Mine? Eh, it Wasn't That Great.

I'm not a huge comic book fan, but there are a few titles I enjoy. I've been a Transformers fan since pretty much day one, and I'm still collecting IDW's current run, though only in TPB form. I've hugely enjoyed Power Girl's most recent solo series, and was greatly upset to learn that she's not a continuing force in the New 52 universe. And then there's manga, like Fullmetal Alchemist and 20th Century Boys and Mardock Scramble. But I must admit, as far as actual, single-issue comic books go? Well, it's been a while indeed since I picked any of them up from the racks of my local comic shop.

But I was in there the other day, doing a bit of post-Christmas shopping with the lovely Madam Meagan, and a rather striking cover caught my eye. And so, for the first time in I-can't-recall-when, I bought myself a few comic books.

Seriously, what's not to love here?

The big draw? Robotman. I read some of the really old Doom Patrol run, and some of Alan Moore's fantastically deranged series, and Robotman was always the most compelling character. He's a classic, of course; a man given phenomenal power, but at the cost of his humanity. So when I flipped through the first issue of My Greatest Adventure and found out that Cliff Steele is now, not just Robotman, but Robotman, PI (Of Weirdness)? Well, hell, you couldn't sell that to me any better if you tried. And I'm pleased to say that the comics, rather than just coast on that idea, which let's face it is good idea enough for at least a few year's run, managed to add in another delightful storytelling wrinkle. You see, the nanites that make up Cliff Steele's body? They've got Asimov's Three Laws programmed into them. Which is all well and good in terms of making sure they obey Cliff, but directly and subconsciously (and Cliff's mind is the only human they can 'hear'), but they recognise non-Cliff people as being human, too. Imagine being a superhero whose bones and muscles literally will not allow you to harm a human being. Luckilly, at least, he doesn't seem to have the 'or through inaction allow humans to come to harm' commandment, but still. It's kind of a serious restraint, and forces Cliff to be pretty inventive in how he resolves any kind of human-level situation. Giant robot snakes? No problem. A couple dozen brain-controlled people at a diner? Potentially deadly threat.

It's a really interesting inversion.

Leads to a lot of this sort of thing, obviously.

The other two stories in the anthology are good, too. Garbageman's story is likewise pretty classic; a white-collar worker runs afoul of his employers, who are doing things Man Was Not Meant To, and when he Learns Too Much they try to silence him, inadvertently turning him into a hero in the process. The appearance of Batman is well handled, the Dark Knight managing to put in a solid appearance without stealing the show, but the real draw is going to be the dinosaurs in the sewers of Gotham, I suspect. As for Tanga, she seems to be set to give Robotman a run for the title of 'most interesting story'. A superpowered alien trying to save the meek and downtrodden, Tanga is pleasantly snarky without being Deadpool-esque, and has the benefit of the most interesting world of the three, an alien land where monsters appear out of portals, a giant head runs the government and an opposing superhero with serious narcissistic tendencies threatens to bring the whole thing down for reasons clear only to his own, entitled self. Add in a long-suffereing tentacle monster and a very pleasant and possibly-mad scientist, and the Tanga storyline has quite a definite draw.

Not that sort of draw.  Mind out of the gutter, you!

Not quite as strong a draw as Robotman, PI, of course. But a draw, nonetheless.

Sadly, it seems that My Greatest Adventure is only to be a 6-issue miniseries. But what the heck, I just spent years collecting the entirety of Fullmetal Alchemist, maybe a quick six-month commitment is more my speed.

Gilding the Lily

A thought recurs, more or less every time I run through a new list for my cadre; don't gild the lily.  Gilding the lily, for those who aren't familiar with the saying, came out of Shakespeare's King John.  It's actually quite a contracted paraphrase of Shakespeare's line, which advises against gilding refined gold and painting the lily, amongst other things, on the grounds that such an action is "wasteful and ridiculous excess."  With regards to 40K, the danger of gilding the lily is in pouring points into a unit, either to make it somewhat less mediocre at a task for an unreasonable cost, or to make it better at a task it's already excellent at, even for a small cost.

