Hammer & Anvil (Advance Review)

‘She had faith,’ Miriya told Verity. ‘As do we. And that will always be enough.’

– Hammer & Anvil, a Sisters of Battle novel by James Swallow

Note: I would like to point out that this is an advanced review since the novel itself will not be available to the general public until November this year, and was available only to the people who were at Games Day UK a couple weeks ago.

Hammer & Anvil continues the adventures of two of the most faithful daughters of the Emperor, the Sister of Battle Miriya and the Sister Hospitaller Verity. First seen in Faith & Fire by the same author, this time the two unlikely heroines are thrust into the mystery of Sanctuary 101, an Ecclesiarchy outpost under command of a small force of Sisters of Battle. With the outpost’s inhabitants slaughtered by the merciless Necrons, Miriya and Verity are part of a mission to reconsecrate the outpost and find out what happened.

As you might have guessed from the previous reviews that I have put up on the blog, I’ve been reading a fair bit of Space Marine related novels, all of them chock-full of bolter action and prominently featuring everybody’s favourite post-humans. So this novel provided a nice break in that routine and it was a very good change of pace, setting and characters.

Space Marines are genetically-enhanced humans, the true elites of Humanity against the encroaching darkness of the Tyranids, the Eldar, Chaos and others. They have the best ships, the best weapons, the best armour, the best training. They are born for war, and they train for war. Their every waking moment is filled with thoughts of battle.

Compared to that, the Sisters of Battle are just regular women, with the main difference being that their strength is their faith in the Emperor. And unlike the various chapters of Space Marines which are an autonomous organisation allied with the Imperium, the Sisters of Battle are the militant arm of the Imperium Church, as well as the Chamber Militant of the Inquisition’s Ordo Hereticus. They don’t depend on having the best tools for their job. They depend on their unshakeable faith in the God-Emperor.

Where does that bring us to with regards to Hammer & Anvil then?

My last non-SM novel was Gaunt’s Ghosts: Traitor General. I’ve read it a couple more times since I bought it at release, but discounting the re-reads, this is the first time since then that I’ve read a novel that doesn’t deal with the Space Marines.

Going off the blurb, the novel does deal entirely with the aftermath of the Necron attack on Sanctuary 101, the first recorded conflict between the Imperium and the Necrons. Jim has conveyed the feel of both the Sisters and the Necrons very well in this novel.

With the Sororitas you get ample view of how they work, their heirarchy, their traditions, their mannerisms, their protocols. Their faith in the Emperor is stressed throughout the novel, and, on a psychological level, is the key to a lot of the dilemmas faced by the various minor and major characters.

With the Necrons, you get a definite feel for how a legion of these “soulless automata” makes war. The rank-and-file warriors and their counterparts truly are automata, their programming being the urge that drives them. Their generals are the ones who are closer to their original selves before they underwent the whole “bio-transference” process at the behest of the C’tan. And yes, the C’tan are often mentioned in passing. As they should be, since they are the ones who turned the necrontyr into the Necrons.

In short, Jim has really brought out the character of both the factions, and it is to be commended. It really did feel like I was reading about the Sisters of Battle, about the Necrons. There is a certain flavour apparent for both.

The plot, while fairly obvious how it is going to proceed at times, can still throw you for a loop. Jim mixes predictability and unpredictability in equal measure. Once bolter shells and gauss beams start flying, the pacing really goes into overdrive. Deceptions and treachery keep the plot fresh as well. So it should be no surprise to you when I say that I found this a novel a hard one to put down before I got to the end. I was even snatching moments to read it between matches of Space Marine multiplayer. That’s how good this is.

Having read Faith & Fire ages ago, I don’t quite recall how the first tale of Miriya and Verity unfolded, but as I read Hammer & Anvil, I never got the feel that I had to have read the previous novel to understand what motivates our main protagonists. The plot, the situations do not depend on the reader’s previous knowledge about them, and that ultimately should be a big draw for people. Although that said, I would still recommend Faith & Fire before reading this as it is a cracking read. And deals with some nice thoughtful and intriguing revelations.

As a parting thought, readers will find the depictions of Necrons in this novel to be somewhat similar to that in Fall of Damnos by Nick Kyme. But be prepared to be knocked off your seats because this is a novel that seemingly goes beyond even that. I haven’t finished reading Fall of Damnos but what little I have read of the Necrons in that novel suggests that Jim’s approach is a middle ground between the new and the old. You won’t get just the Necrons of the 41st Millennium but some insight into their previous lives.

Rating: 9/10

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Posted on October 15, 2011, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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