Review – Pandorax

Review – Pandorax

I recently read two Warhammer 40,000 novels, Pandorax by C.Z. Dunn, and The Horusian Wars: Resurrection, by John French. The Black Library is often a gamble in terms of quality, particularly when you’re trying something by an author you’ve not read before. Both of these authors were new to me (aside from a John French short story I’ve read, but can’t quite remember, from an anthology).

Today, I’m going to do Pandorax. I’ll have a go at Resurrection on another day because I got carried away writing this and ran out of time.

One of these books is a great example of how to do a tie-in novel. The other is a great example of how not to do a tie-in novel.

This is a review of the latter.

 

Pandorax (C. Z. Dunn, 2013)

Pandorax is one of the Space Marine Battles series of books, which is a series I’ve dodged because it sounds as if someone at the Black Library said, “You know how everyone criticises our Space Marine novels as being bolter-porn? Well, what if we do a series that’s entirely bolter-porn?” That might be unfair. Like I say, I’ve avoided the Space Marine Battles series.

As well as being part of a series of books that doesn’t inspire confidence in those seeking good plot and characterisation, Pandorax is also a tie-in to the Apocalypse War Zone: Pandorax setting book for the 40k wargame’s ‘buy as many cool models as possible, line them all up in their deployment zones, and then remove most of them in turn one’ Apocalypse variant. (Back in my day, if you really wanted Titans and aircraft and tank companies on the battlefield, you played in 6mm epic-scale and actually had space on the tabletop to manoeuvre your troops.) In other words, Pandorax is one of those Black Library novels that, rather than just trying to sell the wargame setting in general, is specifically milking a recent release.

Those were my two main concerns going into the book: Battle Bro bolter-fests and ‘If you enjoyed this novel, maybe remortgage your house for this other book and loads of plastic soldiers and tanks.’ The former wasn’t so much of a hindrance to the story. The latter… was.

Pandorax starts out from the points of view of some Catachan Jungle Fighters and a reasonably nicely-drawn Inquisitorial retinue. (One of them is a traitor. Slight spoiler: it’s the one who’s a horrible person… Really? That’s the one the author picked? In the Inquisition, you shouldn’t beware the nice ones?) I really liked this segment of the story. There was a nice exploration of Catachan culture that I personally haven’t seen before, as well as a characterful depiction of the deathworld of Pythos. (Confusingly, and in contradiction to most systems portrayed in Warhammer 40,000, the Pandorax system and its primary inhabited world have completely different names.)

Things happen, Chaos turns up, someone turns traitor, and Rambo-style Catachan badassery ensues. This section of the story went well, although the abilities of the Catachans seems overstated. When Gaunt’s Ghosts go up against traitor Marines in Dan Abnett’s work, it’s always an effort to take down a single one of the superhumans. Here, Plague Marines fall like Star Wars stormtroopers, having apparently forgotten that they have enhanced hearing and centuries of combat experience. Catachans are badass guerilla warriors, but they’re still only human. They shouldn’t be slaughtering Astartes quite so easily, or silently.

Anyway, once Chaos arrives, the plot becomes a race to get the Inquisitorial team’s astropath to the capital so that they can send a request for reinforcements off-world, all of Pythos’ astropaths having been killed by sorcery early in the invasion. (I would remark on how contrived it was that they had an astropath on their team, but it’s a pretty common trope of the setting that Inquisitors like to have their own private psychic emailer.)

During this section, we spend a lot of time with Inquisitorial agent Tzula Digriiz (a black female protagonist – how often do you see those in science fiction, let alone Games Workshop science fiction?) and Colonel ‘Death’ Strike of the 183rd Catachan Regiment and various of their comrades and companions.

Tzula is a nice character. And by nice, I mean she’s actually a good guy. She’s a professional thief recruited to the Inquisition, but as much as I like her, she doesn’t feel like a member of an organisation that has the legal right and ability to commit genocide against its own side if it’s in the best interests of the Imperium. She possesses the McGuffin upon which the entire story hinges. She also gets a pretty good payoff at the end of the story, and (without spoilering) I think she’s the best Inquisition agent for that job. Certainly, she’d never make a good Inquisitor anyway.