Kirby, of 3++ fame, recently wrote about this same subject.  But as good as Kirby and his crew (krew?) are, their wide audience requires them to talk in generalities; as an exclusively-Tau Empire player with a, let's just say less extensive audience, I can be more specific.  Because the issue of gilded lilies is both more subtle and more dangerous for adherents to the Greater Good than for most other codices.  The issue is that Tau Empire cadres, through their XV8s and to a lesser extent the '88s and vehicles, have the kind of customization options that, say, Nob Bikerz get access to.  But where Nob Bikerz can really take advantage of their customizability to increase their threat value, mostly through their wound allocation shenanigans and their ability to get both cover saves and FNP, the dropoff for Tau units is both much earlier and much sharper.

So, as we all know, XV8s get three options, usually used for two weapons and a support system.  But that's just the standard ones; team leaders, shas'vres and the army's shas'els and 'os get access to the special wargear section, which contains several duplicates from the support systems section, like multi-trackers, target locks, drone controllers and blacksun filters, along with unique pieces like bonding knives and the special issue items.  It can be extremely tempting to bump a member of an elite XV8 trinary up to a team leader or shas'vre, and use them to add something to the squad.  Targeting array, target lock, shield generator, drone controller with shield drones or networked marker drones, there are a variety of options, and in and of themselves, they're not bad options.  But they're not cheap options, either, and they almost never manage to recoup their investments.  A team leader with a targeting array is an extra fifteen points; with a shield drone it's twenty, thirty-five if you want two of them; twenty-five with that shield generator.  And these aren't cheap squads to start with, with three fireknives clocking in at nearly two hundred points for just three models, with no invulnerable saves, who can easily be one-shotted by the plethora of S8 weapons running around the game at the moment.

And the XV8s aren't the only lilies out there tempting you to gild them, either.  Tau vehicles have a tonne of upgrades that look good at first; SMS, targeting array, disruption pod, decoy launcher, multi-tracker, flechette discharger, they're all pretty good looking. And given the rather lacklustre performance of most Tau vehicles, it's particularly tempting to start throwing things on their to increase their effectiveness. But a naked Devilfish is 80 points, hardly a cheap transport to start with, and the costs climb a lot faster than the value of those upgrades. The disruption pod is basically a must-buy, so the Devilfish arguably costs 85 points, and if you add the SMS then, well, you should really add a targeting array and a multi-tracker to get the best out of it, and if you're going to be operating that aggressively some flechette dischargers wouldn't hurt, either. And before you know it, you have a tank that's not especially more difficult to kill, and hasn't particularly upped its damage abilities (with a multi-tracker, the SMS gives you two extra shots moving 6", and one fewer moving 12"), but suddenly costs fifty more points. And again, most of what you've added are the exact same S5 AP5 shots you can find every last Fire Warrior toting, only they've got better range, a higher rate of fire inside 12", and for those fifty points you actually get one more shot than the SMS offers at beyond 13".

The Tau Empire codex is one of the most option-heavy going, in terms of pure customization opportunities. Battlesuits have more unique options available than nearly any other unit in 40K, and Tau vehicles have some of the best wargear upgrades available, though sadly that's balanced out by their mostly having some of the worst weapon options in the game. But as I have learned, through rather unpleasant personal experience, the Tau also have some of the sharpest levels of diminishing returns going. The army is, ultimately, a force that has no meaningful close combat abilities, average shooting power and defenses, and weak leadership. Rather than relying on a few heavily upgraded units to carry the rest of the army, it's terribly important for a Tau player to remember that old Soviet cliche; quantity has a quality all its own. The more saves you can force your opponent to make, even 3+ or 2+ saves, the more saves they're likely to fail; conversely, your opponent will pass every save you don't force him to take. The same is true for most other races, with variations, of course. Despite its origins, 40K is currently meant to be a game of armies, not heroes, so bringing a few incredible heroes and the bare minimum of an army along often won't end well for any army commander.

