Ravenwing - A Review
The Ravenwing stand apart from the rest of the Dark Angels Chapter – these dynamic Space Marines take to the battlefield upon steeds of adamantium and plasteel, and swoop from the skies in lightning-fast speeders to bring death to the foes of the Imperium.
When he joins their prestigious ranks, Brother Annael finds himself thrust into a whole new world of shadowy intrigue, and privy to secrets unknown to his common battle-brothers. In the wake of the conflict at Kadillus, hints of a dark conspiracy begin to emerge, and it soon becomes apparent that the Ravenwing has a sacred duty far more vital than hunting down orks...
I felt Gav did a great service to fans of the Dark Angels and a very good job with this book, overall. I may have been one of the harshest critics of "The Purging of Kadillus" on this forum, and I have to say: everything that felt like it was missing from that entry of "Space Marine Battles" was here in spades.
First and foremost, I honestly feel is as if Gav just nailed the character of a Chapter like the Dark Angels. One thing that I always felt is that, in order for the Dark Angels to make sense as a Chapter, there had to be a dichotomy of sorts between those who were in the Inner Circle and those who were line battle-brothers. This dichotomy had to be based on what an inducted Dark Angel would do in order to preserve the secrets of the Chapter. The moral choices one would have to brave in order to maintain the Hunt against the Fallen, and the effect/consequences this would have on the individual making them would have to be shown. There would be a difference between those who have to walk this perilous path and those who don't. Gav could have made everyone in the Inner Circle a grim and dour schemer and torturer. Even worse, he could have just made everyone in the Chapter that way.
I'm happy to say that Gav did neither; he didn't take the easy way out. Sammael and Chaplain Malcifer (who is, again, an Interrogator Chaplain even if he doesn't advertise it) share moments of quiet levity. They demonstrate a fundamental level of respect for each other and for those of their brothers not inducted in their secrets. They approach their duties with a solemn gravity, not cruelty or obsession. When they torture (on no less than two occasions), it is clear that even though they seek to instill fear in their prisoners they take no pleasure from their deeds - they are clinical rather than emotional, and understand that they commit a necessary (to them) evil.
This carries over to the rest of the cast. Some have a sense of wit about them, others are dour, and one is in fact a braggart and a dandy who never truly left behind his aristocratic childhood. Whether battle-brothers of the Fifth Company or of the Ravenwing, though, all possess a baseline of gentlemanly dignity that suits the Dark Angels - who are, after all, monastic knights-cum-Space marines, very well. There is increasing tension between the Companies, and it's fitting - since one unit doesn't know what the other is doing and why. That, too, is handled very well.
All in all, Gav just did a terrific job where dialogue was concerned. Their interactions do justice to what such a group of warriors would - should - be like.
Another thing I thought was done quite nicely: this book picked up after "Angels of Darkness" almost seamlessly. Despite all the years that have passed since Gav penned that tone, it's obvious he put a lot of effort in making sure that there weren't continuity gaps. Sure, none of the heroes featured in the novel were in "Angels of Darkness", but the links are there and they fit nicely. The Fallen Astelan associated with? They're here. The mystery of Port Imperial? Features centrally in the Hunt. The fanatic armies Astelan set up on Tharsis? Part of a larger scheme that continues on. The questions of whether Astelan was a true believer, if he was trying to lead Boreas on, or if it was a bit of both?
Still to be answered... :wink:
Not to spoil anything, but while Astelan is not featured in this novel, his legacy lives on. The search to find the Fallen responsible for the demise of Boreas and his warriors is the central premise of this novel. The ties between those Fallen and Astelan are, in turn, central to that premise. There are elegant, thoughtful nods to Astelan's story in "Ravenwing", some of which you might not catch the first time around. And as always, there are no easy resolutions. I suspect that, until Book Three of the "Legacy of Caliban" is released, many of us will continue to wonder who speaks truth, who speaks falsely, or whether they speak a bit of both...
Probably the most interesting wrinkle of the story is Sammael's inevitable thoughts regarding Boreas' parting words and how they make him feel about the sacred duty of all warriors who have been made a part of the Inner Circle. Can the Hunt for the Fallen - and the things they do in the name of it - be considered righteous and just? What about Boreas' warnings? The Interrogator-Chaplain recognized, in the end, that the Fallen used the Hunt against him to lure him to his own doom. They set him up and left him at a position where he lost everything that mattered and had to decide whether to die or live with shame... and then only by causing the deaths of everyone in Kadillus.
