SHORT REVIEW :
For readers who know the 40k background and hold a special place in their heart for the classic Imperial Guard special characters, the appeal of this book can basically be summarised in three names : ‘Iron Hand’ Straken, Nork Deddog and ‘Sly’ Marbo. If those names mean anything to you, you’ll be heading out to get this book right away, and you won’t be disappointed.
LONG REVIEW :
In his first novel for Black Library, Toby Frost – author of the entertaining Space Captain Smith series, tackles the Imperial Guard, specifically the Catachan 2nd regiment. A staple of the Imperial Guard on the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop, this characterful regiment of jungle fighters has been strangely under-represented by Black Library in the past. No longer, however. Straken bursts out of the page from the get go and hits the ground running, the first alien gribbly receiving the shotgun-to-the-face treatment within three pages. You know straight away that this is going to be about Catachans going toe-to-toe with whatever the galaxy throws at them, which is exactly as it should be.
For those not aware of Games Workshop and its settings, all you really need to know is summarised by the classic Warhammer 40,000 tagline – ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war’. In other words, expect hard-hitting military fiction that errs on the darker side. Don’t expect happily ever after. This particular novel focuses on a regiment of human soldiers raised on a jungle world “whose flora was ninety-six per cent poisonous to humans and whose fauna was a hundred per cent predatory.” They’re essentially Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. All of them.
After a brief introduction to the titular Colonel ‘Iron Hand’ Straken and his unique style of man-management, the story quickly moves along and puts the reader front and centre as the Catachan 2nd are deployed to a new world and tasked with putting their specific set of skills to good use in fighting the brutal orks. Which they do with aplomb – being the biggest, baddest Imperial Guard going they even get to face up mano-a-orko and come out on top, something other guardsmen could only dream of. In the vein of most of the best Black Library fiction however, it’s not all guns and glory. There’s plenty of battle scenes both large and small but they’re leavened with enough quieter moments to make a good balance. We get to see a little bit of what goes on in Straken’s head and lies behind the swaggering machismo of his ‘hurry up or I won’t save you any orks’ routine, although ultimately we’re left with the feeling that he probably would tackle the whole ork army on his own in true Arnie style…and he might just manage to win.
There’s some decent supporting characters in the form of Straken’s sub-commanders, the aforementioned Marbo and a straight-laced political officer who just doesn’t fit in with the gang. Sadly the preening, posturing bureaucrat who’s so awful you’d just love for him to have had a bit more page time only gets a couple of chances to shine, and the big baddie is pretty much drawn as the typical one-dimensional ork – he’s big and mean, and he has some cool toys, but other than that he’s a bit flat.
Essentially though, Straken does exactly what it needs to. It has a great mix of well-drawn action, both overt and covert, and is a brilliant canvas to show just how fun the Catachans can be.
Apex, the short story that accompanies Straken, gives a snapshot of the action that occurred before the events of the main novel. It’s a bit of a strange one really, as while it’s good fun and chock full of suitably gruesome Tyranid (all-consuming alien predators) action it somehow falls a little bit flat in comparison with Straken. We get to see a character who’s only referenced in Straken, so his fate is already known…but we don’t really learn anything about him or see his eventual ending. Overall the events in Apex don’t seem to have any impact on the main novel, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. That aside, it’s short and sweet with some good action set-pieces and as a quick action fix it does the trick.