Sunday, 18 September 2016

Black Crusade: Traitor's Hate Part 3 - The Genius of Kharn the Betrayer (Warhammer 40,000 Campaign Book Review, 7th Edition)

Yeah, bet that's a title you never thought you would read.

This article isn't specifically about the IQ of a man who broke the back of two legions, or even reputation in general, but how he is depicted here. Trying to balance out any character with any army is difficult at the best of times, and all too often we have seen things go horribly wrong. The big one is usually down to the characters becoming the solely important thing in the book, where they are less a cog in the machine and more the single most important thing in an army, with some cannon fodder attached. As the came comes to focus upon big singular units and characters more and more, this has become an increasingly depressing issue, robbing the army in question of its long history or freedom to be adapted by other fans. 

Even attempts to fix this failing have backfired, as seen in Codex: Sentinels of Terra, where the response was to try and turn every single thing in the book into a named character; thus destroying any opportunity for a  fan to create their own version of that company. There seems to be no right answer as Games Workshop tries to push the idea of an ongoing narrative more and more. However, while it's not perfect, Traitor's Hate is the closest thing we've had to a truly good balance in a long time, depicting its protagonists, troops and Kharn with a surprisingly deft hand.

Now, trying to write about any near mythical character is an uphill battle at the best of times. The better known, more reputable and famed they are, the more difficult things become. Try to glorify them and you run the risk of rendering the rest of the army as irrelevant, or leave them in his shadow. Try to downplay things too much, and you risk turning what should be a living legend into just "that guy we know" - Something which has been a surprisingly big issue as Black Library stories focus more upon the tabletop models over original characters. 

Such a difficulty balancing two such factors is true of any fiction of course, but when you add in the sheer age and glorification of some of these characters, it reaches an entirely new level. Kharn in particular, in this case, is not only the chosen warrior of a war god, but a man who could likely pimp-slap Kratos into oblivion. He is built upon the fact he leaves roads of skulls in his wake, literal rivers of blood as well, and has claimed the heads of a billion souls. Against such a man, any army should seem insufficient, or the prose seem lacking, but Traitor's Hate approaches it in an odd way. For starters, it does not actually start with Kharn. Instead, it starts with his warriors, the Khorne Berzerkers mad enough to willingly follow the man titled "the Betrayer" into battle. We learn a bit of general information about them, and while nothing too major it's enough to gain an impression of their nature. 

The Berzerkers here don't fall into the usual one-dimensional blood zeal we've come to expect. There's a degree of unity, or at least some sense of comradery among them, as they wait for planetfall. We see traces of this among them as they boast of the coming victories, the skulls they will claim, and even a few old Legiones Astartes salutes. It's not much, but it's enough to suggest there's a culture among them amid the bloodshed, and even something akin to how the Space Wolves act towards one another. Oh, once they're on the battlefield all bets are off of course - these are Chaos astartes after all, so there's going to be some backstabbing - but it's a nice balance between the sheer ranging madness of battle and humanizing them.

By setting up this basis, we're given the impression that the warband as a whole is being focused upon here. Kharn isn't just written onto the paper and we go from there, and instead it's a general introduction to the entire group. The narrative certainly changes once he arrives towards the end of the initial pages, and there's a good deal more respect towards him by the others. As such, it sets him up as their leader, one of their most important warriors and the reason for so many of their victories, but it does not turn him into the sole reason Chaos has won so many worlds. This is reflected in the initial strikes against the Mechanicus lines. The Khornate worshipers charge into the Skitarii lines, mob through them and start crushing them, beating them back until they are barely holding. While the Mechanicus regroup, and begin holding the line against them with devastating effect, Kharn arrives and drops among them. At this point the book does offer him glory, by having his assault open the way for the others, hacking and slicing his way through wave upon wave of battle servitors. Yet, while the glory is his, it's repeatedly made clear that he's only truly capable of such a victory with others at his back. 

The book also takes its time to describe and set-up these victories as they emerge. We're given a proper introduction to the abilities of the Mechanicus forces - if not the Mechanicus themselves - and we see why they are such a feared foe. We're shown them briefly winning, briefly turning the tide and inflicting staggering damage upon their foes even when heavily outnumbered, so their defeat doesn't feel unearned. The book is ultimately striking a very careful balancing act as a result, never trying to overplay one element or present one side as totally dominant. As such, even when their foes are beaten down, it doesn't feel like it's purely thanks to author bias or stolen thanks to a few cheap shots. While normally such  books will try to balance this out by having each foe beat seven kinds of hell out of one another, until only one staggers away having barely one, this accomplishes it by allowing each and every side to have its "glory moments". I'd make a Draigo comparison again, but that fact alone should emphasize how wrong that character went during his introduction.

Keeping with the focus of the army on the whole, many of Kharn's big victories in this battle are only accomplished thanks to teaming up with others. The two prominent victories against the Legio Metalica are only made possible thanks to guile or sheer balls-to-the-wall insanity, with dozens of Berzerkers backing him up or all three of the warband's Lords of Skulls. This means that, even when the narrative focus is being placed upon Kharn and the story tries to present him as its protagonist for a time, the army as a whole stays at the forefront of the work. There's no moments trying to force the narrative itself squarely upon him or brushing everything else aside to keep him purely at the centre of attention over the army on the whole. Nor does it need to show him taking down a Titan on his lonesome just to remind readers that he's the boss. In fact, the one moment which it could be argued counts towards this flows naturally into the work, where he duels an enemy Chaplain. It's a hell of a fight, with the two surprisingly evenly matched despite Kharn's greater experience, and it factors into a much larger skirmish against the Death Company. 

However, what's most notable is that the book manages to create these moments without making Kharn seem overly powerful, but never losing sight of the fact he has carved his way into history. He isn't merely some general or a frontline warrior but the chosen of a war god, selected to make Khorne's will known to the galaxy and bring him the skulls of the Imperium's greatest mortals. There's an impression of power with his every act, and even once we do get inside his head for a short time, it's never down to the nitty-gritty details. There's always a sense of general vagueness to his actions, preventing the reader from ever truly knowing him or becoming overly familiar with his nature. As such, we get to see more of him beyond just the murderer, but he remains consistent with the legend we've come to expect. In some regards, it could even be argued that it does a better job here than Chosen of Khorne. While that audio drama is undeniably awesome - and one of the best ever produced by Black Library no less - it pushed to explore his character; there was a drive there to overturn and disprove previous conceptions over all else. Here though, that takes a back seat to the bigger events and flows better with the story on the whole.

Now, while this is successful, one other factor does need to be kept in mind - While Kharn here does show how a character can work as a part of an army and still remain visibly superior to them, this story would only work with him. As he has no desire to serve as a general and lacks the deeper or more dynamic traditions, goals and ideals of other characters, the writers had less baggage to work around. If they attempted to present Mephiston in this light, or even another devoted warrior of the Dark Gods like Typhus, it wouldn't work. While it would be wrong to call Kharn simple, the truth is that he is very straight forwards, and without the traditions of a chapter or guiding role to other warriors, writers have more freedom to show him doing awesome acts of slaying. Then again, given how often we've seen the writers fail the more diverse or dutiful characters, perhaps a little straight-forwards murder might do them some good in the following books.

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