After all, you can't do much fighting with nothing but a few lilies covered in yellow paint.


Munitorum Series #3 - Plasma Gun

So, my cadre and I wandered up to Black Knight Games this past Saturday, for the latest in their tournament series.  This time it was two thousand points, making these games officially the largest games I have ever played; before Saturday, I'd never gone above 1500.  Heck, before I finished off my last two XV88s on Friday, I didn't even have the points to play at 2000!  But I scraped in under the wire, managing to finish a Piranha and two XV88s in just over two weeks, so the Shining Long Strike cadre took to the field, ready for all comers!

Or at least, as ready as I ever seem to get.

Game 1
Opponent: Graham Wilson (Grey Knights)

Grand Master w/Psychotroke, Rad Grenades
5 x Purifiers w/Halberds, Razorback w/Psybolt
10 x Strike Squad w/Psybolt, 2 x Psycannon, Rhino
10 x Terminators w/Psybolt, Incinerator, Psycannon
10 x Interceptors w/Psybolt
Stormraven w/Twin-Linked Lascannon, Twin-Linked Multi-Melta
Land Raider w/Heavy Bolters, 2 x Lascannon

Major Objective: Capture and Control
Minor Objective: Headhunter (points for CC kills)
Deployment: Pitched Battle

This was my first game against Grey Knights; not bad, considering how omnipresent this 'Win Button' army is supposed to be, no? And I have to say, it didn't go so badly.

It's a cliche among 40K players that the battle is won or lost in deployment, a cliche I don't agree with in the least. In this case, however, it may not have been the game but poor deployment definitely lost Graham his Vindicare. He set the assassin on a nice, high point, with a good field of fire, and unfortunately for him he was too close and too exposed; on my first turn of shooting, which just so happened to be the first turn of the game, the combined firepower of an 8-strong Fire Warrior squad, the SMS off two XV88s and a trinary of Fireknives blasted him to smithereens. Graham has bragged about the threat of his Vindicare often enough around the store, the way it blows out invulnerable saves and kills Land Raiders better than Railguns do, so taking it out early seemed like a pretty good strategy. And I think it probably was.

With the rest of his army unmolested, more or less, Graham began his advance, and I began that oh-so-intricate dance Tau Empire players know so well. Graham used his Stormraven to deploy half his Terminator squad to my left flank, to meet up with his Interceptors already moving down there, and started rolling it up, while the other Terminators and the Grand Master in the Land Raider trundled up the centre. The game quickly turned into a bloodbath, with the Interceptors slaughtering my XV88s and Pathfinders, the Storm Raven blasting both my Piranhas with its multi-melta and the Strike Squad firing out of their Rhino immobilizing my Hammerhead with a lucky shot. Graham's aggression did not go unanswered, however. My other XV88s exploded the Land Raider and eventually shot down the Stormraven, my Shas'el, his bodyguard and one of the Fireknife squads gunned down the Grand Master and most of his squad, and a unit of Fire Warriors, dismounted from a wrecked Devilfish that was moving to contest, shot three of the five Purifiers to death. At the end of Turn 5 both our armies were quite depleted, with each of us still claiming our objectives, and Graham (obviously) having the minor objective. Sadly for me, however, the game went the full 7 turns, and ultimately these Grey Knights proved to be less a flashing rapier and more a grinding steamroller; I just could not stop their advance. Down to two XV88s, 8-strong and a 6-strong squads of Fire Warriors protecting my objective, I just didn't have the firepower to wipe out those Interceptors before they shunted onto my objective to contest it at the top of Turn 7, while out by his objective a second immobilized Devilfish, two Gun Drones and a Fireknife trinary that were criminally positioned nearly the entire game could neither break the Strike Squad off Graham's objective nor get close enough to contest it themselves. A game as hard-fought as it was well-fought, on both sides, in the end I just could not hold off those Grey Knights long enough to secure even a minor victory.

