Sunday, 12 February 2017
Gathering Storm: Fracture of Biel-Tan Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Supplement Review)
When Cadia fell, more than merely the Eye of Terror opened for Warhammer 40,000. With its fall, the Imperium lost its security, Chaos was given free reign to trample the galaxy in an unending tide of carnage, and the security of M42 dissipated in an instant. No more would the timeline end with Abaddon's war raging in the heavens, or the conflict at Macragge. Instead, it would need to press forwards. The writers would need to establish a new world, ask "What happens next?" and to ensure that ongoing events left an impact upon the game. More than anything else however, they would need to resolve the Gordian Knot of cliffhangers and explosive events past creators had spent years setting up.
Now, personally, I was willing to go somewhat easy on Fall of Cadia. The writers had been lumbered with a decades old storyline which had barely been updated or altered to reflect new lore in any way. In fact, most writers had just outright avoided it, and others had written so many contradictions that it was going to always be an uphill battle. Atop of this, the sheer scale of the war itself had gone from gigantic to hugeibafuckis, registering on a scale usually reserved only for Godzilla and Dragon Ball Z battles. So, while it might have been flawed and suffered in places, I was personally willing to grant them some leeway in producing a halfway decent work out of a difficult subject.
As past articles have said however, Fracture of Biel-Tan will get no such treatment.
With Cadia done, the creative team has all the freedom to do whatever they want. They have nothing tying them down, no ideas by past writers stalling them, no editions old concepts to cause them problems. They had various sources to work with, a multitude of ideas, and several fully fleshed out codices repeatedly dropping heavy hints at something big which was to come. Simply put - They have no reason to fail at all. While personally I want to see this book succeed, I am not going to pull my punches if they seriously screw up a story they have been given years to prepare.
Well, with that intro, you can probably guess how this is going to end. So, let's get this over and done with.
To start with an easy one - Games Workshop did stick to their word this time when it came to names. While it is true that Aeldari is often used to describe the race, Eldar isn't thrown aside and it does frequently arise throughout the book. It's a nice change over Astra Militarum and it at least sidesteps the massive issue of disconnecting the reader from the tale.
The book also sidesteps the other big fear we discussed a while back, that this would force the races together. While it is true that the force seen here is a massed united group of Craftworld and Dark Eldar forces, they don't make up the whole of their race. In fact, many of them seem to be following this group out of gritted-teeth teamwork, barely associating themselves with one another out of a lack of choice, and without anything stopping them just going back to the way they were afterwards.
Oh, and there are one or two very, very dumb decisions it could have resorted to help drive the story forwards, but they avoid them. The big one is remembering Nurgle can infect creatures and using basic quarantine procedures to avoid the spread of disease, something better writers have ignored.
That's about it. Yes, this is not a good one folks, so brace yourselves.
So, let's get into the big one first - The retcons. There are a lot of them to be sure, and it's difficult to discuss them all without getting into major spoilers for the book itself. However, as you go along, you're going to start to notice that there are some very big ones being shoved into the story, the likes of which make Celestine's odd alterations in Fall of Cadia look tame by comparison. For starters, the book immediately starts going back on a vast multitude of major events and ideas surrounding the Craftworld and Dark Eldar. On the one hand this is good because many of those were pretty damn stupid and were riddled with plot holes. On the other though, it keeps trying to treat them as if they happened while ignoring the actual events.
The really big retcon here surrounds the actual event which led to Ynnead's apparent birth, all but utterly re-writing that conflict. Oh, Eldrad still pulled his faulds-on-head stupid scheme and it still resulted in a moon exploding when Artemis' merry band of psychopaths showed up, but it didn't apparently matter. According to this, the actual Infinity Circuits themselves were not drained as it treats each as if they were intact and filled with souls, Ynnead itself wasn't born but only a slight entity escaped while it went back to sleep, and the Craftworlds did not lose any power at all. This is vaguely hand-waved away by some non-answer partway through, but it just bulldozes ahead rather than actually bothering to address this.
Now, just one would be bad enough but this keeps happening over and over again. Iyanna's personal crusade which risked war with so many other species? Never brought up and it's treated as if it never existed. The whole thing about Commorragh entering a state of civil war, with something mysterious banging on its front gate? Unmentioned. The deal-with-the-devil the Imperium pulled with them? Never brought up. Even basics such as the contrasting messages and visions granted to various eldar characters, showing different futures, is never addressed and multiple secondary storylines are treated as if they never existed. Yet, despite this, they will keep calling back to them in odd ways like mentioning how Iyanna was constantly preaching in favour of Ynnead's existence.
So, apparently upon starting this book, the writers decided that the best course of action was to throw half the storylines away, but to still refer back to certain bits at random. I can only assume that this was a concerted effort to make give anyone who cared about the lore an aneurysm. After all, if every bloke who actually values storytelling over mechanics had their heads explode, who would be left to question the ridiculousness of their new campaigns?
