Friday, 5 April 2013

Shadowsun by Braden Campbell - Character Assassination

A while back I did a quick review of Shadowsun: The Last of Kiru's Line. It was a short novella so I mainly focused upon how good a story it served and how well it presented the tau in general. It wasn't very good but it seemed to have flaws which ran much deeper. As a whole it focused primarily upon the character of Commander Shadowsun and how well she worked, but delved into a few other areas. Such as the apparent hypocrisy Campbell seemed to think was inherent within the Empire. What it didn't go into was how it botched the tau way of war, as on a second look it really got them wrong.

Now, the problem here is twofold. The first being how the tau acted, behaved and the actions of the Fire Caste. The second being Commander Shadowsun herself. No, not in terms of character but how the book completely and utterly ignored her famed military doctrines.

As has been established for the better part of ten years, the tau Fire Caste have a very different approach to war than the majority of the Imperial Guard. They're constantly trying to be on the move, not get caught up in heavy fighting within one location or drawn into prolonged grueling conflicts. They're not the sort of get into trenches and hold ground nor enter long slugging matches with enemy forces. They'll hit hard when they do, try to take an enemy down as fast as possible then either pull out or crush all resistance before they can really fight back. This could be interpreted as either valuing the lives of their soldiers or simply knowing they can't afford to waste troops with everyone else outnumbering them, but that's besides the point. The point is that this novella gets all of this completely and utterly wrong.

For starters, Shadowsun is known to specialise in one of the two best known tau ways of war: Kauyon. Effectively translating to "the patient hunter" and relying upon ambushes, hidden strikes and pulling back until you had your enemy in the exact position you wanted them. She's supposed to be an expert in this way of war and yet at no single point does she ever display any awareness of these tactics. In fact the whole premise of the book and the reason she ends up stuck on the planet is due to tactical incompetence  She rushed in blindly, sending her flagship in first and was hellbent upon conquering the planet. Unlike Courage and Honour where the tau at least displayed determination to utilise advanced recon tactics, she just stormed forwards. With her fleet, the one who supposedly is so tactically adept it took on tyranid hive fleets with no casualties, performing a Leeroy Jenkins.

No attempts to see where strongholds were from scans. No attempts to enter subtly and not have the ships noticed. Worst of all however, no attempts to negotiate or make friendly contact. You know, that thing the tau are best known for; convincing worlds to turn peacefully and using violence as a last resort. That thing the tau have been stated to do from day one of being introduced.

Shadowsun is even worse once they get onto the ground. She's in the exact location where her tactics would be of best use. They're stuck on an alien world, with few troops, they're outnumbered, constantly hounded by Imperials. They're in the exact situation where they're needing to use guerrilla tactics to whittle down the enemy's numbers. So what does she do? Takes on the Imperial Guard in a direct, costly battle within minutes of landing and doesn't even consider laying traps or how they can ambush enemy patrols. In fact all of the tau are effectively written like the Imperial Guard.

The aforementioned battle takes place because the tau Hunter Cadre with Shadowsun crashed in a Manta as they were escaping her exploding flagship. They contact her before the Imperials show up, have no problems communicating, but make it clear that they can easily be found. The Manta leaving a burning trail through the woods large enough for anyone to track. The shas'vre (closest approximation is lieutenant) gives the following information as Shadowsun asks him for a sit-rep (page 28):

"The indigenous population cannot have possibly failed to track our descent, even with their primitive technology. Our sensors have already detected three fly-bys by high-altitude aircraft, and we expect that very soon our location will be swarming with ground forces. I have, of course, issued orders to hold our position."

That last line in particular is incredibly irksome. It suggests that following their situation, with them in the exact position they are in, the Fire Caste's training immediately teaches them to hold their ground. This is in fact counter to their entire military doctrine and is completely out of place. If the tau were surrounded that would be one thing, but they're being attacked by a small platoon with some sentinels. Worse still, they're completely capable of rigging the Manta to self destruct and looting any viable equipment within a couple of minutes, long before the Imperials arrive. An action which would have both hidden their presence on the planet, and also not given the Imperials confirmation that there was a hostile force on their world.

So why are they doing this?

Is it to help stay in one place to link up with Shadowsun? No, they're completely capable of communicating with one another without any issues, and could arrange to meet up in a less precarious position.

Is it to take prisoners for vital intel on the world? No, the tau cut down everyone in sight and the only survivor (an officer no less) is almost immediately prepared to be killed by Shadowsun. Taking him prisoner was a second thought brought about by his actions.
Was it to make use of the Manta's considerable firepower? No, none of its guns are ever used on the attacking Imperials. Not even its burst cannons which cover every area of the ship.

