Before I start I should mention that this is actually the first “proper” Black Library-publication I’ve ever read. Normally I shun reading tie-ins, as it is quite difficult to produce a good book here. That’s because the usual readers of tie-ins are hardcore fans of the corresponding movie or game. They have a fixed set of visuals on their mind and many of them read such novels not to experience something new, but to find descriptions of situations, characters or weaponry they already know about.
Yeah, as I see it, effectively most tie-in novels are a bit like porn. Of course people want to have different and new porn all the time (else there wouldn’t be an industry for it, wouldn’t it?). But at the same time they don’t want to see anything but the same things, settings and positions they always want to have with their porn…
I am not saying here that tie-ins have to be that bad all the time; in fact many aren’t. There are the likes of Timothy Zahn with his Star Wars Novels or even a certain Thorarinn Gunnarson who did the best AD&D-Trilogy I have ever read… but it makes doing a good tie-in more difficult than doing a “regular” novel.
Having said that, let’s get on with this review…
“Faith & Fire” was first published by the Black Library in 2006 and re-released 2011 in connection with the release of two follow-up products: the novel Hammer & Anvil (which I will review another time) and the Audio drama “Red & Black” (you can find my review of that here). As such it is one of the earlier novels by notable author James Swallow.
Plot (minor spoilers ahead)
Back in the 41st millenium, the Celestia Elohim Miriya of the Order of Our Martyred Lady and her team are assigned with the duty of escorting the captured rogue psyker Torris Vaun back to his homeworld Neva. Here he is due to be publicly executed on demand of local Lord Deacon Viktor LaHayn. Of course it is always wrong to transport a psyker to his execution when you can execute him on spot – and truly Vaugn manages to escape from custody on the Space Ship Mercutio, killing one of Miriyas Sister (convincingly named Sister Lethe) and mentally raping fellow Sister Iona before making his way from the Mercutio back to Neva.
Neva, it turns out, is a world where the Ecclesiarchy wields a lot of power, while the local gouvernour and noblemen are doing their usual intrigues to determine who should govern what. Here Miriya is (slightly) reprimanded by local Canoness Galatea, while Sister Iona decides to join the Repentia.
During the burial of Sister Lethe, Miriya meets the young Sister Hospitaller Verity of the Order of Serenity. It turns out she is the real-life sister of Lethe. Of course, Miriya, who is convinced that the death of Lethe is her fault, takes a liking to the Hospitaller, and together they join their fellow sisters for the main celebrations of the Ecclesiarchy in the Lunar Cathedral of Neva. Then hell breaks loose as Torris Vaun and some fellow psykers make an terrorist attack on the cathedral, creating a bloodbath but failing to kill LaHayn, who seems to have been the main target of Vaun.
In the aftermath of the slaughter at the Lunar Cathedral, Sister Miriya and Sister Lethe find out that there is more to Torris Vaun than meets the eye – and that there is more foul on the holy world of Neva. Indeed, even the Ecclesiarchy here seems to be less holy than it should… together they set out to investigate, even though that would defy some direct orders…
Actually, there are only three characters in the novel that can be called such. First we have Miriya. As the heroine of the novel, she is, of course, almost without fail (and she is, unlike the title illustration, black-haired). She is a bit unorthodox, though, liking to defy direct orders by her superiors if she thinks she knows better (and usually she does). The death of Sister Lethe, who is introduced as something of a close friend of her, touches her deeply, making her pondering about guilt and her faith for most of the novel’s run.
Much as in the (newer) Audio Drama, Miriya’s portrayal is a bit inconsequent. She is at the same time clever, devout, spiritual, matter-of-fact, logical… her fondness of Verity is sometimes bordering a lot of kitsch, especially when she is entrusting the Hospitaller with missions to the librarium and other places where she can be sure the other woman would have a high probability to fail.
Speaking of her, Verity is of course the second “real” character in the novel. She is portrayed as kind and clever, surely no fighter, but also having deeper faith than Miriya. One does wish Mr. Swallow would have left out all those scenes where she is forced to fight and kill – and I do wish he would have chosen a different name as well. All in all I had an easier time indentifying myself with Miriya than with Verity; I am even sure most of the novel would have worked better without her.
Finally, it’s the rogue psyker Torris Vaun who is allowed to be a more complex character. Note that this novel is written firmly from the point of view of the Sisters of Battle, so there is nothing redeeming about Torris Vaun at all. Still he is the only character with real (though not ulterior) motives and a background that is quite interesting. It is a pity Mr. Swallow didn’t devote more space to that.
