Lord of the Night reviews the second Apocalypse novel, Damocles, containing the novellas Blood Oath, Broken Sword, Black Leviathan and Hunter's Snare by Phil Kelly, Guy Haley, Ben Counter and Josh Reynolds respectively.
"An anthology that while not the best of it's kind available from Black Library, is still a fine read and a must-read for any fan of the Tau Empire." - Lord of the Night @ Talk Wargaming
Damocles was another surprise release from Black Library, we're getting a lot of those recently, and having very much enjoyed the first Apocalypse novel, Pandorax, I decided to give Damocles a try. Plus I have always liked the Tau Empire and felt that they aren't covered enough in Black Library, and while this isn't the start of a series devoted to them as I feel they deserve, it's a nice collection that showcases the Tau at their best and covers one of their finest moments directly from the sixth edition Tau Codex. Though it doesn't flow like a full novel due to the split between novellas and the different topics that most of them cover, Damocles feels more like a look into the Agrellan Campaign rather than the definitive story of it, but I felt that it was still enjoyable even if it might have been better as a full novel.
Blood Oath by Phil Kelly
The Third Damocles Crusade has begun. With the gateway world of Agrellan under attack by the devious Tau O'Shaserra or Commander Shadowsun, the Imperium must once again mobilize it's forces to beat back the Tau Empire and remind the xenos of their place. But the Tau have learned the lesson of ages past and this time the Greater Good will not be denied. With Agrellan falling to the insidious aliens from within and without, can even the legendary Master of the Hunt Kor'sarro Khan and his White Scars save the planet? Or will this be the first of many victories to the upstart Tau and their Greater Good?
The story in Blood Oath actually covers the Battle for Agrellan, or Mu'gulath Bay as the Tau call it, from the recently released sixth Tau Codex, albeit with some additions from Kelly. I think that this story does a good job of showing exactly how dangerous the Tau are by not only showing them in battle, but also the effect that their words have. The Tau are a race that offer something very few people in the 40k universe have, quality of life. Not only are the Imperials fighting their soldiers, they are fighting the Tau's very beliefs as people either succumb to it or are destroyed in it's name. Kelly uses the story to expand a little bit on Agrellan and the reasons for the Tau attacking it, the Imperials mobilizing to defend it so readily and why what happens at the end actually happens. However I think the story suffered from it's short length, admittedly it does combine with Hunter's Snare in ways, but really I think that much more page-time should have been devoted to this battle. One thing that I think is the greatest let down for the story is that a very interesting plotline that, had this been a full novel, could have been explored in such greater detail, but instead is left by the roadside and forgotten about, despite that it could have really livened up the novella and perhaps the anthology as a whole if it had been a recurring theme in each story.
The characters felt quite mixed to me. On the one hand the Tau were an interesting group, Shadowsun coming across as someone who enjoys her work immensely but is also blind to her own flaws even when she points out the same flaws in others, and the esteemed Aun'Va was a nice cameo, even if he clearly comes across as a dick. At times the Tau felt closer to humanity than any other xenos in 40k, but I don't think that is a very bad thing as the Tau are probably the most down to earth alien race in the setting, so they would feel a bit like humans at times, and yet clearly different in their attitudes towards the Ethereals, the Greater Good and such, but I think the other novellas did a better job of showing that. And on the other hand the White Scars came across to me as far too human, particularly one part early on that made me roll my eyes at something Kor'sarro Khan did that struck me as juvenile and just weird. I also think that a certain two characters that appeared in the novella were criminally underused and should have been a much bigger part of the anthology as a whole, though I did enjoy Kelly's depiction of the more well-known one of them.
The action is probably the best part of the novella. The very first deployment of the infamous Riptide Battlesuits is not only depicted but also expanded on as the Riptide meets it's counterpart in the Imperial Knights which results in a very epic fight scene. The White Scars on their Bikes battling against the Crisis Battlesuits and Piranhas of the Tau was also very well done, the match of speed against speed making for a very fast-paced fight that despite that didn't feel chaotic but rather carefully controlled by both the Khan and Shadowsun. The Tau strategy of Kauyon was used heavily in this novella and we see what makes Shadowsun such an effective commander, but also her flaws as a leader in that she is sometimes too smart for her own good and clearly prefers the more complicated option when even a simpler one would do. Truthfully my favourite moment came from neither the Tau or the White Scars but the Imperial Knights and the Catachans who gave one of the best fighting scenes in the entire book when they go up against the Riptide for the first time.