So why did they do it? Honestly, because it's what a lot of books about sentient forces who aren't space marines or eldar would have done. In other words the Imperial Guard, the only force the tau gravitate towards at all.

Every one of their actions in this book reads like something the Imperial Guard would end up doing in their place and even a lot of the tau attitudes. Their mockery towards anyone with religious beliefs was something which at first seemed very out of place, but if you reverse it and have them worshiping the God-Emperor would have read like something from an Imperial book. Despite the whole name of their unit being Hunter Cadre, calling back to the times when the tau were hunters working to bring down prey despite their natural deficiencies, they act like Guard. At no point taking advantage of the multitude of units they have with them or even planning as they would to combat and bring down bigger foes.

An almost symbolic example of how hard the book failed to depict this is in how the tau get slaughtered en-mass by huge forest predators. Not working together to bring it down or fight it in co-ordination as they have been taught, but instead are butchered en mass. Showing the Fire Warriors in this novella are even less competent than the figures they took their namesake from.

Even parts of the novella's very conclusion exemplify how much Campbell is writing the Imperial Guard rather than the Fire Caste. The only tau to survive the book save Shadowsun, is immediately promoted following surviving the events. No mention of four years of active duty, no trial by fire ritual, no mention of the normal procedures. It's just directly following the battle they go "Hey, this guy survived! Promote him!"

This might have been a mistake which Fire Warrior made as well, but at least there it got just about everything else about the tau right. You could also argue that the event itself served as a trial by fire, but with so much of the book portraying the tau as human guardsmen with a different skin colour that might be too generous.

Perhaps the most glaring problem is that the AI units the tau have are now presented as being borderline sentient. This wasn't something which occurred to me as a problem before but having re-read previous material now it's very clearly out of place.

Gun drones for example, the Empire's front-line fighting AI, were presented as being about as intelligent as a dog. Still clearly requiring assistance from commanders, troops and while having some degree of independence weren't intelligent enough to go "Destroy all organics!" The Empire seemed to be taking steps to try and avoid that sort of thing happening and even in previous books AIs were just basic. Stuff which was subservient and none of who acted with clear human or tau degrees of intelligence. In this everything from escape pods to ship AIs have degrees of thought and sentience.

Really, Braden Campbell commits the worse sin an author can when writing about a vast universe like Warhammer. He doesn't seem to have research what he is writing. A few flaws in knowledge might have been forgivable, but here he gets bare basics wrong from the get-go and completely misrepresents the face. This really is Death of Antagonis or Warrior Brood levels of horrible fact checking and it's a growing problem among a lot of authors.

The aforementioned Death of Antagonis is one example, but sticking with the tau for a second Fire Caste by Peter Fehervari also screws them over. Ignoring basic character establishments, previous novels and depictions of the Empire in favour of utterly out of character behavior  His tau are presented as leading an utter dystopia, even more xenophobic than in here and display ideals completely contrary to the Greater Good. Displaying a morality system which can best be described as "an eye for an eye" which doesn't even begin to make sense given all we've seen from them.

His reasoning is supposedly that they have become grim and bitter following the Damocles Gulf Crusade, but nothing has ever suggested this would be the case. Hell, Fire Warrior was set only a few years after the crusade but showed no signs of abandoning the Greater Good as they have here. Showed failures, yes, along with setbacks but nothing like the tau in either of these novels.

The core of the problem seems to be with Black Library as, well, a lot of new authors causing these problems don't seem to know what they're writing about. Fehervari might understand bits of the tau but gets their overall portrayal wrong in favour of his own vision of what they are. Not for a specific faction but the Empire as a whole. Campbell up to now only wrote the tau as enemies and displays no knowledge of anything established in the current codex. What's more his description of how the publisher approached him doesn't put much faith in them:

BL EDITOR: So, Braden, there's a bit of a hole in the Tau line, and since those two short stories you did that featured them were well recieved, how would you feel about doing a 30,000 word novella?

BRADEN: Sure. 

BL EDITOR: Also, it has to be about Commander Shadowsun. 

BRADEN: Whatever you say.

It just seems that the Black Library doesn't care how much of an idea writers have of their factions. If they get them right, they ignore it, if they get them wrong, they ignore it. Like with many of Games Workshop's approaches they just seem to care about publishing books and making cash, then shove their fingers in their ears and start humming if there's any backlash.

So to the authors writing for Warhammer specifically: Please. Research what you are doing. Look up what you are writing and make sure you are it right. Don't let facts completely constrain you from being original, but if you want to do something widly different, make sure it's with something you created. Some faction, some small group, not an entire army or race which you're going to casually rewrite, ignoring any previously established work by other people.

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