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Shadowhawk reviews the first Black Library novel by author/editor Guy Haley.
“Hopefully this is the start of a series of novels about some of the most potent weapons in the Imperial Guard. A recommended read.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
There aren’t a whole lot of novels within Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting that showcase tank battles as the major event. Off the top of my head, William King’s Angel of Fire is the only one that comes to mind quite frankly, and that was released last year. However, there are novels like Dan Abnett’s excellent Necropolis, Graham McNeill’s Chapter Due and one of Sandy Mitchell’s early Ciaphas Cain novels that do have quite interesting tank battles that are worth reading. On the whole however, it is not an area of the fiction that is explored all that well. On the whole, there are certainly far more novels with tank battles than there are ones that feature space battles, so that’s something I suppose. In this void steps Guy Haley, author of multiple SF novels and a former editor of GW’s own White Dwarf magazine, with his first novel for Black Library. And this one is almost all about the big-scale tank battles, the kind that you imagine play out in your head while you are tabletop gaming with entire divisions of tanks.
After reading Guy’s Champion of Mars from Solaris Books last year, I remarked that the way Guy had written the novel in terms of both theme and vibe made him a really good fit to write some Warhammer 40k fiction. And a few short weeks after that he did announce that very thing, much to my elation. Having finally read the book, I feel even more elated since with Baneblade he has justified my high expectations of his work and now I definitely want to read more from him. In fact, he has a Warhammer Fantasy novel coming out quite soon, Skarsnik, and he has another 40k novel scheduled for later this year, Death of Integrity, which is a Space Marine Battles novel. Fun stuff all around.
Getting back to Baneblade, what makes the novel stand out is the amount of detail that Guy has put in it. We all look at Hard SF as a subgenre where we get to read some “real science” or “highly plausible science”, and in quite a bit of detail too. The genre isn’t all to my tastes exactly, and I’ve had a mixed response to it in the last eight months (specifically), but I’m always up to read more in it. Guy has done something that is very similar in Baneblade. Whenever there is an extended scene involving the Baneblade (or variant) superheavy tanks in the novel, there is almost always quite a bit of detail involved: how the tank works, the various systems, what the characters are seeing on their command screens. I look at Hard SF as a genre that doesn’t just have “real/highly plausible science” but also one where the details that the author puts in reflect the inner workings of the setting. In that vein, Michael A. Stackpole’s Star Wars: X-wing novels also qualify, given how well he describes aerial and space combat with the X-wings and other starfighters common to that era in the setting.
If you want to read a novel that is not just about a Baneblade superheavy tank, but also minutely explores its workings and gives you enough to clear visualize how the entire tank operates, then this is the novel for you.
Of course, that in itself is not enough for a reader and there’s no need to worry on that account either. Baneblade has a really rich cast of characters and the plot in itself is fairly exciting with a really well-written narrative. Again and again, I compared the novel to Angel of Fire and while I think that the comparison is in some degree quite unfair since Bill King focused on completely different elements of the setting with his novel, it is also apt because there are the only two novels from Black Library that feature superheavy tank crews front and center, where they are the protagonists instead of minor characters/observers.
If you put the two novels side by side however, I think they work very well in that regard. They both are told from the perspectives of superheavy tank crews, but since the overarching focus is on different elements (Angel of Fire looking at the early days of Warmaster Macharius’ career and the man himself, with Baneblade looking at an entire planetary conflict) they complement each other and provide a fuller understanding of the setting.
Characters like Lieutenant Bannick, Enginseer Adept Brasslock, Honoured Lieutenant Cortein, and others give us a good overview of the superheavy tank’s crew as well. Through them, we are able to see all the different levels of responsibilities within a superheavy tank regiment, whether they are those of the tank commander, the gunners, or the technical crew. In that respect, Baneblade gets the one-up on Angel of Fire, particularly since it is a novel primarily told in third person, rather than the first person of the other. It is a great approach to the characters (even the Baneblade in question, the Mars Triumphant is a character in its own right).
One of the other things I really liked about the novel was how it begins. The prologue treats the reader to a very engaging and immersive scene where we see how the “ceremony of activation” of a tank is performed. Normally, I do not provide any quotes from novels, but I’ll make an exception in this case, given the extremely strong opening lines of the novel.
A thousand thousand triphammers rang out the birth of war’s child, the bringer of ruin, the mightiest battle tank in the galaxy: Baneblade, fifteen metres long, as tall as three men, a moving fortress, hammer of the God-Emperor, bearer of firepower to equal a squadron of lesser tanks.
But not yet, not yet. This one was a shell, bereft of tooth and claw, gaping ports where guns should be, tracks limp. No energy flowed through its conduits, no fuel through its pipes. Not for long, for now began the ceremony of activation.
Those words immediately pulled me in and told me all I need to know about the scene that was going to unfold. In a few short words, Guy Haley manages to capture the grandiosity of the Warhammer 40,000 setting itself, where behemoths like the Baneblade and its ilk fight alongside tens of meters tall giant walkers and kilometers-long cruisers engage in void warfare. In 40k, everything that can be is increased to giant proportions and that is exactly what is reflected here in first two paragraphs of the novel. There could not have been a better start to the novel, as the rest of the prologue continues to show. In a way, the prologue is a peek at one of the holiest and well-kept secrets of the Adeptus Mechanicus (the galaxy-spanning organisation that creates and manages all of the Imperium of Man’s technology, most of it at any rate).
By the end of the novel, I was left wanting more, and while there is a tie-in short story (Stormlord), I really want there to be a full-fledged sequel. Guy Haley’s style is a good fit for the setting, and he is able to capture the more technical aspect of it as well, something that can carve out his niche within the entire 40k range of fiction, if he continues on with it.
In terms of the flaws within the novel, I’d say the switch in POVs happens a bit too frequently, interrupting the pacing at times, and that at one point towards the end it seemed there was a bit of a character confusion within a particular scene. It jarred enough that I was almost pulled out of the story. And finally, I believe that a little more time could have been spent on some of the other members of the Mars Triumphant’s crew, like Brasslock and the gunners. The novel was focused primarily on Cortein and Bannick, which is understandable since the role of a clear hero or heroes is vital in a novel, but the overall experience would have been better had we gotten to see more of the other characters.
Overall, this is definitely a recommended novel. If there’s any true gripe with the novel, it is that the cover doesn’t represent the contents of the novel accurately. Not enough action on the cover, its a bit too subdued than it should have been.
Note: This novel is graded according to a new ratings system, the details of which can be found here.