Review – Butcher’s Nails

Ah, a review! A nice change of pace and breath of fresh air. For once I can review something that’s actually recent enough to be relevant. Well, two somethings actually, the latest Black Library offerings from literary powerhouse Aaron Dembski-Bowden.

Aaron Dembski-Bowden is still a bit of a new kid on the block in terms of his Black Library contributions, but he’s quickly established himself as one of the company’s best writers, alongside grizzled veterans Dan Abnett and Graham McNeil. This is probably because he’s a bit bloody good. Every Black Library writer has their own distinctive quirks, and ADB’s books are usually full of awesome snarky wit and genuinely powerful and touching character development, a hard thing to achieve when the protaganist of your story is a genetically enhanced super soldier who lives a life of betrayal, murder, and desecration. Talos from the Soul Hunter trilogy, Argel Tal and Lorgar from First Heretic… and now Angron, Primarch of the World Eaters, and star of the audio book Butcher’s Nails.

Well he seems like an agreeable sort of chap.

First things first; Black Library make damn good audio books (technically “audio dramas”). I have a stash of them in my drawers at work, and listening to them certainly makes the day go faster. The Dark King and The Lightning Tower are good character pieces, the Thorn Wishes Talon collection contains a trio of very good stories, and The Madness Within is fun and action-packed. The sound effects are nice and crunchy, and the voice acting is top notch – I’m especially fond of Danny Webb’s performance as Malcador in The Lightning Tower because he makes the Sigillite sound like Emperor frigging Palpatine from Star Wars, which is all flavours of awesome.

To be fair, look at the guy. He probably sneezes Sith lightning.

The story is set during the Horus Heresy (derp), post-Isstvaan and pre-Calth, and if that means nothing to you, then I’ve lost you already.

Angron – who’s like Kratos from God of War, if Kratos was twice the size, invulnerable to harm, and dual-wielded chainsaw axes – is cruising around in space in his battleship Conqueror, along with a load of everyone’s favourite power-armoured psychopaths, the World Eaters. He’s been sent on a mission by the Big Bad himself, Horus. Accompanying him on this mission is Lorgar, Primarch of the Word Bearers, and his Legion of Chaos-worshipping zealots.

The story starts with Angron and Lorgar about to start a war between their fleets; Lorgar wants to get on with the mission at hand, but Angron is too busy dicking around and committing global genocide on every world they pass, because Angron is a VERY ANGRY MAN and likes to wipe out whole civilisations for lulz. Angron and Lorgar argue, and Angron is about to order the attack, when the Eldar, naughty psychic space elves that they are, appear and cock-block the World Eater’s raging murder-boner. What follows is a fairly epic space battle as the Conqueror curb stomps a whole Eldar fleet with, no joke, enormous rocket-propelled space harpoons.

This, but a thousand times bigger and IN SPAAAACE.

A synopsis of the remainder; the Eldar retreat, Lorgar and Angron call a truce long enough to hunt down the pointy-ears, they find them, and then Lorgar and Angron storm the Eldar flagship. Angron kills the Eldar captain, but not before the xenos mentions that they were trying to kill Angron before he became “The Blood God’s son”. Lorgar files this bit of information away without giving Angron any kind of spoilers. The story ends as Kharn and Argel Tal duel, showing that the Eaters and Bearers are on good terms again, and then they hear the announcement that the Battle of Calth has begun.

So, what did I like about this story? Pretty much everything. The action is great and visceral, and ADB has an awesome gift for dialogue, snarky wit, and adjectives. I liked the character of Captain Lotara Sarrin, mistress of the Conqueror. I liked that they gave Kharn a Spanish accent. I really liked the informality between Sarrin, Kharn and Angron, and how Angron hates being addressed by any sort of title or honorific, appropriate given his background as a gladiator slave who’s had to fight for everything. And I especially loved the atypical pairing of the World Eaters and the Word Bearers; they’re two Legions we’ve never really seen working together, especially not during the Heresy.

It’s refreshing to see the World Eaters, and especially Angron, portrayed with some real kind of depth. Usually they’ve just been handwaved as the VERY ANGRY MEN, which is fine, because it makes them very strong, very simple, and very effective archetypes. They’re warriors who like to get up close and personal, but often get carried away and cross the line. Other Legions don’t really like them, and consider them savage brutes. And that’s absolutely fine. But when you’re handling a Primarch – who is essentially a demi-god – a little more depth is required, and ADB does this very well with Angron. It’s really testament to his skill that you sympathise with Angron; the guy is in constant pain from his “Butcher’s Nails” (the little machines in his head that make him a VERY ANGRY MAN), and when he isn’t fighting, you’re made aware that he really suffers. He has headaches, muscle aches, nervous tics, nosebleeds… the guy’s basically a big grouchy mess unless he’s killing someone. And when he’s in the thick of it, he enters a sort of tranquil state, which is as close to peace as he can attain.

A few quibbles I had; having just recently read Void Stalker (which also features a space battle with Eldar), it felt like a lot of the space battle sections were copy-pasted. The appearance of the Eldar ships and the way they move are described in almost the exact same way, with some variations. Plus, the Eldar’s motivation is the same as in Void Stalker; “let’s appear and try and kill the protagonist because we’ve seen the future and some bad shit will go down if this guy lives.” It’s a fine reason, and very in-character for the Eldar, but it just seems repetitive.

I also thought the whole “giant rocket space harpoon gun” thing was a little goofy, but I’m not overly fussed by that; this is Warhammer 40,000 after all, where space ships are like giant cathedrals, Hell is a real place (and a shortcut across the galaxy), and supersoldiers fight with chainsaw swords, i.e. IT’S FRIGGING AWESOME.

So in short, buy this. Listen to it. Enjoy it. Because if you don’t, Angron will GET VERY ANGRY.

OH SHIT RUN.

Tzaph

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