These, I thought, were delicious twists. It's the kind of conflict that all too often is missing from Black Library novels (but that we're starting to see increasingly). Unfortunately, they're never really pursued very far. They are topics that are debated by the central characters of the novel, but resolved all too swiftly. They never truly feature in the latter half of the novel, and it's a shame.
And unfortunately, this led to the last quarter of the novel - the part that I felt was the weakest. Sammael's decisions - and, through them, the author's own direction - become questionable. Indeed, in absence of any other look into the Dark Angels as "Ravenwing", Sammael's course of action becomes a condemnation how the Chapter handles its campaigns against the Fallen.
It's funny; when I read "The Purging of Kadillus", I pointed out how I as a reader felt that Belial was spot on in confessing to Lexicanum Charon his fears that he would be demoted by Azrael for his conduct of that campaign. Likewise, while reading "Ravenwing", Sammael's decisions are interpreted by line battle brothers as bizarre and confusing. They ultimately undermine their loyalty in their own direct commander (who has to act on said decisions and orders). And, as with Belial's own confession, I thought the members of Squad Amanael were spot on in their complaints.
This is a fundamental issue that I've noticed with the last couple of books that I've read by the same author. Gav is obviously a skilled, talented writer. At times, though, he himself seems to recognize that the decisions he has made for his characters are contrived. Rather than change the decision, though, he decides to express this understanding through his cast. This would be fine, so long as the decision makes sense for the individual making it. Whether Belial in "Kadillus" or Sammael in "Ravenwing", though, it's disappointing when we see a cunning, experienced, charismatic commander do things that his own warriors question... when it's obvious that it could have been handled better.
Ultimately, the only way I can explain this without spoilers is thusly: it was as if Gav had decided that, at the end of the novel, Sammael and his fellow members of the Inner Circle would have to make a HARD CHOICE. It didn't matter how questionable the means by which they would carry it out were; all that mattered was conveying this theme. Making sure that the decisions, tactics, and actions of the Dark Angels ably reflected honed and experienced military minds, though? I felt as if this was purely a secondary consideration to Gav... and one that ultimately wasn't followed through with.
Is this something I focus on too much? Probably. I might be too demanding when it comes to wanting to see my heroes (and villains) perform in a way that does justice to their strengths and skills. I felt that Gav was focused first, foremost, and only on the Dark Angels being Dark Angels - that is, agents of the Inner Circle's will - and never what it means to be a Space Marine. That is, on what Space Marines do well.
There's more than one way to skin a cat, and in this case the skinner ended up looking rather lackluster.
The final quarter of this novel thus came to a somewhat disappointing, anti-climactic ending. I was bummed, because the pace of the novel up until Book Four is excellent. It pulls you forward. It's constant, but not rushed. Events lead to other events, and you feel as if you're part of a hunt. Once at the final quarter, though? I felt as if I was reading something forced and contrived. It was as if the book had to end, and it had to end on a certain note. The long-awaited (through excellent rising action and pace) confrontation with the principal villain is largely omitted. The final battle is an afterthought. When Sammael and the villain face each other in the epilogue, in the only backdrop that they logically could, they never say anything we haven't read in any other Dark Angels story.
Finally, one of the last disappointments in the last quarter for me was how several of the characters were handled in the epilogue itself. Sorry, but this bit has to go into spoilers:
Three quarters of "Ravenwing" were, to me, the best book I've read on the Dark Angels and one of the better novels I've read from the Black Library, period. It wasn't just a good Dark Angels book, it was a very good book, I thought. The last quarter of the novel, however, simply disappointed me.
Translation? I wish this had been a longer novel. I wish it's last couple of chapters had been meatier. I wish the lackluster battle against the villain and his proxies at book's end had been a proper campaign that showed the tenacity and cunning of said enemy - and the will, perseverance, and skill of Sammael and his warriors as well.
Don't get me wrong, though. I would recommend this novel to any fan of the 40k milieu. It's an invaluable look into the Dark Angels for those who like the Chapter. Unfortunately, it obviously also holds what I (at least) consider to be some disappointments. Such is life!
