Lord of the Night reviews the controversial Flesh and Iron
by Henry Zou.
"A novel that despite the controversy around it, deserved or not I will not comment, is still enjoyable and a grimdark piece of war fiction that Black Library needs more of in its ranks." - Lord of the Night
Before I even begin this review I will say this now. This review will not discuss plagiarism, I do not know if the aforementioned accusations of plagiarism this novel has received are deserving or not though I do not deny that I have read comparison exerts and have seen that scenes in this book are indeed quite similar to scenes in the war memoir House to House
. Since I cannot say if this was intentional or accidental on Zou's part and I have never read the aforementioned memoir, nor will I ever, I am ignoring it and reviewing this novel as I would any other. The scenes in question will not weigh in on my final score of this novel. If you don't like that, click the back button on your internet browser and don't read this.
War has come to the world of Solo-Bastón. A backwater world in the Bastion Stars, the planet has come under the attention of the Ecclesiarchy who will stop at nothing to see this world brought into the fold of the majestic God-Emperor. But not all is as it seems on this quaint little world of rainforests and peaceful indigenous people, something much darker is going on behind the scenes of the war effort, and when the Ouisivian 31st Riverine Amphibious regiment is sent on a suicide mission into the heart of enemy territory, they must confront the ever-growing legions of the Carnibalčs, the mysterious Dos Pares, and a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the raucous Riverine Guardsmen, and only the untested commander Fyodor Baeder will be able to see his men through their darkest hour. But can they emerge from this crucible, and if they do will they ever be the same again?
The story in Flesh and Iron
is a very grimdark one and if a straightforward and clear-cut adventure is what you're looking for, turn away now because in this novel nothing is as it seems on the first look and nothing is what you'd expect. Zou has made a very gritty story, the Riverine mission is a hard and long trail and you can almost feel the pain and exhaustion of the Guardsmen as they trek up the river and face hardship after hardship, and how the harsh reality of war begins to change all of them. Zou also gives the story some nice twists, one of which really surprised me and the rest of which made it so I was always guessing at what would come next and was never sure where the novel would go from that point. One thing that I quite like is that this novel can also be considered as an introspective look at the Imperium, at its flaws and at something the novel shows a few times and that when you truly think about the Imperium of Man, you realise is true not just in this novel but in all the lore and shows why the Imperium will always be at war and will never know true peace, at least in the opinion I formed after reading this book and I think that Zou did a very good job showing that in this book.
The characters are a good bunch, though only a few really mattered in the story and even fewer were truly fleshed out as characters. Zou's Guardsmen were an interesting bunch, a good dose of contrasts from the raucous and unkempt Riverine 31st to the foppish Persephian Naval forces and the harsh and bloodthirsty Caliguan Motor Rifles. From the commanders to the soldiers Zou shows how war changes the Riverines, though only Commander Fyodor Baeder and Corporal Sendo Schilt went through any real development as characters and both surprised me quite a bit in the changes they underwent, the actions they performed and where each of them ended up. Zou also shows how war changes the natives of Solo-Bastón through inner thoughts, narrative sections about the actions of the non-combatant natives and one character whose journey through the book I found interesting, how he leaves the culture he knew for a culture that will likely mean his death and yet embraces it anyway, and the change in his belief system was interesting as well. The Dos Pares were interesting but could have been fleshed out a bit more, and they seemed a little too polite near the end considering what they were but that may just be me. I also liked to hate the other antagonist of the story and found him to be a great example of one of the greatest problems in the Imperium, corruption and a cult of personality, however I would have liked to see more about why certain characters were so loyal to him rather than just being told they were. On the whole the characters that were given depth were nicely done, but Zou could have used a few more well-rounded and fleshed out characters to widen the variety in the novel.
