I’m delving into the gloomy hive city of Varangantua today for my review of Bloodlines, the first novel in Black Library’s new Warhammer Crime range. This fair and unbiased review was provided with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
Hot on the heels of Warhammer Horror, Black Library continue to diversify their list, breaking out from their usual military science fiction fare once again with Bloodlines. Set in the “decaying urban hellscape” of Varangantua – the intended shared setting of all of the Warhammer Crime range – we follow Probator (detective, essentially) Agusto Zidarov as he attempts to track down the missing son of a wealthy family. This is an altogether more grounded story than we would normally see from Black Library then, one where the ordinary human beings that make up the vast numbers of the Imperium of Man are the stars of the show, as opposed to aliens, super soldiers or heretics.
These particular ordinary human beings struggle to light up the stage, however. Whilst the story itself is not without the odd twist and turn – with a reasonably satisfying denouement, to give credit where it’s due – the majority of the people that Zidarov encounters are excessively described in terms of their appearance, with actual characterisation somewhat lacking. Where one might expect a more nuanced approach to characterisation, perhaps with a greater range of emotions brought to the fore than in a tale of the canonically unfeeling Space Marines, we instead veer between apathy and emotional displays bordering on melodrama. Conversations Zidarov has with other characters are consequently somewhat uneven, with attempts to make him sound hard bitten and world weary – usually with a pithy closing remark – coming across as very forced and quite awkward. Those moments of dialogue that work well tend to be with Zidarov’s family, and actually these are some of the highlights of the novel. His relationships with his wife and daughter feel natural and believable, and in fact their conversations could even stand to be longer.
Slightly patchy characterisation aside, the biggest issue is the pacing. Bloodlines crawls rather than bounds towards its conclusion, with Zidarov seeming to spend much of his time driving from place to place, asking someone there some questions, then driving back to work. Very little actually seems to happen, which isn’t an issue of this being a different genre to Black Library’s normal output; there’s just not much in the way of excitement or tension. One of the most exciting sounding scenes actually takes place outside Zidarov’s point of view, leaving us with the description of its aftermath and feeling more like we’re shackled to him rather than following his story. Some of the ideas here definitely have legs, such as the explanation around one of the major criminal activities of the area (which I won’t reveal here for spoiler reasons). Oddly, the explanation of this activity, which is pivotal to the plot, comes much later than might reasonably be expected. Said explanation is also delivered by Zidarov to a fellow Probator, who surely already knows all about it, in what is a reasonably engaging but perhaps overtly expositional monologue.
Zidarov’s investigation is one element which one might reasonably expect would be the main appeal for a potential reader, but again this isn’t without its problems. He describes himself as not being particularly insightful, or words to that effect, but his method of questioning makes it seem more like incompetent might be a fairer description. Leads flee the scene as he tries to speak to them, and he never asks them why they ran. They lie, and he doesn’t ask them what they were lying for. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to occur to him to ask them why they’re behaving suspiciously. It’s as if these characters behave this way because it’s what’s expected in a crime novel, with little thought given to their motivations for doing so. The outcomes of these conversations never seem to fill in many blanks either, instead leading Zidarov to just go to the next person and ask them some more not particularly inspired questions. It really is very strange, and akin to reading the script to unimaginative quests distributed by NPCs in a videogame. Progress on the investigation only seems to be made through sudden leaps of logic, with some elements of it dwelt on and others skirted over, the dots hastily joined in order to get Zidarov to the next story beat.
It’s tempting to say that the real star of the novel is Varangantua itself, which arguably could be the case. That opening promises much, making it sound seedy and violent, with death never far away and a general air of grimdark goodness lingering over the whole thing. Bloodlines falls some way short of realising this particular vision though, with locations described just as excessively as the characters but lacking atmosphere. We’re bombarded with Zidarov’s sensory input at practically every place he visits, with what almost feels like a checklist: what can he see, what can he smell, what’s the weather like, is he hot or cold, etc. It very quickly becomes repetitive, sapping the energy out of the story and padding it out to the point of flabbiness, with a great deal more telling than showing. There is an interesting setting at the centre of all this, but this feels more like an attempt to pin it down exactly rather than one to sketch it in and let it breathe.
Ultimately, Bloodlines is a reasonably diverting but all too often frustrating read. The foundations of Warhammer Crime are here, yes, but hopefully much greater things can be built on them in future.
Bloodlines is pubished by Black Library and is out now. You can buy your own copy through this affiliate link, which feels like a weird thing to include considering the review I just gave it.
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