Colonel ‘Death’ Strike’s main defining characteristic is that he has a goddamn stupid nickname, which he got early in his career, because the only thing those who fight against him have to hope for is… death. Really? Seriously? Who wrote this, a 12-year-old who thought he was being cool? Of the millions of soldiers that Catachan has given to the Imperium, he’s the one who gets the nickname of ‘Death’? Or is there a guy called ‘Death’ in every other squad, who fights alongside ‘Killer’ and ‘Knifeman’ and ‘Shadow Stalker’ and ‘Two Guns’ (who fights with two guns akimbo because it’s cool)? He doesn’t have much else in the way of personality, beyond being a kind commander who looks after his men. Unfortunately, this is an Apocalypse tie-in, so even when he’s leading a guerilla war against the invaders, he’s doing it with the most un-Catachanny of fighting methods, a super-heavy tank. A goddamn tank the size of a building, that can be heard from a mile away, is armed with ordnance that can be heard from even further, and is available as a plastic kit from Games Workshop. There is a nice touch that the Inquisitorial team included a Jokaero alien, who falls in love with the tank and starts tinkering with it. Unfortunately, the author gets carried away and decides that Jokaero abilities are so awesome (to be fair, they are, but not this awesome) that a tank that normally moves at 20-30 miles per hour is suddenly capable of 200 miles per hour. This is on a jungle deathworld not noted for its road network.

I’ve just realised… ‘Death’ Strike isn’t a character in the grimdark of Warhammer 40,000. He’s a supporting character from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

The good guy Space Marines, around whom the entire Battles series is based, don’t actually show up until reasonably late in the story, but when they do, it’s in the form of the entire Dark Angels Chapter, all one thousand of them, and a bunch of Grey Knights. Because all the Dark Angels are there, that means all the named characters from the tabletop game are there, along with Dark Angels characters from other novels. Also, Supreme Grand Master Azrael is an arse. He’s a complete and utter arse. Some reviews I’ve seen of this book don’t like that revelation. I don’t know if it marries up with other portrayals of the character in other books, but I like that one of our shining heroes of the Imperium, available from Games Workshop Mail Order, complete with Watcher in the Dark Helmet Bearer(tm), is a git. The supreme boss guy of the Grey Knights turns up as well, and there’s a bit of friction because the Grey Knights don’t trust the Dark Angels and the Dark Angels are scared that the Grey Knights will find out their secrets. (Spoiler: they already know.)

It’s around the time of the Space Marines arriving that the story on Pythos ceases to be interesting. Oh look, Abaddon and Huron Blackheart are sort-of allies. That’s nice, but has no real bearing on events. As much as I like the Red Corsairs, Huron could have been left out of the story. Everything he provides to Abaddon is something that Abaddon could plausibly have already had in his arsenal.

This being an Apocalypse and Space Marine Battles tie-in, everything degenerates into massive battles. Even the finale of the story takes place in the middle of a pitched battle of hundreds of thousands of combatants. There are two problems with this.

Firstly, the author can’t really write large battles (even if the smaller guerilla actions of the early book were pretty decent). They all seem to be Hollywood-style, in which two armies line up and attack each other until one side is wiped out. And yet, despite the vast amount of ordnance and the tightly packed bodies of the troops, named characters are still running around and not being blown to pieces. It turns out that even the sneak thief Tzula is such a badass that she can run around alongside Space Marines and not get hacked to bits by the kinds of things they face.

Secondly, and most egregiously, the large battles scream, “WE ARE GAMES WORKSHOP AND YOU MUST BUY OUR MODELS!!!!” Every hideous daemon that materialises from the Warp, despite the infinite variety of Chaos, is one of those found in the Codex: Chaos Daemons army list. Every Imperial vehicle is named by its model name, rather than by its general type (e.g. ‘Leman Russ Demolisher’ rather than ‘siege tank’). Every single Space Marine squad is available as a boxed set. Every single regiment of Imperial Guardsmen present on Pythos has a model range behind it. How boring. Characters do reference other regiments that aren’t in the order of battle, but they also have model ranges. In the million worlds of the Imperium, our characters only know the ones whose tithed troops are for sale in your local Games Workshop store? All of the large battles seem to have been written with the primary aim of being scenarios for apocalypse-scale games of Warhammer 40,000.

Aside from the plot and merchandising, the actual writing style of the novel was pretty poor. It wasn’t as bad as, say, Twilight or anything by Dan Brown, but I was still halting after reading sentences and thinking about how I could have written that sentence so much better. There were cool things that happened that were utterly ridiculous, even within the heroic grimdark of 40k.

Here’s an example: one of the defining character moments of Shira, a viewpoint character who’s a hotshot space fighter pilot, is when she deliberately sets of a sonic boom in a hangar bay because she’s annoyed at the officer who reprimanded her for not wearing regulation uniform and then sentenced her to a fortnight in the brig when she comes back from the mission she’s about to go on. She’s a maverick, see, who plays by her own rules and won’t let anyone tell her… wait, what? This is the Imperial Navy. She just caused severe damage to a launch bay on one of the God-Emperor’s own voidships, as well as to the hearing of every person in the immediate vicinity. While they’re engaged in battle. That fortnight in the brig should have been escalated to immediate summary execution and no one in-setting would have batted an eyelid.

(Disclaimer: I’m an unpublished author, bitterly so at times, and it bugs me to read prose that is inferior to my own.)

Fortunately, everyone who knew that Shira is a saboteur and traitor dies shortly afterwards, so the author gets to keep her in the story.

