Thursday, 12 April 2012

Iron Hands: Compare and Contrast

The Iron Hands novel and the short story ‘Flesh’ both present very different views of the Iron Hands.  So I thought I’d compare and contrast and provide a brief review of the two works.  The first is ‘Iron Hands’ by Jonathan Green.

Jonathan Green has written various bits and pieces in the 40K universe, but I think this has been his only novel.  I read the re-release but the original was published in 2004 (I think) and this is very telling.  I reckon we can all agree that the shape of 40K fiction now (particularly in the case of the Astartes) is very different to how it was 8 years ago, and it shows in the book.  The depth to the characters that we almost expect now is just not there.  Most of the characters are just names attached to suits of power armour and only a few of the cast are fleshed out (apologies for the pun) beyond their combat role.  The only four actual characters in the book are Iron Father Gdolkin, Librarian Melchor, Magos Omega Thule (no relation to Davian, although it would be strangely awesome if that were the case!) and the final antagonist, a Word Bearer named The Iscariot.  Oh, and an Iron Hands Shipmaster called Strake.  So make that five.

Now, I realise that the previous paragraph may have sounded a little harsh.  The novel is by no means a bad book.  The fight scenes are very good and there are plenty of them, across a variety of opponents which helps keep things interesting.  The prelude involving a reading of the Emperor’s tarot is excellent; easily a high point for the book, even if there are no Iron Hands in the scene.  There’s an epic fight with a defiler and an encounter between a squad of Cadian guardsmen and some Death Guard makes for excellent, albeit highly queasy reading.  But I feel that this book, in common with many Space Marine centred works at the time focussed on action to the detriment of character, and a lot of the personalities end up feeling flat and one-note.

Gdolkin himself, the protagonist, does not come across at all sympathetically.  He’s just a very angry, humourless individual with a machine fetish, which is a very common view to take of the tenth legion.  In fact, minus the whole cybernetic angle, the Iron Hands are interchangeable with almost any other Astartes Chapter.  It was the way of things at the time.  Even in the established chapter series of books, it was more that individuals were given more personality, rather than adding personality to the chapter as a whole.  As the individual characters in this book aren’t lavished with attention, then little is gained in terms of chapter insight. That said, although the character of the Iron Hands isn’t really built on, there is a lot of detail about them included and referenced in the book.  Their training exercises, the selection process of the novitiates, the clan system, the rules and strictures.  Iron Hands Dreadnoughts for example always have a close combat arm.  No irritating riflemen dreads in the chapter.  You can still gain a lot of information about the chapter from the book.  You just don’t get into their heads.

This moves us on to Flesh, the short story by Chris Wraight.  It was originally in an issue of Hammer & Bolter (no idea which one I’m afraid) but released as a mini e-book by Black Library for £1.50.  One of my mates (who is an avid reader of Hammer & Bolter) recommended this story to me, and he was damn right to do so.  So; thanks Alex!

It’s not a long book.  It’s a short story concerning a Chaos-plague epidemic in an Imperial Hive and the mutant uprising it causes.  Think of it like a zombie virus scenario.  Except Chaosified and with mutants.  Lots of disgusting imagery going on, which certainly plays as a strength in the story, the explicitly fleshy nature of the infection and enemy involved making a perfect counterpoint to the Tenth.  The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, a prospective Iron Father, a relatively fresh Iron Hands tactical marine and the commanding officer of the local PDF.  All contribute very well to the atmosphere of the story and contribute greatly to the major strength of the piece; the Iron Hands themselves.

For such a short story, it really packs in a lot of detail.  The relationship between the chapter and the Mechanicus, the trials of the Iron Hands aspirants, the hand-amputation rite of passage; all of these are touched upon and briefly explored.  Various interesting elements and ideas are brought forth such human reaction to the Astartes.  The description of a Space Marine from one of the human officers to another is a high point in the story for me and really helps portray the fear that the Astartes can inspire in the common man.  You hear various rumours circling about the Iron Hands from the human troopers and, brilliantly, these are neither confirmed nor denied.  It lends a further menacing aspect to an already scary concept and is aided by the already inhuman nature of both the Astartes in general and the Iron Hands in particular as portrayed in the work.
In terms of the personality of the Legion, Wraight manages to get a great deal across to the reader in such a short space.  The Legion have changed greatly from how they were in the Heresy, becoming increasingly removed and disinterested.  Far from the hair-trigger temper of their Primarch, they present as singularly cold and dispassionate.  It would be easy to write them off as emotionless automatons, but Wraight has done a very good job of portraying them as suppressing emotion rather than simply removing it.  He has done an excellent job of injecting a note of sympathy into what could be a very cardboard archetype, and it’s exactly what I wanted to see from the Tenth.

I advise anyone with even a peripheral interest in the Iron Hands to give this a read.  It’s cheap, quick to get through and provides a lot of character and atmosphere as well.  Highly recommended.  Seeing as Wraight is the guy who’s written the upcoming Wrath of Iron (the Iron Hands entry in the Space Marines Battle series), his short story has made me very excited about what that book will bring!

Anyway, lunch is over; you know the drill.

With any luck, soon I’ll go through a Tenth Legion minidex I’ve been cooking up and hopefully help in adding some Iron Hands character to the tabletop.

So long!


Ty said...

Are you going to be buying the new Iron Hands finecast upgrade pack? Very curious to hear how it is.

Meatshield said...

You'd better believe it!

I'm definitely curious as to what they done re: Xth. The obvious guess would just be finecast versions of metal components in the old box, but I'm hoping for something more for the increased price tag!

The thing is, I'd ordered some Maxmini bionic kits to help create some more tactical squads shortly after I'd found out that the Iron Hands box was no longer around.

Ty said...

Damn that stumbling onto the website during the brief window between the old one and the rumor of the new one.

Meatshield said...