The pacing of the novella isn't bad, though it does feel like a lot of the conflict has been glossed over in order to focus on the beginning, middle and end; and without looking at how the characters get to each of those places it makes the novella feel disconnected. Really I think the novella would have benefited from being longer, giving it more page time to look at the different ways the Hives Cities on Agrellan fall and how the Tau capitalize on their victories and how they learn from their defeats.
My favourite quote, I'd have to say it's this one;
"---FOR THE GREAT KHAN---DIE XENOS WITCH---"
The ending, when viewed with the rest of the novella, makes no sense. The Battle for Agrellan is over, despite that it appears to continue later on, and we get a glimpse of what may be next for Shadowsun but it has nothing to do with the Damocles crusade and it has nothing to do with anything else in the novella. Really I think that it is meant to be some kind of hook for a future Tau product or tabletop campaign but I think it just lets down the novella by giving it a lacklustre finish.
For it's fairly decent story and some great action scenes I give Blood Oath by Phil Kelly a score of 6.8/10. Sadly this novella falls short of being considered good by me because of it's disconnected pacing, characters that either felt too human or were just uninteresting and for an ending that felt completely meaningless. This isn't a novella i'd recommend unless you are a Tau fan and want to see Fire Warriors, Stealthsuits and Riptides beating the crap out of the Imperials, those scenes were fun I admit. But they don't redeem the rest of the novella.
Broken Sword by Guy Haley
What is the Tau'va? What is the Greater Good truly? Is it an insidious cult that lures away the weak and disaffected, or is it a new way of life that will bring order and peace and prosperity to a galaxy that is greatly lacking in all of those things. As a newly inducted Gue'vesa learns his way into the Tau'va under the guidance of a Water Caste Ambassador, the Imperium plans to strike back at the xenos for their actions on Agrellan. The Raven Guard are coming, and their plan will allow the Imperium access to a whole new level of information on the inner workings of the Tau Empire, and all that stands in their way is a Gue'vesa unsure of his place in the universe and the ramifications of his new allegiance. Can he save his friend from the predation of the Imperium, or is there more to this danger than even he realizes?
The story in the second novella covers some of the events before the Battle of Agrellan but really focuses more on what it is like to actually live in the Tau Empire from the perspective of a human. We see how the Tau treat with those who embrace the Greater Good, and with those who do not. I think this novella does a great job of showing the brighter and darker sides of the Tau, the things that make them such a compelling race and the things that when we read them we are nicely reminded "Oh yeah, these guys are in 40k." I recall reading somewhere that a few editions ago people complained that the Tau were not grimdark enough for Warhammer 40k, well now I think that has changed as the Tau do have their darker side but it hasn't changed them fundamentally. I like that Haley showed both sides of the coin, and on the Imperial side he showed how little the Imperium actually knows about the Tau beyond their military and how they are trying to remedy that. I think that Broken Sword's story is quite interesting for being more of an informative look at the Tau than an action-piece.
The characters are quite possibly a real first for BL. An actual Gue'vesa soldier, a human who fights for the Tau, and we get to see what made him become a traitor, what justifications he uses to fight for the Tau and ultimately what he thinks of both the Imperium of Man and the Tau Empire, and how they compare to each other; which becomes a plot point near the end. I found the various reasons that different people serve the Tau to be interesting, and of course the Imperium creates a few of these problems on it's own. The Tau presence in the novel was also very interesting as we get a good look at the Water Caste through the character Skilltalker, his interactions with different humans and Tau made for very interesting dialogue segments and his friendship with the protagonist was interesting as both learned and grew from it. Haley does a better job of showing how alien the Tau are by their attitude towards the Greater Good but also the little things like the fact that alcohol does nothing to them or that the Tau can't make facial expressions, and even how they treat those of other races. On the Raven Guard side we had Sergeant Herek Cornix who had some very interesting ideas about the Greater Good and for once actually offered a good rebuttal to it from humanity, and his tactics in battle fit nicely with what we know of the Raven Guard and showed us a little bit more about how they operate, although it wasn't the best portrayal of them that I have read, that still goes to George Mann's Raven Guard.