I mentioned diversity earlier. She’s part of the gender diversity of the characters. There are a few others, including passing references to female soldiers among the Catachans. I have a big issue with the racial and gender issues in Games Workshop’s settings (I’ve ranted about it before – though apparently not on this blog). The Black Library is getting a lot better at gender balancing its casts, so long as you ignore Space Marines, who are canonically all male, but every time they do a good job, it throws the actual miniature ranges into stark relief. There have probably been less than a dozen female Imperial Guard models released by Games Workshop in the past thirty years, and yet the Black Library regularly includes women amongst the Imperial Guard’s ranks. And as for the new Primaris range of Space Marines missing the opportunity for female Astartes…

Anyway, I’ll grant Pandorax the credit that my initial recommender gave it for diversity, but overall, it’s still an example of how not to write a tie-in novel. The Black Library has released several series of novels that are amazing. The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition tie-ins were great, as were The Ambassador Chronicles. The Eisenhorn trilogy is still one of my favourites, such that I recently bought the 15th anniversary special editions. The Gaunt’s Ghosts and Ciaphas Cain series are rightly renowned amongst Black Library fans, and the epic Horus Heresy series has thrown us some amazing tales of tragedy from Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and others (although with a few stinkers from other authors, to be fair). Sadly, this isn’t one of the Black Library’s high points. Although it has its moments, it feels like it was written to order with the instruction to include a checklist of canon characters, events and products. There’s nothing wrong with writing to order, but the finished product shouldn’t feel like it was written to order.

It’s a good job that I’ve given up on ever being published by Games Workshop because C.Z. Dunn, author of Pandorax, is actually one of the Black Library’s senior editors…

 

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Film Review: Wonder Woman

Film Review: Wonder Woman

My partner and I went to see Wonder Woman last night. Short review: I thought it was great and I look forward to seeing more of Diana.

As with my previous ‘review’ of Rogue One, this’ll be presented more as a bullet-pointed list of thoughts than a coherent essay or article about the film.

This list will contain spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep them mild.

 

The Setting

  • A superhero popcorn movie in something as emotive as World War One is always going to be a tough sell. World War Two has been simplified into straightforward good versus evil of Allies & Axis, which had to be fought and was a resounding victory for the good guys. (And our favourite Uncle Joe Stalin, but we’ll gloss over that…) This bowdlerisation is such that Captain America and the Red Skull can exchange punches without it feeling… off. The First World War though is characterised in the popular consciousness as being a morally-neutral disaster – see the concerns over the video game Battlefield 1 being set in 1914-18, when dozens of first-person shooters, including Battlefield, but also the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor (remember them?) have done 1939-45 without more than a mumble of discontent. However, Wonder Woman pulls it off; it gets close, because she spends the entire film blaming Ares for corrupting the Germans into starting the war (the ‘Hitler Was A Vampire’ trope), but the reveal that actually, humans are just fond of killing each other keeps the blame for the war pinned firmly on real world politics. That the film is set during the dying days of the war, when both sides are trying to negotiate the Armistice, probably helps. Wonder Woman’s not going to be leading the Americans into Berlin here
  • Misogyny. Lots of casual misogyny, particularly in the London sequence. However, Diana being Diana, she just looks confused and carries on doing whatever it was she was doing. Also, no one gets protective or dismissive of Diana by the end of the film. Being an actual demi-goddess helps, I suppose. The horrendously sexist attitudes of, for example, the British commanders and politicians, although appearing ridiculously overdone, weren’t that implausible for the era. A female police constable appears in a crowd scene in the film, stood beside her male colleague/bodyguard. Thousands of women served as volunteer constables during the war, to allow male officers to fight at the front, but a Metropolitan Police official was asked in 1916 if he ever saw women being taken on permanently. His reply was: “No, not even if the war lasts fifty years.”
  • There was a recent episode of Doctor Who in which Bill (who is black) was cautious about leaving the TARDIS in 1814 London (“Slavery is totally still a thing,”) and is pleasantly surprised when she does look around the streets: “Regency England, a bit more black than they show in the movies.” The Doctor’s reply is, “So was Jesus. History is a whitewash.” Aside from several non-white civilians, the London crowd scenes in Wonder Woman make a point of showing the ethnic diversity of the war effort. We see non-white troops from multiple nations. I’m not hot enough on the uniforms to identify the nations, but I presume one of the groups of Asian soldiers were the Indian Army, some others appeared to be from a Sikh regiment, and there was a black soldier at the docks that looked to be wearing British Army uniform (black British soldiers served alongside white comrades in the First World War, although non-whites were barred from becoming officers – there were several exceptions though). Of course, he may have been from the Caribbean or African colonies, but he appeared to be on his own rather than a part of a group.
  • The ethnic diversity continues into Steve’s team, who are all (or mostly anyway) existing characters from the Wonder Woman comic canon. Sameer is Moroccan (and makes a point of highlighting his skin colour as a reason why his acting career has never taken off), Chief is a native American (who mentions to Diana that it was Steve’s people who took everything from his during their last war), and, well, okay, you don’t get much whiter than the Scottish Ewen Bremner.
  • Visually, the film portrays its era very well. A historian might pick holes in some bits and pieces, but it feels right.
  • The action scenes don’t fetishise automatic weapons in a way that some First World War portrayals I’ve seen have done. Even World War Two films and games fall prey to that urge, when rifles were still the most common armament for infantry soldiers. Dakka might look and sound good on screen, but it detracts from the feel of the era.
  • Interestingly, the two German tanks seen towards the end of the film are not historically inaccurate. Yes, they’re clearly British tanks painted up in German colours (possibly the same props seen in British colours in earlier scenes), but the Germans actually fielded more captured British tanks than they built of their own. (For comparison, the Germans fielded fifty tanks during the war, only twenty of which were of German design, while Britain and France fielded literally thousands of tanks between them.)
  • Finally, how often do you get a superhero film set in Belgium?