Result: Major Loss

Game 2
Opponent: Phil Swayne (Soul Drinkers)

Vulkan He'Stan
Kor'Sarro Khan
Dreadnought w/2 Twin-Linked Autocannon
Ironclad Dreadnought w/Heavy Flamer, Drop Pod
5 x Assault Terminators w/Sergeant
4 x Scouts, Sergeant w/Meltabombs, Combi-Melta, Power Weaopn
10 x Tacticals w/Meltagun, Combi-Melta, Power Fist, Drop Pod
4 x Bikers, Attack Bike w/Multi-Melta
4 x Bikers, Attack Bike w/Multi-Melta
Attack Bike w/Multi-Melta
Land Speeder Storm w/Multi-Melta
Land Raider Redeemer w/Extra Armour, Multi-Melta

Major Objective: Annihilation
Minor Objective: King of the Hill (objective in the centre of the table)
Deployment: Spearhead

Phil's army may be painted purple, but they were using Kor'Sarro for his special rules, making them the most flamboyant White Scars in history, I suspect. With everything reserved and outflanking, and with me squeezed into a quarter of the table by the deployment rules, I had a chance to put my post-Blood Angels 'all-dropping FNP CC monsters' tactic to work. And y'know, it didn't do too badly. I set up with an L-shaped ruin at one corner, a bastion at the other, and a nice high cliff running between them, effectively protecting a quarter of my border that way. Then, it was castling all the way. The XV88s went on top of the bastion and ruins, and other than that it was battlesuits in the middle, surrounded by a ring of Fire Warriors, surrounded by every vehicle hull I had, facing out in a circle.

The Ironclad dropped alone on the first turn, melta-ing one of my Piranhas into oblivion and using its Heavy Flamer on the Fire Warriors bunched up behind it, though thankfully he didn't kill that many of them. In return, I shot both its arms off and immobilized it, though I just could not kill it. And then, the Marines came on. The second drop pod landed on my left flank, supporting the Land Raider full of Terminators and the other Dreadnought who charged in off the board edge, while the Land Speeder full of Scouts turbo-boosted out from my right, covering one of the biker squads and the lone attack bike. My other Piranha went down, along with a Devilfish and a few more Fire Warriors, and then we really just started tearing into each other. Phil sent his Dreadnought into the bastion, intent on coming up from under my XV88s and tying them up in close combat, a grinding affair since the Dreadnought lacked the power weapons to negate their 2+ saves and they lacked the strength to dent his front armour. It was a good strategy, though, as it kept my XV88s out of commission for most of the game. Meanwhile, concentrating on the bigger threats, I combined plasma and pulse fire to drag down the Terminators, though only after they'd wrecked my Hammerhead, used my ruins-based XV88s to explode the Land Raider right in the face of some Tacticals about to embark, and used my Shas'el and his bodyguards to wipe out nearly the whole of the biker squad. In return, however, the Scouts' sergeant slowly but steadily cut down my Deathrains with his power sword, Kor'Sarro himself felled my Shas'el, his bodyguards and a squad of Fire Warriors, and the surviving Tacticals charged up to reinforce the Dreadnought, their powerfist tipping the scales quite handily against my XV88s. And while all this was happening, that second biker squad gunned their engines, charged out of reserve on my left flank, and raced out to grab the secondary objective in the middle of the table.

Despite the shellacking I got (why is it always Annihilation against Marines who can go from off the board to in my face in a turn?), the game was as fun as it was challenging, and Phil gave me some good pointers on what I could've done better to protect myself. The fact that I didn't deploy against the table edge, blunting his units from pincering me quite so completely, seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, and is definitely a point I'll remember. Likewise, I should've borrowed the Pathfinders and ringed the XV88s on the Bastion with them, leaving no room for the Dreadnought to charge in. And I could even have spread my castle out a little more, left it less vulnerable to flamers and less trapped by its own units once the other shoe had dropped. Little by little, I'm getting better at this game.

