In the depths of space, the Silver Skulls take on the might of Huron Blackheart and his Red Corsairs.
– The Gildar Rift, a Space Marine Battles novel by Sarah Cawkwell.
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 December this year, and was available only to the people who were at Games Day UK a few days ago.
The Space Marine Battles range for Warhammer 40,000 is a rather interesting one. It is about telling the stories of some of the greatest battles fought by everyone’s favourite post-humans in their charge to protect Mankind. As such, as far as my knowledge extends, all the novels out so far have been inspired by snippets or otherwise in the existing background, whether it is years old or relatively brand new.
The latest addition to this range is the Silver Skulls/Red Corsairs oriented novel The Gildar Rift, courtesy of Sarah Cawkwell, who is BL’s first published female author. But she is a short story veteran, courtesy of Hammer & Bolter, and aside from Ben Counter who has been in every single issue of that e-magazine, she is the most prolific author in the same, with no less than 4 short stories.
Sarah has effectively become the Silver Skulls author, much as people would argue that James Swallow is the Blood Angels expert, or Graham McNeill is the Ultramarines expert. And that is no way a bad thing since she has brought to life one of the sidelined, lesser-known chapters and really given them a life of their own.
Having read her previous short stories about the Silver Skulls, I was rather excited to read this novel, particularly since the characters are all different, with the focus being on a different company and different heroes and different villains.
In short, The Gildar Rift is an amazing novel, and it is definitely a good placement in the Space Marine Battles range precisely because of the reasons I have already mentioned and because it is so different in its pacing compared to the others. It starts a little slow, but then builds up quite well and then maintains that pace throughout, all the way till the end.
It also, quite extensively, narrates rather fearsome and tension-ridden space battles, which are a joy to read. The ground assaults and the naval warfare are well-balanced in screen time, especially since the main hero is the Silver Skulls Master of the Fleet, Daerys Arrun, Captain of the Fourth.
In the novel’s timeline, things are rather dire for the Silver Skulls as their numbers are on a continual decline and there is a whispered undercurrent of tension between the battle-brothers of the chapter and their Prognosticators, their Chaplain-Librarians on whose visions and auguries the chapter decides whether or not to fight.
That all said, the characters act like they are supposed to act, irrespective of rank or faction. The Space Marines talk like Space Marines, the Chaos Space Marines behave like they are supposed to, and so on. Nothing in their dialogue or in the way they act is in any way jarring, unlike some of the other novels that can be named.
And of course, if you have seen the covers, then you will know that Huron Blackheart is featured in the novel and this traitor warlord handles his screen-time with a presence that just leaps off the covers. This is the second (edit: third) time I have read of him in a novel, the first being some old short story about a White Scars infiltrator among the Astral Claws (edit: and second being Skull Harvest in the Heroes of the Space Marines anthology), and he was a delight to read. Now I really want to read Blood Reaver to see how Aaron Dembski-Bowden has handled him.
The novel is itself set entire within the Gildar Rift system, a system notable for its treacherous space lanes because of numerous asteroid debris belts that have a significant effect on the plot several times. As one of the systems under the protection of the Silver Skulls, the chapter deploys quite a significant presence to counter the invasion by the Red Corsairs, who use misdirection and traps within traps to lure the loyalists away. Huron Blackheart and Daerys Arrun are quite a match for each other and the climax of the novel alone is worth picking it up.
Oh and for fans of the Chaos Codex, expect some rather nice surprises. I have a feeling that the first mention of them (there are two) in the novel will really force people to not put down the novel and just keep reading.
There are a few small hiccups in the novel, which I suspect I just need to read again to make sense of, but in no way, during the reading are they ever significant enough to disrupt the experience.
Like Battle of the Fang, and unlike The Hunt for Voldorius, the novel does have a twist which is the main reason for why the Red Corsairs attack and why the Silver Skulls must defend their flagship. I am not sure if I am so keen on this twist as I feel that it really could benefit with some more background on it, as well as a future short story or novel where it is explored further. It definitely deserves either of those. I will say though, that the twist is rather unusual and is the sort which divides people’s opinions. But it is i no way something that is jarring or unexplained or just there for the heck of it. There are reasons and situations which make it viable in the here and now, and why it must be protected at all costs.
Overall, The Gildar Rift is one novel I would definitely like to recommend to people, whether or not they like Space Marines. For fans of Chaos Marines, this is especially recommended for those who want more Huron after Blood Reaver. I do hope that Sarah Cawkwell gets a chance to write either a sequel or another Silver Skulls novel.