Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Gildar Rift by Sarah Cawkwell

When the ancient warship Wolf of Fenris emerges from the warp, Imperial forces find that it has been overrun by the dreaded Red Corsairs. However, this is no mere raiding party – Huron Blackheart and his entire renegade fleet soon follow, intent on conquering the Gildar Rift and tightening their grip on the sector. Lance batteries and torpedo salvos burn fiery contrails through the void, and only Captain Arrun of the Silver Skulls Space Marine Chapter can halt the renegades’ advance. The fate of the Rift will not be decided in the heavens but on the surface of Gildar Secundus below.

Space Marines are cool. So are pirates.

So imagine the possibilities offered by the idea of Space Marine Pirates, particularly when they're a band of chaos worshipping superhumans led by an even larger, wholly psychopathic specimen who's crazier than a bag of possessed possums. And these are exactly what young Ms Cawkwell gets to play with in this, her debut novel.

TGR opens with the calm before the storm, introducing us to the 'Rift, which is a treacherous stretch of space surrounding a planetary system rather than a valley. It's a system thriving (as much as anything in that bleak future thrives) under the protection of the Silver Skulls chapter of the Space Marines. Their fleet is at the forefront of that defence, a fleet led by Captain Daerys Arrun, a veteran who already has enough on his plate without the puzzle posed by the arrival of the battle- damaged ship The Wolf of Fenris. Impossible to ignore, the Silver Skulls mount an expedition into its cold and apparently lifeless interior, but it's soon revealed as the opening gambit for an invasion by Huron Blackheart and his Red Corsairs. Battle is joined, and the cold vacuum of space is lit by lasers, torpedoes and exploding ships in a very nicely described bit of deadly stellar ballet. Blackheart might be batshit crazy, but that hasn't yet suffocated his strategic genius, and Captain Arrun and the 4th company are soon reminded that it's not over until the fat Marine sings.

Space Marines aren't that easy to write. I've tried it. They don't have days off. They don't do emotions all that well, unless it's rage. If they're not at war, they're training for war. Making them accessible and interesting while staying true to what they are is no mean feat, so it was a relief to find that Sarah has managed to do just that, while also managing to bring the little known Silver Skulls to life and make them her own. Captain Arrun and his supporting cast are each given their chance to shine, and the sub-plot with the tragic heroism of Volker was unexpected twist and a very cool concept. Blackheart and his ghoulish apothecary come across equally convincingly, and the interaction between them sparks nicely and I welcomed the fact that they're there for a reason other than generic carnage.

The action's pretty good throughout, although a minor whinge is that I would have liked a bit more Marine vs Marine action in the ground battles- this is a Battles novel and while exploding cultists are always welcome, it would have been nice to have some squad on squad tactical action to get stuck into. Still, there's a cool bike scene, and these are Corsairs- they're not there for a drag out fight. Not yet. There's enough left unanswered to act as a hook for a follow on, but not so much that you're left scratching your head as to what just happened.

The fact that it was a debut novel never crossed my mind when I was reading TGR. It's a good, solid addition to the 40K shelves, suitably grim and dark without being depressing, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what crawls out of Sarah's head next.

You can visit Sarah's blog here, and read an extract from The Gildar Rift here.

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