 

Diana / Wonder Woman

  • Wonder Woman doesn’t get referred to as such during this film. I haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn of Unnecessary Subtitles, but apparently it was the media in that film that gave Diana that name.
  • Gal Gadot is excellently cast. She looks the part and plays it well too. I’m not sure what more I can say about her than that I definitely want to see more Wonder Woman.
  • Born Sexy Yesterday is a trope (explained in more detail behind the link) in which a science fiction character, almost always female, is portrayed in a sexualised way, despite being either naive to the ways of the world (a mermaid come ashore, for example) or literally being born yesterday (Leeloo in The Fifth Element comes to mind, but it’s also the central conceit of Weird Science and its sub-genre of nerdy wish-fulfilment movies). Diana brushes against that trope, in that she’s an outsider to the world beyond Themyscira, but her naivety is emphasised as idealism, rather than foolish cluelessness. There are also a few moments where that same naivety is used to highlight the hypocrisy or prudishness of the mortal world, such as her continuous criticisms of women’s dress in 1918. It helps that the scene in Selfridges was also very funny.
  • However, my partner was rubbed up the wrong way by an early conversation between Steve and Diana, prompted by Steve’s awkwardness over their sleeping arrangements on the small boat they take from Themyscira. Diana appears ignorant of the idea of marriage and relationships, yet in the comics she’s mentioned having relationships on Themyscira. (A quote from the comics: ‘So, let me get this straight, you’re from a paradise island of science fiction lesbians, with a side of bondage?’) The conversation is explicitly about marriage before sleeping with someone in the literal, as well as euphemistic, sense, and that marriage was part of the natural sequence of then having children, growing old together and being happy with one other person forever. As Steve readily admits, it doesn’t always work out like that. At the time, I read the conversation as saying that Themyscira simply didn’t have the same rigid family structures as the mortal world; they were more communal, egalitarian or whatever, but there’s also the reading that the film was saying same-sex couplings can’t have proper relationships or families. It was explicitly stated earlier in the film that Diana was the only child on the island, moulded from clay by her mother and given life by Zeus, so that’d suggest family and relationships are treated very differently there than in our world (or at least, our world in 1918). I think I’d have to watch this scene again, but since I’ll probably pick up Wonder Woman on Blu-Ray when it comes out, no problem with that.
  • Oh yeah, the bondage comment above? The creator of Wonder Woman was bigly into that sort of thing. Why do you think Diana’s lasso makes people tell the truth? It was also a common feature of the early comics that Diana would end up getting tied up and taunted by villains. The film avoids all that, but I do think that a moment in the climactic fight scene was a nod towards the character’s history: Ares pins Diana to the ground with a length of telekinetically-hurled tank track and villain-monologues at her. However, the scene is not played for eroticism, but as an obstacle for Diana to overcome.
  • Speaking of the lasso, and of the Wonder Woman get-up itself, the bright colours worked marvellously in the otherwise muted and muddy scenes in Belgium, particularly during the incredible moment where she climbs that ladder into No Man’s Land. (As a side note, they weren’t explicit with it, but when characters described it as ‘No Man’s Land’, the audience knew full well what was going to happen next.)
  • The No Man’s Land scene is what happened next. You know those bits in superhero films where the film manages to sell precisely who or what the hero is? When Spiderman loses his mask during the train sequence and the New Yorkers just give it him back, promise not to tell anyone what they saw, and then try and protect him from Doc Ock? Or when Superman lands a crashing plane safely onto a baseball pitch and the crowd go wild, and then he mentions to the passengers that flying is still statistically the safest way to travel? No Man’s Land was that scene for Wonder Woman (and Patti Jenkins had to fight to keep it in the film!). It’s the scene where she ceases to just be a naive idealist with a few nifty superpowers, and becomes a goddess who inspires all who witness her. From the moment she sets foot on that ladder, the air in the cinema got very dusty. The aftermath sequence in the liberated village was a wonderful respite from the war and showed the human side of the conflict.
  • And what happens later is just cruel, but a necessary part of Diana’s journey to discovering that not everything evil in the world is the fault of Ares.

