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After some delays, Bellarius returns to the Legion of the Damned short stories with C Z Dunn’s Ship of the Damned.
“Fast paced and detailed, Dunn keeps you wanting to see what happens to the characters next.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
What makes Ship of the Damned unique is the approach of the author. While many of the short tales released together as a Legion of the Damned collection are directed more towards open battlefields and combat, this one looks away. Taking place within a lone vessel isolated in the void of space, it attempts to emphasise more upon themes of horror than of battle.
A lone pilgrim ship is traversing through the Warp, filled to the brim with the faithful and guided by a lone member of the Adeptus Sororiatas Order of the Fractured Cipher, Agentha. Despite remaining on good terms with the crew and the near fanatical devotion to the Sister Dialogus, things soon prove to be far from well. Drawn off course by a distress signal, the vessel soon finds itself being overrun by a foe they cannot hope to combat. However, even as the ship is overrun, talk of seeing mysterious black clad space marines continues among some passengers of the ship…
Along with retaining an effective three act structure despite a very short page count, the tale’s benefit is that it tries to show events outside of conflict. However brief it might be, the beginning sections portray a very effective insight into how some of these pilgrim ships operate and just how monumental their task truly is. Unlike what some portrayals would have, these are generational vessels with much of their populace being born in the stars and few ever returning to their homeworld. The idea of how driven these people are by their faith and the lengths they will go to is strongly impressed upon the reader, as is the importance of a Sororitas to such faith. While the tale does suffer from contradicting a few established ideas from books, such as all pilgrim ships being non-Warp capable, and a skewed idea of numbers, such as it only taking decades to go from system to system, it gives a good portrayal of religious life. A look into the Ecclesiarchy which isn’t utterly driven by showing them in a positive or negative light, showing the problems behind their attitudes while at the same time showing a few benefits.
Along with such a well-handled portrayal, the short story also manages to quickly introduce a decent ensemble of figures of the tale. While none have especially deep in characterisation, they are likable and varied enough to give life to the tale. This manages to successfully keep the tale going and is successful enough to not let the lack of a “face” with the villains negatively affect the narrative. By the time the bullets start flying, everything is well established and it’s almost enough to wish the novel had stuck with just showing life on-board the vessel.
All that said, the fighting isn’t that bad either. While the characters witnessing the aftermath of fighting and the build-up towards the villains is what makes it truly effective, it does provide enough action to keep the story going. It has the right moments to make the tale carry the vibe of a B-movie horror flick or Hammer film, and contains all the right story elements for anything in that general vibe.
With all that said, it’s also with the combat that the story’s critical problems become clear. While he might be fine with structure, C Z Dunn lacks the emotive terms and visceral descriptions which can make many other author’s works so fun to read. While it doesn’t make his work dead or lifeless, there’s nothing so thrilling here as the combat seen in Dark Hollows of Memory, Remorseless or even a massive number of tales beyond this short one. This especially undermines the late involvement of the Legion. While the tale was going for another “arrives at the last second and saves the day” approach, their arrival and actions lack the emotion and real emphasis upon their actions to make them feel meaningful. Instead we get perhaps a sentence a most with the rest of their involvement either being passed over or the pages more interested in oddly vague descriptions of their nature.
Atop of the problem with the Legion’s involvement, a major mystery which it sets up is never really resolved. While there are a few hints as to its true meaning, it needed a little more to really make its presence feel worthwhile. Otherwise it’s something which feels as if it’s there purely as an excuse to fill out a few somewhat interesting pages and the Legion’s sudden appearance.
While Ship of the Damned has its problems, it’s still a decent read for a brief look through. The main problem is the descriptive shortcomings when it comes to the author, but he still manages to keep the tale interesting and engaging until the end. While you probably won’t read this one through more than once or twice, it’s still a tale which will keep a person interested until it closes out. Buy it if you’re a Legion fan looking for something a bit different involving them, but otherwise stick with the better tales of the collection.