Monday, 10 April 2017

Carcharodons: The Red Tithe by Robbie MacNiven (Book Review)

Many people say that there are too many books about space marines. These people are entirely right. When you actually sit down, break up the books following the astartes and those following everyone else, the you'll notice more than two thirds lie with the former. However, perhaps the best defense of this is the fact that there are so many varied factions of astartes on each side, and a longer personal history to work with when it comes to Chaos. Carcharodons: The Red Tithe is the latest example of this, and it goes to show what an author can do when given the chance to experiment with a big, fun new project.


Tasked with defending humanity from the horrors which lurk beyond the galactic rim, the Carcharodons have stood sentinel over the Imperium for ten thousand years. Trapped in a state of self-exile, they rarely return to place they once called home, save for the need to slaughter traitors and to carry out the sacred tithe. Drained and depleted, the chapter needs fresh bodies to serve as its serfs and officers, ready to carry out their orders at a moment's notice. Such souls are damnable, miserable scum taken from a few select prisons across the Imperium, such as the one the Third Company now descends upon: Zartak.

Yet, as the ancient astartes arrive, they soon discover that others have fallen upon this world to claim it as their own. A sizable warband of Night Lords, seeking to slake their need to harvest terror and the souls within the prison cells, have turned the planet into a charnel house. A warzone awaits them below, and amid the deep dark pits of the forsaken prison world, these two armies of silent predators will clash until only one is left standing.

The Good:

The massive highlight of this book, and what will draw many people to it, is the Carcharodons themselves. As one of the relatively more recent chapters to be revamped and remade, they had an air of mystery about them, with slight hints and general suggestions of some ancient past, but few answers. We knew little of their culture beyond vague tribal designs, and even their age - if they were a Second Founding chapter - was always in question. As is their very origin, for many people. Rather than answering this, MacNiven opted to give depth to the mystery in question, developing and reworking it until many of these elements are unknown within the chapter itself. While we do know that they were exiled from their home millennia ago, their legends only offer slight hints that it might have been a primarch, and even then it is never confirmed if this was their primarch who gave the order.

Many early segments of the book serve to help build up and establish the ideas behind the chapter itself, running through many basic themes and then pushing beyond this. For example, rather than hanging exclusively on the questions surrounding their origins, it questions how they would have evolved in this state. Isolated, self-focused and no outside influences from other human cultures save for the odd recruit, it presents them as a world apart from almost any other chapter. Calling upon Polynesian and Maori inspirations for their ideals, beliefs and nature along with a few shark related themes, the book builds the idea of an almost archaic chapter which has been preserved in time. This idea of one being so alien, so remote from any other chapter, is something which has rarely been seen of late, and it's used to great effect. This moment of diversity helps to immediately make them stand out, and even against a well established force like the Night Lords there's no point where they risk falling into the background or being overshadowed.

The book also goes the extra mile to express a few ideas about points surrounding the chapter without fully delving into them. Much like the Ultramarines there's a sense that constant politics pit the companies against one another, and it's not uncommon for a single force to have several varying ideals or plans from each of its leaders. While hardly chaotic or conflicting, there's more strife and clashes born from this than you might expect, despite each of them often being right in their own way. Furthermore, there's a careful effort to ensure it's only showing us certain details about them only up to a point, or even leaving certain conflicting comments. 

For example, the chapter's frequent use of cryo-pods suggests that several key members of their kind are ancient,with a few lines even suggesting that at least one may have witnessed the Heresy. While the book never fully expands upon this, it leaves the subject hanging, only passing on a few comments before leaving it behind. By never fully addressing it, but confronting it in the right way, it garners a sense of interest and engagement from the reader. We even see the same treatment given to the long standing question of their gene-seed. The book all but outright confirms that they were born from Corax's legion at one point, only to later suggest origins from the Night Lords or World Eaters thanks to their tactics and the presence of Ursa's Claws on their strike cruiser. This could have easily led to a number of infuriating non-answers, but it's enough to make the tale oddly satisfying and leaves you wanting to see more from them.

Many of these ideas and details are not even hindering the tale at any point. Rather than dragging the book to a screeching halt to explore them, they're added here and there throughout the story, breaking up the action as needed. The result is a relentless story of constant conflict, but one which never overstays its welcome or burns you out as a result. Plus, and this has to be said, it helps that the characters here don't serve as simple examples of the chapter. While a few do reflect parts of their history or nature, most are given just enough individual traits to help them stand out, despite their general mental uniformity. 

Of course, the book remains fairly strong even once it gets beyond the Carcharodons themselves. While the Night Lords have often been written, re-written and reworked a multitude of times over the past few years, MacNiven still finds a few interesting angles to explore. Personal glory, back-stabbings and conflicts are all on display, but we also see some of the issues when it comes to their leaders. In particular, in this case, many of their kindred hold little innate loyalty to the current Prince of Thorns because he's a comparatively recent recruit rather than someone who saw the rise and fall of the Legions for himself. Plus, there's the idea that this is a cult of conflicting ideals here, but one which has been well established and built up. They do not risk open infighting like others, they're bereft of insanity, and much of the corruption usually found within such warbands is contained and controlled. It's a more optimistic outlook than we usually get with most Chaos warbands (well, to a point anyway) as they're unrepentant monsters, but ones who have developed strict systems and codes to avoid self-destruction and still hold certain values dear.

What many fans will certainly celebrate here is the fact that the astartes, while insanely tough, don't fall into the old trap of being utterly wanked out invincible. We don't get any of the more exaggerated or insanely overblown moments which tends to put people off of these chapters, and they do die to mistakes, attacks or sheer overwhelming odds. So, while there are scenes like a marine dragging him self out from under a few hundred tons of fallen rock, or even shrugging off multiple point blank bolter rounds, others are killed instantly by precision attacks or planned assaults. In fact, one of the most crippling losses taken by the loyalists isn't inflicted by the Night Lords themselves but their cultists, attacking from a venue they simply couldn't afford to counter. So, what we end up with is marines who can still die two one or two blows from a chainsword, but they still have to be blows which behead or effectively bisect them.

