REVIEW: Honourbound by Rachel Harrison

Around a year or so ago, Rachel Harrison, then the author of a few prior 40K shorts, began churning out short stories focused on Severina Raine, a commissar attached to an Astra Militarum regiment called the 11th Antari Rifles. The backdrop for these stories was the expansive Bale Stars Crusade, which pitted the Guard regiments against a massive Chaos cult known as the “Sighted”. By the time Honourbound was released, there had been two or three shorts released; there are currently five Raine short stories in circulation: Execution, A Company of Shadows, Fire and Thunder, Trials, and The Darkling Hours. I have not read/reviewed any of these shorts, therefore my take on Honourbound will be as a reader getting first acquainted with the storyline.

There was a bit of pomp and circumstance surrounding the release of Honourbound. An entry introducing the character made it to the Warhammer Community page; and not only did the book drop with a hardback release, but Raine, as a character, received an official Games Workshop mini right out the gate. How often does that happen? Consider how long it took for Eisenhorn to get his official mini….

The point is, there is a sense of marketing around Honourbound that makes it seem as though Black Library is looking to make a franchise out of Raine and the Antari Rifles. It makes sense, if you think about it; with the cornerstone Gaunt’s Ghosts series is winding down, why not pass the torch to another Astra Militarum series centered around a tough but caring Commissar, her doughty charges, a massive Crusade, and a huge Chaos menace?

The question comes down to the quality of the book, of course. Before breaking Honourbound down, I’d like to mention that even though Harrison has a slew of short stories under her belt, this is her debut novel (congratulations!). Also, the novel she has delivered is a hefty door-stopper, weighing in at just under 500 pages (most Guard novels come in at a leaner 200-300 pages).

Let’s look at the blurb first, and then evaluate Honourbound bit by bit:

Uncompromising and fierce, Commissar Severina Raine has always served the Imperium with the utmost distinction. Attached to the 11th Antari Rifles, she instills order and courage in the face of utter horror. The Chaos cult, the Sighted, have swept throughout the Bale Stars and a shadow has fallen across its benighted worlds. A great campaign led by the vaunted hero Lord-General Militant Alar Serek is underway to free the system from tyranny and enslavement but the price of victory must be paid in blood. But what secrets do the Sighted harbour, secrets that might cast a light onto Raine’s own troubled past? Only by embracing her duty and staying true to her belief in the Imperium and the commissar’s creed can she hope to survive this crucible, but even then will that be enough?

What makes Honourbound a tough nut to crack is that there are some truly great elements to it; and yet, there are some elements which are not handled so well. It is never anything less than ambitious and compelling; therefore it unfortunately becomes hamstrung by the poorer elements.

Story

The content of Honourbound reflects a convergence of three storylines–first, as mentioned earlier, covers the Antari Rifles as they take the Crusade to the Sighted across the Bale stars. This arc gives us a yield of three massive action set pieces.

Secondly, we have, interspersed throughout the narrative, flashbacks to Raine’s youth. We see young Severina, and the time she spends with her sister, Lucia, her training and rise through the Schola, and her earlier interactions with the upper echelons of the Bale Stars Crusade hierarchy. These flashbacks are the best written installments in the novel; conveying genuine emotion and illustrating the inputs which forged Raine into her present-day incarnation.

Finally, there is a third arc, a subplot, which follows potential malfeasance within the Crusade itself. While ambitious in concept, it is mundane and by-the-numbers in execution. A random event sets it in motion; evidence is revealed with implausible convenience, and the climax is an overly-theatrical, melodramatic miss, bereft of any logical underpinning.

Characters

The dramatis personae in Honourbound is well-thought out, and created with care. Meticulous detail is bestowed on development for even secondary and tertiary characters; which is appreciated, as seeing characters relegated to the status of ‘window dressing’  in other novels can be frustrating.

The only problem is, these richly-developed characters are confounded by some genuinely bad dialogue. There are way too many examples of cliched, cinematic declarations, and forced moments of poignance. Too many “as always”, “until the very end”, “we hit harder”, kind of instances. The response skews more towards groan-inducing than awe-inspiring. And this is all across the board; nobody is safe from the stilted dialogue.

As for the characters themselves, let’s start with the star of the show: Severina Raine. Raine is, conceptually, a solid character. She’s a tough, lead-from-the-front Commissar. She carries the stigma of a tarnished past–although her mother was a decorated hero, her father was a deserter, and her sister was executed for treason. Not only does she personally bear the shame for her actions; she is also labeled by peers and superiors as possibly less than capable due to her ‘tainted’ blood.

