Last time I reviewed a Kal Jerico novel I mistakenly thought only Will McDermott wrote it. It was in fact a combined effort of both Will McDermott and Gordon Rennie. So having completed Cardinal Crimson yesterday and given it some time to sink in, what differences did I notice? Oddly, none than would seem relevant to the loss of a writer. It’s pretty much exactly the same style of writing. Almost all the settings that were introduced in Blood Royal are revisited. Maybe Gordon was only responsible for the story and setting and McDermott wrote it up? I honestly can’t tell what part Mr. Rennie had his hand in.
Cardinal Crimson is, as one might suspect, an origins story. It puts a name and previous life to the Cardinal, which is originally introduced as part of what is intended to be a twist, but is as easier to guess than the ‘who is the Underhive vampire?’ mystery in Blood Royal. Despite this, the Cardinal remains a very cloudy figure.
Rather this book serves as a better origins story for two new characters and their strangely-found interclan friendship as they witness the Cardinal transformation and rise to power. Even McDermott can’t seem to find a way to follow on from the Redemptionist’s Story arc in The Nemo Agenda and Crimson Tide. Much to my joy, he opts to upend continuity in favour of a clean slate. Sometimes this approach works. It does here. The Cardinal is portrayed truly as the puritan nut-job he is.
The story starts in the past of Necromunda. Before Kal Jerico was born, at least that’s how I like to think it. Syris Bowdie is in one desperate last bid to end the gang war between his Cawdor gang, the Old Saviours, and their rival Cawdor gang, the New Saviours. Leaving his lieutenant Jobe Francks to look after his gang he heads off for talks with the leader of New Saviours, knowing well the chances of it being a trap.
Jobe doesn't trust the situation either, and isn't about to let Syris walk off to his death. So, despite his orders and his respect for his leader, he abandons the gang and pursues his old friend to keep watch over him. As he finds a good lookout spot he is confronted by Jerod Bitten – lieutenant of the New Saviours – who tells him that his leader has lost his sanity and plans on killing Syris, already having just killed his gang. Moreover, with the power he’s accumulated there’s not much anyone can do to stop him.
Sure enough the crazed new saviour leader turns up, and despite the best efforts of Francks, kills Syris. This intro suffers from being supposed to care for a character that you've only just met. Yet, it is still deeply interesting despite this flaw. No longer wishing to support his leader, and trying to defeat him, Bitten knocks Jobe unconscious to save him.
Jobe awakes from his recollection to find himself a wandering prophet in the Ash Wastes. He suddenly decides that after twenty years his time has come to bring justice and heads back to confront his past. This involves exposing the leader of the New Saviours, who is now Cardinal Crimson and bringing through this exposing – the un-rid-able body of Cyris Bowdie. Along the journey we find out more about the relationship between Jobe and Cyris and the Cardinal becomes more of a monster who we truly root for the demise of.
This rise of the Redemptionists and clash of religious ideals to the point of segregation makes for a smashing read. What’s even better is that the Cardinal finally seems to have become the Spanish-inquistion-styled malefactor that suits his persona best. His 'kill Jerico the Arch-Heretic is also joyfully gone.
Though, at times, you may have to Jobe’s preaching with a pinch of salt to get behind the story, it is worth it. His message may be a little simplistic, but he believes it. The Cardinal’s rise to power creates wonderful paranoia within the story, and when Bitten and Francks reunite, it’s very interesting to see the war veteran respect they've formed for each other. The two plot to bring to light what wrongs Crimson has wrought and let the hive know of the murderous wretch he is. Rather than take him head on, they must re-allocate the prophet frequently enough to keep assassins off his tail while he finds out more of his psychic gifts and uses them in his path to justice. This only becomes more intensely awesome when this stuff catches up to him.
By now you may be asking where the main protagonists in all of this are. Well, this is the thing; Kal is contracted by Nemo get Jobe first. Wotan is captured as insurance for this, and then for half of the book it's mostly boring filler, escaping goliaths and having chinwags at their favoured watering holes. Sure the action can be exciting at times, but when we have some legitimately well developed characters roaming around and these three are still as samey and confusing as ever then they become a third wheel in the story.
