Master of the First by Gav Thorpe / The Long Night by Aaron Dembski-Bowden – Audio Drama Review [Bellarius]
With the Horus Heresy still in full swing, Bellarius steps back to offer his opinion on an older duology sadly overlooked by far too many fans.
“A solid combination of stories, offering some very interesting twists in the usual loyalist/traitor dynamic.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Continuing to serve as a chance to see the greater universe about them, this latest audio drama duology offers more traitor action. Following up on the events on Caliban and the Night Lords captured following their legions defeat, they each take very different paths, gradually showing the changing nature of the galaxy about them. Despite the different setting, scale and even overall approach and focus by the author, their similarities lie in their roots. Each protagonist shows how their pasts ultimately shaped them, and that even in this late stage in the Heresy it only requires a slight nudge for a hero to become a turncoat to his own kind. An interesting point to be sure, as each warrior’s choice hinges upon a decision their respective leaders made long, long ago…
Master of the First
Seemingly thrown to the dogs and left forgotten on their primarch’s homeworld, resentment simmers among the Dark Angels. While no warrior will raise a hand against his brother, tension between the Calibanites and Terran astartes have never been higher and the rift between them is growing with every passing day. As he sits listening to a report detailing multiple infractions and apparent shadow games by the Calibanites, Terran born Chapter Master Astelan comes to understand that there is more at stake than he ever realised. Seizing an opportunity, he prepares to behead a new threat to his legion, once and for all…
As readers of other Gav Thrope novels will have quickly realised, this is another tale tying closely into his Dark Angels series and examining Astelan’s past. As one of the Fallen Angels, his involvement is an understandable one but ultimately serves as a double edged sword. While easily offering some of the audio drama’s best ideas and themes, it sadly undercuts the drama and can leave the listener just waiting for events to reach a predictable end.
The real strengths on offer lie in how they reflect upon Astelan’s character and even the astartes of this era. It’s been said many times that these legionaries should be treated as a far cry from the more knight templar chapters, but few seem to reflect upon this. However, in Astelan’s case we see how his more human nature and lack of mental conditioning left him a flawed, conflicted figure. Someone with all the power offered to a space marine but all the flaws found within an unenhanced human, the audio drama shows in him just how critically flawed their early processes were. What makes matters worse is that Astelan’s decision was born of the Emperor’s own actions, and a flawed understanding of what drove him to unite Terra by force. It’s an interesting display to be sure, and the points made to help to emphasise why the Imperium needed to change so dramatically in the wake of the Horus Heresy.
Another interesting point the story builds upon is the idea that Luther himself may not have been the direct instigator of the eventual rebellion. While the actual events of Caliban’s destruction still lie shrouded in myth, its key events have not changed so far as anyone is aware. Luther will fight El Jonson and Caliban will be destroyed by the Warp storm which follows. However, along with other short tales we see here that it’s almost as if he’s being pushed into the role of rebelling leader. Unable to fully control events upon his world, the Dark Angels turn upon one another under his command and his attempts to restore order or retain control are dragging him deeper into unwanted conflict. It’s another layer to the Dark Angels’ tragedy and an interesting twist which is helping to turn Luther into a more three dimensional character. In comparison to Horus’ own rapid turn, it can even be argued that this gradual and unwanted turn is a better executed plotline within the series.
The problem is that both of these events are largely just ideas, and the story only briefly touches upon them. While they would have made for an excellent overall tale, the listener is instead left as the story spins its wheels. For starters, anyone familiar with Astelan at all will know he ultimately chooses to side against his primarch. Even without that however, the story sets up events until it’s practically screaming the twist ending with every line of dialogue. As it’s reliant so heavily upon this sudden turn, the build-up is sadly subdued and it passes up on many opportunities which might have helped to bring the world to life. We see little of Caliban in its current state, hear little of how the legion has truly changed since El Jonson left or even learn of the concerns they have of being out of contact with the Imperium.
The plodding nature of the story further detracts from real drama. Besides a few interesting points where we see the legionaries scheming among one another, there’s really not much to go on. Even real action is relatively subdued save for one sparsely detailed engagement and a fleeting duel between a group of Dark Angels. As such, the story itself can seem oddly threadbare despite it hinging upon a key point in the Fallen’s history, and it ends just as it starts to enter any truly interesting territory.
What helps to truly save the audio drama is the execution here. Where the story might fail in places, the voice acting, sound design and general execution are absolutely top notch. There’s real weight to the discussion of treachery, and Astelan’s turn is brilliantly conveyed Tim Bentinck’s quiet turn, showing the warrior’s underlying thoughts and fitting perfectly with his gradual arc here. Games Workshop has picked a winning group of actors with this one and with luck we will see this cast put together again sometime in the future for other stories, perhaps even building upon this particular tale.
