Castellan by David Annandale
Well, this is the most "David Annandale" of David Annandale's works that I've read so far - and at this point I remain unconvinced that's a good thing. By now, Annandale is in the lower tier of the Black Library stable of authors for me. I find I don't enjoy his prose, his characters, his plots, or his action scenes.
Castellan is the sequel to Warden of the Blade, BL's series (trilogy?) about Castellan Garran Crowe of the Grey Knights. I remember reading Warden a while back and thinking it was "alright." It didn't blow me away, but I didn't hate it. But as I said, I wasn't crazy about the prose, characters, or plot - par for the course with just about everything Annandale I've slogged through. Castellan continues that trend. It's also worth noting that in some ways Castellan is a sort of crossover crisis of several of Annandale's 40k works: functioning as a continuation piece for the characters of his Grey Knights short stories and elements from Death of Antagonis.
Chronologically, Castellan picks up almost immediately following the conclusion of Warden of the Blade before using the opening of the Cicatrix Maledictum to conveniently port everything over to the post-GS timeline. From there, they head off to a Chaos-blighted system for more bloodshed.
From the getgo, Castellan feels like a bigger novel than Warden, with protracted setpieces spanning solar systems and apocalyptic consequences and daemonic incursions and stop me if you've heard this before. I think this is actually one of the novel's missteps: it loses a lot of focus and the pacing suffers as it gets bogged down in fight scene after fight scene.
Castellan was also marketed as a "see what Crowe has been up to since the Gathering Storm" novel, and in that regard it also under-delivers. Besides a cameo from Voldorus and a few lines of dialogue, there's nothing here that really roots it in or explores the post-GS setting. You can't convince me those parts weren't added after the initial draft to update it for the timeline. Does the novel suffer because of it? Honestly, no. In part because it's not the focus, though I'd bring it up as a matter of expectations going in. The other part, unfortunately, is because this novel suffers from plenty of other things.
One of the big ones for me is the prose. It could be because I read this and Ruinstorm pretty close together, but Annandale's prose increasingly rubs me like a rusty cheese grater. It lacks flow and rhythm, instead stumbling along on passive-voice narrative like a grade-school intro to how not to engage an audience. His point-of-view voices are nigh-on indistinguishable from one another, relying mostly on tell-not-show sentences to convey what characters feel. Descriptions of what should be unearthly, mind-boggling horror read like technical manuals for cell tower maintenance. The lifeless prose hamstrings action scenes, practically reducing them to the point of, "Guns were fired. Swords were swung. Blood was shed."
And boy, are there a lot of action scenes. From beginning to end, Castellan plods from one setpiece to another of apocalyptic, world-ending, daemon-incursion violence. Exciting, right?
Even leaving aside the prose - which I fully admit is subjective to taste - the constant stream of action scenes is akin to sitting through an orchestra with all its instruments at full blast all the time. It gets old real fast and soon just blurs together into grating noise.
This gets further compounded by the fact that I don't care about any of the characters, because functionally there practically aren't any. Most of the Grey Knights in Crowe's force are little more than interchangeable suits of armor that shoot, smash, bludgeon, slice, or hack things in one of the endless combat scenes. Mortals are introduced for all of about three minutes before they inevitably get Annandale'd (more on that later). And Crowe himself?
Crowe himself is boring. This isn't Annandale's fault - not entirely. He doesn't help with all the tell-don't show characterization in this novel, and there's only so many "Crowe denied the sword's blandishments" before one's eyes roll backwards with all the force of a torque wrench, but honestly, what else did he have to work with here? At this point, I'm doubtful of Crowe's potential as a novel character, at least as presented by his Codex qualities. What comprises his character? He has the most evillest, baddest, wickedest corruptiest sword (OF ALL TIME, YO!) and he's immune to its temptations, because he's the purest of the purest of the purest of the pu- *BLAM* Get on with it!
Anyway, Crowe is "utterly immune" to the lures of Chaos. In other words, he has no internal conflict. He is by definition incorruptible and must remain so whilst the studio background presents him that way. Whereas Warden of the Blade at least functioned as an origin story for how Crowe became the Blade of Antwyr's guardian, here he doesn't really have a character arc. Fall of Cadia? Galaxy-rending Warp storms? Return of a Primarch? Meh. He's just here to stab daemons in the face. Yet that's kind of the way he's presented in the lore, so what can you do?
