Shadowhawk reviews the latest Horus Heresy audio drama, Butcher’s Nails, a tale written by Aaron Dembski-Bowden that explores the psyche of Primarch Angron and his relationship with his brother, Lorgar Aurelian.
“This is a fantastic example of that which is Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s strength: exploring the relationships between Primarchs. A must have for any Horus Heresy/Warhammer 40,000 fan.” ~The Founding Fields
My experience with Aaron’s previous audio drama, Night Lords: Throne of Lies, was infamously bad. Infamously bad in that I really didn’t enjoy it on any level and found very, very few things to like about it. The review somehow went viral in a sense and resulted in a fair bit of hate mail and negative commentary directed towards me. That was the closest I’ve ever come to being depressed by reviewing, which I do as a hobby and I was almost put off reviewing any of Aaron’s work. It seemed that people had entirely neglected to take into account my thoughts on Soul Hunter which I ranked quite highly. Ah well. So it was with a LOT of trepidation that I plugged in Butcher’s Nails a few days ago and began listening. My expectations weird towards the negative and try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to be even neutral for it.
This is definitely the one time I’m glad to have been proven entirely wrong.
Butcher’s Nails is Aaron’s first Horus Heresy audio drama, and his fourth published story for the setting. What’s one of the things going for him here is that he has stuck to variety because this time he’s tackled an entirely different Primarch and legion: Angron of the World Eaters. The other thing is that he has stuck entirely to his strength and delved into the psychology of a Primarch and his relationship with his sons, his servants and his brothers. That strength was the defining aspect of The First Heretic, Aurelian and Savage Weapons. It holds true here and consequently, Butcher’s Nails became a top-of-the-mark audio drama for me.
To be honest, Angron has never interested me, although his legion of crazed Khorne-loving killers has. So it was always going to be interesting for him to get any amount of page-time in the Horus Heresy novels. His portrayal so far has been rather neutral in that it has stuck to his typical characterisation. One of the questions I had going in was if Aaron was going to challenge my perception of the Red Angel or not and whether he would bring something new to the table where he is concerned. The question was answered from the very first moments of the audio drama when Angron is contemplating destroying the Word Bearers fleet and Lorgar with it. Talk about a momentous, shocking beginning. I was hooked from thereon.
Sean Barrett returns to narrator duties for this one and he is just as good here as he was in Eye of Vengeance by Graham McNeill. There is a sort of clinical aspect to his voice that I quite like and in a story about Angron, it works very well for him. The directness with the hint of a heavy tone suits the World Eaters because they are a direct and brutal weapon when wielded by their insane Primarch. I’d definitely like for Sean Barrett to do more Black Library audios because I think his narrator’s voice is entirely perfect for the setting. I’d also be interested in seeing how he handles Warhammer Fantasy audios. While technically there isn’t that much difference between Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 4o,000 the atmospheric effect of a narrator’s voice is still a defining aspect of both since its the most important part of an audio drama in my estimation. So yeah, more Sean Barrett please.
There are four other voice-actors for Butcher’s Nails, making it the audio drama with the biggest cast so far I believe. With such a varied voice-cast, it is a given that the audio will also have a lot of characters in it and in that respect, Aaron delivered very well. Aside from Angron himself, we get Lorgar Aurelian, Primarch of the Word Bearers legion; Kharn the Betrayer, Angron’s equerry and one of his best captains; Captain Lotara, commander of the World Eater’s flagship Conqueror; Lotara’s first officer; a nameless Eldar “captain” and finally, Argel Tal, the Captain of the Gal Vorbak, who are the preeminent Possessed warriors of the Word Bearers. A varied cast isn’t it? The voice-actors overall did a superb job with them and I’m quite pleased with how things turn out overall.
One of the things that I wish the audios explained, especially with such a big cast, was which character the voice-actors are portraying. Unless its Toby Longworth, Beth Chalmers, Gareth Armstrong or John Banks, I can’t really tell who’s who/what in the audios. With Rupert Degas, who played Torias Telion in Eye of Vengeance, I think he’s voice-acted Angron but I’m not sure. I just can’t tell. So while I can’t comment on how good the voice-actors have been on that level, I can say that they all delivered fantastically on the characters otherwise. I don’t need to know who’s voice-acted who, because my enjoyment of the audio does not depend on that identification, but it would still be nice to have a cheat sheet.
[EDIT: Editor Laurie Goulding gave me the cheat sheet! Rupert Degas voiced Lorgar Aurelian and Argel Tal; Chris Fairbank voiced Kharn and the Eldar Captain; David Timson voiced Angron and Keijic. And Chris Fairbank will indeed be reprising his role as Kharn. Awesome news all around and once again, great job by the voice-actors.]
Angron’s voice, while softer/lighter than I expected, was still quite powerful enough when needed. His madness, his insanity, his tortured psyche etc are well-captured by the voice-actor and must be commended for a job well done. Pretty much right on the money as far as I’m concerned because that’s how Angron should be at this stage in his life. He has just begun to fall to Khorne and has yet to achieve that secret goal he doesn’t know about so it all fits. Lorgar also was entirely fitting. His voice was calm, composed with a hint of steel underneath and it certainly reflected the new Lorgar, the one who survived Istvaan and the Eye of Terror.
