Silver Skulls: Portents by Sarah Cawkwell – Book Review [Bellarius]
Turning to a very back-to-basics novel, Bellarius sees what is in store for the Silver Skulls with Portents.
“Another great novel to inspire fans to build chapters and further the setting, all the while providing some truly engaging bolter porn.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
As an author, Cawkwell seems to be one of those creators who is extremely divisive among fans. It seems that you either wholeheartedly love her works for their established ideas, the themes they explore and tight writing, or you criticise the book for dragging its feet at every turn and its spartan descriptions which fail to convey the grandeur of the setting. Unlike other authors, there really seems to be no middle-ground at all here and those same points seem to arise again and again. Well, whatever hill you’ve picked to die on in this particular argument, Portents isn’t going to change your mind, as it seems Cawkwell is sticking to her guns even as she experiments with her pet chapter.
The story here follows the Silver Skulls’ Eighth Company as they are deployed to counter a major insurrection. Having lost their commander, the company is undergoing several major changes and Sergeant Gileas’ return to their Fortress Monastery is as much a time for celebration as concern. Welcome as he is to see his home once more, he faces an uncertain future thanks to the histories of his battle brothers, and from forces without. Drawn to the chapter, members of the Inquisition hunt for signs of corruption within their ranks, concerned that the veneration of their Librarians may be turning humanity’s champions into the unwitting pawns of Chaos…
Right out of the starting gate, anyone reading this may end up having very distinct flashbacks to Brothers of the Snake. Many elements and strengths of that book resonate here, and it seems that the same time and effort is being pushed to help seriously flesh out the Silver Skulls. After previously depicting them as bored watchmen, detailing their traditions potential future, Portents builds upon the chapter’s character. Along with giving greater insight into how such a force of astartes operates on their homeworld, the introduction of the book builds up a gradual identity of the Silver Skulls’ homeworld and the brotherhood of warriors there. From Gileas’ past to the officers within the chapter, there’s a slow, gradual introduction to the wider scope of the chapter, constructing the image of an elite and highly hierarchical group of warriors, who nevertheless retain a close bond and guard humanity from all foes.
While the novel does slip into the odd stereotype (notably Tenth Company Nasty Drill Officer Marine #192) this introduction is used to touch upon a multitude of ideas which offers an odd degree of realism to the setting. Chief among these, we see how the chapter is built and inducts its recruits, opting which threats to confront and which to leave in order to strengthen the population against all threats. However, this in turn is used to comment upon factors otherwise unseen within books, notably how certain warriors are effectively recruited from different eras. The chief example present in the book is how cultural rifts and racial conflicts have come and gone over the decades, with older attitudes emerging among certain marines despite their unity, and this serves as a driving force behind certain sub-plots.
There’s a real sense of what the Silver Skulls’ are fighting for as the world is built up, and because of this the insurrection carries more value. It’s less the generic battlefield found in too many books and instead far more of a home to fight for. Along with creating serious meaning and worth for the conflict, it goes hand in hand with the intensity of the battles and ferocity of the Skulls’ engagements. After taking so long to gradually establish its events, there’s real tension and hunger for blood, which makes the abrupt violence all the more satisfying. It’s depicted on a very individual level here, and the many key fights are seen directly through the eyes of the characters rather than general descriptions of the battle. While this would normally run the risk of making fights seem too small or too limited, constant updates and new details make this truly feel like a part of a running war.
Once the role of the Inquisition truly comes into play within the story, it strikes a very careful balance between violence and character drama. In many respects, the book sticks with Fall of Damnos’ core elements, with internal politics fraying nerves and causing a bitter divide between Imperial servants. However, it makes far better use of this than anything found within that book and, combined with the aforementioned subjects involving the chapter’s warriors, helps to explore some very interesting themes of loyalty.
The book itself serves as a slow burner, and thanks to this it takes some time to establish and gradually develop its concepts. The first we see of the Inquisition is via a number of astropathic telecommunices citing their concern for the chapter’s traditions, and Gileas himself is built up gradually before word of the book’s conflict even comes into play. This allows it to have some serious gravitas and time to develop its events, yet at the same time you would be forgiven for finding many early sections difficult to push through. Despite their themes and historical elements, many of Cawkwell’s characters seem more like walking subjects for themes, and lack some of the overt flavour of Graham McNeill or Dembski-Bowden’s figures. This can make them seem extremely bland or generic at times, kept alive only by the subjects they explore. While other authors, especially Ben Counter, might suffer from the same problem, he at least knows to open with action and rapid pacing to hook readers in.
Another key issue which doesn’t help matters is how the book often seems to unintentionally pad itself out. Quite often scenes will appear slow or lack pacing thanks to an overt focus upon describing certain scenes and commenting upon every other element possible. There are few moments where the book seems to truly move free of heavy descriptions or focuses purely upon a direct conversation, which does bog down events. Even this might not have been so bad were it not for the fact that the descriptions themselves often seem oddly pedestrian. They’re certainly emotive, certainly interesting and creative, but there’s a lack of that same grim-dark spark which makes other M41 novels so distinctly vivid. It’s perhaps thanks to this that, in the final pages, the story does seem to get away from the author and what was previously something tightly written and controlled loses some of its general coherency.
So, how is Portents as a whole? In a move which is definitely going to hack off both parties in this fandom, the book was okay. It was solid if a little basic in all honesty, with some good concepts and moments but it never seemed to truly try to push things or take real advantage of some ideas. While the world-building and concepts themselves are very welcome indeed, and it makes for some good, fun violence once the book reaches the war, but it never seems to truly excel. If you’re a fan of Rob Sanders, Joe Parrino or Ben Counter’s works this is one you would do well to take some time and read, but don’t expect another Legion of the Damned.