The action in Broken Sword is not as central as the last novella, this is more of a character-piece that looks into the culture of the Tau Empire and how other races mesh into it. Though the novella had a few good action scenes, including one where the Riptide Battlesuit returns, really the only scene that stood out was the final one which I enjoyed because it showed the Space Marines in one of their best elements and how the Tau were forced to react to it. I also found the note that the Tau in that scene had been training their whole lives for such a thing rather amusing, they didn't prepare well enough for the Space Marines.
The pacing of the novella is quite well done, the novella starts off by informing us promptly of the POV being a Tau-affiliated human and shows us how this gue'vesa goes from being a newly inducted soldier into a believer in the Tau'va; I feel that this part of the story moved along quite smoothly and the slow change in the protagonist's beliefs felt natural. The Raven Guard segments were worked in nicely by being separated by chapters and also by showing very clearly that the POV is about to change by the little addendum notes that are a part of the story, I won't say anything about them though for spoilers. However this story does feel less connected to the Agrellan Campaign as a whole than the first novella and while it was interesting, I felt that it didn't do as good of a job in portraying the wider conflict which is really the point of the anthology.
My favourite quote, has to be the final line of dialogue in the entire story for the context behind it;
The ending was interesting, although the Raven Guard story format made it a foregone conclusion, I quite liked how the ending focused on the darker parts of the Greater Good and the Tau Empire, nothing is perfect and the Tau Empire is a great example of that. I found that the protagonist's ultimate sentiment regarding both of those things was very interesting and perhaps can be considered actually true, not just an opinion but true in the lore of 40k as a whole. Definitely an interesting ending though and one that made me think about the Tau and the subject of their morality a bit, and if it is thought-provoking that is a sign of a good story and ending.
For a very interesting inner look at the Tau Empire and some fascinating characters I give Broken Sword by Guy Haley a score of 7.4/10. This is a more involved and character-based story than the others so if you want lots of action scenes with Battlesuits galore, you will be disappointed. But if you are a fan of the Tau and are simply interested in learning more about their Empire and how they interact with aliens that both embrace the Greater Good and those who deny it, you will appreciate this story.
Black Leviathan by Ben Counter
As war blazes across Agrellan, another kind of war is beginning on it's sister world of Briseis. The words of the Water Caste have found their way into the population, and with no way to tell who may be a xenophile and who may not be, and Tau Fire Warriors running through the underground tunnels, the entire city seems to be a lost cause even for the vaunted Ultramarines. Forced to work with the mysterious and unknowable Jade Dragons Chapter, the combined Astartes find that they each have a particular way of doing things that may not be reconcilable to the other, and that this time the Ultramarines must face an enemy that fights like no other they have faced before.
The story in Black Leviathan departs from Agrellan entirely to focus on what is happening on another world in the Damocles Gulf, and this time focuses on the second way the Tau make war, with their words. I quite enjoyed how the Tau worked to take Briseis from the Imperium as it showed one of the things that makes them a truly insidious enemy, they can easily convince others to do their bidding. This story felt a lot like a mystery, slowly revealing what the Tau were doing and how the Imperials play into that. Plenty of twists in this story and I quite enjoyed the labyrinthian scheme of the Tau in the entire novella, and how the Imperials reacted to it shows that the Tau are dangerous in more ways than just their technology. I also very much liked the new Space Marine chapter that Counter created for this story, the Jade Dragons. Their backstory was fascinating and I would very gladly read more of them, they were very much like no other chapter that I had read of before and that made them feel unique among the varied Adeptus Astartes chapters, and unique is always fun to read about.
The characters were quite a good group. On the Imperial side we had the contrast of the Ultramarines who valued honour and wanted to do the mission in the right way if at all possible, and the Jade Dragons who were secretive and felt that the quick and easy albeit bloody method would have been the way to go. I think the Ultramarine were the best Chapter for this novella as by looking at them we saw just how strange the Jade Dragons are, their predatory attitudes towards each other and their obsession with omens and spirits, both of which gave them a dangerous and mysterious air respectively. On the Tau side we saw the Water Caste but this time rather than their friendly and welcoming side that we saw in Broken Sword, we saw their manipulative and scheming side. There was only one key Tau character in the novella but I felt he was the most interesting character in the entire anthology for the sentiment he expressed at the end of the novella, I didn't think that a Tau like him existed, and I would definitely like to see him again in another novella or perhaps in a full novel.