The thing is, in an attempt to make her a franchise player, Raine comes off as a bit ‘too perfect’. We get that she is, in her moral fibre, closer to the tenets of a ‘true’ commissar than her peers, but there are too many instances of her having the perfect thing to say in response to a given situation. This is compounded by the fact that the lines delivered in those scenes read more like a statement of opinion than actual dialogue–the end result reading as manufactured instead of organic.

I won’t go so far as to say that Raine is clad in plot armor–she takes a lot of punishment throughout the book (Harrison does not treat any of her players with kid gloves). However, there is a huge dichotomy in the two Raines we are presented with here–the genuine, sincere younger Raine, whom we see in excellent and welcome flashbacks, or perennial ‘right person at exactly the right time’ adult Raine. Again, all criticisms aside, the concept of Raine is solid–hardened by her past, hardened by years of fighting in a brutal Crusade, hardened by constant disdain, she keeps pushing forward.

Other standout characters include Daven Wyck, Sergeant of the Wyldfolk; the Grey Company Squad which always runs along the edge. Wyck is a born fighter; hell, he’s a born killer, and he’s always charging forward with the sins of his past in hot pursuit. To maintain his edge, he’s strung out on stimms and rage. Wyck’s arc is, in my opinion, the most consistently engaging character arc. He remains a believable balance of unforgivable flaws and unrelenting prowess.

Also of note is Lydia Zane, the primaris psyker attached to the Antari Rifles. Well, allow me to say this–everything, and I mean everything, regarding psykers and their frightening powers, is presented in an excellent manner in Honourbound. Vivid descriptions aside, Harrison really captures the fear, torment, and tumultuous emotions which likely vie for control of these poor characters heads. Zane has to shoulder the duty of using her powers for the good of her kin; knowing full well the revulsion which her very existence inspires in them, knowing full well that she is naught but a tool to be waved and wielded until its expiration date. Reading her tragic past, and knowing her current status as a pariah, one wouldn’t blame Zane if she were to open her ears to the whispers from the darkness…

Finally, we have strong outings from the Duskhounds, the Tempestus Scion team attached to the Rifles. The highlights of their scenes are tied more to the solid depictions of their combat tactics than their character traits. To play Devil’s Advocate, that’s as it should be, since the schola would have wiped most of those pesky personal traits right out of them. However, an odd exception is added for Antari Scions, allowing them to retain their cultural identity; because, I don’t know. I guess we’re to believe that Antari culture is just so great, it’s allowed to circumvent universe-spanning Imperium mandates. This poses a real problem in that the Antari Scions will only replenish their ranks with other Antaris; and scola-trained Antaris are in short supply in the middle of the Crusade (as we see in the book, other Companies have to replenish their ranks with void-born Antari, who need to go an extra set to prove that they can ‘fit in’). Ergo, in the name of pride, the Scions have to go into battle with diminshed number due to a self-imposed cultural bias. It doesn’t make logistical sense.

The Captain of the Duskhounds is one Andren Fel; a close friend and confidant of Raine’s (perhaps the one person she can let her guard down around). Like Raine, there is a real poignance to Fel’s flashbacks; however, his present day depiction suffers greatly from clunky dialogue. On the other hand, there are some strong instances where Fel has to weigh options on loyalty to his squad versus loyalty to the Imperium at large; knowing full well that there will be inconsolable loss attached to whichever choice he makes.

We won’t get into too much detail on the antagonists here, so as to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say, there are some wicked psykers on the side of the Sighted who are elevated by exceptional writing.

As for the Sighted, since cultists are the consummate meatshields/bullet sponges of the 40K universe, they don’t exactly get character arcs. What Honourbound does offer are robust depictions of these twisted heretics. Although it is not explicitly stated which Chaos god the Sighted have pledged themselves to; we can assume it is Tzeentch due to the mantra of ‘change’ which permeates their belief system, as the usage of feathers and crystals as a decorative motif. They carve themselves, and everything around them, with wicked spirals; and the are marked by what equate to ‘time stamps’ mapping their ‘journey’. Many of them wield the tools of their ‘change’, and they charge into battle bristling with wickedly sharp appendages, driven by heretical zeal.

