The Imperial Guard: Fifteen Hours/Knee Deep (Mitchel Scanlon)
Fifteen Hours and its corresponding short story, Knee Deep, are an intimate look at the inner workings of the Imperial Guard. Told through the eyes of Arvin Larn, a recent draftee, we explore the daily life of an Imperial Guardsmen on the frontlines of battle against the Orks. Despite a decent premise and good background information, Fifteen Hours is ruined by terrible characterization, dull writing, and a meandering plot.
The story starts off on Larn's homeworld of Jumael. In a bizarre twist, the story here actually seems to be very similar to World War I, outside of a few choice nouns. The rural community in which he lives, culture of Jumael, and architecture of his home feel like anything other than the far, far future the story is ostensibly set in. Larn is drafted into a Regiment of "volunteers" that share his homeworld, and shipped off to basic training after hearing a patently false story from his father.
After training, Larn and his comrades are sent via clerical error to the city of Broucheroc. After a disastrous landing sequence, Larn finds himself in the company of four veterans of the conflict, all of the Vardan Rifles regiment. Much of what Larn learns about the world, and basically all of his character interactions from here on out deal with these four characters, so they are rather important to the story. Unfortunately it would be hard to come up with a more bland cast to pair this clueless, hopelessly naive character with. We get a stereotypical grizzled vet in Davir, a guy who does nothing but spout exposition in Scholar, an inexplicably kind hearted soldier in Bulaven, and a creepy, borderline psychopathic loner in Zeebers. None of these characters develop the slightest amount of depth, and ultimately pile on to the horribly bland characterization that plagues every character in this book.
Larn is something of an everyman here. We experience the events of the story through his eyes, and his (annoying, all encompassing) naiveté serves as a good excuse for narrative exposition and explanations by his new squad mates. We learn about the situation on Broucheroc, the Orks, and the doctrine that the Vardan Rifles are currently engaging in. Some of the more unpleasant elements of trench warfare are also explained to him. Unfortunately, the short scope of the novel (just a handful of hours from the time Larn lands on the planet) and relative veterancy of his companions leave several important questions left unanswered. Among them are the methods that Davir and his friends use to cope with being stranded in a hellscape for ten years. It never comes up in conversation and Larn never experiences anything like it as the story is over less than a day after it begins- the sense of grinding, dangerous monotony that the rest of the Vardan Rifles must have felt never works its way into Larn's thoughts or the writing style of the story. Ultimately Larn's quest becomes one of proving himself and surviving for a brief duration instead of self preservation and long term decay. The trench warfare elements that frame the conflict would have been more effective with a story that took place over a longer period of time, the short duration fails to bring out the most intriguing aspects of such horrific combat.
Where the writing is concerned, the book is seriously flawed. Simplistic sentence structure, bland imagery, and occasionally confusing action sequences color the work. One of the things that irritated me the most was the strange formalized dialogue that rarely ever featured a contraction other than "don't" and felt extremely out of place among the gnarly band of grizzled veterans that make up the book's supporting cast. The action sequences are essentially the same moment- Orks charge the front lines, Guards nearly overrun, repeated two or three times, with no sense of urgency and precious little excitement. The Orks are certainly terrifying antagonists, but for much of the story they are a distant threat, lurking across a hellish no man's land and far from Larn's thoughts.
One of my favorite elements of the book were the various interludes that took us into the heads of people in other branches of Imperial Service. These moments often have disastrous results for the Vardan Rifles, and help to shed some light on the various elements of the Imperial Guard. Of particular interest is the propaganda writer desperately searching for a way to spin the latest news of the day, ultimately omitting half the story of the 14th Jumael "Volunteer" regiment's arrival. Also included is the stereotypical pompous glory hound lording over the defense of Broucheroc, and a non-combatant who has possibly the worst job ever- and is the cause behind Larn's arrival on Broucheroc. Insightful and darkly humorous, these sections were among my favorite in the book.
Knee Deep is set roughly two days after the events of Fifteen Hours. It features three of Larn's squad mates from that book, along with the erstwhile Sgt. Chelkar, and the rest of the Vardan Rifles as they attempt to cleanse the sewers of an Ork infestation. How much you will enjoy this story largely hinges on what you thought of Davir, Scholar, and Bulaven. The dynamic between the three is the biggest force at work here, along with some decent battle sequences in the expansive drainage tunnels. The matter is ultimately solved tidily (a bit too easily for my tastes) and the battle for Broucheroc rages on without consequence. Not a terrible short story, but of limited interest to those who didn't enjoy Larn's companions (like myself.)
The story of the Vardan Rifles is a decidedly mediocre one. Larn is simply too bland to carry what is essentially a character driven story. His supporting cast is extremely weak too, providing the necessary exposition but very little depth. Worst of all, the writing fails to bring any of it to life, rendering the setting and the antagonists completely stale. There are some good passages about other elements of the Imperial Guard, and hardcore fans will appreciate the explanation of various elements of life as a Guardsmen, but there is nothing here that would cause me to recommend this book to the average reader.