I don't know, but throwing him into the plot of Castellan isn't it for me. This book feels like a tired retread of Annandale's previous works - in particular Death of Antagonis, Warden of the Blade, his Grey Knights shorts, and Ruinstorm. This one in particular is like a greatest hits collection of his go-to tropes. Chaos subverting Imperial institutions. Planetary and system-scale superweapon constructs that conveniently self-destruct when you stab something in the face. Sorcery capable of doing anything and everything the plot demands except stopping said lynchpin thing from getting stabbed in the face. For me, an issue that repeatedly crops up in Annandale's works featuring Chaos as the antagonist is that the threats get built up to such vast scale and power, while the protagonists spend so much time running around like headless chickens - often unwittingly according to the will of the antagonists (Just As Planned!) - that the resolutions feel unsatisfying, unearned, as if the author was coming up towards the end and suddenly realized he had to tie things off (by stabbing the one thing in the- look, you get it). There's such a gulf between the presented level of the threat and the demonstrated ability of the protagonists that the resolution of the plot feels immersion-breaking.
As for how we get to the threats - well, at this point I'm making what I call Rule One for the forces of the Imperium who find themselves in an Annandale 40k work. And that rule is: did a character just get introduced? Are they a ranking member of the Imperial bureaucracy or ecclesiarchy? If yes, go full Commissar and preemptively *BLAM* them for heresy. Seriously. That person will inevitably turn out to be the catalyst for reality :cussting its bowels inside-out and daemons turning you all into meat puppets. If you meet somebody with some kind of civic title in an Annandale work, even if they're a Lord Governor or Cardinal or Arch-Deacon - hell, especially if they're those things - just do us all a favor and shoot them repeatedly in the head. Save yourself - and us - the following hundred pages of, "Guns were fired. Swords were swung. Ichor was spilled."
That's not to say that the whole "Chaos corrupts institutions" trope doesn't have its place - that is a big part of what Chaos does, after all. It just feels so overused in Annandale's novels that it's almost a parody of itself, and frankly, poorly executed. Between Warden's "I touched a mask, and now DAEMONS EVERYWHERE" and Castellan's "Oh look Space Marines have arrived - better turn to Chaos right now!" I find that depictions of characters falling to be flat and uncompelling. There's no gravitas or tragedy to it, in part because we spend so little time with these characters that it doesn't mean anything when they go off the deep end. We meet them, they almost immediately make some cataclysmic decision with the seemingly flimsiest of reasons and *bam*, Chaos incursion followed by one drudging action scene after another.
Now, to this point I've been coming down pretty hard on this book. I want to make it clear I have nothing against David Annandale personally. I don't know the man personally; I can only remark on how I enjoyed his works. Looking back with some reflection, I'd say that many of my criticisms and nitpicks stem a great deal from my dissatisfaction with the prose. I would have overlooked or ignored many of the issues had the experience been enthralling or immersing. I kept putting Castellan aside because - and I realize this sounds weird, but bear with me - I couldn't forget I was reading a book. It never sucked me into its characters, world, plot, or writing the way some other books have, where you begin a tale and the narrative pulls you in and the next thing you know you're halfway through, it's 2 in the morning, and you're seriously considering "screw it, I'm gonna keep going." With Castellan I kept hitting sentences and paragraphs that pulled me out of the experience, I found myself bored with the constant action scenes, and not invested in the characters.
"But Melancholic," I hear you say, "that's your criticism? That it's not a masterpiece? Isn't that a little unfair?" Sure, I'll grant you that. Yet let me make an analogy. First, let's be honest with ourselves: few of the works that BL puts out are literary masterpieces. For the most part, they're pulpy tie-in fiction - and there's nothing wrong with that. It's like... have you ever had a meal at a greasy spoon-esque diner? One of those places that serves breakfast all day, and you know that they don't use exceptionally high quality ingredients, and there are undoubtedly some technical issues with the cooking. Maybe the eggs are a little overdone, the hashbrowns don't have quite the right ration of crisp to soft, or the cheese on the omelet is melted a little unevenly. But you know what, if it was tasty and I enjoyed it, then I don't really care. i have no problem appreciating a trashy meal that fulfills its purpose just fine. However, if it doesn't taste good, then I'm much more liable to notice and take issue with all those technical flaws. At the end of the day, an entertaining read covers a multitude of narrative critiques.
So that's where Castellan left me. I didn't entirely hate it, despite the impression I might have given throughout. It was... unmemorable. Whilst reading it I felt no burning urge to get to the next chapter and find out what happens to the characters - and I've already forgotten pretty much all of them. Heck, I'm still not sure I could tell you who Crowe is as a person, and I've read two books where he's supposed to be the protagonist. The prose, as I said, was the real killer for me. Again, I get that's a subjective taste. Would I recommend this book? For the most part, no. It doesn't really develop Crowe's character. It feels tangentially related to anything post-GS at best. That said, if you're a die-hard fan of Annandale's go-to tropes of inexplicable sudden corruption and Chaos superweapons then you might find this one an enjoyable read. For me, that's a pretty big "if", and as the Grey Knights were one of the first factions that really got me into 40k, the fact that Annadale now seems to be the primary author covering them saddens me.
ANR: 3.9 mediocre omelets out of 10
Edited by A Melancholic Sanguinity, 31 October 2018 - 07:15 AM.