The action is typically Zou, which is to say that it is vivid, atmospheric and memorable and it almost feels real in some sections. I think Zou handles the Guardsmen in battle really well, his fights are powerful and many have a chaotic feel to them, as if the lines of battle are barely holding and all it will take is one more crack for everything to descend into pure madness. The amphibious aspect to the warfare was also nicely done, the boat to boat combat and amphibious assault style favoured by the Riverine gave them a unique feeling that served them well as the protagonist regiment by setting them apart from what we've had before. I liked the guerrilla warfare that the Carnibalčs used, it made them a fearsome foe in the jungle but Zou also captured the flaws in an army comprised of ill-trained natives, even with superior numbers and capable armaments their lack of discipline and training showed in a few scenes, but Zou then unleashes the elites of the insurgency and shows the results of the efforts of the Dos Pares, which turned the Carnibalčs from a rag-tag rebellion that was sure to lose to a capable armed force that might actually have a chance. Zou's action scenes were a highlight of the book, each one fun to read and the moves each side made also made strategic sense. One battle in particular was a very interesting scene and a bold choice to put in the novel by Zou, but it showed very clearly how the war and the mission were changing the Riverines and what men pushed to the brink are capable of doing.
The pacing of the book was done well enough but it could have been better. Some parts in the first half felt a bit slow and the prologue felt unconnected to the wider story, like it was a snapshot of something prior to the novel's main events that was just added in to show scenes on Solo-Bastón. I also felt that one or two characters were superfluous, they didn't really serve any point in the story beyond one or two scenes with them that could have been done with another character that played a more relevant role in the story, and it wouldn't have taken anything away from the story either as these characters didn't really do anything or offer any unique insights that we wouldn't have gotten without their POVs. Also at two points in the story Zou forgets about two characters, both of them are in the narrative and in one case as a POV character and both disappear from the book without a trace and no further mention is made of them, which is jarring because one of those characters was a POV character and we really should have known what happened to him and the other, while not a POV, was fairly important to the wider story and his fate should have been shown. One thing Zou really does well is the environments of his story, they feel real and I could picture myself in the rainforests of Solo-Bastón in those rusted and outdated boats with the Riverines, bugs in the air and bodies in the river, Zou immerses the reader into the locales in his stories which is something that I quite enjoy when I read a book, being able to not only see the locales but to be able to picture myself in them.
Now my favourite quote, definitely this one because it showed a different face to a well known aspect of 40k,
"I don't need your blood when I already have your word as a commander of men."
The ending was a very nice twist to the story, and one that can give the reader an interesting viewpoint on the Imperium based on the experiences of three characters and how the story ended for each one. Those who've read the rest of the Bastion Wars series, Emperor's Mercy
and Blood Gorgons
, will recognise the cameos at the end, how you feel about them is up to you but I really enjoyed them especially one character in particular who is connected to this story in a very big way, but to find out you'll have to read it. Zou wraps up the story nicely, some things are what you'd expect given events in the novel but there is that one final twist, or more like a reveal of what has happened to one character, that made me laugh for the sheer irony of it all. I think Zou ends the story on the best note possible, with that unspoken viewpoint pretty much echoing throughout the entire final conversation that really hammers home the grimdark elements to the plot. One thing I really liked was that the final conversation also subverted my expectations, it was the final two lines that did it, and showed a very different face to something than the Imperium preaches and that just because the Imperium says it is good and everything else is bad, doesn't mean that it's true or that the reverse is impossible. This novel really captured the grimdark of 40k which not enough of Black Library's novels do, in my opinion we need more stories like Flesh and Iron
For an enjoyable story, some well-written and memorable characters and brutal and exciting battle scenes I give Flesh and Iron
a score of 8.4/10
. The controversy surrounding this novel does not play into my final score, and as I said above if you don't like that nobody is forcing you to read this review. This is a novel that we need to see more books set in the same vein, the grimdark and often cruel nature of 40k was nicely displayed here which made it a departure from what we normally get from BL. And I am left wanting more from Mr. Henry Zou which I can only hope we will get as no new news about him has been found since Blood Gorgons
was released, so Mr Zou if you happen to read this I hope we hear from you again, and if not then Blood Gorgons
will always be one of my favourite BL novels so thank you for giving us that much.
That's it for this review. Until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!