World-building

This department is a home run for Harrison. She has fully captured the feel of the 40K universe, and it shows in the vivid descriptions of the areas where action transpires. Gritty, grimy, derelict facilities, massive, imposing foundries, a daunting shipyard; all of them brought to life, sucking the reader right in. These setpieces are dark, jagged, menacing, and bloody. Exactly what we expect from the original grimdark universe.

For example, around the middle of the book, there is a battle within a captured medicae facility, which climaxes in a ward formerly used for installing augmetics. The installation is the stuff of nightmares–all sharp edges, terrifying instruments, and gutters for catching the copious amounts of blood which must have flowed in its heyday. It’s a reminder of how frightening a world bereft of comfort and gentleness can be.

Also, Harrison has put a lot of work into realizing her vision for Antar, home of the 11th Rifles. We are treated to not only richly developed examples of culture and mythology, but variances of the same along regional differences. It is that extra step which makes all the difference. The Antari carry their culture and tradition with them in all they do, so catching glimpses of the homeworld is an added bonus; especially considering all the dark corners the Crusade throws them into.

Action

A huge hit and a slight miss in this category. The huge hit comes in the visceral, bloody, bone-crunching, and extremely frequent instances of violence in this novel.

Violence becomes an art form in Honourbound, in all its myriad forms: from the crack of the lasgun to gouts of blood gushing over the perfectly inserted knife. We are treated to the warped image of bodies ‘folding like eggshells’ at the whim of Zane’s psychic powers. Close quarters combat is a real plus, and delivered in bulk at the hands of Wyck’s Wyldfolk and Fel’s Duskhounds.

What complaints could be laid against this wondrous, blood-soaked panorama?

One small complaint is, again, the dialogue. In the close quarters scenes, there are too many examples of smack talk between hissing Sighted cultists and rough and tumble Antaris.

The other complaint lies in the lack of application of basic military tactics. The bulk of the action is simply “Forward”. Forward, and let the Antaris’ inherent grit resolve the situation. The Rifles push forward; go through cultists, meet a different type of enemy unit. They bring forward a specific unit to counter it. The conflict is resolved, and the push forward is continued.

In other words, the scenes are predicated more upon narrative convenience than how an actual encounter would transpire.

For example, take the Wyldfolk. They are always on the edge, at the fore. In one scene, Wyck is in the thick of Sighted cultists, opening them up with his knife. Then, he notices that one of his troopers’ lasgun is misfiring. He has time to go over, rectify the issue, say a quick prayer to the rifle’s spirit, and give the trooper an inspiring quip. But wait, weren’t they at the head of their company, in the thick of cultists? Did the Sighted decide to let him take a break to address the issue out of sheer benevolence. It may seem a petty complaint, but hiccups like that break the reader’s immersion and draw them out of the story.

Overall Writing/Pacing

Again, aside from the dialogue, Harrison’s writing skill is commendable. She pens Honourbound successfully as a present tense narrative, a feat which many authors cannot pull off. That she was able to do so in a debut novel pushing 500 pages is a feather in her cap.

There is a bit of a pacing issue at the onset of the book. Honourbound opens with a brilliantly ‘executed’ (haha, bit of commissar humor there) prologue; which perfectly introduces Raine, showing her carrying out her duty in a no-nonsense manner.

What follows is an opening chapter which is ambitious in its scale–the recapturing of a war-machine foundry which has fallen into the hands of the Sighted. While a bit light on military tactics, the action comes fast and furious. The only issue is, it attempts to do double duty by fully introducing us to our characters. I don’t mean a quick line here or there to help paint a quick picture of the character; I mean full on information drops in the midst of breakneck action sequences. It breaks the continuity. I’m not saying that the information isn’t necessary; it just could have been spaced out a little better. After the opening chapter, the pacing achieves a much more confident stride.

In closing

As you can see, Honourbound is filled with both exceptional and marginal moments. I wish I could say that it all the inputs average out to a ‘good’ novel, but that would be misleading.

Honourbound is a very commendable debut novel from an author who delivers excellent action and truly ‘gets’ the setting. You get well-thought out characters, even if they suffer in dialogue (well, they suffer a lot at the hands of the Sighted as well). Peaks and valleys, as they say.

In short, I’ll likely seek out Harrison’s short stories featuring Raine and the 11th. As for future novel installments, I’d likely give them a shot as well.

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Anthony Giordano

Anthony Giordano was born and raised in NYC, and has been lost, adrift in the Warp (aka Upstate New York) for close to a decade. He reads, he reviews, he writes.