The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell – Book Review [EJ Davies]

#4 - The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell (reviewed by Bane of Kings)

EJ Davies, in his desperate bid to catch up with the phenomenal back catalogue from Black Library, turned his attentions to book 7 in the Space Marine Battles series of novels, and bids welcome to the inaugural novel by Black Library newcomer Sarah Cawkwell and the first novelisation of the little known Silver Skulls Space Marine chapter and their mission to keep the threat of Chaos from engulfing the Gildar Rift.

“A slow start but a powerful second half which turns this novel into a wonderful, visceral ride through The Gildar Rift.” ~ The Founding Fields

OK, so I’m a bit late to the party, but can we at least embrace that I showed up?  Although I should really keep notes, too, about salient details like character names and the li

Black Library says:

“When the ancient warship Wolf of Fenris emerges from the warp, Imperial forces find that it has been overrun by the dreaded Red Corsairs. However, this is no mere raiding party – Huron Blackheart and his entire renegade fleet soon follow, intent on conquering the Gildar Rift and tightening their grip on the sector. Lance batteries and torpedo salvos burn fiery contrails through the void, and only Captain Arrun of the Silver Skulls Space Marine Chapter can halt the renegades’ advance. The fate of the Rift will not be decided in the heavens but on the surface of Gildar Secundus below.”

So, here’s where I came from before reading this review.  I know Sarah outside of the simple relationship of ‘reader’ and ‘author’ and so I was a little cautious of approaching this book to read it at all, let alone reviewing it.  Knowing someone, and someone who actually reads the reviews, on a personal level threatens to alter how the review is written and therefore perceived.  I had to this point only read Primary Instinct (available in the Victories of the Space Marines anthology) and Bloodraven (in Age of Legend) and I had mixed feelings about both.  Though in a nutshell it can be described as ‘clearly she’s got talent, though I’m a little underwhelmed.’  I had not, repeat had not read any of the shorts available only in Hammer and Bolter, nor the Black Library Live! chapbook entry.  With all that firmly stated, here’s the review:

Sarah’s writing style shares some common habits with Ben Counter, and Rob Sanders.  There is evidence of ‘here’s character A, here’s some backstory of character A, here’s how it links with character B, and now here’s character B.’  This is a fairly well used way of introducing a reader to a character and has the ability to appear hackneyed and overused, but Sarah has something else up her sleeve with this.  In the same way as Rob Sanders introduced us to the Excoriators in Legion of the Damned (which I conversely read before this one) Sarah introduces us to the mysterious Silver Skulls.  With her introduction of characters we also get to see glimpses of chapter history, organisation, function, and deployment.  Unlike Mr. Counter (and my limited experience of his writing), and more in line with Rob’s – Sarah has a passion for her chapter and a very keen eye on all the research it has taken to get them onto the page and feeling like a chapter who’ve been in space for ages.

With the blurb above giving a satisfactory summary of the first act, here’s what I can add.  The Silver Skulls chapter are led by a group of chaplain/librarian hybrids called Prognosticators.  Since the second founding they have become a highly superstitious bunch and rarely go into battle, across space, into power armour without consulting the prognosticators and their means of communing with Him on Earth – be it Tarot wafers, the casting of runes, or whatever.  In this way the Skulls are not too dissimilar from the Space Wolves, save for the pragmatism and the tendency not to turn into gigantic power-armoured werewolves when too near the taint of Chaos.  The Master of the Fleet, Captain Arrun, character is one of our main focusses, and his constant bickering/infighting with his prognosticator is one of the central tenets of the first half of the book – the angsty butting-heads gives something of genuine readability.

As the book progresses we come across some very interesting ideas put into practice, and more fleshing out.  Examples, the Resurgent project – a project which is sure to have the Adeptus Mechanicum raising their augmetic eyebrows – is something not yet explored in the 40k universe, and adds a unique spice to the mix.  One of the other central characters, Porteus, gets captured and awakens missing part of himself – the exploration of the biology of this missing part of him, and how that will affect his future is again something new an interesting – particularly as he then begins to question his entire reason for being, and continued existence (something which I believe is inherent in the psychology of a Space Marine).  The focus on the Blood Reaver,  Tyrant of Badab, Lugft Huron is something hinted at elsewhere in novels – I think of Graham McNeill’s short The Skull Harvest (Heroes of the Space Marines) and Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Blood Reaver – is explored in a little more depth and actually adds menace to an already menacing character.  The idea of naming squads after the gemstones set into their chapter badges eye sockets tickled me immensely. Squad Garnet was a favourite (it was my mum’s birthstone, and sits in my signet ring as I type.)

There are flaws, but they are slight by comparison to the successes in the novel, and even slighter considering that the Space Marine battles series now has a 5:3 ratio of good:godawful in my mind.  Some of the battles feel a little ‘tab-A-into-slot-B’, but Sarah really does not skimp on the bloodshed, action, or gore.  Some of the motivation behind Blackheart’s decision to raid the Gildar Secundus refinery, again, felt a little bland – but when balanced against the end result it is a very minor concern.

What Ms. Cawkwell manages to do is – in the case of Arrun, Brand, Yanus, Porteus, and Volker Straub – give us a handful of characters we can see through the eyes of, and care about.  Not only this, building a chapter, and a sub-sector of the 40K galaxy is not easy, and Sarah does this with skill and care to make the reader truly believe that this region has existed since before the Heresy, and with the Silver Skulls wardenship, continue to do so.  While the shorts I have read have not yet rung my bell, novel length projects certainly seem to be Sarah’s forté and I am very much looking forward to the Silver Skulls getting another outing in novel format.

All in all this is a cracking read, and certainly stands with Legion of the Damned, Rynn’s World, Helsreach, and Battle of the Fang as the best in this series by far (there is a long drop off to Fall of Damnos, The Purging of Kadillus, and The Hunt for Voldorius.) and it is well worth the money.  It’s a great read with some excellent features, and is available to purchase from most suppliers and outlets in dead-tree format, as well as ebook formats from Black Library.

EJ Davies

EJ Davies: reader, reviewer, writer; and an avid lover of Black LIbrary products since the release of the seminal Horus Rising. EJ is currently working through the massive back catalogue of Black Library titles, and plugging away at his own fiction-based efforts in the vain hope of cracking his way into the author pool.