Result: Major Loss

Game 3
Opponent: Chris Bader (Imperial Guard)

Company Command Squad w/Straken, Lascannon HWT, Vox-Caster, Meltagun, Officer of the Fleet, Astropath, Chimera
5 x Storm Troopers w/Meltagun
5 x Storm Troopers w/Meltagun
5 x Veterans w/Plasma Pistol, Meltagun, Meltabombs
5 x Veterans w/2 x Meltaguns, Meltabombs
Infantry Command Squad w/Vox-Caster, Lascannon HWT, Meltagun, Chimera
Infantry Squad w/Power Weapon, Grenade Launcher, 2 x Missile Launcher HWT, Vox-Caster, Krak Grenades, Commissar w/Power Weapon
Infantry Squad w/Power Weapon, Grenade Launcher, Missile Launcher HWT, Krak Grenades
Infantry Squad w/Power Weapon, Grenade Launcher, Missile Launcher HWT, Krak Grenades
Vendetta w/3 x Twin-Linked Lascannons, Heavy Bolter
Vendetta w/3 x Twin-Linked Lascannons, Heavy Bolter
Medusa w/Siege Mortar, Heavy Bolter, Enclosed Crew Compartment, Camo Netting, Bastion Breacher Shells
2 x Hydras

Major Objective: Seize Ground (4 objectives rolled)
Minor Objective: Big Game Hunter (points for all HQs, MCs, and vehicles with an AV over 12)
Deployment: Dawn of War

Again, awful deployment, but this time it was the both of us. Chris was initially going first, so he deployed his biggest blob-squad right up against the centre line, with most of them hidden in a series of craters and forests to give them cover. In response I decided to leave everything off the board edge; after all, two of my four XV88s had Blacksun Filters for just this occasion, and this way I could position my units to respond to Chris' when he brought them on.

And then, for reasons I still can't actually explain, I rolled to seize. And won.

Making the best of this baffling decision, I spread my army along the table edge, my Piranhas turbo-boosted up on either side, and aimed just about everything I could at that blob squad. The only Guard unit on the table, it took a serious beating that first turn. Despite the cover it probably lost at least half its units to a staggering fusillade of SMS, Missile Pod, Plasma Rifle, and AFP fire. The unit didn't break, though, despite its pounding, and after hiding my battlesuits as best I could behind the tanks, Chris brought his army out to play. The Manticore and the Medusa took cover on my left, the two Hydras on my right, the Chimeras moved to reinforce the badly-beaten blob squad, and the Vendettas raced forwards. The two squads of Storm Troopers stayed in reserve, and thankfully Chris didn't manage anything noteworthy with his first round of firing; his searchlights could not get the range, and nor could anything else. At the top of Turn 2 I started my attack, and kept up the pressure all game. XV88s fired at Vendettas, which were ludicrously survivable (an enraging string of 1's and 2's to penetrate and on the damage chart kept one of them flying nearly all game), one of my Fireknife trinaries went after the Hydras, with mobile cover from a Devilfish, while my Fire Warriors and battlesuits kept hitting that blob squad, which half the time had a 2+ cover save, making them particularly difficult to remove save for those killed by the AFP. Hooray for S4 AP5 large blasts that ignore cover! The stars of Chris' army, meanwhile, were definitely the Medusa and the Manticore, which between them accounted for two-thirds of my Deathrains, 13 Fire Warriors and one of my Bodyguards. Thankfully, however, those Storm Troopers were absolutely useless; the first squad couldn't get a clean drop, earning them a trip back into reserve, then actually landed on the Hammerhead Chris was sending them after, which got them put nice and out of the way in the corner. The other squad did manage to go after my Hammerhead, but a torrent of close-in pulse rifle fire in return meant they didn't get to enjoy their victory. Both Piranhas, by the by, blew up well short of getting their shots off, meaning that they were three-for-three in terms of being completely useless. I really must figure out how to use those things.