While much of this might have sounded quite negative, it’s not that Master of the First is bad so much as very limited. There are some obviously fascinating themes on offer here and as a character piece you are given a good impression of Astelan himself. It’s just that everything else fails to really gel or make the best use of what was on offer. Had it perhaps limited its focus to concentrate upon Astelan weighing his decision or flashing back to prior events in his life rather than focusing upon the conspiracy, this might have been a better story. Instead it’s simply an okay one with a few high points, the sort of thing you might listen to once but will probably forget about in the weeks to come.
The Long Night
As characters go, Sevatar was one of those surprise hits. Often only mentioned during the Night Lords trilogy simply as a leader eventually replaced by the Talonmaster, there was nevertheless a growing interest in seeing just who this mysterious warrior was. While past stories have shown a few key hints in just why he was such a truly distant warrior, Dembski-Bowden opted pursued the more challenging task with this one: Humanising a brutal, unrepentant killer of a legion who feasts upon fear.
Abandoned by his primarch and left in an isolated cell, Sevatar is left bereft of his arms and armour. In total silence and absolute darkness, he is feels nothing but the absolute, constant pain of his decaying mind. However, the Night Lord is not truly alone. The ghostly voices of a young child meet him each night, soothing his pain and perhaps allowing him a moment of true compassion for the first time in his long life…
The Long Night ultimately exemplifies how to handle a character piece, with a very narrow focus and a concentration placed purely upon the protagonist. While it does tie into an ongoing war and the Heresy itself, these elements are minimal at best, often only kept to the background until the third act. Even then, it’s only to help push drama in the climax and further justify a major change within Sevatar’s personality. It’s a very quiet story as a result, often hinging purely upon self-reflection and isolated conversations, bereft of any real action or even a single gun firing right up until the final act. While this would be a death knell for most stories in M31, it allows Dembski-Bowden to really focus upon the conversational and introspective elements he’s so famed for, presenting Sevatar as a curiously engaging figure. As the intro made clear, this man is a monster and that is a role he ultimately, quite willingly, stepped into without hesitation or second thought. As such, it’s quite surprising to see him presented not only in a sympathetic light here, but managing to gain some degree of humanity without abandoning his values.
While it does little to really depict or expand upon the Night Lord’s past, what we do get largely shows his childhood. We see just why he became slowly unhinged and why he is left in a state of perpetual agony, driven as much by his ambition as a quiet self-loathing of his abilities. While normally this could easily nosedive until the audio drama’s soundtrack could just be replaced with Linkin Park, it sidesteps it by ensuring Sevatar has little to no sympathy nor pity for himself. He’s sardonic, sarcastic, more than a little spiteful and driven by his pride without it turning him into a roaring, raging warrior like Angron. This naturally makes his conversations all the more fun to listen to, and all the more surprising when you learn he is speaking to a young child. While, as with Master of the First, this bit cannot be expanded upon without delving deep into spoiler territory, but it truly helps to elevate him to more of a well rounded character in the long run.
What’s perhaps most surprising are the descriptions here. Often one of the biggest problems working against the Horus Heresy audio dramas is that the authors don’t know when to stop. There’s a fine line between building upon a scene and just stopping to let the actors take the weight of the drama, without the narrator expounding upon some element, robbing the story of its focus. Oddly enough, The Long Night utilises its narrator far more than most, to the point where it might as well be a transcribed novel, but that does not hurt it. Instead, it helps portray a more vivid, clear environment inside Sevatar’s head, and you’re pulled into the quiet, cold atmosphere it slowly builds up sentence by sentence. With little more than Sevatar himself to work with, it manages to avoid feeling like padding as a result, and it even starts to ease back towards the end. It’s one of these rare moments where the creative team played exactly against what had been working for them, and it turned out for the best.
However, the real conflicting point many will find is the voice acting. Most are on point,as you would hope with a Heavy Entertainment production, but you’d be forgiven for questioning if the protagonist truly is Sevatar at first. Rather than the low growl or more sardonic tones you might expect, Jonathan Keeble plays the character as a cross between Ramsay Bolton and a Edmund Blackadder I. It’s a jarring shift at first, and while it certainly works with his interactions with the Dark Angel jailers, there’s at least two moments where his performance might cause you to burst out laughing. Whether or not that was the author’s intent is entirely up to you.
Atop of this, once the drama leaves Sevatar’s cell, the story ironically loses some of its momentum. While clearly building up towards an end, it loses many of the character moments and tight focus which made the earlier sequences so engaging. As it instead opts to follow a more traditionally 40,000 plot, with gunfire violence and death. While subdued and focused, when you get to the bit where a near naked posthuman killing machine is choking a man to death, it can seem like a far cry from the more nuanced moments we had before. That and the Dark Angels themselves seem to exist largely to give the story more of a definitive antagonist in some way, some show of power or muscle. Beyond the odd threat and standing guard, they really add nothing to the story as a whole.
While certainly not nearly as perfect as some would claim, The Long Night is nevertheless a high point in the Horus Heresy audio drama spin-offs. Alongside the Eightfold Path it represents what a talented writer can do when he’s given only a few, well known, tools to work with and his own creativity rather than having to manage a whole battlefield. As such, this is most definitely a must buy if you want to look beyond the core books of this series.