Friday, April 20, 2012

Sisters of Battle: Faith and Fire, Hammer and Anvil & Red and Black by James Swallow

When dangerous psychic Torris Vaun escapes from her custody, Celestian Miriya is disgraced in the eyes of her fellow sisters and superiors. Following Vaun’s trail to the planet Neva, Miriya takes her sisters in pursuit and, along with Hospitaller Sister Verity, starts her investigations.

When they uncover a terrifying a plot that could threaten the future of the Imperium, is Miriya’s and Verity’s faith strong enough for them to triumph?

I first read Faith and Fire back in 2006, when it was first published, and remembered enjoying it then. When I heard that there was a sequel in the offing, I discovered that my copy had vanished, either lent to a ‘friend’ or eaten by the sofa, and horror of horrors, it was out of print. Thankfully eBay came to the rescue, although it’s since been re-printed to coincide with the new releases.
The sequel, Hammer and Anvil, and the audiobook Red and Black, all follow Miriya and Verity, who are both Sisters of Battle, who are essentially militant nuns. Very, very militant nuns, each sworn to the service of The Emperor and possessed of a penchant for alternately blowing very large holes in heretics or setting them on fire. And, importantly, they’re human. Not Space Marines, but good, old fashioned humans, albeit highly trained and equipped with top of the range weaponry. SEAL nuns then, with powered armour and the tolerance for blasphemy that makes the Taliban look like a commune of free-spirited hippies.

Amongst their order, Miriya is known to be a headstrong commander, one not afraid to ask questions that others would deflect or ignore. But she’s a good soldier, and devoted to her cause. Vaun’s escape is ruthlessly executed, but far worse than the censure of her superiors is the memory of being held captive by his warp-craft and forced to watch his callous desecration of her sisters in impotent rage.

What begins as a personal quest for redemption and revenge leads her onto an unexpected path, thick with secrets and danger as she is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about those she serves as well as herself. The truth of what Vaun is seeking is an ingenious and ambitious twist, one that makes the conclusion a bittersweet one truly in keeping with the spirit of the universe. It’s a perfectly satisfying standalone read, but the strength of the characters has always called out for more of their stories to be told.

Hence Hammer and Anvil.

On a distant world, the Ecclesiarchy outpost of Sanctuary 101 was wiped out by an implacable foe- the fearless, soulless Necrons. Now, a mission of the sisterhood has returned to reconsecrate the site- but the metallic nightmares still lurk in the darkness, guarding a secret that has lain dormant for millennia.

A vicious battle will be fought, one that only end in the total destruction of the unrelenting xenos, or the annihilation of the proud Adepta Sororitas.

Hammer and Anvil is set some years after the events of Faith and Fire, and we rejoin sisters Miriya and Verity as they join the mission to reclaim Sanctuary 101, a mission that has been delayed by long years of political manoeuvring and stonewalling by the Inquisition. Each is seeking their own redemption, although Miriya’s path is the harder one as she seeks to put the ghost of Vaun’s actions behind her once and for all, while fearing that she never will.

The truth of what happened at the Sanctuary is quickly figured out, and even as the indentured workers begin the reconstruction the scheming minions of the Mechanicum set a chain of events in motion that will see the Sisters draw weapons against both them and the fearsome Necrons who have been roused from their sleep. But this isn’t just any tomb-world of that age old and forgotten race; it holds the key to unleashing the kind of force that saw the Necrontyr dominate the galaxy countless aeons ago. War soon returns to Sanctuary 101, and it’s clear that not even the tenacious defiance of the Sisters will be enough to stave off disaster.

Beset by self-doubt, and surrounded by distrustful Battle Sisters, a damaged escapee from the Necrons’ cruel research and a self serving techpriest, Miriya’s battle is fought on several fronts, all of them desperate. H & A flies along at a frenetic pace as the truth and intriguing glimpses into the history and lives of the key Necron figures are teased out, all leading to a massive and breathless confrontation. Happily, despite the years since Faith & Fire did the rounds, Swallow has kept Miriya and Verity true to the original characters and as interesting as before (although Miriya wins, hands down) and has maintained the background feel of the intrigue and one-upmanship that are so rife in the Imperium. Hammer and Anvil stands on its own and can be read alone, although you will get far more out of it by having read Faith & Fire.

The Nuns-With-Guns trifecta is completed by Red and Black, an audio drama featuring Miriya again, who is at the rank of Celestian again, which suggests this is a prequel to Faith and Fire, although to be honest it again works as a standalone.

After two millennia, the warp storms raging around the Hollos star system have abated, allowing the isolated planet of Hollos to reconnect with the Imperium. When a mysterious messenger contacts the Orders Militant, Celestian Miriya must travel to Hollos and pass judgement on the world. Will she find a world embracing the Emperor’s truth or one in need of cleansing? Her decision will liberate or condemn an entire planet.

Miriya’s ‘flaw’ of being willing to think for herself is one of the factors that sees her put forward to lead this expedition. It’s a heavy responsibility and one that’s never far from her mind; Hollos will live or die by her judgement.

The expedition has a promising start. The envoy shows a devout belief in the Emperor, and the landing pad on the prosperous capital city of Hollos is thronged with cheering crowds. But soon enough things go awry and Miriya and her sisters find themselves fighting off a faction of extremists, the presence of whom raises a score of questions as to the price the inhabitants have paid for the facade of peace and prosperity that they enjoy- and the price they will have to pay for their survival. The history and secrets that lie at the heart of Hollos are systematically revealed by the not-so-delicate investigations of the Sisters and their accompanying tech priests, yet as she gets closer to the judgement she must pass Miriya finds that the decision will be harder than she would ever have expected.

It’s not an action heavy drama, but James nonetheless crams a lot into the 71 minute running time. It’s an interesting concept and one that could easily have been expanded into a full length novel. Beth Chalmers and Lisa Bowerman’s performances are consistent, clear and spirited, and the background effects are handled well, neither overwhelming the narration nor becoming repetitive. You can listen to a sample here.

I transferred this onto my ipod and listened to it while at gym, which worked out perfectly. It’s the right length for a casual, one-off listen and an easy way to get a 40K fix on the go. The Sisters of Battle provide a nice change of perspective, and if you're new to the 40K universe and worried about trying to coming to grips with the physio- and psychology of superhuman Space Marines, the Sisters are a good introduction to the setting and mindset... and the kick-ass, no holds barred action that makes 40K so addictive. I guess that makes them a gateway drug :) but what a rush!

You can visit James' Livejournal site here, read an extract of Faith and Fire here or Hammer and Anvil here.

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