With time running out, Chris and I both threw our last tricks at each other. He killed all but one of the Fire Warriors heading to my left-side objective and charged my Shas'el with his Company Command Squad, getting close enough to contest the other. Thankfully, however, my lone Fire Warrior passed his break test and hung on, and in the very last shooting phase my Fireknives finally blasted one of the Hydras to pieces. That left Chris with a Hydra and both Vendettas gone, while I had lost a Devilfish and my Hammerhead; the Piranhas, being only AV11, didn't count. That meant I had the minor objective, three points to two, and that my friends means that, for the first time ever in a Black Knight Games tournament, I had won a game!

Result: Minor Win

Total Result: 14th of 16, tied overall with 13th (but 13th had more battle points, while I'd made the difference up with presentation)


The Stupid... It Burns...

So, Tim over at The Tau of War has found quite the lovely little gem. It's a video codex review put out by Beast of War, and of course since it's popping up on Tau of War and now my own, almost-exclusively-Tau-concerned blog, obviously it's a review of Codex: Tau Empire.

And it is simply awful.

It's awful for a variety of reasons, really, but you can basically boil it down to three main problems.  The two guys doing the review, Darrell and Andy, don't know the units; they don't understand the units' roles; and no offence to all my power armoured brothers and sisters out there, but they are clearly Marine players to the core.

The first problem is as obvious as it is massive, namely, these guys haven't even got the basic rules of the units down. Their advice on the 'best' build for an XV8 crisis suit, for instance, is jaw-droppingly awful, namely twin-linked plasma rifles and "the thrusters that allow them to jump up and jump back down again to get a free move in the assault phase." They then dismiss any other loadout because the rest of the weapons "are all virtually pointless," being "all AP5, pulse rifle, carbine, pistol" weapons. Pulse pistols? On an XV8 battlesuit? Good lord! They think every battlesuit can buy three upgrades, because apparently XV15/25 stealth suits and XV88 broadsides aren't battlesuits. And speaking of stealths, they think XV15/25 stealth suits can take "some of the better weapons, with better AP," despite scoffing at fusion blasters on XV8s not five minutes earlier. They think shield drones are 30 points. They think the spotter on a Sniper Drone Team has to hit before the drones can fire at a target, and by the way, one of them initially thinks the SDT are armed with plasma rifles. They even seem to be suggesting that you could have Fire Warriors hop out of a Devilfish, rapid fire a target, then hop back in again, which isn't just not knowing the rules for the Tau, it's not knowing the rules of 40K itself. With such shockingly shallow knowledge of the basic rules for the army, it's hard to hold out any hope for a deeper analysis of how to play it.

And indeed, there is none, because these guys absolutely do not understand the roles of basic Tau Empire units. They talk about using S5 pulse weapons and the plasma rifle to threaten light vehicles, and completely miss the missile pod. They're baffled by the Kroot, and apparently by the very concept of terrain, since they worry about armour-less Kroot being "stood in the middle of the board rapid firing your guns." For that matter, they complain that Fire Warriors, "like most of the rest of the army, they need to hide behind a wall," a statement so baffling the only conclusion one can draw is that they exclusively play something like Grey Knights terminator or Blood Angels FNP armies, since everything else out there will want to find cover pretty regularly. Heck, even those armies wouldn't want to just charge across an open field into the face of Lascannons and Krak Missiles! They dismiss Piranhas as being overcosted suicide units, heck, they dismiss the entire fast attack slot as being "pretty poor," strong words for a slot that contains Piranhas, Pathfinders and even the oft-unappreciated Gun Drone squads. Despite their not understanding how SDT shooting works, repeatedly dismissing the value of BS3 in general and even specifically complaining that "their BS is terrible," they think that "arguably these guys are one of the better choices for shooting." They recommend Fish of Fury as a tactic, and they don't even add on the SMS, Targeting Array and Multi-Tracker to get the best possible results. They don't even seem to understand the concept of blocking, complaining that what you really need is "some way of slowing the enemy down in getting to you" and then just shrugging their shoulders and moving on to the next point. Their review gives absolutely no indication that a Tau Empire cadre has any kind of chance at victory, at all, and it pretty much boils down to the fact that these guys have no idea how to play a non-rock Marine army, at all.

Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Marines. Heck, every now and then I find myself contemplating a small strike force to call my own, probably something done up in homage to Gurren Lagann or the Thousand Sons. So don't think I'm disparaging Marines players, in general, here. But these guys, they play like the worst, laziest sorts of Marine players, the kind of guys who just throw Longfang/Grey Hunters or Draigowing or Deathwing on the board and don't really bother to think about things. Sure, 'finesse' is often just a way of excusing poor results and taking credit for lucky breaks, but there is an artistry to a properly executed battle plan.  And frankly, listening to these guys talk I can't help but feel they're the sort who play Marines not because they have some particular affinity for a chapter or the overall mythology, but because Marines have a string of 4's in their statline and lots of 3+/2+ saves and big tanks, none of which really force them to put serious thought into the way they play. It's the same sort of lazy mentality as you see in all those min-max netlists that come out whenever a new, high-strength codex hits the shelves. And unsurprisingly, applying it to Tau Empire, or frankly any non-Marine army, is a sure way to get your army killed.

Seriously, guys.  Is it really so much to ask that you get someone who knows what they're talking about for these things?

A Lot More of One Than the Other

I'm a terrible sucker for stories of robots, stories that go beyond the cliches of 'robot who wants to become human' or 'robot who wants to destroy humanity'. As a form of life, as things that live in a way unlike us but that we can understand, they just have so much potential for uniquely fascinating stories. Of course, being non-humans ninety-nine times out of a hundred they're forced into one or the other of those cliches, their actions revolving arbitrarily around humanity, seemingly incapable of defining an existence for themselves that isn't about either emulating or exterminating us. But there is still that one time, and so every once in a blue moon you can find a story like Tony Ballantyne's Blood and Iron.

On the world of Penrose, robots are the highest form of life. These robots are strange creatures indeed, compared to what we're familiar with from other stories. They have sexes, and children, and those children are created through a form of duo-sexual reproduction, they treat bodies like clothing, they have states and empires, they go to war with rifles and swords and awls to punch through skulls, they politick, they have love and cruelty and a strange lack of curiosity about their surroundings... Ballantyne creates very particular robots, robots that could not have existed in any other story setting, marking the world of Penrose out from any other on which robots rule right from the beginning. And boy, does he create a lot of these particular robots. The novel is divided up amongst viewpoint characters, of which there are five principles and one who gets just a single section for herself, and each of those viewpoint characters routinely interact with anywhere from one or two to five or six other characters, along with the inevitable gaggle of background characters. At 553 pages Blood and Iron is a fair-sized book, and Ballantyne packs each page so full of dialogue and action and detail that at some points it was, frankly, a little overwhelming.

But ultimately, this book succeeds at nearly everything it does. It begins and concludes a civil war and a rebellion against an emperor, gives an answer to the question of how a robot mind should be woven (a key recurring theme), concludes a search for lost love and traces the events of two separate contacts between the robots of Penrose and humanity. Yes, there are humans here, but Blood and Iron does its robots the honour of treating them as independent life-forms of their own. Interestingly, although the key robot states in Blood and Iron are loosely modelled after feudal Japan and a sort of exaggerated, almost cartoon-ified militaristic Spartan city-state, their interactions with humanity put me more in mind of the unfolding of contact between the indigenous tribes of North America and the explorers, traders and colonists of England and France. It makes perfect sense; to borrow a term from Iain M. Banks, both North Americans and robots found themselves confronting an Out Of Context problem, an issue completely beyond the scope of their society pre-occurence to prepare them for. How, after all, could you plan for something you don't even know exists? Like the North Americans, the robots try a variety of responses to the presence of humanity, a strange new breed of person with technology unlike anything previously encountered and internal divisions and motivations the robots can't easily grasp. And like the North Americans, the robots' cultures are profoundly, perhaps irrevocably changed by this interaction. I don't know if Ballantyne had the North American indigenous people in mind when he was writing this, or perhaps some other group like the Australian aborigines or the Indians under the British Raj or Africa during the period of European colonial conquest, but the parallels are most certainly there, and make the book more interesting for their presence.

