Certain mistakes can be hard to shift from a creator's name. M Night Shyamalan might have begun to resurrect his career, but sadly some people will remember him always as the man who botched The Last Airbender. Or, to cite something Star Wars fans will often know, Kevin J. Anderson will sadly always be remembered for his Jedi Academy Trilogy despite his spectacular work with Dark Horse Comics as an an editor.
This sort of negative trend is something I personally try to avoid unless it is truly, absolutely, well deserved. Yet, sometimes it can be attached to authors I otherwise genuinely think are good. Enter Nick Kyme. While I do have general grievances with certain views on the canon, he has produced some genuinely great work for Black Library, but given we so often cover his lesser works it can seem like he's viewed as a terrible author on here. So, this time we'll be stopping to look at one of his recent greats to show off what he's capable of while at his best: The Red-Marked.
The story is a side-story following on from the events of Mark of Calth but before Unremembered Empire and Deathfire. Despite his successes in the War for the Underworld on Calth, Sergeant Aeonid Thiel has been withdrawn and tasked with assisting in guarding the outermost worlds of the Imperium Secundus. Finding himself repeatedly butting heads with his his superiors, garrison duty is ill suited to Thiel and he frequently opposes their more conservative approaches to war. However, after several outposts go silent and the mysterious "Nightfane" is mentioned, he is granted a small strike force to investigate the smaller garrisons.
However, things await on those worlds which Thiel that his group is ill prepared to face. With many still haunted by their own demons, it seems unlikely that any Ultramarine will escape alive...
Previous reviews have discussed the difficulty some writers have in getting to grips with an audible format. Some of the more infamous ones have this habit of producing a story which often states the unnecessary, such as ending every line with "he said" or "she said" and dragging out the action as a result. This definitely isn't the case here, and the Red-Marked gets the balance between the need for environmental descriptions and letting the actors just do their thing absolutely right. It flows from dialogue heavy sequences to action orientated assaults without missing a beat, and there's never a moment where it seems like the script is intruding upon a more personal moment, or robs the environment of descriptions.
This balance is rapidly established during the initial introduction, which is arguably one of the strongest opening scenes any audio drama has had for this setting thus far. While heavy on combat and fast moving, it manages to establish several major characters at a rapid pace, picks out the desperation of the situation and even hooks the reader with a seemingly impossible fight. It's enough to get right in on the action with a few scant minutes of work, before it moves on to start establishing just what is going on.
Sticking to a non-linear form of storytelling with plenty of flashbacks and previous events thrown into the mix, it pushes to try and tell a large scale story in a relatively short amount of time. Thankfully it succeeds, as we see the initial conflict, recruitment and objectives of Thiel's mission play out alongside their own investigations. While this is unfortunately something of an overdone tactic these days and it can lead to confusing gaps in the narrative, it serves the story well here. It works as a chance to further examine a much greater event in a very small space of time, while also skipping over much of the unnecessary busywork or fat which could have drawn out events.
It should go without saying that the voice acting and audio effects are absolutely spot on. By this point that should be obvious of course, but this is one of the few produced by Black Library themselves rather than Heavy Entertainment or Big Finish. Despite ditching the more experienced audio drama studios however, you'd hardly notice a dip at all. If anything the sound quality surpasses their own work at various points, and has added in a few more dynamic elements when it comes to explosions, gunfire or impact damage.
The combat itself is excellent thanks to both these effects and Kyme's writing working off of one another near perfectly, until you can easily picture the battles thanks to running dialogue. These sequences go the extra mile to throw almost anything of interest into the mix and to really experiment with what they can pull off, from officers dueling to heavy weapons assaulting entrenched emplacements, and the only thing it really lacks is air combat to finish it all off. In total honesty, this audio drama is likely to become the bar against which all future Horus Heresy releases are measured.