 

Steve Trevor

  • Chris Pine put in a solid performance of what, in any other film, would have been a two-fisted pulp hero. Wonder Woman manages to still give him time in the spotlight to do his dashing spy stuff, without detracting from Diana’s own plot and character arc. In fact, strip out the superhero stuff on both the good guys’ and the bad guys’ sides, and you’re left with a perfectly serviceable pulp spy/action movie about Steve Trevor and his buddies shooting and punching their way across Belgium.
  • He even manages to be the love interest who inspires the protagonist. Holy gender-flip, Batman!
  • Hell, since this film is set in 1918, if it weren’t for the fact that this film forms an end-point for his character arc, you could probably get some mileage out of a Steve Trevor spin-off. Think of it as Biggles for an American audience.
  • Oh, wait, that godawful idea already exists, thanks to the 1980’s.

 

Erich Ludendorff

  • Using a real-world historical figure as the main villain was another bit that could have turned out badly. For a start, Danny Huston looks absolutely nothing like Ludendorff. Furthermore, the historical Ludendorff (alongside Hindenberg) pushed the Kaiser to seek peace, unlike the version presented in the film, who was convinced that Germany could still win in late 1918. Again though, the film made it work.
  • It helps that Ludendorff is one of history’s bad guys anyway – he was a leading proponent of the ‘stabbed in the back’ myth about Germany’s 1918 defeat and took part in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Film-Ludendorff believed that war was the foundation of human civilisation (thus placing him firmly into worship of Ares, even if he didn’t realise it). Interestingly, this aligns fairly closely with real-Ludendorff’s beliefs. He was a social Darwinist who venerated war as a driver of societal advancement. Ironically, he did allegedly convert to the worship a pagan god, specifically the Norse Odin/Wotan, after the war. He also believed that Jews had conspired to undermine the German war effort by seeking profit ahead of patriotism, and condemned Christians as weak. So, yeah, he was pretty much a perfect fit for the Nazi party.
  • When I see Danny Huston though, I will always see him as the jazz musician/axe murderer from American Horror Story: Coven. Maybe the film-makers tried giving him real-Ludendorff’s little kaiser-moustache, but decided it didn’t suit him.
  • Ludendorff turns on his own government, to the extent of murdering the rest of High Command when they try to negotiate the German surrender on behalf of the Kaiser. Sure, it’s a way of making clear that the film isn’t trying to tar the entire other side with the crimes of its supervillain, but the Red Skull also turned on the Third Reich in Captain America: The First Avenger. At least there it set up Hydra as being a separate organisation that could succeed the Third Reich, but it just didn’t feel necessary in Wonder Woman.
  • The jovial way in which he and Dr Poison laughed as they killed his colleagues also felt a bit out of character – at no other point during the film did Ludendorff express any positive emotions.
  • Hang on, fridge logic kicking in… It can’t possibly have escaped anyone’s notice that a dozen senior German officers had died in a horrible poison gas attack, and yet dozens of equally senior German officers bring their wives along to Ludendorff’s gala later in the film. Really? Even if Ludendorff had covered up his murders as a freak accident, surely they’d have been a bit more circumspect in accepting his invitation.
  • Ludendorff shoots one of his junior officers dead fairly early in the film as punishment for not preventing Steve Trevor from stealing Dr Poison’s notebook and blowing up her lab. As noted, Ludendorff is a rogue element within the Imperial German Army, but at this stage he was still overtly loyal to the government. The German Army executed very few soldiers during the First World War (150 death sentences, of which only 48 were carried out) and although summary executions on the battlefield probably occurred and aren’t properly counted, this was in Turkey, at the heart of friendly territory. Sure, executing underlings for failure has a long tradition in arch-villainy, but it felt unnecessary here. Sure, it could be said to set up his willingness to murder more senior German officers later in the film, but his motives were very different: here it was anger and stock villainy, but there it was patriotism and lust for war.
  • It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Ludendorff wasn’t Ares, despite Diana believing he had to be. It’s obvious from the outset that Diana’s simplistic view of The War To End All Wars is a mistake. Still, he made for a very good decoy antagonist, particularly with his ahistorical(!) use of weird blue gas ampoules to give himself super powers.
  • Okay, I did not realise that. Danny Huston also played Theo’s cousin Nigel, the government art collector, in Children of Men. That’s two things I’ve seen him in before Wonder Woman.

