Black Library Review: Outgunned by Denny Flowers


“The Aeronautica Imperialis are the masters of the skies in the 41st millennium, waging wars of breakneck aerial combat where only skill stands between victory and death. Flight Commander Lucille von Shard is an ace, a living exemplar of what it means to fly in the name of the Emperor… or so Propagandist Kile Simlex is told.

Braving the foetid waters of Bacchus and its rampaging greenskin hordes, Simlex is tasked with producing a cinema-pict portraying Shard as an Imperial hero. Shortly after his arrival planetside, however, he discovers the war effort is in shambles – the Imperium’s overstretched forces are in full retreat, the local planetary governor is desperately downplaying the conflict at every turn, and Shard is an arrogant misanthrope who only avoids sanction due to her consummate skills.

But these skills may prove the only hope of survival, for something vast and terrible lurks within the clouds. The Green Storm approaches.” – Black Library

More like Outfunned am I right? No? Okay, suit yourselves; I liked this book quite a lot. The character of Lucille von Shard is a great addition to the “Heroes of The Imperium Who Aren’t Quite As Great As They Seem” canon. She’s a total asshole, but very funny and charming with it; she’s got an incredible acid tongue with retorts to match. Our protagonist and limited-perspective point-of-view character is an Imperial propagandist, a kind of character I don’t think we’ve actually seen before, and through Simlex’s eyes we get a really interesting look at what exactly the process for movie-making involves in the forty-first millennium. It involves the director using a handful of cerebrally-linked floating servo-skulls, here called “Seer-Skulls,” to go and gather footage to splice together into the finished article, which is a nice little touch that fleshes out the universe a bit.

Simlex is your typical documentarian, a Robert Capa-type eager to go to where the action is in order to get the best, truest footage. His primary concern being the quality of his film, which conflicts with its “true purpose” as propaganda to spur military recruitment, which as an artiste he finds to be quite distasteful. In the 41st millennium it seems that deep-faking is rather trivial and endemic to media, using the skulls and his neuro-implant he’s able to effortlessly splice the face of a pilot into their cockpit even though they were travelling too fast to be seen clearly. Even with such a toolbox at his disposal, Simlex disdains this use of fakery and deceit when making films; he’s a purist at his heart. A Werner Herzog of the grimdark future, perhaps.

It’s rather interesting, and quite novel, to have a Warhammer 40k story told entirely from the perspective of a non-combatant; although Simlex rides in several warplanes he never really fires a weapon in anger. As a cautious, nervous film geek he is the perfect foil for von Shard, the impulsive, reckless genius fighter ace. They have a kind of odd-couple chemistry that is honestly quite fun to read as they each struggle with their own demons while working with someone so frustratingly different from them.

As previously stated, Lucille von Shard is a fun character. There are plenty of heroes in the universe of the 41st millennium, but it’s nice to see one that is so overtly playing a character of her own for the crowd – the arrogant fighter ace in the World War II Spitfire-pilot mode, lounging around in a flight jacket and holding court on her aircraft’s nose. The author treats the pilots of the Aeronautica Imperialis a little like the fighter pilots of World War I, the roguish, daredevil “knights of the air”, in that framing Lucille von Shard is definitely a mix of Biggles and the Red Baron. She’s a member of a minor noble house, and one of the orphaned von Shard Siblings, orphans educated at a Schola Progenium who each went on to excel in their field: One is a heroic Commissar, another is a high-ranking Administratum adept, yet another is a Confessor; you get the picture. Flowers describes the way in which students at the Schola are mentally dismantled by “drill-abbotts” and reconstructed into servants of the Imperium, and as such von Shard can’t really remember her life before the Schola, making her question whether her siblings are really her siblings at all. Beneath the glib remarks and prodigious flying skills beats a miserable, traumatised heart that turns to drink in order to make it through the day. While Simlex is the protagonist, I think it’s fair to say that von Shard is the “main character” and the most interesting part of the book (she features on the cover, for one thing) with her person and reputation looming large over the progress of the main story. Without spoilers, I really look forward to another Lucille von Shard story, and hope Black Library have commissioned one.

While the “A” plot focuses mostly on the anti-Ork action of the Aeronautica, the B plot revolves around a mysterious blight affecting the grapes that make the wine that Bacchus is known for. Bacchus, geddit? Wine? Bacchus? You get it, I can see you get it, you’re smart, I always said that about you. The planetary governor (who lives in a giant tree, a cool detail) is very keen to downplay both the greenskin menace and the mysterious disease, and is super super eager to hide any potential fraternisation with, oh I don’t know, some other kind of Xenos, ones that might like wine a bit more than Orks do.  I found this plot the weaker of the two, relying a little too heavily on decadence-as-a-mask-for-decay theme that’s somewhat endemic in the 40k universe. I enjoyed the way the author populates and crafts the world of Bacchus, the descriptions of the chateau that is constructed within the trunk of a vast living tree are particularly cool, the swamps evocatively detailed with original flora and fauna.

Although not an out-and-out comedy, there’s still a good preponderance of gags that raised a smile or a chuckle, setting Outgunned more in the realm of a good Sandy Mitchell Ciaphas Cain novel than a relentlessly serious Abnett-esque outing. The novel takes a wry look at Imperial Propaganda, Simlex recalls an inspirational film wherein a skinny knock-kneed Ork menaces a woman and child before being cut to bits by the lascannon of a fighter plane, before the pilot salutes. He drily observes that with the aircraft going at a thousand miles per hour, it’s unlikely that the pilot would even have seen the people on the ground, nevermind saluted them. He’s also somewhat taken aback when he sees a real Ork for the first time and it’s actually a big slab of green muscle capable of shooting a gun at him.  One of several standout moments for me comes as Simlex and von Shard essentially Skype with an Ork Big Mek and the translating servo skull renders the Orkish speech thus: “Gork the violent/shrewd, sibling of Mork the shrewd/violent”. Flowers clearly has a flair for the comic novel and I look forward to reading what he comes up with next.

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