Things are only made all the more problematic thanks to the shocking swerves and moments where the narrative goes completely off the rails. Really, there are times when this book effectively jumps genres and tries to suddenly be something else, all the while avoiding addressing what just happened. This happens so often that it honestly seems as if multiple books were mashed together all at once with some vague hand-waves thrown in to try and badly cover for this. First it's character driven, following a lone character's rise to power, only to suddenly leap into a massive Craftworld crisis. It almost starts to settle upon that, even introducing a Phoenix Lord, until it abruptly kills the Craftworld(!!!) and hurls itself into a generic RPG plot, and keeps going from there. It's not so much a plot evolution as plot ping-pong-ball, ricocheting about the galaxy and trying to make everything join together.
Even ages old issues, well established within the lore, are effectively swept under the rug. The Dark Eldar and Craftworld Eldar, for example, barely bat an eye at one another. Yes, the group who were previously canonically established to be bitter allies of necessity at the most, and frequently bright lance'd one another on sight, now just go "'sup" when they arrive. Even the massed arrival of groups on several craftworlds barely bats an eye, with the ultra-xenophobic Biel-Tan barely noting them as a possible threat and Ulthwe almost ignoring them entirely. The few times they are actually brought up as a possible danger is only used to show a character as wrong or paranoid in some way, and it's not the only time this sort of thing happens. Basic ideas behind the Craftworld and Dark Eldar, establishing defining concepts and ages old lore is brushed aside for the sake of forcing the story to make a vague degree of sense.
If you want to understand just how badly this comes across in Fracture of Biel-Tan, to borrow a skit from the ever awesome SFDebris, imagine this is the pitch by the writer to an editor for a second. One being delivered by a man with ADD, and undergoing the perfect mix of an extreme caffeine high and heroine binge:
"Ynnead has been reborn!"
"Yes! No, better, it's a fragment of the god's essence, born into a dying eldar in Commorragh and shows her gaining influence!"
"So it's about her fight with the Dark Eldar?"
"Yes! No, she escapes Commorragh destroying it behind her, gathering a band of followers and escaping the Webway, meeting up with a mysterious red armoured warrior and pursued by daemons! We'll call them Yvraine and Visarch!"
"So, we'll follow her journey in the Webway and explore who these new warriors are?"
"Yes! No! We'll see the Harlequins resolve all of that, and then she makes her way to Biel-Tan, warning them of a dire future!"
"Then it's all about the war for Biel-Tan, its conflict with daemons and their distrust of her?"
"Yes! No! Biel-Tan is instantly corrupted and needs to be destroyed, so she rips out its heart and summons Ynnead in the Infinity Circuit!"
"So, the Infinity Circuits have been drained then, and this begins their war to fight back?"
"Yes! No! I've got it! They need to fly to each Craftworld in turn, enlisting their help to actually summon the proper Ynnead!"
"So, this becomes an actual task to earn their trust and a long war to unite the worlds under one banner?"
"Yes! No, wait, that's all dealt with and they join in one by one, we'll just resolve it in a page or two! And it's not the actual Ynnead, but Yncarne instead! We'll then have them fly into the Eye of Terror, visiting the Crone Worlds and gathering artifacts from there."
"So, this will be an exploration of the lost history of the Eldar Empire and their fallen kingdom?"
"Yes! No! They're pursued by the same daemons from before, only there's also Haemonculus Covens fighting them as well, the self-styled true power behind Commorragh!"
"Didn't you ditch them chapters ago?"
"We'll just add them back in! They're then saved by Iyanden's forces, who appear out of nowhere, guiding them back to their Craftworld!"
"So, this all links into Iyanna's visions, and the power struggle between her and Yriel?"
"Yes! No, wait, they join her instantly instead, after one conversation, and help her destroy two attacking space hulks! Then Yriel heroically dies!"
"No, he's instantly brought back to life! Then they enter the Webway again, fighting Ahriman and his Thousand Sons to prevent them accessing the Black Library!"
"So, it becomes a clash of wills instead, a major conflict where we see the Black Library at last? Wait, didn't Wrath of Magnus say Ahriman had already been in there?"
"That doesn't matter! Now Yncarne resurrects all of Ahriman's followers, instantly reversing the Rubric and changing the entire legion!"
"No, better, it's all a trick! They use this to eject them from the Webway entirely and take back the life they granted! Then they go on to join up with the Imperial forces who don't trust them!"
"... So, this is about teaming up with the humans for the sake of fate and earning their trust?"
"Well, it always was!"
This book simply can't stick to a single theme or idea long enough to really bring it to fruition, resulting in a lot of half-baked and semi-developed sections which constantly encroach in upon one another. For example, the book spends a solid twelve pages establishing who Yvraine is, her history and discovering her new powers. It then spends another eleven focusing upon a fight between Biel-Tan and an Exodite World corrupted long past the point of recovery. Finally, once Biel-Tan itself is corrupted, it races through the whole thing, breezing through the war in four pages and having them abandon it in one. Yes, what is arguably the poster child for the entire Craftworld Eldar race is barely given a page to actually express its death, and it barely has any impact upon the rest of the story.
