Sunday, 3 July 2016

Medusan Wings by Matt Westbrook (Warhammer 40,000 Novella Review)

Pinning down what makes Medusan Wings succeed is a difficult task to say the least, largely because it works in spite of itself. That comment might sound back-handed, even outwardly hostile, but keep in mind that this is a novella not only bound to Codex: Clan Raukaan's lore, but focusing upon astartes piloted fighter craft. These are things long standing veterans and this blog alike have railed against, and to make both work even for someone who has personally disposed both a testament to Matt Westbrook's skills as a writer.

The story here follows the response of Clan Company Kaargul to a Mechanicus world under attack by orks. Despite Skitarii and Imperial Guard forces present there, reinforcements are desperately needed to turn the tide. Led by the newly anointed Techmarine Atraxii, the pilots of Medusan Wing and a small strike force engage the enemy, preparing to end the threat with their trademark calculated brutality. However, the Mechanicus are far from forthright with their old allies, and soon come to learn that secrets are being kept from the Sons of Medusa. Secrets which date back to when Ferrus Manus himself fought among the stars...

As a whole it's a relatively simple plot, and not entirely unlike those we have seen many times before, but that is very much Medusan Wings' strength. It doesn't focus entirely upon the conflict or secret itself, instead using its pages to flesh out and introduce the audience to the chapter's existence. It's akin to Dredd or (to use a more Black Library appropriate example) Legion of the Damned, using a single, almost regular, event as a skeleton to construct far more engaging story elements about it. 

For starters, it takes the novella quite some time to even meet the Mechanicus requesting their help. Rather than jumping right into the action, we get some time to get an impression of the Iron Hands' command structure, treatment of Techmarines, traditions, rituals, beliefs and general ideology. Even once this is done, it then takes time to detail the voyage, giving an impression of how individually unique the traditions of each clan company and squad truly are, as well as how the Iron Hands structure their assaults. While certainly nothing veterans won't have seen before, it's still a welcome addition to the book to see them detailed in a story like this and for them to be presented from a single viewpoint character. It's easily the most focused and succinct look at the chapter we've had since the Index Astartes, and it proves to be vastly more effective than Codex: Clan Raukaan's lore. In fact, it almost reads like an apology for that book in many regards.

While it does not completely reverse things back to the old Index Astartes lore, the story is sprinkled with many ideas and details from that era. Terminator armour is noted to be especially rare among the Iron Hands, the Clan Companies are presented as relatively unique entities in their own right, the mobile fortress monasteries make a welcome return and the Iron Fathers are presented almost purely as Techmarine/Chaplain hybrids. The few times newer lore is added into the book it is rarely done to the detriment of older ideas, and are instead integrated into prior work and built to exist alongside it. Even when the book does delve into the "flesh is still strong" theme, it's handled far better than many prior efforts by better established authors. It doesn't try to present the Iron Hands as utterly wrong, doesn't try to beat in the idea that fans of this chapter should be ashamed for liking them, or even that their traditions betray their primarch. Instead it reflects upon how their more human traits should not be entirely forgotten even in the face of their ideology. While this might sound similar to Codex: Clan Raukaan's big reveal, there's a distinct lack of contempt for the chapter on the writer's part which makes it work extremely well.

Lore gushing aside, the descriptive style present in the book is almost traditionally Black Library-esque. Delving into archaic terms and often skimming the fringes of full blown purple prose, it nevertheless turns those elements into a strength, building a tense and archaic atmosphere befitting the grim darkness of the far future. This is quite evident early on when Atraxii himself is introduced, detailing his appearance and return to Medusa himself, going into a level of detail often reserved for the likes of Graham McNeill. However, Westbrook favours a much less densely detailed and more streamlined prose, focusing more upon distinct individual words then several sentences to build an overt image. This naturally benefits the short page length and results in a much puncher, faster narrative, allowing it to much more easily balance the speed and technical details of the book. This goes as much for the air combat as the more character driven moments of the story, freely flowing despite the extensive world-building present within each chapter. Moments such as witnessing a serf gripped in Warp induced madness or witnessing Ferrus' skull are worked into its pages without ever slowing the narrative, and remarkably they rarely feel out of place.

The combat itself fits the Iron Hands exactly in how it is described, with extensive detailing, build up and preparation followed by the suitable application of bolter rounds. Hitting hard and fast, they then back this up with a stubborn, relentless refusal to fall back and concise, controlled tactics. While on its own that brief description makes it sound as if the Iron Hands tactical acumen is merely a hodgepodge of White Scars, Imperial Fists and Ultramarines treats, the book does a good job of ensuring that those on display fit the chapter exactly. Their way of war is unique here, giving them a distinct identity and the structure of combat here, focused into minute, individual moments mapped into a greater conflict helps to further emphasise that point. It works well within the framework of the battle itself, and it offers some satisfactory engagements. 

So, with all that praise, what are the flaws here then? Starting with that last point first, the combat itself is satisfactory, but that's about it. While there's certainly nothing wrong with it and it hits the right marks, it lacks the intensity or detail found in many veteran authors and much of the punch it needed. After the build-up and greater tension constructed from the long wait to the battle, it does seem a little disappointing, and while satisfactory it does lack some of the qualities which really helps moments of bolter porn stand out. It lacks some of the beats or pacing which has made conflicts like Necropolis' final act so memorable, and it lacks the balance between leaving moments for drama or extending others for drama. This actually goes for much of the book, which sadly skims over a few moments of truly earth-shattering importance, and means they lack a great deal of the massive impact they should truly have.

A further issue arises from the characters themselves, who unfortunately fail to leave much of an impression upon the reader. Almost all of those present do read far too much like stock characters at times or fit more into stereotypes than actual individuals, meaning the cast has sadly little staying power. Save for Atraxii himself, few of the combatants remain very memorable, and instead it is only brief statements or actions which stand out rather than the characters themselves. This sadly hits the orks quite hard, who lack much in the way of real identity or hard hitting threat, and remain more as an obstacle in the protagonist's path than a real villain. It's an issue which has previously hit the Tyranid Hive Fleets especially hard, and it's unfortunate that a force so varied and ripe for new ideas as the orks really fade into the background. The fact they are a substitute threat in place of the real villains only serves to rob them of further importance to the plot, until they're little more than bodies being thrown at their foe.

Furthermore, the novella's final act is oddly truncated. The ending is not so much rushed as it is very abrupt, suddenly concluding with some closure but a notable lack of reflection or sense of finality. It honestly seems as if it might have benefited from another dozen or so pages, just to provide the room to naturally close out or more gradually wind down. This has admittedly been an issue in the past (with Kharn: Eater of Worlds notably ending on a cliffhanger, and The Masque of Vyle closing out within seconds of the villain's death) but there's no denying that it makes the ending weaker as a result. What is actually discovered by the Iron Hands should send shock-waves through the chapter, but the novella simply doesn't have the space to fully depict that.

Overall, Medusan Wings is far from perfect, but it's still very entertaining and a welcome addition to Black Library. The copious lore woven into its pages, attention to detail and sheer atmosphere makes it one of the best introductions to the Iron Hands in years, and it stands out head and shoulders from many other brief tales of late. If you're at all interested in the chapter or just a straight forwards and extremely fun Warhammer 40,000 tale definitely consider purchasing this one in the weeks to come.

Verdict: 5.8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment