I’ve read through the Damocles collection twice now (I tend to read really quickly, and like a second read to make sure I haven’t missed anything salient) and think I can give a decent review on the lot. I admit that I went into the collection with the same expectation I’ve had of most ‘xenos’ 40k novels, being “I can’t wait to read this Tau book about how awesome the Imperium is!” Overall, I have to say that I did have a couple of pleasant surprises, but it did largely meet those expectations. So, story by story…
[spoiler=Blood Oath – Phil Kelly]Now, this one has been rightfully torn apart by pretty much all previous posters, and I agree that it was rightfully so. I might have been able to let a lot of it go had to book simply ended after the Imperial retreat from Agrellan Prime with Aun’Va’s words, but no, can’t let the Imperium lose, can we? (Unless you’re the Necrons, I guess? Seriously, how did they get license to smack down any imperial force on demand? Mind-shackle scarabs in the BL’s writing room? But I digress.)The few moments of gold I do have to mention:
• I’m a sucker for game rules being represented in writing (Thank you, Branden Campbell!) so ignoring the Thunder-Surfing, the ‘Why didn’t my fusion blasters work?’ did throw me for a sec until I remembered ceramic plating. Then it made me chuckle.
• Colonel Straken v Kor’sarro: The fact that someone pointed out that Khan’s plan was dumb in as many words was pretty great to me. Also fun to see such irreverence to a space marine from a human. Accurate to setting or not, Straken’s ‘Yeah, so you’re the khan and the head horse rider; I’m still right’ attitude was a high point in a pretty low story.
• I kinda want to see a solid story about Shadowsun and Farsight pre-Damocles Crusade. (if Campbell, Haley or Reynolds is seeing this, please go for it! ‘Less others attempt it…) While the whole ‘Shadowsun totally has a Farsight fixation’ got old really quick, it did beg me to question, why? Why would it be so personal an affront? We know they were rivals in training under Puretide, along with Kais, but when I think about some of the guys I ran hurdles against, I remember them fondly, even when I wanted to beat them stupid more than anything on the track. That Shadowsun would be hurt by Farsight’s ‘betrayal’ isn’t as hard for me to believe, especially imagining the kind of spin Aun’va would likely put on it. I’d like to see a story about the three of them during their training, to see what was forged there and how that would lead to such a fracture in the current times.
All said, pretty forced product placement and tactics at the level of the Starship Troopers movies, which really was a disservice to both the White Scars and the Tau. Thankfully this is addressed rather nicely later by Reynolds. But sorry Kelly, no dice.[/spoiler]
[spoiler=Broken Sword – Guy Haley]I’ve told my friends, and I’ll say again here: this story almost carries the collection on its own. I really like how well the conflict with J’ten (Jathen) is portrayed: he truly wants to believe in what the Greater Good stands for, and he’s trying, but it is a difficult transition for him. That this was acknowledged by his superior, Skilltalker, simply made it better, and the dynamic is very well played between the two. Seeing the Tau Empire through ‘alien’, but rather sympathetic eyes was refreshing, rather than the ‘filthy cowardly blue-skins’ you can generally expect. The asides into the mind of the Raven Guard captured by the Tau were also well written, making the Astartes a clearly threatening foe by their planning and skill rather than the ‘Movie Marines’ take most marines vs xenos novels seem to resort to. There’s far more than a few moments of gold in this one, but I’ll pick out my highlights:
• J’ten’s doubt. Most other writing I see of gue’vesa from BL has them as no more than tau-of-a –different-color, but here we see J’ten question not only his own decisions, but the tau’s. His thoughts on the front line staying power of fire warriors, his concerns on the lengths their assimilation will take, the encounter with O’Va’Dem and his advisor…they all worked to make J’ten such a believable character. Excellent work.
• In the same vein as the previous point, the whole story carried a level of ambiguity that was a great angle. Like with J’ten’s own doubts, we never can really have a straight forward ‘We Are the Good Guys’ impression. The tau play dirty when the need is felt, and that is never hidden from us. We, like J’ten, just have to hope that it’s all for the Greater Good in the end.
• The scene with the dead Raven Guard, and Skilltaker’s reaction to J’ten mixed feelings about it caught me off-guard, and really set the tone of the story for me. If we could get another novella about these two, I’d grab it in a heartbeat.