Charlotte Page as Captain Lotara Sarin was decent but not as good as the other voice-actors. Sarin was too soft-spoken and too “meek” considering that she is the captain of the Conqueror. Unfortunately that’s also true for Beth Chalmers. Voice-actors for the female characters in BL audios don’t seem to get the voices down right for some reason. Page’s performance leaves something to be desired but its not too bad. It could have done with being more forceful and challenging but its not really something I hold either against Page or Sarrin. I still had fun with the audio.
The real surprise voice-acting wise was whoever did Kharn the Betrayer (he isn’t called the Betrayer yet). I expected something like how Angron was portrayed, except more crazed and insane (is that even possible?) with a heavy English accent (by which I mean UK English if that makes any sense) but instead we got a somewhat cultured, normal voice with a Russian accent. As surprised as I was, I found myself warming to both the character and the actor. I can only hope that the same voice-actor gets to continue in Anthony Reynolds’ Chosen of Khorne, which is set in M41 and features Kharn prominently (he is on the cover as well). Argel Tal’s voice-actor was splendid since he captured the Crimson Lord’s duality very, very nicely (aided by audio wizardry of course) and it really made me want an Argel Tal-focused audio drama from Aaron. Imagine an entire audio drama with Possessed characters. It would be awesome, to put it simply.
The others, Lotara’s first officer and the Eldar captain didn’t make much of an impression on me since they were just passing characters and voices. If Butcher’s Nails had been longer I suppose I could have liked them more but I simply didn’t get enough time with them. Ah well, we make do with what we get.
Overall, the voice-acting was great and I hope that BL looks into doing more audios with big casts in the future.
Aaron’s characterisation of all the characters was also right on the money, especially Angron and Lorgar, Kharn and Argel Tal. It was really nice to get the symbolism across the Primarchs and their most favoured sons because it totally raises the quality of the audio. Like I said before, Aaron’s gift is his characterisation of the Primarch relationships and seeing how Lorgar and Angron interact with each other was a treat. More so because their relationship grows in the telling, going from outright animosity to a grudging respect of each other. You guys are definitely in for a treat here, make no mistake.
The pacing of the audio is slow in places, but not overbearingly slow. It moves along at a good pace with plenty of action along the way and enough introspection and dialogue in between. My only complaint would be that some scenes are entirely too short, no more than six or seven seconds at most. Those annoyed me a fair bit. In my opinion, scenes in an audio drama should be several minutes in length and the shortest should be no less than 40-45 seconds long. It just detracts from the experience because then its as if the audio drama is moving too fast and I can’t latch on to the story that well.
The action SFX and the writing itself are, together, excellent. We get some really nice insights into how Angron wages war and his action scenes really capture the feel of the legion’s nature. Once again, its all direct, blunt, and brutal. There is a good variation in the void battles and in the boarding assaults, which keep the reader hooked on long enough for the scene changes and then its back to the same thing. You don’t get a second’s worth of boredom with any of the scenes which was good. Wouldn’t have felt like a good yarn otherwise.
However, what really stood out for me in the audio was the titular aspect: the Butcher’s Nails. They are the technology that was implanted into Angron when he was a slave-gladiator in the pits of Desh’ea, his homeworld, and the technology that is implanted into every World Eater. Aaron really conveys the horrific nature of this invasive tech and while the scenes are not as chilling as I expected they’d be, they do come close. What they do to Angron and how they’ve affected his life so far and where they’ll take him was all nicely explained, making you sympathise with the poor sod. If not for those damn things… well, that line of speculation will get us nowhere. Suffice to say, I’m hoping that Aaron continues this little thread in Betrayer, his next Horus Heresy novel.
My biggest gripe with the audio is that the second half of the back-of-the-box description, the part dealing with the xenos raiders preventing his eventual ascension to daemonhood, was entirely secondary to everything else. It should have been a key part of the audio drama but it all felt… incidental. I expected more elaboration on the subject but we don’t get much of it. A shame. The symbolism of the whole affair, considering that the Eldar had made at least one previous direct attempt on Angron’s life when he was recently arrived on Desh’ea, was a powerful one and should have been done justice. Once again, we make do with what we get. I’m certainly not too hung up about it, but it would have been great nonetheless.
My other gripe, although this one is minor, is that Angron and Lorgar are referred to as the Eater of Worlds/World Eater and Bearer of the Word/Word Bearer repeatedly. I believe that Primarchs should have titles that are different to what their legions are called, such as the Gorgon for Ferrus Manus, or the Phonecian for Fulgrim. The constant reference as exists in the audio grated on me throughout.
So overall, a fantastic outing with the World Eaters and Angron. Lots of bits and pieces here for fans of the series since there are references to other novels and current plot threads and the audio also leads in nicely to Betrayer, which we should be getting sometime in the second quarter of next year.
I do recommend the audio, its a must-buy.
Note: I want to point out that this review is no terms a medium for me to make up for my review of Throne of Lies. I didn’t write a positive review of Butcher’s Nails because I think I have to satisfy people who cast certain accusations at me back in January. I write my reviews as honestly as I can. If I don’t like something, I’ll say so. If I like something, I’ll say so.