While this novella isn't as action-packed as the first and last entries, it does contain it's fair share of battle scenes which I think Counter did very well by showing how the Astartes deal with the Battlesuit technology of the Tau. Many of the different kinds of them appear in the novella and the action scenes devote themselves to showing how a single soldier, especially an Astartes, can fight against a Battlesuit by exploiting their weaknesses. I liked that the Astartes in the story were portrayed as smart fighters who could figure out how to use their environment to fight against the superior firepower of the Tau. The only improvement I think could have been made here is that the Jade Dragons were not involved in enough fights, although the one that they were I quite enjoyed because it revealed more of their predatory character by showing how they fight when it's one-on-one.
The pacing of the novel was quite well done, starting off at the beginning of the mission and slowly revealing more of the Tau's plot as the Ultramarines and Jade Dragons hammer their way through. Counter revealed things when it was most pertinent for the reader to know them, either to make sense of what was coming or to explain fully what just happened so that the reader isn't left confused by events that they have no way of fully understanding. One thing that I think could have been improved though is that with a longer length we could have had more involvement by the Jade Dragons and more explanation as to their relationship with the Black Leviathan and perhaps some more about the nature of the cloak as well, that makes sense in context. One thing that I also enjoyed but found a little odd being used in this particular story are the quotations from the Codex Astartes that appear at the start of each chapter, a nice touch but perhaps those belong in a more purely Ultramarines story.
My favourite quote, this part of a larger quote that I think sums up how the Jade Dragons behave in the story;
"As we hunt, so are we hunted, but on this world we turned and fought back!"
The ending was quite surprising in both how it ended for all parties involved, and the sentiments that the leading Tau character expressed which really altered how I viewed him and his actions on Briseis. Counter closes the entire Briseis storyline nicely but leaves one or two plot threads open, at least I think he did since they weren't mentioned again or confirmed as being finished, so if he has it may be possible we'll see some of these characters again which I would welcome, and if not it is still a good finish to the story that shows some of the darker side to the Tau Empire and that sometimes they don't need the Fire Caste to wage war for them.
For a great story that did a great job of surprising me, with very interesting characters that felt distinctive in their own way, and some exciting action scenes I give Black Leviathan by Ben Counter a score of 7.8/10. This is a story that any 40k fan can enjoy, though like the rest of the stories I think it is fans of the Tau Empire that will enjoy this one the most, but unlike the others I think that those who enjoy the Space Marines as well will enjoy reading this novella.
Hunter's Snare by Josh Reynolds
The war for Agrellan continues, and so does the hunt. Kor'sarro Khan, keeping to his oath, hunts the Tau Commander Shadowsun and will not rest until he has taken her head. But Shadowsun is no stranger to the hunt and as the two play a game of cat and mouse across the surface of the war-torn world, neither has made any strides. Now the final confrontation is coming between the two hunters, and only one will walk away. Will the Greater Good triumph over the Sons of the Khan and move one step closer to victory in the Damocles Gulf, or will the White Scars defeat the xenos and claim yet another head for the long road to Chogoris?
The story in Hunter's Snare connects with Blood Oath by continuing the plotline that started there, Kor'sarro Khan and his hunt for Commander Shadowsun. This novella doesn't feature much in the way of story, rather being one big battle piece which truthfully disappointed me as Josh Reynolds writes great stories, but I will admit that the novella wasn't bad for that but that it lacked any real plot-based story beyond the Khan hunting Shadowsun did make this novella feel a little bit too close to bolter-porn. The character based stories made up for that a little but I think that only two of them were really interesting, those were Shatterhand's and perhaps Thursk the Dark Hunter's.
