the gathering storm, part II: fracture of biel-tan

a review

Fracture of Biel-Tan (hereafter referred to as FoBT) advances the story of the Eldar race substantially. It's just a shame that it's so badly written. I've collected together my thoughts on what Games Workshop did wrong with this release and I've made some suggestions for alternative directions that they could have taken.

Note that this analysis/review contains spoilers!

~ v1.0 - last updated 23/05/17 ~

The plot thickens wiggles

The plot of FoBT meanders and jumps around with little warning. It's difficult to get a handle on what the point of it is. You could argue that it should be Yvraine's search for the Croneswords, except that she barely seems in control of how that unfolds. She had a vision of the Croneswords whilst in the Crucibael of Commoragh (p39), but only seems to know of the location of the Croneswords in Biel-Tan and Iyanden. The Visarch (somehow) knows that two reside on Belial IV and the other appeared in Yvraine's hand but at the time she didn't know what it was. Whilst she appears to have agency in her decision to travel to Biel-Tan, her arrival on Iyanden is a complete accident. Her attempt to retrieve the two swords from Belial IV is only half successful and afterwards is barely referenced again.

The book introduces Yvraine and immediately gives her special powers, privileged knowledge and a totally new life direction. She has to escape Commoragh and heads for Biel-Tan to find the second Cronesword. All of the ills that are befalling Biel-Tan at the time are coincidental. She retrieves the Cronesword, which somehow also awakens the Yncarne (it's not clear if this was an accidental or intentional side effect). At the Visarch's direction, rather than Yvraine's, they then proceed to Belial IV to try to get two more; they only succeed in retrieving one and are forced to flee. They are then rescued by forces from Iyanden, which conveniently happens to be where another sword is meant to be. This enables Yriel to be crowbarred into the narrative, killed off shortly afterwards and then resurrected a few pages later, revealing the fourth Cronesword in the process. Then, having come so close to achieving her goal, Yvraine naturally decides to.... resurrect Roboute Guilliman? On the way to that (new) goal, the Thousand Sons are inserted naturally into the plot like a ton of magnesium into Loch Ness and then the book abruptly ends, with the Ynnari all set to resurrect a human Primarch rather than finish the lingering task of saving their entire race and destroying Slaanesh.

The plot is basically a collection of events with almost no structure, no narrative pacing and no character arcs of any significance. The plot takes whatever abrupt twists and turns are necessary to include Eldrad, Yriel, the titular Fracture of Biel-Tan and attempt to dovetail into the next book, which focuses on Roboute Guilliman. All of this is loosely held together by the meandering wanderings of Yvraine; a character that I found very difficult to care about.

The problem(s) of Yvraine

FoBT focuses heavily on the travels of Yvraine after she becomes the Emissary of Ynnead. The problem with this approach is Yvraine herself; as an entirely new character and simultaneously the most important Eldar to have been born in 10,000 years, there is a large burden on the character to carry the narrative. For an entirely psychic race, whose seers are among the most powerful in the galaxy (able to scry near-infinite possible futures) the sudden appearance and ascendance of Yvraine with zero prior groundwork is extremely jarring. This character has been created entirely to fulfill a purpose and it shows.

It is established that Yvraine has walked many different paths throughout her life - as a Craftworlder, Outcast, Corsair and Commorite (but not an Exodite; a fairly glaring omission for someone that is supposed to embody every facet of the Eldar's splintered race). This could, in theory, give her an interesting backstory, but her life prior to her time in Commoragh is barely mentioned. Her past bears almost no relevance once she has been reborn as the Emissary of Ynnead anyway; save for her connection to the Visarch, a mysterious figure with even less character, dialogue or backstory. As the fractured parts of Eldar society have been strongly defined over the decades, trying to smush all of these (often conflicting or mutually exclusive) world views and principles into a single character renders her completely bland and uninteresting from the outset; when she is then given godlike powers early on in the book, any sense of vulnerability is removed in the process for good measure.

Yvraine's powers are also ill-defined, far-reaching and appear to fulfill whatever function is required to drive the plot forwards, in what I've termed "Yvraine Ex Machina". Here's a reasonably exhaustive list of the various powers that Yvraine displays during FoBT (some of these are aguably manifestations of Ynnead's power, but exhibited by Yvraine): The book places no limits on her powers and every few pages introduces a new one, so it's impossible to feel that she is ever in much danger after this pattern becomes apparent. When it is established that she gains strength as others die around her, it means that the more peril her cohorts are in, the safer she becomes!

