This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
I’m surprised this hasn’t happened sooner. After establishing themselves as producers of (initially unofficial) Dr Who audio dramas, Big Finish Productions have pretty much cornered the market on audio adaptations for an impressive array of SF and fantasy franchises, from Dr Who to Judge Dredd and beyond. It seems odd to me that Games Workshop and the Black Library, intent as they are on dominating all forms of media everywhere in the name of the God-Emperor of Mankind, haven’t reached a deal with Big Finish long ago, but at long last Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000-themed audio adventures are beginning to trickle out. Hopefully these first two timid efforts are the first of many.
I was mildly disappointed to find that Slayer of the Storm God and Heart of Rage aren’t the sort of two-CD audio dramas Big Finish are usually known for; instead, they’re just single-disc audiobooks, the equivalent of slightly expensive short stories, albeit short stories read by professional voice actors that you can listen to in the car. The narration is generally free of studio manipulation, beyond the odd sound effect or snippet of music in the background (usually during fight scenes) and the occasional voice effect for the dialogue of some characters; the packages themselves are fairly bare-bones, with little detail offered in the CD booklet beyond brief biographies of the relevant voice actors and authors.
Slayer of the Storm God
The inaugural Warhammer audio story is a Gotrek and Felix tale by Nathan Long, who took over the series after the original author, William King, left the Black Library to concentrate on his own original fiction. Set in the immediate aftermath of Elfslayer, one of Long’s novels, it begins in fine form with the nefarious pair breaking into a dead pirate’s home to rummage around in his safe. Naturally, amongst the treasure therein there’s something nasty – namely, a gold bracelet sacred to the titular storm god, and lusted after by the piscine-themed mutants that serve that dark deity. Some fighting ensues and Gotrek and Felix survive to fight another day.
The major problem with the Gotrek and Felix concept is that the fight scenes can tend to lack tension. There’s often wicked fun to be had between the fights, but when a scuffle actually kicks off I find it hard to remain interested. Oh look, the odds are against our intrepid pair. Oh look, they’ve both survived, because there’s no way either of them can be killed off until the last book in the series, and if a final volume is ever written the fact that it’s the conclusion to the epic story will be trumpeted unto the heavens. To his credit, Long appears to understand this, and does his best to make sure that there is something at stake in each fight other than the personal survival of Gotrek and Felix – the treasure of the dead pirate, the magic bracelet, the fate of the sacrificial victims kidnapped by the fish cultists, that sort of thing. Slayer of the Storm God isn’t a vital Gotrek and Felix story by any means, but it’s hardly an inconsequential one either, and it does make me more inclined to push on with the series than I was by the end of the first omnibus, if only to see how it’s doing under Long’s stewardship.
The audiobook is read by Danny Webb, and directed by the splendidly surnamed Jason Haigh-Ellery. Webb’s performance is quite good, except that he tends to get a bit overexcited during the fight scenes leading to audible scenery-chewing; this excess of zeal is particularly damaging when he’s voicing monsters whose voices have been modified with studio trickery, since the combination of the weird sound effects and Webb’s wild-eyed enthusiasm can make these parts difficult to understand, giving the impression that the shark avatar Gotrek is fighting is yelling “Schlaar blarr blaaaar blaaaaarrrrg”, when I’m pretty sure he was saying something I was meant to understand. Other sound effects leave just as much to be desired, the clash of swords in the fight scenes sounding fairly uninspiring, and the incidental music is just rubbish – one fight takes place to the backdrop of a brass section of an orchestra gently parping and pooting away aimlessly, creating the impression that Gotrek and Felix are battling a herd of farting elephants. In conclusion: a good story, but not one that’s really helped by the audiobook format.
