Warlord: Fury of the God-Machine - David Annandale
After slogging through some of the author's other works, I approached Warlord: Fury of the God-Machine with minimal expectations. In this regard, I was pleasantly surprised. I think this one is among Annandale's stronger works, and for the most part I found it a decently enjoyable read. It doesn't match Titanicus, my personal standard for Titan fiction, but for the most part it gets the job done, albeit with the caveat that one should not approach this one looking for strong characterization, intrigue, or explorations of various 40k themes. Warlord is about Titan combat and the majority of its word count feels devoted to just that.
I've stated before how I find Annandale's writing style and prose passive and clunky, and that hasn't changed here. However, in this specific instance, it serendipitously works for the most part. The clunky, inertial rhythm actually turns out to be a pretty good match for bipedal war machines tens of meters tall trying to bring city-leveling ordnance to bear on each other. There's a certain methodical, deliberate pace to a Titan engagement, more akin to a 19th century naval engagement than a 21st century firefight. The way that Warlord's action scenes are written does a good job of conveying the sense that these fights are, from a human perspective, more akin to natural catastrophes than armor duels.
I also liked some of the ideas here, though this will dovetail into my criticisms of the book. The summary blurb on the back makes it sound like much of it is about two Titan Legions having to learn how to operate together. This idea has a lot of potential, but unfortunately doesn't receive as much attention as I'd expected. Besides some initial setup and tension, this potential plot thread quickly becomes a non-issue as focus shifts to the battle scenes. The parallel plotlines of an Imperial Guard tank commander and an ecclesiarchal Confessor provide most of the human elements of the story, and their perspectives when Titans are slugging it out further reinforce the immense scale of the battles. Their arcs and journeys form the most compelling parts of the story.
In terms of what didn't work for me - well, it's still Annandale prose. That clunky, blocky style that works for Titan combat doesn't do so for much else. This book is also a collection of missed opportunities, in the sense that too much of it is devoted to battle scenes to the detriment of character development and pacing. Of course, this is subjective taste. Warlord at its core is like a loud summer blockbuster film; one partakes for the spectacle and gratuitous explosions, not so much the quality of the script or subtlety of performances.
That's a bit of a shame, because Warlord has interesting but underbaked ideas and plotlines I'd have liked to see further developed. The rivalry and culture clash between the Titan legions just sort of fizzles out - but more cripplingly it's sabotaged almost from the get-go by presenting the face of one Legio, the Imperial Hunters, as a retarded inbred aristocratic twit with the strategic sense and leadership skills of a lobotomized chimpanzee. As a result there's not really any tension or dynamic or investment on the part of the reader. I never found myself caring about the Legios working their differences out because one of them was so cartoonishly buffoonish that it was nigh-impossible to see them as anything but caricatures.
The protagonist Legio, the Pallidus Mor, receives a bit more treatment and has hints of an interesting history. Sadly the characters are also shortchanged by the incessant focus on titanic (ba-dum-tish!) battles and apocalyptic occult rituals. Various Princeps and Moderatis come in a blizzard of names but no personalities attached to them, with no development or exploration, and that just makes it hard to care when Titan reactors go critical.
Krezoc, The Princeps Senioris of the Pallidus Mor and one of our protagonists, is also a missed opportunity - although she at least gets some characterization. Again we get glimpses of potential, but the battles keep getting in the way and she defaults to a flat, two-dimensional non-person of grim determination and "room only for the cold necessities to come." It's the same stuff I've encountered in Annandale's works again and again: his characters slipping into this archetype. Crowe, Setheno, Styer, Furia, even his Sanguinius and Guilliman. This all gets exacerbated by the writing style, wherein we don't experience characterization through the emotions, thoughts, and viewpoints of said characters; the narrative voice says so through dry exposition. As a result characters end up feeling indistinct from each other.
This, I realize, is part of a larger trend of criticisms I've had towards Annandale's 40k works. He obviously has a passion for... call it occultic or spiritual horror, inspired by Lovecraftian imagery if not always the heart of those themes. Point is, dude likes his monsters, creature features, and Big Bad Things Happening. But the characters, the people, so often come across as flat, insubstantial, or caricatures that those things lose much of their impact. Horror is horrible when it happens to people we care about.
Back on topic, I found Warlord overall to be fine. It's perfectly readable and brings some interesting ideas to the party. It is definitely a battle-scene-centric book, and manages to pull them off in a decently enjoyable manner. Unfortunately that does come at the cost of characterization and developing the rivalry between the Legios. In a sense, the biggest criticism I have of Warlord is that it's like a weaker Titanicus, not able to balance action, character work, and intrigue with the same adroitness. However, that doesn't make it flat-out bad. Warlord is not an instant classic that leaves its mark on the field of 40k fiction, but I appreciate David Annandale's attempts to add some depth to what could easily have been just "giant mechs blow things up for 250 pages" novel. Whilst ultimately disposable and a bit unmemorable in its plot, it's a decent enough read when it hits its stride.