One thing I should note, and it's unusual for me to say so, but I didn't always enjoy this book. Usually I find books make it fairly evident early on if they're for me or not, so if I'm not enjoying a book at some point it won't become a book I ultimately enjoy, because it will keep doing the thing I'm not enjoying. But Blood and Iron is different, in that respect. Without giving too much away, there are two nationally-bounded narratives running through this book, that of Sangrel in the empire of Yukawa and that of Artemis City and the continent of Shull, and although they're both interesting it seemed, as the book went on, that there was nothing to connect them. And really, if you're going to read over five hundred pages worth of story, you want it to all be worth something as a unified whole in the end. Otherwise, why not just release two separate novels? But the writing was still solid enough that, even as my concern about the end result mounted, I continued to push onwards. And I was pleasantly surprised when Ballantyne finally made the connection, doing it in such a way that I would never have suspected. The connection actually runs through much of the book, but isn't made clear to the reader until near the very end of one of those two seemingly disparate narratives. For that deft bit of forethought, I tip my hat indeed to Tony Ballantyne.

Blood and Iron is apparently part of the 'Penrose Series', following the first book Twisted Metal. Thankfully Blood and Iron stands quite well on its own, using a prologue that presumably explains the events of the first book to bring readers up to speed, a prologue done in a delightfully in-universe mytho-historical style that keeps it from being dry and dull. There are some aspects in the story suggest a larger narrative at work, of course (particularly the fate of Calor the Scout, the meaning of the metal moon over Penrose, the purposes of Morphobia Alligator and Banjo Macrodoceous, and the stories of Nicolas the Coward and the Four Blind Horses), but even if Ballantyne decided to give up writing tomorrow and never penned another word, Blood and Iron would still stand as a satisfying singular narrative. Although the book is certainly good enough that I'd be more than happy to read more about the robots of Penrose, so I hope Ballantyne isn't planning on retiring just yet!

The particular tales Blood and Iron was telling might have reached a satisfying end, but the wider tale of the robots of Penrose is still far from finished.


Why Did This Take Me So Long To Mention?

The radio drama was a staple of the pre-television entertainment media; tales of sleuths, superheroes, explorers and soldiers streamed out over the airwaves, their visuals as rich as the imaginations of their audience.  Once movies and television started making it big such dramas largely died out, though even now the CBC maintains a fairly solid stream of audio dramas (which can also be comedic), though never runs more than one at a time.  But even as advances in modern technology open up whole new realms of self-expression and innovation, they also offer a chance to go back and rediscover older forms of entertainment.

Case in point, Tales from the Afternow.

I'd like to get this out of the way, right at the start; Tales from the Afternow is good.  It's really good.  So good, everyone with any interest in the wide variety of things I'm about to describe should absolutely give it a listen.  It's free, after all, so what other excuse could there be not to?

Anyway.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world, and narrated by Independent Librarian Sean Kennedy VII (most of which doesn't mean what you think it means), the Afternow stories take full advantage of the freedom of their medium and the opportunities of their settings.  There are corporate arcologies and polluted wastelands, genetically engineered supersoldiers and simple townsfolk, cyborgs and robots and cyber-monks, the decadence of NuRome and the hard-scrabble life of interstate couriers, and a whole host of other odds and ends.  There are adventure stories, and love stories, suspense stories and horror stories and morality tales.  Afternow is an uninhibited foray into the world of dystopian fiction, and more than that, it's a relatively unique instance of this, communicated as it is through a format that has been out of favour for decades, but has lost none of its power in the meantime.  The individual stories stand alone, more or less, but there is a certain over-arching narrative at play as well, one that will reward the listener who pays close attention.

And of course, when all you have to focus on is a voice, why would you do anything but?