The characters were definitely better here than they were in Blood Oath, they felt more like Astartes but with that sense of wildness and humour that makes the White Scars who they are. They laughed while they killed and they sang while they fought, and they were funny as well but in a good way and it didn't detract from their viciousness as warriors and their skill as hunters. The Khan came across as a very driven leader but one who maintains strong relationships with his men, but it was Shatterhand and Thursk that I felt were the most interesting characters. Shatterhand being a veteran White Scar and one who has a very deep fear that led to the most shocking moment in the entire anthology, and Thursk as a Dark Hunter on loan to the White Scars provided a nice contrast with their boisterous behaviour and some very droll conversations with Ambaghai the Stormseer. Reynolds has a knack for making his Astartes characters just human enough that we can relate to them but inhuman enough that we can see how different they are.
The action was what this story focused on, and though the story does feel like bolter-porn I will say that it was enjoyable bolter-porn for matching not only the White Scars speed against the Tau's, but also their hunter's instinct and skill at ambush against the Shadowsun's own skill at those things. The battle scenes were nicely choreographed and the depiction of the White Scars in battle felt correct when compared to other works that they have appeared in, and the Tau once again showed their strength quite nicely with the use of Battlesuits and the multi-layered traps of the Kauyon. I also liked the Stormseer in battle because right from the start it is clear that he is no ordinary Librarian and that his powers lie in much more elemental abilities, which are used quite often in the story and complemented the White Scars strategy wonderfully. The real flaw though in these scenes is that the Astartes tanks were dealt with rather easily and I would think that they would be much more resilient then that considering how few each company has, by the end the 3rd company must not have had any vehicles left at all.
The pacing was alright, the story didn't drag and the battle scenes were interesting enough that I kept going, and the strategy of both the Tau and the White Scars unfolded at a good speed that made the battle feel fast-paced but not so much that it felt brushed over. One thing that I really enjoyed in the novella was that Reynolds used all the Chapter terms and words that I recognized from the Horus Heresy novel Scars, which made his White Scars feel connected to that excellent portrayal of them, a good sign that he did his research on the Chapter so that he could connect their characterization to previous works with them.
My favourite quote, definitely this one because I really do think that it was true;
"We could have been great friends, huntsman."
The ending was surprising and one of the best moments of the anthology. In one way I admit it was what was expected because I knew that the point of the story wasn't going to happen, but the fate of one character was very surprising, especially given how he reached that fate and what it made another character do in response to it. It's a real pity that the story between the Khan and Shadowsun likely ends here as I would have liked to see where these two hunters would end up and how their rivalry will affect the wider campaign on Agrellan, which I also would have liked to see a resolution to. But perhaps the latter will come later.
For some interesting characters and enjoyable action scenes I give Hunter's Snare by Josh Reynolds a score of 7.0/10. If your looking for a great story I can't say you'll find it here because this novella really did feel like one running battle rather than a story featuring battles, but it had some very amusing characters and the action scenes were quite good. I wouldn't recommend this novella unless you are looking for an easy read and just want to see Space Marines fighting against the Tau with some witty conversations between the characters. Fans of the Tau may appreciate the story but I think that they'll enjoy the others a good deal more.
And that is it for the review. Now for the final scores. Before I go into them I would like to point out two things that I found somewhat disappointing in the novella. First the Riptide that featured in every novella felt underwhelming, in Blood Oath it got some good moments but every other story seemed to focus on how to bring it down and it's weaknesses rather than it's strengths and what makes it better than the Crisis Battlesuit or the Stealthsuits. I also think the numbers of them were overused, the Riptide is meant to be the Tau's ultimate Battlesuit and in one of the novellas we got three of them in the same scene. Overkill I think. The second is the unresolved story of Agrellan, by the end the campaign has not come to an end so unlike Pandorax we do not get to see how this story ends, which is a real shame. That's all I can say really,so now onto the rankings;
Best Story: Black Leviathan
Worst Story: Blood Oath
Favourite Story: Black Leviathan
And with that my final score for Apocalypse: Damocles as an anthology is 7.3/10. Ultimately I think this is an anthology that Tau fans will appreciate far more than general fans of 40k as it mainly focuses on exploring the Tau culture, their methods of warmaking and showing them finally giving the Imperials a real fight. If you aren't a fan of the Tau then Damocles isn't a book you'll enjoy. If you're somebody who wants to learn more about the Tau then this may be a novel you'll enjoy, but personally I would suggest waiting until it is released in paperback as a part of the Space Marines Battles series as Pandorax is going to be. On the whole this is a decent anthology but it's not a great one.
That's it for this review, thanks very much for reading. Until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!