 

Dr Isabel Maru / Dr Poison

  • A somewhat underused character, to be honest, but also an example of the ‘Scarred Villain’ trope. Come on… in such an otherwise wonderfully progressive film, the disabled character is a villain.
  • That said, it was nice to see the period-accurate mask she wore over the hole in her face. Trench warfare led to a lot of facial wounds, and survivors often wore masks like that to get by in daily life. (Also, in the UK, there were special park benches, painted blue if I recall, reserved for disfigured war veterans, partly to give them privacy from people staring, but partly perhaps to avoid the social awkwardness of realising you’ve just sat down next to a gentleman with only half a face.)
  • During her first appearance, Steve describes her as a ‘psychopath’. He must be really into his study of psychology to be using a word like that in 1918. I guess Diana just understood the Greek translation of ‘suffering mind’ and figured, ‘Yeah, evil weapons designer, makes sense’.

 

Etta Candy

  • Good grief, that’s what her surname was? Comic books have a lot to answer for.
  • I’ve managed to go through all the trailers and articles about Wonder Woman without ever once placing Lucy Davis. Derp. She’s Dawn, the receptionist from The Office. Also, it’s 16 years next month since the first episode of that particular show was broadcast. I feel old.
  • Etta was awesome, and (like Dr Poison) felt slightly underused. Of course, this being 1918, and with most of the rest of the film being set in or beyond No Man’s Land, there’s not much scope for her to be directly involved. She certainly made the most of the London scenes though.

 

Ares SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING

  • As effective as it was for Ludendorff to turn out not to be Ares, I think the film would have worked better if Ares had been played by Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Movie. I suppose killing Ares in the origin film gives her the breathing space to do sod all for the next hundred years before she turns up in Batman Versus Superman. I do hope though that we get to see Diana in other eras in her standalone films, possibly still tying in Ares’ influence after his death, rather than how the Captain America films started in World War Two and then became modern day Avengers films.
  • I liked the bit earlier on where Ludendorff dismisses the idea of armistice with the (allegedly) Thucydides quote, “Peace is only an armistice in an endless war.” Diana takes that as proof positive that he is Ares, but it also fits in with Ludendorff’s socially Darwinist warrior mindset and, on a meta-level, is a clue for the audience.
  • Also, the presence of Ares in the film also slightly dilutes the film’s message that war is a human failing, not one by the gods. That said, there is something to be said for Ares’ argument that all he was doing was guiding humans towards an extinction that they’re determined to inflict on themselves anyway (complete with a meta-comment about how the Treaty of Versailles was a major cause of the even-more devastating Second World War).
  • That flashback sequence definitely included some Rogue One-style CG face-transplants. (CG faceplants?) There’s no way [censored] is that buff.

 

Other Thoughts

  • So… Steve flies a plane from the Ottoman Empire to crash it on Themyscira. This is presumably somewhere in the Mediterranean, assuming it works by normal geography. A light bomber plane of that era couldn’t get much further than that. He and Diana sail away from Themyscira, apparently spend one night asleep on the boat, and by the time Diana wakes up they’re being pulled up the Thames by a tugboat? Themiscyra can’t operate using normal physics, clearly.
  • After all, the fastest route from the eastern Mediterranean to London is to land on the south coast of friendly Italy, take the train through Italy and France, up to the English Channel at Calais, get a boat across to Dover and then another train up to London. You don’t sail all the way around the Iberian peninsula.
  • What happened to the Germans who landed in Themyscira? The Amazons only took one prisoner from the battle, and that was Steve, and then only because Diana protected him. There were several dozen of them in the landing party pursuing Steve, as well as a fairly hefty warship. Now, we saw the warship run aground when it unexpectedly found itself on an island where previously there’d been only sea, but is it seriously plausible that not a single man aboard survived that? Also, as badass as the Amazons are, a lot of the casualties they caused on the Germans during the beach battle were from arrows. Did not one of those soldiers survive those single puncture wounds? Maybe the Amazons are old-fashioned and they all developed sepsis and died.
  • Or maybe the Amazons murdered every last wounded or half-drowned man who wasn’t directly protected by Diana. Well, I guess they do model their society around the classical era, where that sort of thing was allowed. (Or am I overthinking this?)
  • The German mooks (and other soldiers, actually) were cast well as extras. They looked like just ordinary blokes conscripted to fight a war that was far bigger than they were. (This makes the apparent off-screen mass executions on Themyscira feel a bit more off.) Their innocence and youth are explicitly emphasised after Ares dies and his influence fades.
  • Frankly, I think that scene needed a bit of explanation, since everyone stopping fighting because Ares was dead shifted the film back towards the ‘Hitler is a Vampire’ trope, rather than the war being a thing started by humans. Sure, the classic ‘Britisher, the war is over, we are now friends,’ as seen in everything from Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter and Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong, is a World War One trope, but they didn’t even do that. I dunno, maybe Ares’ death led to brief feelings of pacifism, rather than a universal rejection of conflict, and that was reflected by the Armistice being signed shortly afterwards.
  • As great as the No Man’s Land scene was, were there really that many Belgian villages left near the front line that still had people living in them in 1918? I guess this was post-Spring Offensive, so possibly these guys had been living behind German lines for four years after being largely ignored by the German occupiers.
  • I don’t know if the modern-day book-ends to the film were really necessary. It was nice to see that photo (the one they’re posing for in the header image) on a glass plate, but the Wayne Industries logo plastered everywhere, plus the final ‘somewhere a crime is happening’ moment just screamed of DC waving its arms and shouting, “Hey, remember that we’ve got a shared superhero universe franchise as well!”
  • You have Themyscira, and then you have the world of men. Not humans, or humanity, but men. The terminology was specific throughout the film. Partly, I guess that’s because ‘humans’ is a very science fiction term, and this is a fantasy film, but it also emphasises the contrast between the island and the rest of the world.
  • Speaking of Themyscira, it was lovely. The architecture, the landscapes, the sea, the Amazons themselves, all perfectly designed.
  • The Amazons had an interesting mix of ages as well, despite being a whole bunch of immortals.
  • As has been noted elsewhere, Robin Wright has gone the Leia route and grown up from being Princess Buttercup to becoming General Antiope. Meta.
  • David Thewlis is always worth watching.