Apart from those, the people appearing in this novel are cardboard-characters with little or no development apart from what is needed for their role in the novel. This is especially true for the other Sororitas – like the Canoness Galatea, her second in command Reiko or the other Celestias of Miriyas troop. They are devout, they hate heretics, they are sceptical of Miriyas unorthodox approach to everything.
Simliarily the noblemen of Neva are just incompetent and corrupt, while the rogue psykers around Torris Vaun are wild, erratic and brutal…
The biggest let-down as far as characters are concerned, is probably the Lord Deacon Viktor LaHayn. From the moment he enters the story, he reeks of being the main villain of the story and his monologues could hail from all sorts of bad superhero movies.
James Swallow surely is an experienced genre writer, but here he obviously was yet at the start of his career. At least that’s my impression. He writes well, but strangely detached from the subject. Especially when reading his battle scenes, one cannot help but imagine he had the old Codex: Witch Hunters and the 40K rulebook sitting on his desk, feverishly trying to include everything he found there.
Talking about Battle Scenes, I guess if you are into those, you might be disappointed that they are relatively short and casually written. Personally I was quite happy that most of the novel is not set during battles. There are only two major battles in the novel, with only a few more minor skirmishes described.
There are some highlights in his prose, especially when he gets on with describing the inner workings of buildings and of the machines of the Warhammer universe. His description of the Neva’s Lunar Cathedral and the main villain’s hideout are among the best passages in this novel, though the chapters dealing with Verity’s visit to the local librarium clearly outshine even those. As I can add with the knowledge of his other Sororitas writings, Mr. Swallow should really do a novel on the Adeptus Mechanicus – it’s clearly an organisation he does love.
On the other hand I found his description of the daily life and rituals of the Adepta Sororitas too… exerted… I can see how he wanted to show us the sisters as pious and devout, yet their procedures as described here seem too antiseptic, too fotmalized to tell of real spirituality.
And there is another thing: this is supposed to be a book on warrior-nuns, yet as it is written, there is nothing female about those women. The characters could as well have been men from the Imperial Guard or Space Marines. They think like men, they talk like men, they act like men…
Unlike many fans I am always open to give an author of tie-ins the possibility to alter things to fit the plot of his or her novel. I do not demand a multimelter to work like described in the rulebooks or codices. As long as its a good read, why bother?
Having said that, Mr. Swallow obviously was too much afraid (or indifferent) to use anything like that. His portrayal of the Sisters of Battle and the 40K universe is firmly as written down in the fitting books and codices. For the Sororitas, this is the Codex: Witch Hunters, so there are more references to the inquisition than would be necessary nowadays (and as such they were dropped in the second installment “Hammer & Anvil”). His description of the battle at Metis could have happened on the tabletop as well and he takes care to include in his writing all Sororitas options mentioned in the codex. This makes a read of the novel partly a (colourful, but also faithful) retelling of parts of the Codex.
The only thing where Swallow differs from the official rules are when it comes to the Acts of Faith (which come in as a plot point only once) and the incorruptability of the Sisters. Where the Codex states that during the entire existence of the Sororitas, only one fell to chaos, the danger is much more real in this novel, where many of the sisters seem to undergo periods of doubt and shaken faith. But I might add that this makes them a bit less two-dimensional, too.
I enjoyed “Faith & Fire”. It was a good choice for reading during my flight to Japan. It was a book I could enjoy, but easily put down anytime necessary (for example to help with my child) without the feeling I would lose too much by having a break from the prose.
In other words: this is easy entertainment, solid entertainment, but surely not inspired or extraordinary writing. If you look for some battle scenes, for an entertaining plot and for a description/flesh-out of the Adepta Sororitas as described in the old Codex: Witch Hunters, then this is a novel you will enjoy. I expected less than that, so I can say that personally I even found this novel delightful.
It is (possibly) not the best novel the Black Library has ever published, nor is it the best novel by James Swallow. Compared to many Fantasy or Science Fiction novels out there, it surely is nothing but good average.
I would recommend this novel to players of the Sororitas or people interested in the Ecclesiarchy of the Imperium. If you are interested in anything else (including character developments or deeper plotlines, but also grasping battle scenes), you probably should pick up some other book.
Note: this post originally appeared on my older Blog “The Letters from Xanadu”. As I semi-automatically transferred it to my new domain, it may well be that various links and/or photos are not displayed correctly – sorry!