I don't want anyone to read this review and infer that I'm somehow not excited about the next two novels in the "Legacy of Caliban" series. That is not the case. While I'm probably going to be resigned to the fact that Gav will not always show the Dark Angels behave in ways I would expect them to (on the battlefield, at least), he has shown that he has these characters more or less nailed and that he can provide an excellent background for them to operate in. He has seized on what made this Chapter interesting (its background, legends, themes, etc.) and given it a life of its own! Whatever my criticisms for Part 4 of this novel, the only reasons I put "Ravenwing" down over the last couple of days was to sleep, eat, work, and bathe. I look forward to "Master of Sanctity" without reservations!
There were a lot of neat little things I liked about "Ravenwing" -
WARNING, SPOILERS BELOW
[*] As readers, we know what the Ravenwing does, and why they do it. But how does the Inner Circle's choice to hold back the "less elite" Companies while the Ravenwing goes after key targets get interpreted by line battle brothers? They consider them glory hounds, and assume that this practice has more to do with elitism. I just thought it was interesting that the rest of the Dark Angels don't so much think that the Second Company are fearsome and reclusive (with the exception of the Black Knights, below)... but rather that they are somewhat showboat-ish.
[*] Gav's take on Astropathic visions. It was an elegant way of conveying interstellar communication, and neatly reflected examples from other authors. The message behind the vision? No less than a call from Azrael for Sammael & Co. to move toward Piscina, to investigate a threat to the Chapter: the death (or possible betrayal) of an Interrogator-Chaplain.
[*] The motivations of one of the main members of the Inner Circle are revealed. Sammael is so much more than a sinister schemer and plotter. Really, he's not that at all. He's a schemer by necessity, one who doesn't like having to lie and perform low deeds, but who is driven by his loyalty to the Chapter and the legacy of his gene-ancestors to do so. Specifically, he feels his position always entails balancing the needs of the hunt with the duty the Chapter owes to the Imperium.
For example, Sammael wrestles with the moral conundrum of opening fire on the opposing civilians who, despite their attack on his warriors, he still considers desperate civilians and unarmed citizens. I really liked that. Why? Because I've always felt that what makes a Space Marine what he is is the ability to still feel that he is a noble, puissant warrior and champion of Mankind... even after he does terrible things.
[*] Gav gives us a nice look into the way Dark Angels remember their lives. Or, rather, how they don't remember them. Another recruiting world is mentioned: Bartia - a world whose terminology (Taiga plains, yurts, bow-wielding hunters) summons thoughts of White Scars. Telemenus, a product of this world, was certainly ballsy. One of his great uncles had been taken by the Dark Angels, which was an honour for his family. Being very skilled, the boy is also brought before the Dark Angels, generations later. While the rest of the 8-9 year old kids quail before the Chaplain, Telemenus faces him down and asks him if he's his uncle! Great moment, I thought!
[*] Much has been said about the sinister reputation of the Dark Angels. Interestingly, though, in "Ravenwing", the Second Company's warriors reveal to us that it's a surprising when loyal Imperial citizens would shun them.
[*] Great zinger by one of the Fifth Company: "A stairwell is no obstacle to the warriors of the Fifth Company ... The Ravenwing must submit to that eternal truth." Gotta love the underlings mocking their betters!
[*] The tourney between the Fifth Company and the Ravenwing... really good stuff. I liked that it hearkened back to knightly tournaments without losing the sense of solemnity and dignity that the Chapter displays throughout the novel.
Great review Phoebus but I can't help but feel that it's somewhat conflicted.
Like your analysis of Ravenwing, one half of your review says it's amazing and the other fills me with doubt.
You mention his portrayal of Space Marine mannerisms was a bit off and that's precisely one of the reasons why I've never been of a fan of Gav's earlier work.
It's been a long time since I've read anything by him so I was hoping this review would really make me want to grab this book, especially since you stated large parts of it was the best Dark Angels writing you've seen which is huge considering that you've read ADB's take on them. But I suppose I'll just wait for more people to review it.
Really wish you started reviewing other BL titles, especially the Space Marine battle series that almost never gets talked about.
I have my eye on Flesh of Cretacia but I need someone to be brave enough to review it.
Several novellas in the series have disappointed me so I'm being quite cautious nowadays.
Malus, I'm sorry about the late reply.
I should have been more clear: I feel that 75% of this novel is very good stuff. I would seriously recommend it. The other 25% of it, though, which is the last quarter of the novel, left me underwhelmed.
Where the mannerisms are concerned, I thought Gav did a VERY good job in this novel. I apologize if I came off conflicted on that one; I mean, if I had to pick one thing that was done very well in this novel, mannerisms and exchanges between characters would be it. :)
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