat to Ithkos himself entering battle after battle against far more tangible daemonic foes. These gradually become the varied types we’ve so often seen on the tabletop, and as such the Chinese Wall a listener might have built in their head gradually comes crumbling down.
Sadly a bigger problem stems from the Raven Guard themselves. While largely stuck to a single character for most of the story, and thankfully taking a few more of their weaknesses such as slow recruitment into account by the end, there is little done to really explore them. Much like Deliverance Lost or an unfortunate number of Raven Guard tales, little is really done to make them better defined as a single chapter. These ones are astartes to be sure, but there isn’t enough done with their traditions or ideas to make them feel like warriors of Deliverance or an elite guerrilla fighting force. It’s not enough to doom the story by any means, but it when you really stop to examine Ithkos and the others, despite their history they come across as surprisingly flat without threats to work off of.
The ending especially is where the story fails for a few reasons, notably the sheer shift in tone and style, but more prominently how the story seems to just shift overall. Along with a very explosive and lengthy battle against an exceedingly powerful daemon, the grandiose descriptions take on a far more bombastic tone, and it really seems as if the story was trying to go out with a bang. While still going against the overall style of the story, and a lack of more gradual escalation, this still might have worked, were it not for what follows. There is a final battle against a far weaker foe which occurs, yet after the previous engagement it is such a step down it’s hardly noteworthy by comparison. Given the story already reached its peak, it would have been far more fitting for it to end on a quiet note of some kind, and there was imagery there for such a conclusion. However, by turning it into a fight, a lot of the impact of that imagery is lost.
Still, Alone proves to be a good audio drama and an entertaining story despite this. It’s a sign that horror can be done properly even with astartes and the waves of daemonic entities do initially prove to be entertainingly creative and well thought out. Combined with Parrino’s creative descriptions, the high quality of the sound effects and some very memorable scenes for such a short tale, and it’s worth getting. While retaining a few obvious flaws, it’s certainly better than the average audio drama and hopefully a sign of better things to come for the Raven Guard.