Following hot on the heels of the general release for Tallarn : Executioner comes John French’s latest Limited Edition novella, Tallarn : Ironclad. Yes, it’s an expensive hardback novella that won’t please everyone, but for those willing to fork out for it, aesthetically it’s an absolute beauty, complete with creepy daemons embossed beneath the dust jacket. Following on from Executioner and Black Oculus it widens the view of Tallarn to take in the entire conflict, with Perturabo’s legion opposed by a ramshackle mixture of loyalist forces, while an emissary of Horus asks pointed questions regarding the Lord of Iron’s use of resources in this meat grinder of a battle. We see through the eyes of characters on both sides of the struggle, as it gradually becomes clear that for all its complexity, ultimately everything about this battle boils down to a single question – what are the Iron Warriors actually doing on Tallarn?
As with Executioner, this steers well clear of being ‘a book about tanks’, as despite the mind-bogglingly vast numbers of armoured vehicles engaged on Tallarn, the book’s attention is for the most part firmly on the human (or post-human) elements of the story. Treadheads will still find plenty to enjoy, but the armour battles are only one part of the picture. Weaving together a number of viewpoint characters, French portrays an ever-quickening spiral of events as Perturabo pursues his unseen aims while all around him both friend and foe turn their attention to understanding, aiding or thwarting those aims. Always seen at a remove, withdrawn and brooding and inscrutable, Perturabo is at the heart of everything that happens on Tallarn. It’s as twisty a tale as any so far in the Heresy series, and fans won’t be surprised to hear that the Alpha Legion make their presence known just to muddy the waters further. French handles it all with aplomb – alongside his excellent Ahriman series, he’s proving to be as adept with these kinds of stories as any of the Black Library authors.
It’s worth pointing out that this definitely is a novella, not a novel, despite what Black Library say in their advertising – at 235 pages it may be almost twice the length of Executioner but it’s a full 140 shorter than Damnation of Pythos, which is probably the slimmest of the novels so far. That shouldn’t take anything away from Ironclad though, as it’s hard to argue with a book this good. Like all of the best Heresy stories it plays with readers’ preconceptions of characters and their loyalty, making likeable, believable characters out of both sides, reminding us that the Heresy is a complex, layered issue and not just black and white. From its beginning with Executioner, this Tallarn arc has gone from a fun, interesting side-story to something much more complex and potentially important to the overall series. While it might not be revelatory in the way that, say, Legion was, it’s delightfully thought-provoking and leaves Perturabo’s arc in a very interesting place. Come for the tanks (and dreadnoughts), leave with a head full of intrigue and a load more questions.