Taking a break from things human and post-human, EJ Davies casts his reader’s eye over the first two stories by Andy Chambers featuring the notorious, vicious, piratical, underhand, scheming, murderous factions of the Dark Eldar.
“Bloody, brutal, unrelenting: the essence of the Dark Eldar given form in a novel.” ~ The Founding Fields.
There are two sections to this review, in the first instance I’d like to delve into Path of the Renegade – so here’s the blurb from Black Library.
“For millennia, Asdrubael Vect has ruled the dark city of Commorragh, crushing any who dare to cross him. His reach is long and his position unassailable… or so he thinks. Yllithian, an ambitious archon with the desire to unseat the tyrant, joins forces with a twisted haemonculus in an attempt to revive a long-dead warrior and challenge the might of the overlord, both racing to achieve their goal before Vect discovers their treachery. But a cataclysm is coming, and Yllithian’s actions may in fact be the cause…”
This is one time that I won’t contradict the blurb. It actually, and almost exactly, encapsulates the novel. Archon Yllithian – ancient and purebreed Dark Eldar – has carved himself a niche in the city of bizarreness that is Commorragh, yet he can’t stomach the iron fisted rule of the arch tryant Asdrubael Vect. Hatching a plan that involves unseating Vect, he incorporates Archons Xelian (a wych-like leader, revelling in gladiatorial games) and Kraillach (an ancient and paranoid character); and Master Haemonculus Bellathonis to his plans. What follows is the slow unravelling of these plans, along with the tension that all in Commorragh hangs upon these plans, with a potential Dysjunction in the offing.
Now, the description of Commorragh, its inhabitants, its history, its politics, and its thirst is great. You really get the feeling that this place is on the edge of anarchy with the only thing standing in its way is the iron fist of Vect himself. The upper echelons of society rule like Roman caesars, only not the benevolent kind, the ‘Commodus-from-Gladiator’ kind of caesars: paranoid, half-insane, scheming, devious, manipulative characters – each with their own foibles. Yllithian – the more ‘warrior’ flavoured of the three is erudite, wise, bright, and wholly bent on relieving Vect of his command. His arc alters little throughout the story, but it does develop that he may appear not all he seems. Xelian – the more ‘wych’ of them – is quick to anger, though often keeps herself in check only to indulge in murder later; spends most of her time being outmanoeuvred and bested by Yllithian. Kraillach – the more ‘incubus’ of them – is a snivelling little wretch throughout most of the story. Bolstered by Master Haemonculus Bellathonis – a character entirely of his own devices, and plenty of them inflicting pain – who rounds out the cabal of conspirators as the ‘science dude.’
Within the confines of the story we are also privy to the missions that certain individuals are sent on – each faction sending a representative (Morr, the incubus; Xagor and Khabyr – Bellathonis’ contingent; Aez’ashya - a succubus in the favour of Xelian, and Xyriadh – a favourite of Yllithian.) out to various outlying regions and worlds to bring back artefacts required to raise the agent to depose Vect. We also get to see some of the subtle workings beneath the surface of Commarragh, and an interesting little character called Syiin. From each major character’s perspective, we get to see the other characters and the events – each of them having their own opinions and their own inherent spin.
Part way through chapter four, we learn of Bellathonis sending an emissary to a Red House to collect a jar. This story takes place in Midnight on the Street of Knives:
“Xagor is on an errand for his haemonculus master, the delivery of a thoroughly unimportant package and some tremendously important news. A Dysjunction is coming, and Commorragh will be shaken to its very foundations. As Xagor travels the dangerous streets of the dark city, he is sure he is being followed.
Kharbyr has been sent to capture a package. Hunting the servant of a twisted haemonculus through the warrens of Commorragh, he is eager to slip his knife between his prey’s ribs and watch the life flee from him. But the servant is behaving oddly, and Kharbyr suspects that there is more to the other eldar’s task than a simple delivery.
A game of cat and mouse can lead to anything. Especially at midnight on the Street of Knives.”
Which is oddly entertaining, and the further exploration of Commorragh from this perspective is nice.
However, there are some issues.
Firstly, the characters – although neatly described and possessing their own individual voices, motivations, and flavours – lack sufficient depth for the reader to be able to empathise with them. Lacking any form of cypher thus distances the reader from the action and consequently the stories feel flimsy and lightweight and without a sense of drama.
Secondly, the setting – it really does feel like a trip through the Dark Eldar codex. As nice as that is, without some other form of hook on which to hang the story that’s all it feels like. A nicely descriptive piece of work through which we see a race not often referred to in print, and the section with the Exodite Maiden world is appealing, but again lacks depth.
Thirdly, the pacing – it’s a fairly simple story, and it’s told reasonably, but it doesn’t half meander in all the wrong places. Battles feel perfunctory and lack any justification save for its own, bloodletting ends (yes, I know there are Dark Eldar here, but even they have cause to fight!); and more time is spent on the backstabbing and villainous workings of the various key players.
Finally, the plot – there is one, it’s fairly reasonably, but it drives the story. Our key players are pieces being guided through a maze, and it doesn’t feel much more than that. Stuff happens around them, but they really do not hold much influence in the world they inhabit. Yes, they affect it; but I got the distinct impression that if Morr hadn’t stepped up, another ambitious Incubus would have.
I enjoyed certain parts – Bellathonis’ voice is worth a chuckle, and Morr is an interesting character to keep your eye on; and I enjoyed the voice of Motley very much (it seems to me to be inspired by V from V for Vendetta.) But the negatives outweigh the positives and I’m afraid it’s lack of pace, character, emotion, jeopardy, and depth just couldn’t make me want to go back and read this book eagerly.
So, it’s a solid read for both these stories, and I hope that if there is (which there should be) a follow up then it is more engaging. Still worth the money, but not attention grabbing enough for me.
Midnight on the Street of Knives is available as a download from Black Library; as is Path of the Renegade, however, this is also available from bookshops.
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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.