Blacktalon by Liane Marciel – The Goonhammer Review

Blacktalon is Liane Merciel’s first novel for Black Library, and you can tell she’s had a lot of fun with her opportunity to put her own mark on the Mortal Realms, populating the book with weird and wonderful creatures, places and characters.

It builds on the Warhammer+ animated series, following the Blacktalons, Sigmar’s crack team of assassins. Their leader, Neave Blacktalon, also appears in various novels, short stories and campaign books.  However, prior knowledge of these things isn’t needed to enjoy the book.

credit: Black Library

Neave is joined by the chunky but good-natured beatstick, Rostus; the wizened old warrior-prophet, Hendrick; the moody, no-nonsense sharp-shooter, Shakana; and the mysterious Idoneth wizard, Lorai.

Through holy visions, the team are given five targets to kill. This is unprecedented, usually, they are only given one or two at a time. But the stakes are high on this mission and they’ll need every shred of perseverance they can muster. In pursuing their five marks, it soon becomes apparent that the consequences of failure would be catastrophic for the Mortal Realms – possibly even putting an end to Sigmar himself.

The book’s premise offers a great setting for the author to play around with the themes often associated with Stormcast Eternal novels: Faith, sin, purity, identity, loss, memory and personality. What does it mean to lose a bit of yourself every time you are killed and reforged? Merciel hits upon some really interesting angles on these well-worn themes, although I would have liked her to develop them a little further.

The Blacktalons themselves are great characters. There are a few moments in the novel where it gives penetrating glimpses into who these people are, and what made them that way. However, unfortunately, that’s all the novel gives; glimpses. I was left disappointed by the end that it didn’t offer more, or expand upon some of the themes it raised.

The opening chapters do a great job of introducing the characters individually. You get a sense of what drives them, as well as their fears and trials. You also get snapshots of their past lives. But, more interestingly, we also get to explore their relationship as a group.

These are five people, thrown together as a group with a task to do, and they’ve been doing it for many years. They’ve been through intense trials together and have lived and died side by side.

There are always little tensions that arise in any friendship group, but just think how much more exacerbated these tensions would be if various members of the group kept dying, and then returning without key memories or personality traits upon which their relationship is built. They are constantly having to reforge their friendships and find their place in the group, and this makes for fascinating reading.

People who have been through Hell and high water together form friendships deeper than most, but what happens when they forget the very trials that tempered their relationships? How deep can these relationships possibly get given these ever-shifting circumstances?

The Blacktalons. Credit: SRM

Furthermore, there’s a really fascinating dynamic at play with Shakana. Due to the fact her role as sniper usually puts her further away from the fight, picking targets off from afar, she doesn’t tend to die as often as the others, meaning that she loses less of herself to the reforging process, holding onto more of her memories and personality than the others.  It’s a lonely place to be, when you remember things everyone else around you has forgotten, and the opening chapters handle her frustrations really well.

But then it just stops.

All of that intricate character-building disappears by the middle of the book and doesn’t really resurface again, which was very unsatisfying. Sure, it’s the opening story in an ongoing series, and hopefully some of those strands will be picked up in future publications, but it did leave the rest of the book a little stale as a result.

Centering stories around Stormcast protagonists has always been tough. Most of us aren’t immortal thunder demi-gods, so we just find it too hard to identify with the characters.  The stakes just aren’t high enough, because you know your character’s just going to come back to life if they die – it’s like watching a Marvel movie.

At first, I thought this book had cracked that problem by exploring the toll reforging has on relationships. After all, we can all identify with relationship breakdown. But this thread soon dried up and it just became another story about shiny gold people chopping up bad guys with little to lose.

The book got to the point where one or other of our heroes would sustain some horrible injury. The pain was excruciating, and all looked bleak; how could they possibly survive this? This was it. It must be. But then they mustered the will and the strength to vanquish the enemy, got up, and ran the entire length of a realm without breaking a sweat.

It kind of felt like watching someone playing a computer game; fighting baddies, jumping over obstacles, beating the big boss and then moving on to the next level. Don’t get me wrong; some of those bosses were really great, and the fight scenes really engaging (although, some of them were just fine, if a little underdeveloped) but the soul of the book had disappeared.

The mid-to-late part of the book kind of becomes just a bunch of stuff that happens, and I found myself disengaging. This wasn’t helped by the occasional clunky exposition-dump or out of character dialogue.

But then the last couple of chapters dropped… and… Wow!

I could see that I was approaching the last pages of the book, and I was feeling really disappointed. Was that it? It didn’t seem like there were enough pages left for it to redeem itself. I thought there would just be a rushed, mediocre battle with the Big Bad and then some sort of cliff hanger, designed to sell the next book. But then the story threw a curveball that I wasn’t expecting, and one that really slammed me in the gut.

The ending still didn’t resolve any of the stuff raised earlier in the book about the Blacktalon’s relationships, but it did open a whole world of philosophy and theology, exploring the nature of faith and truth, and Merceil handles all of this beautifully. Especially poignant is the fallout that the events have for Neave as a character.

I’d definitely rush out to get the next installment, and I’d encourage others to go read it.  I only wish it did a little bit more with the fascinating premise, characters and ideas it sets up at the start.

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