Lord of the Night reviews Straken, the debut 40k novel of Toby Frost, author of the exceptionally funny original science fiction Space Captain Smith series.
"An exciting new Imperial Guard novel that departs from the toy soldiers and tanks and deals solely with the gritty Catachan Jungle Fighters, and makes me want to see more of Toby Frost in the 41st Millennium." - Lord of the Night @ Talk Wargaming
Straken was a surprise release over Christmas and as I have read Toby Frost's Space Captain Smith, and loved each one of them, I was very pleased that he had written a story for 40k and while the Imperial Guard aren't usually a subject I enjoy as much as the rest of 40k, the Catachan Jungle Fighters and their legendary officer Colonel "Iron Hand" Straken, was a subject that I wanted to read about. And after reading the book while there were one or two things I thought could have been done better or needed more page-time, I feel that Frost has done a good job with his debut Black Library novel and I would not be averse to seeing his name on future 40k releases.
A Guardsman's job is never done, least of all a hero like Colonel Straken of the Catachan 2nd Regiment. Pulled from a Tyranid-infested warzone Imperial High Command wastes no time in sending Straken and his regiment back into the fray, this time against the barbaric Orks who have taken control of the planet Dulma'lin. Unimportant on it's own, the planet nevertheless must be retaken before it's greenskin conquerers can rejoin the main Ork offensive that threatens the sector capital, but once on the ground Straken finds that the situation has been vastly underestimated and the the Orks of Warlord Killzkar are more of a threat than anyone could have anticipated. Cut off from reinforcements and with a new regimental Commissar determined to bring the unruly Catachans to heel, Straken must find a way to pull his regiment out of this catastrophe and either victory or a glorious death.
The story in Straken is a stand-alone but draws from the White Dwarf source material, and after reading both the original and the novel I think Frost has done a good job in being faithful to the source while at the same time telling his own fleshed-out story and making the events far more than just a simple retelling of a battle. The main story was done nicely, putting the Catachans in a situation that they could excel in, rather than putting them in an unfamiliar situation and forcing them to adapt, and combined with the personal stories of Straken, Captain Lavant and Commissar Morrell it makes the book an engaging one. Frost also manages to keep the story from seeming rushed, as it takes place over a year of campaigning, by leaving off in the right places and knowing what to include and what not to include. My issues however were that Captain Lavant's story could have used some more foreshadowing, that the tension between Straken and Morrell could have been a bit more central to the story, and that there should have been a few more segments with General Greiss on Purbech, and that a certain Ork should have been featured more than he was.
The characters were done well, though only a few of them were really dealt with in a real sense. Frost gave a lot of names for redshirts and characters whom we saw a couple times over the novel but that were just part of the group, which is a nice touch as it reminds the reader that the regiment is more than just it's leaders and heroes, and that the ordinary men play important roles too. Straken was characterized quite well, his traditions of leading from the front, never leaving a man behind and his habit of shouting at his men to get them motivated were all present and his dislike of last stands was an important point in the book, influencing most of his decisions in the campaign. Captain Lavant as the opposite, the neat and studious and careful man of the Catachans was a nice contrast to show exactly how wild and unruly the regiment is, and Commissar Morrell shows their noted antipathy towards the Commissars and how they are viewed from the outside, and how they view outsiders like him. I also liked the two named characters aside from Straken though I think that one of them should have been used more, and the other needed an explanation as to why exactly he was there, considering his Codex information.
The action was nicely done, fast-paced and action packed and of course plenty of brutal melees between the Orks and the machete-wielding Catachans. One thing that Frost used a lot in the novel, and that I really liked, is the strength of the Catachans being able to match the Orks, their low-gravity origins give them more strength than the average human, and the battles are filled with Catachans choking Orks to death, slashing throats and going head-to-head with them, and Straken of course has his signature shotgun and Catachan fang but also uses his bionics to full effect and you can see how it was that this man killed the thing that ate half his body, while it was eating him. The Orks were also well done, their notorious lack of discipline playing into the Catachans favour, but at the same time their overwhelming numbers and the sheer strength of the individual playing into their favour. I think that some of the Orks went down too easily, usually by lasguns that seemed much more powerful than normal, but when the Orks came en-masse they felt like a real threat and their use of Imperial equipment made them much more credible as a foe to worry about in the larger sense of the sector-wide campaign. I also really liked what the Warboss used in the final battle, I haven't seen one of those since Dawn of War and it definitely made the final battle stand out against the others. Admittedly however there was not as much action as I had expected, a good portion of the novel devoted to the Catachans moving from place to place, the personal stories and other things; I think the novel would have benefited from a few firefights early on in the story.
The pacing was done well enough, the campaign taking place over a whole year means that Frost had to find a way to keep to that but at the same time not have the book drag or feel like no time has passed since the start, which I think he does by dividing the book into four parts marked by special pages and by picking the right moments to leave off in one part before proceeding to the next. Some of the POV switches felt unnecessary to the plot, but other then that I had no real problems with the pacing of the book, though as an ebook I can't say how it would read as a paperback as they are two very different things.
Now my favourite quote, it's this one because this quote is simply iconic to the man Straken,
"Catachans! Do I have to do everything myself?"
The ending is what the source material had, but Frost gives it his own additions by adding in personal details for the characters, exactly how things happened rather than just saying what happened, and a very nice scene near the end that acts as a screw-you to one of the secondary characters and had me laughing for a little while. The final scene of the ending though I think really sums up the life of an Imperial Guardsman and how thankless their task often is, but they keep on going because what the hell else can they do? Straken and the Catachans really showed their mettle in this novel and I think that one of the best parts is that Frost touched on every aspect of "Iron Hand "Straken that the IG codex lists, making this novel almost feel like a Warhammer 40k Heroes book.
For a good story that while straightforward still kept me entertained, a good set of characters that were a nice departure from the regular array of Guardsmen, and some very good action scenes that really showed why the Catachans are feared, I give Straken a score of 7.3/10. This is a novel that I would suggest trying if you are a fan of the Imperial Guard, if your tempted to see what Toby Frost is capable of in 40k, or if you simply want a nice uncomplicated book to read. The book is by no means great, but it's solid and just because it's not great does not mean it's a bad read. I think that Frost has made a good start in Black Library with Straken and that with time his work in 40k will get even better as he gets in deeper into the mythology and lore. Perhaps he could try some comedic along the lines of Ciaphas Cain, as one whose read his Captain Smith novels I definitely think he could do a well-written and funny 40k series.
That's it for this review. Thanks for reading and until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!
Straken by Toby Frost
Lord of the Night
7.3 / 10