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The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell – review
After a number of very well received short stories for Hammer and Bolter Magazine, Sarah Cawkwell was due to be given the space for a novel of her very own, and here it is. Released in December 2011, this first ‘feature length’ outing with Cawkwell’s Silver Skulls Astartes is another worthy addition to the Space Marine Battles series.
It has been a while since I reviewed one of this series, and this is because I have struggled a little with them. They are meant to be primarily about action, epic battles with the fate of a whole world or sector in the balance. While I love the idea, I’ve discovered that I need more than pure bolter porn to get my blood pumping. For me, Dembski-Bowden’s Helsreach struck the perfect balance between an emotionally charged and character driven story and a healthy dose of shooty-death-kill-in-space; and as I’ve discovered, this is no mean feat.
And so enters newcomer Cawkwell into this hard-to-get-right niche in the genre with the ‘historic’ tale of the Silver Skulls and their fierce and costly battle with the Tyrant of Badab, Huron Blackheart.
The story has numerous subplots that add a lot to the narrative, not least of which is the Resurgent Project, which was as mysterious as it was slow to unfold–deliberately so, I suspect. The main story, however, follows the fortunes of Master of the Fleet, Brother Captain Daerys Arrun. Tricked into sending the majority of his fleet back to the home world of the Silver Skulls, Arrun finds himself facing off against the Blackheart’s Red Corsairs in a battle, the full implications of which are beyond even the Silver Skulls’ famed Prognosticators. After battling in the vastness of space, the fight comes down to the surface of Gildar Secundus and a final confrontation that will decide the fate of the sector and the future of the Silver Skulls.
I’ve struggled with this book, a lot. Everything seems to be there, and yet I found it difficult to finish. Cawkwell’s prose is anything but prosaic; her battle scenes are fast flowing and paint a viscerally clear picture. Her villains are delightfully evil and the supporting cast compelling, but for me the central protagonist is Daerys Arrun, and I found him singularly unsympathetic as a character. His unthinking aggression and almost constant anger left me cold and lacked the depth of character I’ve come to expect from the Astartes. Arrun’s Prognosticator (a Chaplain/Librarian, for the uninitiated) Brand was a far more nuanced character, and their relationship seemed to be one of wise parent vs. impetuous teenager. Though I recognised Arrun’s passion, there was an un-Astartes-like lack of judgement that I found hard to sympathise with.
In truth this is part and parcel of Cawkwell’s story. Huron Blackheart seems to know his enemy well and uses these personality quirks to manipulate the Silver Skulls into exposing their flank, both literally and figuratively. My realisation of this lent an air of tragedy to the tale which is perfectly in keeping with the dystopian flavour of 40K, and yet, even within that, for me there needs to be some hope to cling to. Watching Arrun blunder, raging, into every trap the Tyrant sets for him becomes depressing, frustrating even. For all Arrun’s vaunted cunning as a tactician, it’s the utterly insane (though undeniably brilliant) Blackheart who always seems two steps ahead. Arrun appears outclassed from very early on. I found this hard to relate to and lost the drive to keep turning the pages to a seemingly inevitable conclusion.
Make no mistake, if you’re looking for bolter blasting, chainsword screaming Space Marine action, you’ll not be disappointed. If you’re looking for truly wonderful prose that makes the scenes leap from the page you’ll likewise feel satiated, but, greedy sod that I am, I need a protagonist I can connect with emotionally, and Arrun simply didn’t work for me. This is more to do with my own relationship to anger and aggression than anything else, and I feel obliged to make clear that the book is, from a more emotionally detached perspective, a great entry into the Black Library annals. Having said all that, I’m looking forward to Cawkwell’s next work, which I hope will give more scope for her own unique brand of creativity than the necessarily railroaded Space Marine Battles series.