More than any other author at Black Library presently, it seems that David Annandale is by far one of the busiest of the lot, if his output in the last couple years or so is any indication. Multiple short stories, a novel, multiple novellas. And his work has been seen digital-to-print republication. For me, he has certainly emerged as one of the best of the bunch, owing in part to his technical writing and his characters and plots of course. It also helps that in much of his work he has chosen to write about factions and characters that usually don’t see the light of day otherwise, much.
About ten days back or so I mentioned in my review of Forge Master that it was part of a trilogy of novellas about the Overfiend of Octavius, an Ork Warlord who controls one of the biggest Ork empires in the galaxy. Where Forge Master was the capstone to that trilogy, Shadow Captain is the middle narrative and is told from the perspective of the Raven Guard rather than the Salamanders. And the events in this novella take place just before the events of Forge Master. Just as with it successor, Shadow Captain proved to be a most entertaining read, and it shined the light on another of my most favourite Space Marine chapters.
There are essentially two narratives in this novella. The first is from the perspective of the warriors of the Raven Guard 8th Company led by Shadow Captain Krevaan. The other is from the perspective of the Eldar warriors of the Saim-Hann Craftworld. Where the Space Marines have come to defend the world of Lepidus Prime and its system from the Ork forces of the Overfiend of Octavius, the Eldar have come to deny the Ork Warlord access to the relic that has been calling to him and his forces for some time yet and the acquisition of which will massively destablise several sectors of Imperial space and beyond.
What is interesting about this novella is that it features a story of speed vs muscle. The Raven Guard of the 8th are all masters of assault tactics, for they often go to battle wearing assault packs that allow them to travel great distances in short order and they function as fast-moving assault troops. The Saim-Hann Eldar on the other hand are also speed-freaks for their most common method of waging war is from the seat of a jetbike, whether we talk about their warleaders the Autarchs or their Farseers and the others of that ilk. But the Orks, well, the Orks have single-minded ferocity that smashes all before them and all they are about is the wave of footsoldiers they can field at any given time, a number that is always far superior to what almost any other force in the galaxy can provide for a given theater of war. In Shadow Captain, the Raven Guard must by needs ally themselves with the Saim-Hann Eldar against the Orks and the tensions and subplots that this alliance creates is something that is one of the best things about the story.
There are countless stories in Warhammer 40,000 where we see the forces of the Imperium ally with those of the Eldar of one Craftworld or another for the purposes of mutual goals, whether against Orks or Chaos or any other threat that they may face. Some of the most well-known are of course the stories from C. S. Goto’s Dawn of War trilogy which were based off the game Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War from Relic Entertainment. Whether Inquisition or Space Marines, many have at one point or another suffered such alliances and the lore is no stranger to such. Even in Forge Master we the glimpses of such an alliance and the way that he executes all of it, David Annandale keeps things really interesting and he maintains the reader’s focus for the entire length of the novella. He does the same here and the stakes for both the Raven Guard and the Saim-Hann are much higher than they were for the Salamanders and their Eldar allies in Forge Master.
What I really liked was that despite the needs of the circumstances, Shadow Captain Krevaan maintained a cool detachment to his unlooked-for allies and that he engendered a healthy suspicion of them in both himself and his warriors. That’s when I knew that David Annandale was going to do something really quirky, and he did, given what Krevaan and Techmarine Thaene get up to in the middle of the novel and towards the climax. Scenes like those are what I love reading about in Warhammer 40,000 fiction and David Annandale certainly did not disappoint me at all.
The Raven Guard are an interesting Chapter for the fact that they have an ability that allows them to… become one with shadows. They are infiltrators and guerrilla fighters beyond compare as far as Space Marines (or Adeptus Astartes, whichever term you prefer), and wraith-slipping is quite the handy tool in their toolbox. I forget the origins of this ability but I think that it might have been mentioned in Gav Thorpe’s Horus Heresy novel Deliverance Lost, which dealt with the Raven Guard following the Dropsite Massacre on Istvaan V and the humbling of the Seventeenth Legion. Either way, apart from the wraith-slipping’s origins going unmentioned, I enjoyed the narrative possibilities that this opened up and how David Annandale dealt with those possibilities. I would have loved for Shadow Captain to be a full-grown novel, but what we got is fine with me since the story on its own is tightly-plotted and is also quite focused on the end-game so it never takes any unwanted detours.
As far as characters go, there are many that we meet. Krevaan is one of course, and Captain Mulcebar from Forge Master is also present in a few scenes, although we never meet him in the flesh, just via audio-pickup. There’ve been a few Raven Guard captains of note in Warhammer 40,000 fiction in recent years, the most notable being Kayvaan Shrike of the Third Company and Koryn of the Fourth. Krevaan I see as being quite a match for Kayvaan in that I really enjoyed the character and would love to see him again in a longer format even. He isn’t a very traditional Space Marine Captain, as portrayed in BL fiction over the years, and he is quite analytical and decisive when other characters in his place would place their instincts before their suspicions.
There are two Eldar characters of note, the Saim-Hann Autarch Eleira and the Ranger Alathannas. The skeins of fate place the Eldar in an impossible situation, as they always do, and while the Eldar are often reactionary by nature in Shadow Captain, we get to see some fine jetbike action against the Ork forces, and that was pleasing in itself. Both Eleira and Alathannas made for fine characters, but I wish that they’d been more open to the possibilities before them as the story unfolded and that they weren’t quite so one-note as they appeared to be in the end. This is something that I find problematic in a lot of Eldar fiction, and there’ve been very few instances when I really was taken with the characters. Eleira and Alathannas come close, but since they have to play second fiddle to the Raven Guard in that the story is about the Raven Guard’s struggle against the Orks, they aren’t done justice. David almost gets that right, but it doesn’t follow through as much as I’d hoped it would.
Still, David made this novella entertaining in all other respects and he also showed that he isn’t afraid of putting in a big dent in the numbers of the Raven Guard and the Eldar alike. The Orks of course take some devastating casualties but they are the Orks. What was pretty damn awesome though was that the Ork character in Shadow Captain is an Ork engineer of startling creativity and his creations in this novella are both monstrous and terrifying and, perhaps undefeatable as well.
The struggle of the heroes to stop the Orks from running roughshod all over Lepidus Prime is one that I loved from start to finish and really, David tells a fairly self-contained story here. David has told me that I am reading the trilogy in reverse order, which wasn’t something I was aware of when I picked up Forge Master in April. While I see how Shadow Captain progresses to Forge Master and, indeed, how Stormseer progresses to Shadow Captain, I don’t really feel that I am reading the whole story backwards or that I am missing something out. That owes perhaps to the fact that each novella is about a different set of characters and challenges and locales, but then that’s it.
Besides, Shadow Captain proved to be a damn good story, and ultimately, that is what I care about first and foremost. Among David’s best work? For sure, although it must be said that David is indeed one of the most consistent authors writing for Black Library today.
More Raven Guard: (Horus Heresy) Raven’s Flight.