The random introductions/abrupt drops even carries over to a vast number of secondary elements as well. Often the book will pause to introduce a lot of well known elements to the audience or tell them certain points rather than showing them, only for it to promptly forget about them within the next few pages. The big one here is Altansar. Yes, the famous Craftworld consumed by the Eye is in this, and they were even rescued off screen. Somehow. Well, they even manage to somehow show up on Ulthwe without anyone knowing about it, offer to guide the protagonists to their goal (with one slitting her own throat so the Ynnead trio gets her memories) and they're never brought up again. Oh, they're there in the background, but nothing else is is ever actually done with them.
So much here is sacrificed or thrown together so that the new heroes can stand out, and the sad truth is that they barely leave any impact upon the reader. While Fracture of Biel-Tan goes whole hog on the old "armies are just fodder for the characters" idea, no one here leaves any impact. While Yvraine gets page after page to try and flesh out her history, and a far more detailed a story than almost any other character, I could barely remember her name. Compared with Farsight, Cassius, or even the likes of Kelmon Firesight, she was barely a blip on the horizon. The same went for the other two, and they were so poorly planned out with so little impact, that I was kept going almost purely in the hopes someone else would take over from them.
Still, are the battles at least fun? Nope. No, no, not in the slightest. This is easily some of the worst storytelling we have seen with big scale battles since Sentinels of Terra, with every flaw of that book repeated tenfold. For starters, the descriptions and emotive text to help give emphasis to their abilities is awful, and is more akin to a first time writer than someone penning the next stage in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. This would be bad enough but then we get to the actual staging of the battles. These are supposed to be gigantic engagements, with tens of thousands of foes on either side, easily rivaling the battles of the ancient world. Well, going from how they're presented here, they have all the grace and mythical engagement of a Friday night pub brawl.
Take the Tempest of Blades battle for example. Nothing even pauses to repeatedly suggest the scale of the landscape, little is done to emphaise upon size, battle plans or the length of the battle, or even the shifting combat lines. No, what we get is a couple of paragraphs about one Craftworld Eldar unit doing some damage, before moving onto the next one. No, I don't even mean a squad, I mean "The Swooping Hawks darted from the blue-grey clouds so similar in hue to their armour the winged warriors seemed no more than flickers at the limit of vision." Yes, that's a line in here. Imagine that stretched across page after page, sluggishly lumbering from one unit to the next with some very general and uninformative details, and then try to imagine someone getting paid for it.
However, perhaps the greatest crime of all his how little impact the actual writing leaves on the reader. It's an odd one to be sure, even in light of the past criticism, but it's a kind of "tone deaf narrative" where the story is desperately trying to mimic the same beats and impacts which worked elsewhere, but missing at every turn. While you can tell that there is a genuine effort to make the story engaging with the kind of terms, listings and events which worked elsewhere, it constantly misses the same beats to let them have the impact they need. This is evident as much in the action as the character drama, and it's a big reason why the battle scenes just don't work. While there is the odd genuinely decent moment like having Yriel and an assembled force of Corsairs taking on a Daemon Prince, everything else keeps failing to leave that same impact. It relies so heavily upon tried and true methods without any individual flare that it becomes practically mechanical by the end, like something churned out in a factory rather than a man's hand.
So, why is this last bit the greatest crime above all else? Well, it's for a reason I realised very early on - It makes everything here boring. So many events I would have personally found entertaining and engaging early on, from the confrontation between these Reborn Eldar and Ulthwe's leaders to the massive void battle about Iyanden, were simply dull. The descriptive nature, the presentation, the overall structure of the work bereft of the same "beats" or end-of-chapter hooks which worked elsewhere, all of it made reading this book a tedious chore in the end. Even as someone who has been enthralled with Lexicanum articles in the past, the matter-a-fact nature of the works, the sheer lack of reasons to give any investment killed this story for me. That, ultimately, is what damned the book more than anything else.
The artwork, what new stuff we do get, is pretty good on the whole. There are only a few basic new pieces, but each is highly detailed and a massive step up over the works of many past books, veering towards the style and designs of Fifth Edition books. A particular favourite is the image of Iyanden at war with multiple Space Hulks, with various ships waging war in space about it.
Really though, there's not much here at all, and while we have some nice new images, there should have been so much more.
The only reason that this review isn't drowning in screaming rage is that it doesn't deserve it. Honestly, it's so utterly tedious, so incredibly dull, that I personally felt nothing more than sheer disappointment at every turn. Mont'Ka might have been infuriating and Clan Raukaan might have been insulting, but this was so utterly dull that nothing stood out here. It was as if someone had been asked to churn out a first draft and it was rushed through, long before anything could be thought out, or even properly "emoted" to let the reader actually give a damn.
Honestly, if you're in this for the story, just read a summary online. You won't lose a damn thing with this one and we do not learn anything new about the Craftworld Eldar, Dark Eldar, Exodites or Corsairs. Hell, the second of the last two effectively only make an appearance as corpses. Culturally there is nothing new to be found here, in terms of mythology nothing is done to properly add more to the race, and what little character development we get is utterly cheap. Please, just skip this one and wait until the next part if you're remotely interested in this series at all, because this simply isn't worth your cash.
So, that's the core lore done. Join us here as we move onto the units and relics.