The Bad:

This is going to be very debatable on many points as, personally speaking, I think many of my complaints come down to personal taste. Simply put, while MacNiven is clearly giving his all here and has some fantastic moments, he lacks the descriptive strengths of other writers. There are few heavy atmospheric moments in this book which helps to define Warhammer 40,000 as the grim dark nightmare future, or many of the more theoretical and introspective bits. Every descriptive element and point has been incredibly streamlined, almost to the point where it's difficult to truly pin down some of the more heavy going moments of the tale. It's certainly not bad to be sure, but there's always a sense that it lacks some of the substance or ideas found in some of the bigger books.

Perhaps some of the biggest examples of such streamlined storytelling can be found in how it quickly wraps up certain points. Towards the end a minor group of secondary characters is killed off - out of sight no less - with little more than a brief mention, and the final few pages become something of a rushed affair as it tries to bring about an abrupt and bloody conclusion to tie up all the loose ends at once. It's not nearly as abrupt as something by Dan Abnett, but you can also see points where something was just suddenly resolved or brought to a close in order to finish up events. 

Another definite issue is how many fights, while well described, often come down to a one-sided battle. Blows are always exchanged and the actual fights themselves are pretty damn satisfying, but it doesn't take much to pick out the rock-paper-scissors effect on display. We have one group overcoming the other, a squad sent in as a response, and then something to counter them. After a while, it sadly becomes predictable how certain key engagements will play out. Even the duels aren't a big exception to this, as you often know who will survive thanks purely to old tropes and storytelling ideas.

The book also suffers when it breaks away from the post-human characters into more mortal figures. While The Red Tithe does work well when it comes to the subject of night and haunting figures, anyone more mundane than this becomes quickly forgettable. As the opening few chapters are populated by almost nothing but Arbitrators and prisoners, this makes actually getting to the action quite a chore. You can find yourself rather bored by characters you know aren't important to the tale, as you know from their language and presentation that they're little more than irrelevant story fodder to be bumped off before the real heroes show up. This might not have even been that bad were it not for the running framing device of an Inquisitorial investigation which heads each chapter, It follows an Interrogator picking out and analyzing scenes of the battle, theorising on what took place. This could have been used to build up mystery and reflect upon the Carcharodons, but it instead often just ends up repeating what the reader already knows.

While there are far fewer problems to pick out here than strengths, each of them is at the very heart of this tale at every turn. You cannot simply enjoy its strengths without having to constantly stomach its weaknesses; because the prose and structure are among these key flaws, it can even reach points where it's hard to see one through the other.

The Verdict:

Carcharodons: The Red Tithe is a solid release and an entertaining tale to be sure, but it's by no means a perfect one. The ideas and concepts are great, but it never manages to rise above greatly entertaining at any point, meaning it can seem weak after so many excellent releases of late. Yet, for all the problems I personally had, it's one I would still definitely recommend in a heartbeat. The core concepts are solid, and it proves that the author can create something great when he's given more freedom to express and explore a chapter. Especially one which embraces the more rustic and ritualistic fantasy elements of this science fiction setting.

Whereas the likes of Master of Mankind and Malleus are much more heavy going titles, this is more of a travelling book by nature. It's the sort of one you'd do better to read on the train heading to work each morning rather than plunging into it for hours at a time. So, take that for what it's worth and give it a look if you're at all interested.

Score: 6.5 out of 10


  1. This is one I've been wanting to pick up since I like the Carcharodons and I've been wanting to read more about them, however it's also one I've been worried about.
    It's a relief that it's good though, I was worried that they'd answer pretty much all the questions anyone had on the sharks, and that would ruin all the mystery (they'd also need a good explanation for why the sharks have organs that the Raven Guard don't if they decided to say they were from the Raven Guard) but these non-answers I kind of like more for this particular chapter.

    It's also nice that the Marines aren't presented as being completely invincible, as they so often are. A number of the negatives you list however I feel that I won't really get what you mean until I read it for myself. By that I mean that I understand what you're saying, but it's hard for me to imagine the same kind of feeling that I'd get through reading the book and experiencing those failings (it's no fault of yours that I can't really get that feeling without reading the book).

    In any case I'll buy this one when I've got money and when somebody in my city starts carrying it.

    1. I was worried about that factor myself for a while, especially given how Games Workshop has gone back and forth on setting up their possible origins a good three or four times thus far. I really does seem like they're leaving this one mostly down to the players and focusing more upon how their origins and environment shaped them more than anything else. So, it's not so tunnel vision focused on who their primarch was so much as examining how a more barbaric and brutal legion would evolve over time and what impact their type of warfare would have on their culture after ten thousand years. The fact it makes their mysterious origins important without going back to it every five minutes was pretty refreshing.

      Yeah, the problem when covering the negatives is that, as mentioned above, much of it comes down to the specific writing style so it's hard to cover without adding in quotes; something i've been trying to avoid to sidestep possible spoilers in most books. Personally I think i'm just more of a fan of the heavier going and ultra-detailed styling of Abnett and co. by this point, and this more streamlined design just lacks some of the emphasis upon history or the environments I personally prefer. Each to their own though, and i'm sure there's plenty of people who will be giving it a higher grade without this issue.

  2. Thanks for the review, very fair and detailed.

    1. Please, it's not a problem at all, as it was a fun read. I hope we get to see more from you and this chapter in the years to come.