Thursday, 17 November 2016

Calgar's Siege by Paul Kearney (Book Review)

Calgar's Siege is a story of a multitude of outcasts, failures and legends coming together to do the impossible. It's a fairly generic and almost by the book story, but remarkably this describes many behind the scenes elements as much as the core story. For starters, you have a book which is set to follow one of the most infamously derided events in the lore, which helped build-up the anti-Ultramarines sentiment: Calgar single-handedly holding back an entire Ork Waaagh! by guarding a single gate. Then you have the Space Marine Battles series, which has slowly slid further into obscurity, never having returned to the heights it achieved with Battle of the Fang and Helsreach. Even beyond that though, you then have the author, Paul Kearney, offered his second opportunity to helm a Warhammer 40,000 novel after the Umbra Sumus fiasco.

It's an odd mix of elements to be sure, but the end result proves to be a solid read which takes off in an odd direction. You see, for a novel which incorporates and cycles about so much of the existing canon, Calgar's Gate treats itself like a gateway novel. You know the kind, the sort of ones which aim for a straight forwards story but weave their way about enough of the setting to give a reader an impression of what Warhammer is about. The sort of ones which pride themselves on character dynamics and vast scopes as much as heavy action, but never truly push themselves to the point where an average non-fan would end up confused. This is evident fairly early on, with the depiction and introduction of the orks, and establishment of Calgar himself. While it's not a full on introduction to everything from the ground up, it offers just enough of a general impression to keep the reader going before moving into the main story.

We see a great deal going on here, and to give Kearney credit the core story never truly feels as if it's beating you over the head with each general depiction. While the introduction to the world, Zalathras, might seem a little forced at first, the general follow-up and character dynamics soon make it a natural part of the story. It's a good impression of what a frontier world of the Imperium might seem like without devolving into the usual feudal tropes, and many ideas tie closely into it. The concept of Ultramar, the state of the Imperium as a whole, the threat of the Ork Waaagh! and state of the galaxy are all readily and easily established from this with few complaints. In some of the more interesting moments, we also get to see an autopsy of an ork and a few of their more general traits better remarked upon, such as their life cycle, habits and even sub-species. While the novel itself might be aiming for a basic appeal, Kearney himself has definitely done his homework, and the appearance of a few more obscure lore elements is definitely welcome here. For one thing, it's the first novel we've had in years where Storm Troopers appear rather than Scions.

The novel also does a solid job of balancing the Ultramarines' humanity and post-human aspects. Guilliman's chapter here are definitely leaning towards their more sympathetic and populace-serving elements here, but there's enough done to still show they're a cut above the average human. It's akin to the Uriel Ventris approach to things, albeit a little more effective than that, where you can still see the man each astartes was supposed to be to an extent. It's just that they've been reshaped into something else, something far more powerful and removed from the public. The conversations, attitudes and character moments which result from this are a definite plus in the book's favour, and the novel works them in as a kind of point of stability. In contrast to them, many of the side characters are varied and often far more undisciplined, with many ranging from old soldiers past their prime to drunk psykers. Yes, that last one is hilarious as it is tragic.

As you would expect from this, the book also doesn't rush into things. It takes almost a third of the story to even have the orks arrive at the city they intend to besiege. This offers plenty of time to establish all the ideas the book is to cover and the setting as a whole, without front-loading or info-dumping everything at once. This makes it remarkably easy to breeze through even on the first read, which proves to be both a plus and a negative. On the one hand, it allows readers who were more easily off-put by the sheer scope of the setting to adjust to the overall theme of Warhammer as a universe. On the other though, it makes the story surprisingly arduous to get through for everyone else, and lacks many of its core strengths.

When people read Soul Hunter, Dark Apostle or Nightbringer, what often captivates a reader the most is its atmosphere. There's a sense of great age, depth and vastness to the world, as descriptions build-up this idea of vast empires, established planets and an ages old war against countless foes. By comparison, Calgar's Gate lacks that core engagement, and the sheer intensity of such emotions fails to click in many places. As such, long-time readers of Black Library will likely find the first half to plod along for quite a bit and you'll end up just hoping it'll get to the meat of the action. This might not have been too bad on its own, but many of the characters are also remarkably interchangeable. While serviceable in the moment, besides Calgar himself and a few of the top ranking human figures, almost everyone else is info fodder. Figures just there to drop info, add a bit to the story, and then die for drama.

The fighting itself is also rather mixed as well unfortunately. On the one hand, there's an oddly poetic quality in how the bigger battle scenes are described and the running offenses against hordes of foes. The scenes of orks charging astartes lines, fighting their way through the firing squads and ripping Storm Troopers apart are quite atmospheric, and they do get across a sense of constantly being pursues by greater foes at every moment. At the same time though, some of the more visceral engagements in single combat or focusing upon Calgar fighting his way through foes, lacks the punch you would expect. Odd as it sounds, everything is presented in a very distant light.

Finally, the story unfortunately fails to take many risks. While it thankfully sidesteps the obvious issue of Calgar himself being initially presented as an unstoppable uber-human, it doesn't quite reach the Mortarion's Heart level of correcting everything. It just presents a surprisingly general and direct tale, but one which proves to be surprisingly basic and predictable despite the author's obvious efforts.

Overall, Calgar's Siege is solid but relatively forgettable. Ultramarines fans might get a kick out of reading this one, and it is a solid introduction to that corner of the galaxy, but it pales when compared to previous gateway novels like Rynn's World. Give some early extracts a look if you're interested, but don't rush out to grab this one.

Verdict: 5 out of 10

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