Friday, 5 July 2019

Blackshields: The Broken Chain by Josh Reynolds (Horus Heresy Audio Drama Review)

The Blackshields series has been one of the surprise successes of the Horus Heresy range, one which has continued even as the battle closes upon Terra itself. Quietly continuing in the background, the first two audio dramas offered a look both into the lifestyle of these renegades, and a legendary leader among them: Endryd Haar. The third installment of these audio dramas sees the series sticking to its guns, and offering the kind of action that only the Blackshields can star in. It's a good one, there's no denying that from the very start, but why it's good is an important thing to bear in mind here. In the next few hundred words, we'll be going into exactly why.

Also, as full disclosure: This story has yet to see a full release. In truth, I only gained my copy thanks to someone selling a copy via eBay so consider this an advanced look at the story, giving you a chance to plan purchases ahead of time.

The Synopsis

Having taken notice of Haar's continued actions, the Sons of Horus have deployed hunting packs to bring down groups of rogue legionaries operating behind their lines. Deeming them too great of a threat to fully overlook, one such group has found the Cicatrice Tyrannis and captured both of its leaders. With Haar entombed within the hold of a Sons of Horus warship and Erud Vahn, his second in command, undergoing interrogation this seems to be their darkest hour. Yet the Blackshields are nothing if not pragmatic, and Vahn soon begins brokering deals with his captors in exchange for their freedom. Ones which might damn the Blackshields entirely, or see them returned to glory...

The Good

As mentioned in the introduction, this is the sort of action that only the Blackshields can offer. Josh Reynolds has managed to maintain a steady set theme within his stories to help differentiate them from loyalist and traitor groups. This is evident in terms of plot structure, atmosphere and the general style of the stories, along with focusing less upon culture than the broad personalities which have made up their number. The few times it will comment upon their culture in any way is often only to highlight the absence of it, and show what even uncorrupted astartes of this era can be like when all trappings of brotherhood, loyalty or greater ideals are stripped of them.

The False War introduced this with its heist plot, while The Red Fief took it to another level, and now The Broken Chain adds a new twist on things. The continuity between these stories has been extremely well maintained, and there are enough general call-backs to give the audio dramas a greater sense of scale. It's somewhat akin to what James Swallow did with this Garro stories, but the emphasis upon the fallout of in-series events makes it more effective as a link between tales. In that series, as great as it was, there would normally be some comment upon who had just been recruited. In this one, the Blackshields' actions carry far more weight, and the Sons of Horus specifically cite a few key events very early on. This helps to both better emphasize the greater stakes at work, but also the impact the characters have had, even as they serve only a minor role in the greater war.

Haar himself has typically hogged the spotlight in the prior two tales, and with good reason. He's known as a legend within their ranks, and the stories have helped to fully emphasize the sort of figure that he was: Brutal, uncompromising, driven, uncertain of the fine details of his future and yet possessing a few rare qualities that similar warriors lacked. However, this took time away from the others, and the story offers a chance for Vahn to get a few moments to himself. After being sidelined during The Red Fief this is especially welcome, and it highlights both a number of qualities unseen before now, and shows how his seeming idealism works with the Blackshields' brutal nature. The scenes involving him help to reflect upon how this life has reshaped him, and just what acts it has made him capable of carrying out.

Another point worth mentioning is how the tale itself keeps you guessing, even with a relatively formulaic structure. You can half-guess how things will likely play out from some of the major twists in past stories, and some of the major character conflicts. This isn't a negative in of itself, but without an additional element, it could become predictable. In order to limit that predictability, the story plays up certain characteristics and ideas we have seen before. Haar's brutality has kept the Blackshields in line, but he rules with an iron fist and will shed his allies' blood without regret. The loyalty of his men is barely held in check by promises of victories and sheer desperation, as they are often deprived of vital resources. Vahn, meanwhile, has not only been constantly threatened by Haar directly but has actively encouraged them to follow goals beyond their current path.

The conflicting elements and ideals of the characters involved keeps their loyalty to one another always in question. It's this sort of hint of risk which makes this sort of series remain engaging, along with a willingness to keep pushing for new takes on its style of story.

Plus, and let's face it, you all knew this was coming - The vocal direction and audio design is as stunning as ever. You will notice more than a few familiar names among the cast list on the book, with Gareth Armstrong, Toby Longworth, John Banks, Steve Conlin, Richard Reed, and David Seddon all showing up.

So, with all that in mind, what does it do wrong?

The Bad

While the aforementioned section praised the series' willingness to keep experimenting and reworking its central concepts, it does retain a basic skeleton of a direction. After two deception/heist style stories, you can probably guess that this one will be the same. This is fine in of itself, but even when they are showing events as they progress rather than telling the plan, some people might become burned out on them. Personally, I see this as a way for the series to remain distinct from the rest of the Horus Heresy, but it is easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. It's in much the same way that someone might enjoy detective murder mysteries, but could be turned off by police procedural style versions which rely more on the same basic structure.

Equally, a few themes crop up here which were commented upon in the past, but are never fully built upon. Haar's past is the big one and, while it certainly offers several fascinating details into his origins, it is largely window dressing. While both prior audio dramas utilised this to further Haar's character, here it serves just as a conversation piece and goes no further. With so many hints and indications, it feels as if something should be done involving it by this point. Equally, Malcador's role is pushed back until it effectively has no impact on the overall plot. It's certainly there, but outside of a few mentions toward the end, it is something of a non-entity. This makes it seem as if certain stories are stuck in a holding pattern.

Another point worthy of mention is how the story itself is light on certain key details. The actual events surrounding the beginning of the story are heavily skimmed over, along with some of the broader details on the villains themselves. The Sons of Horus in this story are serviceable as the general bad guys, but they lack the staying power of prior figures. They largely come across as self-righteous thugs which, while being in-keeping with the Sons' character shift, isn't all that engaging.

The Verdict

On the whole, The Broken Chain has a few chinks, but it ultimately remains a solid and engaging tale. With a good mixture of character drama, the ability to build upon past tales and stick to what makes the Blackshields so entertaining, it's definitely one I would suggest buying. While you will definitely enjoy this far more if you did pick up the two prior stories, it is also still open enough to follow as a single stand-alone tale as well. Either way, it's definitely not one to be missed.

The Verdict: 7.5 out of 10

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