Far and above the best story in the book. This would have been worth buying as a solo ala B.C.'s Shadowsun[/spoiler]
[spoiler=Black Leviathan – Ben Counter]Alright, this one, I’m still not sure on. I can pick apart the fighting sequences, but outside Riptides tending to fail their 2+ saves with some frequency, a theme across all the novellas really, they weren’t too bad. It was interesting to see a story purely from the view of the water caste, but the last line in the book pretty much destroys everything that had been built up around O’Myen. So a master manipulator of the Water Caste doesn’t really believe in the Greater Good? Right, and Cato Sicarius gets spooked when a fight’s looking ugly. Also, on the Space Marine side: hey, you guys ran off and left us unsupported, and all my guys died? That’s cool, a fist fight will settle that. Even with them getting left on the planet, it seems a bit weak. Not sure what I was expecting there, but it was more than that.
The biggest issue I think the story had was that there were a few too many fires going at once, making it hard to keep track of who was trying to accomplish what. O’Myen’s summary towards the end did clear some things up, but was a bit too little, too late. High points:
• The councilwoman’s mini-battle suit. A bit of a wasted opportunity, but a cool idea none the less. Kinda want to model myself one of these.
• The sheer number of double agents the tau had poking about was a surprise. I had to reread the portion with the rescued inquisitor to realize what had happened.
• While it did get fairly lost in the jumble of plot lines, I am a sucker for the Xanatos Gambit, and O’Myen had a pretty masterful shell game going there. Good show.
Overall, I can appreciate what I think Counter was trying to do: show that the Tau fight with more than battlesuits and plasma fire. The presentation was a bit sloppy, but I found a bit more appreciation for this one after my second read-through.[/spoiler]
[spoiler=Hunter’s Snare – Josh Reynolds]Here’s what I was hoping for when the book was announced, Scars vs Tau as a fairly even playing field, which frankly they should be. Kelly might have (okay, might have is pushing it) missed the mark there, but Reynolds did this right. Ambushes and counter-attacks, the kind of traps within traps one expects from Kauyon executed right, and Space-Marine last stands. What I especially appreciated was how both sides adapted to the other’s counters: the tau using structures and terrain to pin the Scars, the Scars using rubble to set up a killing field for the tau’s attempt to press the advantage. While there were questionable decisions on both sides, the overall feeling was that it could go either way, and that’s a heck of a lot more respect for the tau than they tend to get against any marines not painted yellow. Plus, the knife-fight at the end was sweet, tau aversion to close combat being set aside for the sake of the moment. For fun, me and a buddy rolled this out, and out of three goes, close combat weapons only and Shadow getting the charge, Khan won two of three, but it went three-to-four rounds each time. Game-stat wise, it’s not as farfetched a match as I’d have thought. Don’t know if Reynolds studied that up before writing this, but respect was paid to two of my favorite characters in the 40k universe. I can’t help but love it. High Points:
• Thursk, through and through. I found it very cool to see the Scars through the eyes of one of their successors, and to see the differences reflected between the two was a good perspective to add to the story. It wasn’t a necessary addition, purely speaking, but it did nothing but add to the story, so good call Reynolds.
• Both Khan and Shadowsun over thinking their opponents. Khan so sure Shadowsun was nearby the bastion, as she would clearly wish to see out the end of their hunt, and Shadowsun following the outriders, because of course Khan would be leading the charge! That both of them would be a bit right in the end was only better.
• The final scene between Shadowsun and Khan. It kind of gave me flashbacks to, of all things, the duel in The Princess Bride between Wesley and Inigo Montoya. Shame we can’t work together, ‘cause you’re alright. Oh well, duel to the death. The one thing I’ve always enjoyed about Tau vs Space Marines is that there is generally some level of respect between the two, and this showcased that quite well.
Going in, this was about where I placed my best-case scenario for the stories of this collection, and Reynolds beat that by a bit.[/spoiler]
So all in all, I’d give the book two-and-a-half stars out of four, largely due to the Kelly’s story setting a poor expectation for what follows. But Haley nailed it, Counter made a good effort, and Reynolds gave me a fair bit more than I was expecting. I feel comfortable referring the collection to friends as a read, though I might hesistate on suggesting it as a need-to-buy. I don’t regret picking it up in the least, but there are definitely places it could have been better.