I don't particularly disagree with Calmsword about any one point. Fire Caste
is an amazingly weaved Imperial story which I was rather disappointed to see was concluded, but in my opinion not adequately explained. I put the book down with a "maybe the warp did it?" feeling that I usually get when there's an obvious contradiction between two Games Workshop sources, which I believe had to do with the apparent randomness of it all. Rather than the main antagonist being an intelligent, acting agency, it seems like the antagonist was the warp itself. I suppose it's much like reading a novel where the main antagonist is a fierce storm, a volcano, or some other natural disaster, which isn't impossible, but it was unexpected.
Though Fehervari gave everyone a clear heads-up that it was going to be an Imperial Guard novel at heart, I think the book was still misleadingly named, especially considering the rather anticlimactic scene at the end. It had the potential to be far more revelatory and meaningful if the two species' representatives of their respective warrior castes, tactics, and philosophies, had the opportunity to have a deeper dialogue rather than simply sling insults and potentially unfounded accusations at one another only for the book to come to an abrupt end.
Regarding the tau and the manner of their characterization, I found myself liking them tremendously at first due to their conduct of the war and the nature of their machinations and politicking, only toward the end of the novel growing an uneasy feeling about the way they were written. As the story progressed and we learned more about the tau and their fractured coalition, and gained some insight into their psyche and motivations, it became apparent to me that they were written as if they were emotionless robots struggling with situations where they should probably be feeling things, rather than as emotional and passionate beings struggling with a doctrine that requires, or rather necessitates
(a common theme in the novel which had a missed opportunity to be applied here), a dispassionate stoicism and rationality that suppresses their impulsive nature.
It's a subtle difference that isn't a game changer by any means, but I think Fehervari puts the cart before the horse by the end of the novel, and in hindsight, it is easier for me to grasp how a character such as Jhi'kaara could come about without sacrificing being internally consistent.
Additionally, I can't say I like the implication that the tau empire would literally fall apart without an Aun mediating every petty dispute, nor that tau would so quickly turn against their own in an Aun's absence. The way the dispute between the shas'el and por'o was handled was very poor, and though I immediately picked up on the underlying plot of deception once I read the shas'el's name for the first time, I sincerely hoped it wouldn't go that far, lest we see another memetic theme of intra-caste betrayal and secondhand assassination accompanying the growing trends of overly naive and excessively grimdark tau that already pervade tau background.
I especially disliked that the por'o had overall command of the theater despite being at war, just because of his rank. This reeks of incredible mismanagement and perhaps a slight misunderstanding by the author of the differences between organizational and functional leadership which would be foundational principles of tau culture given their caste-based duties and responsibilities. Just because the por is an 'O doesn't mean he automatically "outranks" a shas. He is accorded the respect due his rank, but both maintain functional leadership over their respective areas of expertise.
For all the tau are talked up by Games Workshop about being a beacon of light in a dark galaxy, a unified and reasonable species, pragmatic and dutiful to the core, and about the castes working in intimate and coordinated unison, it is somewhat distressing that we seem to see the polar opposite coming from the Black Library.
That said, I found the novel to be money well spent. The Imperial characterizations were far more complex and enjoyable than the tau, and watching each of them grow and develop was rewarding and fun. Fehervari certainly has a knack for the complex weave of intrigue and suspense which I certainly hope he can apply to more Black Library novels in the future - well-written stories about more than just the conduct of war are few and far between in the Black Library's archives, and they are welcomed with open arms.
Miscellaneous tidbits to add to Calmsword's list:
- The new transport is called a Cuttlefish.
- Tau are still considered to be a short-lived species, the Por'o being considered "ancient" at 83 thanks to Mechanicus juvenat treatments.
- I'd like to add that the tau who identified himself as of the 'Smoke' caste did not offer his name or rank. I suppose we can infer that this was the Shas'o, since it is mentioned that the battlesuit looked old and may have predated Wintertide's "rule," but in Gurdjief's past narrative, he mentions that the battlesuit's colors and heraldry were at odds with a then-presently commanding Wintertide's whites and blacks, implying otherwise.
- Oh, and "nostrils", plural, was used many times throughout the novel to describe the tau's nose. Do the tau have more than one nostril in their nasal cavity? I wonder.