Heart of Rage
The equivalent Warhammer 40,000 story is an entry in James Swallow’s continuing saga of the Blood Angels, a Chapter of Space Marines who, due to an unfortunate quirk in the gene-seed passed down from their founder Sanguinius, tend towards blood-drinking and losing their minds to insane berserker rage in the same way that the Imperial Fists tend towards getting naked, branding each other, and pleasuring themselves with the Pain Glove. The advantage that Swallow has that Long lacks is that his signature series concerns an entire Chapter of Space Marines, allowing him to tell a story which seems more important and momentous than Slayer of the Storm God. Important characters actually die in this, and the tale is vastly more self-contained than the Gotrek and Felix story – so far as I can tell, no knowledge of Swallow’s other Blood Angels novels is required, though the tale is good enough to make me want to read them.
The premise is one which will be instantly recognisable to most Warhammer 40,000 fans, and pretty familiar to just about everyone else: a drifting hulk in space (a Space Hulk, if you will…) has been discovered, and the Imperium wants to see what’s inside it, so they send some Space Marines to check it out. Naturally, the hulk turns out to be crawling with Tyranids (although in this case the Marines were at least expecting this, since it’s a crippled Tyranid ship…), plus there is a sinister revelation of ultimate horror at the heart of it. Space Marines scream and die and shit bricks and cradle their fallen comrades in their strong, manly arms, aliens chitter and hiss and die in droves, and it’s all great fun.
The story is read by Toby Longworth and directed by Lisa Bowerman, and I do think they manage to do a better job than their counterparts on Slayer of the Storm God – then again, Big Finish have a stronger background in SF than in fantasy. Toby’s voice work is excellent: clear, emotive without ever becoming overexcited, and diverse enough to voice a wide range of characters convincingly (although the Russian accent on the Imperial ship’s captain gets a bit strained at times). The sound effects are a bit more subdued and sober than on Slayer of the Storm God, and are aimed mainly at evoking the tense atmosphere within the confines of the Tyranid vessal, with suitably sinister chittering noises erupting forth at the appropriate points. Longworth and Bowerman’s talents come together in the portrayal of Magos Xeren, the tech-priest who orders the Marines to investigate the hulk in the first place, with a perfectly-chosen mechanical effect placed over Longworth’s voice which gets across the essentially inhuman nature of the tech-priest without making his dialogue difficult to understand. I would still have preferred a full-length Big Finish audio drama, but I have to say I feel that Heart of Rage is more worth the £10 than Slayer of the Storm God.
A Critical Failure of Ambition
I do think that the asking price for both packages is a bit steep; £10 for a 75 minute CD seems a reasonable amount if you’re talking about music, but when you’re talking about a short story that would take up about 40 pages of a 700 page collection sold for the same price it feels like a rip-off. Perhaps I’m just prejudiced against audiobooks, but it strikes me that if I’m getting exactly the same story that I would if it were released in printed form, and the story’s short enough that I could probably read it to myself in significantly less time it takes to listen to the single CD, I’d much rather have had a printed version of the story and saved my money.
My major irritation with these two products is that they do not provide anything I can’t get from the Black Library’s various short story collections. Oh, these specific stories aren’t available in print anywhere, but I don’t think they are so transcendently wonderful that I couldn’t live without them. The audio format, and the resources available to Big Finish, presents a golden opportunity to produce some Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000-themed audio dramas, of the sort that Big Finish have excelled at producing for other franchises, and that is the sort of thing I’d be really interested in: something genuinely new to Games Workshops’ franchises, something which the audio format is uniquely suited to and which you can’t really get across in print.
I sincerely hope that Slayer of the Storm God and Heart of Rage do well enough to convince the Black Library to continue their relationship with Big Finish, but I also hope that after these dry runs the Black Library gives the green light to produce full audio dramas. These would obviously be more ambitious prospects, but I think the lack of ambition shown in Slayer and Heart is their greatest fault. Sadly, the two CDs just don’t quite justify the price asked for them, so I rather suspect they will flop and the dramas will never manifest. I would be very pleased to be proven wrong.