It seems to me by now that Will McDermott is a bad writer with some interesting ideas. This is evidenced by the lacking descriptive text that renders sections of writing incomplete or confusing. Also, 49% of the time he puts no indicator to who said what in a conversation when it’s evident. Fair enough. The other 49% he simply puts “, said [character]”. No ‘giggled [character]’ or ‘growled [character]’ or even ‘said [character] irritably’. But I digress; I've been over this before.
So Kal is as egotistic as ever, and thus hard to root for most of the time. Yolanda is still being objectified, and there’s a near embarrassing moment where they try making her seem a female chauvinist. That just comes across a little too weird seeing as she’s always in the company of Kal and Scabbs most of the time. But Kal and her get some good action bits and McDermott has been good enough to describe which Yolanda he’s portraying visually, and it’s the right choice.
Scabbs’ is left in a weird place from the relationship he had at the end of Blood Royal, which I find incredibly hard to follow, especially when McDermott is describing the foul stench he gives off and his flaky skin more frequently than giant spiders appearing in the comics. Honestly, the poor fellow never gets any slack. And it’s changed from banter to ‘look how horribly gross Scabbs is, it’s a wonder these two hang about him. At least he’s loyal, it’s just about his only redeeming feature, the little over-dependant coward.’ It’d work better if it weren't already established that he’d become quite efficient on his lonesome. Unfortunately, even the later comics weren't ready to accept that.
So Kal has about only one or two good scenes in the entire opening act, and a reason to continue that makes him seem like an overgrown baby. Look Kal, I'm with Yolanda, I couldn't care less about your robotic mutt. Some people have lost their dearest friends to the birth of a sinister new movement.
About the only point we become invested in the actual protagonists comes half way through as the set up starts focusing on a place to build one hell of a climax, and the prospect comes into play that Kal might actually end up helping Jobe fulfil his path. About this point it starts to come into its own element and the fights become a lot more interesting.
After a good few chapters more this illusion becomes sadly shattered. Ramifications be damned, McDermott tries to rid two major villains from Kal Jerico in a cheap pass off and make Cardinal Crimson about Kal Jerico again. Kal arrives to rescue Jobe as Crimson is about to dispatch him. Jobe having become more than self-sufficient has given into fate. In a move to rescue the prophet Kal tries scaring Crimson by the prospect of his now inevitable defeat. Light has been shone on all of his crimes. We have an actually interesting exchange of intellect and insight into Crimsons psychosis. Ultimately, Kal only makes Crimson more dangerous by the prospect of defeat. He sends the prophet to a slow and painful death and starts bringing down the dome around him with many stray plasma blasts. As things quickly get out of control, Kal talks to the prophet, who delivers a last minute piece of exposition that tells Kal that he’s the angelic saviour that can bring about Crimson’s end. Also, he gives him an easy way to get Wotan back and pay off all the debts he’s accumulated.
After the fight they do exactly this with Kal’s newly-gained psychic visions. They give Nemo all the information he needs destabilize the Cardinal’s power base and finally Kal and friends retreat to their favourite drinking den to clear loose plot ends up. Kal loses his ‘gift’ from the prophet. Here it is revealed that the information should at least keep Nemo and Crimson warring long enough that they never bother Kal or friends again. If Kal goes back to fight Crimson, however, HE’LL DIE. And with that the book tries to cut out all major villains from Lasgun Wedding. Furthermore, the book closes with Kal being invited to his own wedding. Probably the only actually satisfying part of Kal’s end of the ending.
After a day of reflection, I've come to an odd conclusion – I actually liked it. Maybe it’s because it didn't have any expectations for this book. It’s not quite as good as Blood Royal. But that doesn't mean there aren't parts that are as good as. It also serves to be an interesting insight into the continuation of faith in Necromunda with the open-to-interpretation ending it gives with two mysterious Cawdors. It suffers from not upping our interest in Kal Jerico. It would have been a great book without him. At least there’s just enough hype for Lasgun Wedding, which is hinted at occasionally by uphive arrivals, and I still have hopes that it’ll be good.
Cardinal Crimson is a 6 out of 10 in my books. Let’s hope Lasgun Wedding doesn't disappoint.