EDIT: since writing this it’s come to light that Matt Westbrook is in fact a pen name, and the actual author of this novella is Ian St. Martin, he of the excellent Deathwatch short story City of Ruin. Given that the name on the cover hasn’t changed I’m going to leave both the title and body of this review as it is, but please feel free to substitute Ian’s name for any mention of Matt Westbrook! I’ve also inserted an occasional comment here and there, marked in red italics.
Following the tried and tested route, Matt Westbrook’s novella Medusan Wings is released to tie in with a new Games Workshop game, in this case Stormcloud Assault. The focus is on Atraxii, an Iron Hands Techmarine just returned from his tenure on Mars who joins his mentor Oblexus and the fighter squadron the Medusan Wing in the defence of an Adeptus Mechanicus forge world against an ork invasion. As their relationship with the Mechanicus gradually sours, Atraxii is forced to learn how to combine the strengths of the flesh and iron like never before in order to succeed in his mission and survive against endless waves of ork fighters.
A new[ish] name for Black Library fans, Matt Westbrook has previously written a serialised Age of Sigmar novel but Medusan Wings is his debut 40k story [in actual fact Black Library has previously published two short stories by Ian St. Martin, both reviewed elsewhere on the blog]. You wouldn’t know it though, as this is an assured and measured book, paced well and filled with vivid, strong characters. The pacing is a key strength in fact, with the first third of the book dedicated to introducing Atraxii and Oblexus and taking a fascinating look into the inner workings of the Iron Hands. Not a single bullet is fired for that first third, which gives Westbrook plenty of time to let the characters breathe, before the dogfights start in earnest once the Iron Hands reach their destination.
The action once it arrives is everything you’d expect from a 40k story, Westbrook introducing plenty of variety by making sure there’s a valid reason for the Iron Hands to be fighting both in the air and on the ground and creating credible threats in both situations. The wider Imperial forces are cleverly chosen to reflect the central conflict within the Iron Hands, with the Skitarii representing the mechanical ideal and the heavily augmented but still human Vostroyans acting as the mortal, flesh-and-bone opposite. The Iron Hands sit somewhere in between, cold and emotionless on the surface but possessed of their primarch’s fire beneath the surface. Westbrook has found a great balance between the two, demonstrated in both the action sequences and the more reflective moments.
This is impressive stuff, and even more so for coming from such a new name. The way Wesbrook has structured it has meant that he’s been able to make it work on multiple levels – there’s enough war to make it clearly a Warhammer 40k story and satisfy the action fans, the characters are detailed and provide a fascinating look at the Iron Hands’ methods and history, while the whole thing hangs together as an exciting page-turner of a story. Novellas are tricky at the best of times, and perhaps some might prefer more action earlier on, but this is a brave, mature book that feels so much more than an excuse to show off some cool new 40k rules. From the look of things Matt Westbrook is a name to look out for from now on [this remains a valid point – with more on the way as well, Ian St. Martin has made a promising start with Black Library].