While many of the characters in question are admittedly fairly two-dimensional from what little we see, or have very little story to them, the Red-Marked uses them well. They're more here to speak about the nature of the Ultramarines or a few issues surrounding the Great Crusade, and also to depict the sorts of astartes who would make up his personal assault forces. A few even manage to get running story-arcs, with one Sergeant in particular reflecting upon a few issues fighting alongside other Legions. That and delivering one of the best self-aware jokes Warhammer has seen in years.
Finally on the positive scale of things, the story on the whole does a lot to help flesh out Thiel, his tactics and his overall personality. While a famous figure within the Heresy and one of the first astartes to help develop tactics against the other legions, he has been something of a blank slate. While there are no long sequences inside his head or personal monologues, what we get nails his style of command, personal tactics and a clear emphasis upon what made him stand out among the other legionaries. There's much more of a person behind the faceplate than anything we received during Know No Fear or Censure, and more opportunities to see why he was arguably the sort of naysmith all too many legions needed.
Unfortunately, as you might guess, there are still flaws here.
For all the praise offered, what many people are likely going to note here is that the story does have the habit of dipping into some very played-out cliches at points. Especially military cliches. Now, on the one hand anything to help push the idea that the Legions were somewhat more like a typical military force rather than a Templar order is great. It helps to show further differences between M31 and M41, and gives a real sense of evolution over the course of ten thousand years. With that said however, you can likely predict a lot of these story elements coming from mile off. You have the hard-ass officer who dislikes the loose cannon who can get results, undercutting him until he's finally pushed into letting the Sergeant do his job. You have the failed soldiers who are still effective, each grounded for minor offenses and picked out to reclaim their glory. You have the haunted Sergeant, the officer who overlooks the obvious, and the man with the score to settle with an old foe.
Tropes are tools to be sure, but when you're hitting this many of them, you need to either cleverly disguise them until the listener doesn't pick them out, or pull them off so well they simply don't care. Well, unfortunately the former doesn't happen and the latter only occasionally comes into play. There are some great scenes with them to be sure, but the overarching tale sadly pushes any listener's suspense of disbelief to the limit.
There are also a few moments present in the story which never seem to be properly resolved. Many of these are brushed under the table, but they're set up as if there is going to be some big reveal or explanation beforehand. Thiel, for example, needs to know about "Nightfane" so we get a brief mention of him having picked it out from vox chatter long beforehand. Something which sadly proves to be both unsatisfying and fairly cheap. Equally, the presence of traitor marines who were never involved with the Shadow Crusade should have been a big heads up of sorts, but it amounts to nothing in the long run. Hell, even the very existence of these traitors or why they are here is never fully outlined, leaving a mystery force present well behind enemy lines. It honestly feels as if another story is needed to clear up points from this one at times, or that the drama didn't have the time to fully resolve them.
Furthermore, there are some questionable lines at times which just seem out of place at times. The opening statement alone is one which might put off some people with a "Guilliman lies" speech which seems to suggest the primarch is denying inconvenient truths he was otherwise aware of. Equally, while I personally liked the implication of a flaw among the Ultramarines which would be ironed out or exaggerated depending upon the chapter, it seemed to be playing towards an overly stereotypical view of the Legion. The sort of thing which, to cite another work, Warsmith Honsou joked about in exaggerated mockery all the way back in Dead Sky, Black Sun. So, to see that same idea be almost played out straight faced is eyebrow raising to be sure, but it could still play out to be an interesting element in a later story.
While Red-Marked ultimately sticks to a basic and direct tale, the beauty of the work comes from its execution. Many story ideas are more teething elements than anything else, and to be completely honest, they're the sort of thing you only tend to seriously pick up on during a second listen-through or thinking back on events. Plus, even when the story does add them in, you'll likely have forgotten them by the next scene thanks to something better having come along in its place.
In all honesty, the Red-Marked is another great entry following a lesser known character with a major impact in the Horus Heresy, and one with the potential to start another Garro-style side story. If you're after an engaging Ultramarines tale which doesn't overplay their greatness or simply want a fun outing away from some of the big battlefields, I would definitely recommend this one over a lot of the competition.
Verdict: 7.0 out of 10