Board Game Review – Gorechosen

Board Game Review – Gorechosen

In early January, I broke my New Year’s Resolution to refrain from buying any new models for the first six months of 2017. I picked up Games Workshop’s Gorechosen board game on a whim.

Gorechosen is an arena combat game, where each player controls a single Chaos Champion of Khorne (think psychopathic killer with more muscles than self-control) in a last man standing melee.

The box contains everything you need for the game, chiefly four gorgeous plastic Chaos Champion models from GW’s Age of Sigmar wargame range. These things normally retail for a terrifying £18 each, or £72 in total. It says something about GW’s profit margins that they can put four of them, plus numerous high-quality bits of card, in a box and sell the lot for £35. (Also, it says something about me that I bought the game solely for the models.) Each champion gets their own character card containing all the rules unique to that fighter, and a Wrath Track to monitor exactly how angry each of the mad bastards is. In a nice touch, the board is double-sided, with a slightly different arena on each side. One arena has four pillars blocking movement, while the other has a pillar and three lava pits (if a fighter gets pushed into one of the latter hexes, there’s a 50% chance of falling in to instant death). And then there are lots of counters and cards.

This game uses a lot of counters and cards.

The rulebook is a floppy 14 page pamphlet. The first two pages set the scene – in short, the most powerful warriors in a tribe that worships the Blood God, Khorne, climb into a pit and kill each other for their patron’s favour. Pretty straightforward. The next couple of pages give biographies of the four champions included in the box, and the page afterwards describing each champion’s unique attacks from the point of view of the poor sucker on the receiving end. There is a lot of purple prose here, as well as some medically dubious and extremely graphic descriptions of murder. Six pages of rules follow, and then, as a bonus and to add replay value, reference cards for four more champions not included in the box. I’d scan these in and print them out, rather than either cutting up your rules or trying to run them from the book (reference cards get covered in counters during the game).

The rules are simple, with certain key concepts being described in box-out diagrams in the margins. I found them a little unclear when reading the rulebook in isolation. Gorechosen‘s strength is in the interplay between different rules, most of which are presented on action cards or the individual fighters’ reference cards. Because of this, you don’t get a full view of the game simply by reading it; you need to play it to ‘get’ the rules.

The Wrath Track consists of four columns of eight squares, upon which each player places a token bearing their character’s sigil. (These sigils aren’t particularly linked to the champions presented in the box, allowing for use of other characters, but is reflected on their reference card and Initiative cards.) Actions and events in the game will reduce or increase a fighter’s position on the Wrath Track. This matters because how enraged your fighter is will determine how many actions he gets during a turn.

(As a sidenote, all the fighters in the box are male. I’ve been critical in the past about GW’s failure to incorporate a more gender-balanced society in with its modern Age of Sigmar game. It’s not like they’re adhering to a loosely historical setting since the Old World went pop. A female champion or two would have been more than welcome – although Valkia the Bloody did get a reference card in an issue of White Dwarf, along with other tabletop characters.)

At the start of each turn, each player adds a number of cards, based on their fighter’s current Wrath, to the Initiative deck. The order of play is determined by drawing an Initiative card; the fighter whose sigil has been drawn takes an action before the next Initiative card is drawn.

In a turn, fighters plays one of a hand of Action cards, each of which contains a Move, Attack or Special action. Some actions increase or lower your Wrath; cautious movement or particularly tiring or, er, cathartic attacks reduce it, while the frustration of a Desperate Swing or the piety of praising Khorne increases it.

