I had problems finding a title for this review. I could have called it "going out with a tremendous bang", since this is the third and last installment of Talos' adventures, and it is the best of the trilogy, with the two previous books (Soul Hunter and Blood Reaver) being excellent, although slightly less so. I thought about calling this book "A Triumph", but refrained from doing so because this would have been both melodramatic and unsufficient: the book is so much more than that! I could also have titled the review as "The Best Ever from the Black Library", but this would perhaps have been a bit unfair, because there have been other excellent books coming out, because I haven't read ALL books published by the Black Library to date (at least, not yet!) and because the scope suggested by such a title would have been too narrow. So I called it "Seven Stars" instead to show to what extent this book is one of the best science fiction (and possibly also one of the best fictions) that I have EVER read. Of course, you cannot rate a book more than five stars under Amazon, but this one would easily deserve seven. So, why is this book so good? There are many reasons.
First, you get the same set of ingredients that are included in Aaron Demski-Bowden's (ADB) books to various degrees, whether those in the HH series or those about Warhammer 40K. These include a good plot and a superb story telling where you get enlightening glimpses at the past of each of the main characters, as they remember events related to their present circumstances, and at their desires and aspirations. These also include the usual action that you can expect in any Black Library book: lots of fights and battles, of the up-close and very personal sort. However, as other reviewers have mentioned already, one of ADB's strongest point lies in the quality and the depth of his characterization. This is not only limited to the main character, here Talos, former Apothecarion of the Night Lords, and nicknamed Soul Hunter by his own Primarch for having been the only own to hunt down his Primarch's murderer despite explicit orders to the contrary. It also extends to secondary characters. Moreover, it is not only their personalities that are well described, but also their feelings, what their think and what drives them. In other words, they really come alive.
Second, all of these elements, which are always present in ADB's novels, are exacerbated in Void Stalker. This is largely because the whole novel is built around the character of Talos, who, despite all his misgivings, has managed to keep together single-handed his dwindling band of Night Lord warriors and ensure their survival. It is also largely because of another streak of ABD's talent that is more visible in Void Stalker that in any of his other books. His characters are essentially ambiguous and ambivalent and this is true even the worst and most repulsive of them. This was already true in the previous installments of the series, with Vanbred (the Exalted, now dead, which is mentioned a few times in Void Stalker) sacrificing himself and his ship to buy time and ensure the survival of his brother warriors. In Void Stalker, ambivalence and conflicting emotions are almost systematic. They are applied to all of the Night Lords but to none more than to Talos himself.
Third, ADB's talent in showing this ambivalence in his characters is such that the Night Lords appear for that they really are: humans at the core and with complex emotions and conflicting aspirations and desires, however genetically enhanced they may be. They are monsters and sadists, capable of the most atrocious torturing and of mass-murders on a planetary scale. They make the Nazis of WWII seem like innocent choir boys and some of ADB's descriptions of massacres and tortures seem to clearly refer to some of the atrocities that took place during the last world war. However, despite all these horrors which are clearly shown in the book and in which Talos' himself takes a direct and leading part, ADB's talent is such that another reviewer has felt compelled to mentioned that "in a lot of ways Talos is a romantic idealist." Given the book, if Talos and his brethren had been told this, they would have obviously had a good laugh. However, there is a point here. Talos, capable of torturing himself over a hundred astropaths for weeks to inflict the maximum pain and then having them murdered in the most painful and terrifying way, is clearly no "romantic". However, unlike many of his brothers who have fallen because they inflict pain, torture and death and take pleasure in it or just because they can do it and get away with it, Talos tends to do it either out of necessity, to ensure the warband's survival, or because it is a means to his goals - retribution against the Imperium and Resurrection of his broken Legion. This is similar to (but also a shift away from) when his Primarch and his 8th legion enforced terror to obtain obeisance and compliance in the name of the Emperor, then enforced it for their own benefit and to make a point, and then, after the murder of Konrad Curze, when they raided whole planets to survive. Talos is no "idealist" either, but he still believes in a cause, in some things that go beyond ensuring his own survival. All of his brothers know it and this is one of the main reasons why they follow him and want him as a leader. As the book shows in a rather superb way, many of his Night Lord brothers, however flawed and horrible they may have become, still believe in something, if only some warped and twisted sense of solidarity or even, at times, loyalty towards each other.
Fourth, another superb use of ambivalence is to show the growing sense and feeling of loyalty among all of Talos' dwindling warband of Night Lords. The feeling you get in Sould Hunter, and to a lesser extent in Blood Reaver, is that Talos needs to watch his back and could get killed by any of the other warriors at the slightest show of weakness. Little by little, through the three books, and especially in this one, "blood loyalty" emerges as the only thing that the warband has left ("I am here because you are here. Because we are brothers"), despite often loathing each other. It is also this "blood loyalty", which runs through the whole book and becomes more and more powerful, which leads all of the surviving Night Lords to make - together - their last stand against the Eldars on what is left of what was once the second home of their legion to "die well". Increasingly, this sense of sharing and of loyalty grows into something else: belief in the visions of Talos - to the extent that they view him as a prophet - and readiness to follow him because he ensures survival, but also because he has a plan. He aims to have revenge on the Empire and he might - just might - ensure the Legion's future.
A fifth outstanding feature is the description of the relationships that continues to develop between Talos and his human slaves (both Septimus, his servant, and Octavia, the Navigator). To a large extent, this is about the complex relationships that develop over time between Master and Slave and Keeper and Prisonner - a complex cocktail of love and hate. This reaches the pokint where the two humans, who have become lovers, refuse to abandon Talos, disobey his direct orders to do so, and go to save him against all odds. In a way, and almost like Vandriel the Apothecaire, formerly of the Red Corsairs, they seem to become part of the 8th Legion almost as much as its "native" members.
Sixth superb feature is the shift in the atmosphere through the book. The beginning is very much dominated by feelings of bitterness, despair (one of ADB's favorites feelings for his books), decadence, self-loathing and self-preservation. The Night Lords have fallen. They are no longer the proud and invincible warriors of old. The Legion has been broken apart. They have been fighting and running for centuries, when outnumbered (which means most of the time). This particular warband made of the remnants of two whole companies but totalling only 81 is facing extinction. By the end of the book, emotions and feelings have changed. The double victory against the Genesis Chapter and the tremendous blow that Talos manages to deliver against the Imperium seems to have largely restored the Night Lords' pride. They know the end is close and that the basttle cannot be won, but they will make their last stand and no longer run.
Seventh, the are only two battles - against the Space Marines of the Genesis Chapter and against the Eldards in the catacombs of the old ruined fortress of their Legion - and they are outstanding but quite different. The first is a desperate struggle for survival as their warship - the Echo of Damnation - is borded by a whole company of ennemy Space Marines. They do survive, but at no time does the fight and final victory seem implausible or far-fetched. Talos, who is no super-hero, gets bashed up along with the rest of his Claw. Rather than being "victorious", the Night Lords should be seen as surviving once again, despite being outnumbered, and as they have been for so long, but at the rather bitter cost of losing half of their remaining number. The fight against Tolemion, the Genesis Chapter Champion, is particularly good. The second battle is entirely different. The Night Lords are no longer fighter for survival: they know they will not survive. They do not intend to. There is nowhere to run to anymore, and they are anyway tired of running. They are fighting to "die well" and kill as many Eldars as possible before they fall. I won't tell you how the book finishes or what happens to Talos or any of his brothers, but, by-and-large, this is very largely what they do: kill before being killed in turn. Read more ›