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Too Divine By Far...
on July 15, 2006
In his third Black Library novel set in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40K universe, M. Swallow uses female heroines of the Adepta Sororitas: Sister Miriya, an elite Celestian Superior and Sister Verity, a non-militant Hospitalier. The story is a rather standard action plot, with no additional personal journeys or significant character development to get in the way.
The characters are two dimensional, and all but Miriya's motivations, which seem limited to the "faith and fire" of the title, seem inconsistent, particularly in Sister Verity. She alternates between capable and cowering, proficient and pacifist. The supporting cast is stereotypical: the stern but fair Canoness, aggressive Seraphim, and steadfast Sisters, reading like the entries of their Codex for the 40K wargame.
The villains are similarly single-minded and would be familiar to any fan of the older James Bond films. They monologue (to borrow the term from The Incredibles) and say things to the effect of, "Before I leave you here to die, let me explain my fiendish plan..."
The plot is fairly standard action adventure fair, linear with little in the way of additional twists or turns. The combat scenes read a little like a battle report from the tabletop game, which is interesting if you like a top-down viewpoint, but less so if you prefer your action more immediate and personal. There is little foreshadowing and plot devices sometimes literally fall from the sky. Our heroines emerge unscathed from clearly fatal situations, or vital pieces of their kit conveniently happen to be in the hands of the low-level thugs they just killed. If you like your protagonists to overcome climactic confrontations by divine intervention, in somewhat Homeric tradition, along the lines of "Our faith in the Emperor saved us," then you'll enjoy the finale. If you prefer characters that get by on their own strengths and skills, then perhaps you won't.
The plot would be more forgivable if M. Swallow accurately captured the feel the 40K universe. Unfortunately, his descriptions feel a bit to contemporary, such as specifically calling a meltagun a microwave, and the anachronistic language common to the setting is just a bit off, such as calling an auspex a "sense-taker." He also takes a liberty or two for the sake of the story, such as the somewhat unlikely situation that every psyker on the planet ended up a pyrokinetic.
Though I've been quite critical above, the book is not completely without merit, but those problems make suspension of disbelief virtually impossible for a significant length of time. In short: those 40K readers who aren't completists might want to let this "soon to be series" pass them by.