Move is straightforward, with fighters moving between one and three hexes on the board, although many cards will place restrictions on your fighter’s facing at the end of the move. For example, a Disengage move allows you to withdraw two hexes, but you must face the last hex you left. (In other words, you’re backing away from the enemy – incidentally, you lose Wrath for that act of cowardice.)

Attack options mostly dictate the number of dice you roll to attack, along with a special effect, where appropriate. (Backstab, for example, normally grants you two dice, but this increases to four if you’re in your opponent’s rear arc when the card is played.)

Special actions vary from allowing your fighter to activate their unique action, through combat manoeuvres like ducking past an opponent, to various forms of block or parry. The Most of these are activated like any other action, but the latter category are a reaction to being hit, with various forms of effectiveness, either reducing or negating damage entirely.

Getting hit by your opponent’s axe, mace or whatever is rather neat in implementation. Each dice that hits causes a number of points of damage (and the chance of hitting and amount of damage are both affected by certain Critical Injury effects). You begin with eight boxes on your fighter’s reference card, down which you move a counter as you take damage. When you hit the bottom of a track, an Injury marker is placed over the topmost space, preventing it from being used again. Each time an Injury marker is placed, you draw a Critical Injury card and apply that result. (Incidentally, many of those Critical Injuries make you, and possibly your opponent, angrier, increasing Wrath. Very characterful.) Barring the misfortune of a decapitating Head Shot Critical Injury or being punted into a lava pit, death occurs when you finally run out of damage boxes. In effect, this gives each fighter 36 hit points, but the placement of Injury markers creates a vicious death spiral, where you draw a Critical Injury card after seven points of damage, then six, then five, and so on.

At the end of a turn (i.e. when no Initiative cards are left to be drawn), the Initiative deck is rebuilt and a new turn begins.

Last man standing wins, although the rulebook does provide some variants.

 

Playtest

I ran through a solo four-fighter game of Gorechosen to see if the rules actually work. It turns out that each fighter has a distinct fighting style, strengths and weaknesses.

Vexnar the Reaper: Armed with an axe and hammer, he’s got a small kill zone, limited to the three hexes in front of him, and each of his hits cause very little damage, but he hits on dice rolls of 2+ and gets bonus dice if his opponent’s in the hex directly ahead. In other words, he attacks with flurries of hits from each of his dual-wielded weapons.

Redarg Bloodfane (yes, the names are all that Khorney and cliched): Redarg has a large axe that only hits on 4+ and has an even more restricted kill zone than Vexnar, but causes lots of damage. He also has a hooked buckler-type thing strapped to one arm, allowing him to retaliate when hit.

Heldrax Goretouched: He has a massive two-handed axe, not quite as vicious as Redarg’s, but which allows him to attack opponents two hexes in front of him in a nasty overarm strike and has the chance of causing an automatic Injury marker (and associated Critical Injury) on a particularly good roll of the dice.

Kore Hammerskull: Apparently, this guy’s a blacksmith, but since his primary attack is to swing his anvil around his head on a long piece of chain, his actual unique selling point is that he’s better at attacking people two hexes away than he is those adjacent to him. This, for Khornate champions, is what passes for subtlety.

The playtest went pretty swiftly, with several standout moments.

Firstly, poor positioning by Heldrax led to him being mobbed by all three of his opponents and hacked and bludgeoned to death by early in turn two. Fortunately, death isn’t quite the end in Gorechosen; a dead fighter still puts Initiative cards in, but instead of taking an action on their go, they roll a dice on a Fate of the Slain chart on the reverse of their reference card. This has various effects, most of which cause harm to the surviving fighters. Sadly, each fighter has an identical Fate of the Slain chart; personalised charts would have been a great opportunity to emphasise the different styles of the characters.

It was Vexnar that got the killing flurry of blows in on Heldrax. Vexnar was then softened up and distracted by his surviving two opponents, only for Heldrax’s post-death chart resulted in him staggering back to his feet for a single angry attack before collapsing again. Still bearing a grudge, the mortally wounded axeman smacked Vexnar for a Head Shot Critical Injury and decapitated him.

Kore and Redarg duelled for a while, with Kore backing away to optimise the distance of his swinging anvil, while Kore closed in to make the most of his shorter-ranged attack. Then Heldrax again rolled to stand up for another last swing of his axe and killed Redarg.

The winner of the match was Kore Hammerskull, but only because he was the last man standing. Kore was probably more annoyed that Heldrax had stolen two kills from him, despite being the first of the three dead combatants to fall.

Overall, Gorechosen‘s a fun little game that I’ll be taking along to my weekly wargaming sessions for when there’s time after my usual Dragon Rampant game concludes. Quite how much replay value a game as simple as this has is perhaps questionable, but ultimately, once the game’s gathering dust on the shelf, you’ve got four lovely champions to paint and use in other games…