The character of Yvraine is a wholly artificial contrivance - a plot device; nothing more. Ironically, she is even more a plot device than the Yncarne, which does little of consequence in the book. Despite being the manifestation of Ynnead itself, it displays far fewer powers than Yvraine, a mere emissary. It also disappears towards the end of the book and this doesn't seem to concern anybody and barely warrants a mention, since by that point Yvraine is focused on reaching Ultramar to resurrect Roboute Guilliman.

The Eldar race in Warhammer 40,000 has dozens of characters that were ripe for further development. It is baffling to me that the writers of FoBT felt that the only way to advance the Eldar's story was to invent new characters rather than utilise existing ones. I understand that Yvraine represents the ancient Aeldari by virtue of having sampled virtually every facet of Eldar culture (Exodite not withstanding, presumably because they still don't have a model range and aren't deemed important enough to play a part in universe-changing events). But the problem with this is that she is immediately more important, more influential and (thanks to Ynnead) more powerful than any other Eldar we've seen before. It's difficult to warm to and feel invested in a character when they take centre stage, supplanting and surpassing all of the characters that you do feel invested in and having done nothing to earn this position of power and influence.

I have a theory that this is also why, in the run-up to the release of FoBT, so many people were convinced that the Visarch was Yriel. Despite the model having zero features in common with Yriel and wielding a sword instead of Yriel's character-defining spear, they wanted it to be Yriel as it would represent an evolution of an established character that had already been marked for destiny. It didn't even seem to matter that this evolution would have completely changed/destroyed the established, distinctive look and robbed him of the weapon that almost completely defines his character, which is why I found the internet's collective insistence that the Visarch was Yriel quite so odd. It is better that the Visarch isn't Yriel. But that doesn't mean that FoBT treats Yriel's character very well. Which leads us neatly to......

Of Valedor and Yriel

The novel Valedor by Guy Haley is widely regarded as one of the best Eldar stories written to date, and with good reason. The book neatly ties in with the Eldar codex and the Iyanden supplement that were also released at the time, as well as the Valedor campaign book for Apocalypse. Snippets of dialogue appear in both the novel and the Iyanden supplement for instance, and important events that occur in Valedor are referenced in the codex's timeline and summarised in the supplement. The story is well-told, the characters are complex and their motivations and goals are clear. It furthered the story of Yriel and also filled in some of his backstory. It gave us loads of extra detail on Iyanna Arienal (and the divisions between her and Yriel, and Iyanden's society in general), a character that had existed in the Eldar background for some time but on the periphery. It also advanced the plot for Iyanden (whose titular Shrine of Asuryan sputtered back into life in the closing pages) and hinted at future events through visions - Yriel wielding a flaming sword and Iyanna collecting the last of the Tears of Morai-Heg that she'd been seeking. Yriel finally acknowledged the inevitability of his death after years of wielding the soul-sapping Spear of Twilight, only to be given a new lease of life through an encounter with the enigmatic Harlequin Shadowseer, Sylandri Veiwalker. Reinvigorated, he left Iyanden with her; the Spear of Twilight light in his hand and the book concludes by stating that he was not seen there again for many years. A classic cliffhanger ending, but still satisfying.

For me, Valedor is a high bar to clear. As a novel, it is unfair to directly compare it to Fracture of Biel-Tan, which is a fluff book with little dialogue; a quasi-historical record of unfolding events on a larger scale (whilst ironically being focused on a small group of under-developed characters). One of the many, many problems with FoBT is its blatant disregard for many of the events of Valedor and its hideous treatment of the character of Yriel, being one of the most interesting eldar and having existed in the background fluff for decades.

Firstly, no mention is made of Yriel's long absence from Iyanden; in fact it's not even clear if it happened at all - if it did, nothing noteworthy happened and his return to Iyanden must have been similarly uneventful. Yriel has often been portrayed as a potential saviour of the Eldar race and it's heavily implied that his heritage may be a part of that destiny as well. None of that features in FoBT either. Instead, he is killed by a generic Nurgle daemon prince only to be resurrected when Yvraine stabs him with the Spear of Twilight. This also reinvigorates him by returning all of the soul energy that it had sapped from him over the years. Following this dramatic turn of events (and the revelation that the Spear of Twilight is actually just another one of the five Croneswords), Yriel joins up with the Ynnari and is immediately consigned to the role of Generic Ynnari Convert #12,456. Ret-conning the Spear of Twilight into a Cronesword robs it of much of its uniqueness and mystery and smacks of convenience. Yriel's cheap death lasts less than a few paragraphs before "Yvraine Ex Machina" strikes (literally) again to return him not just to life, but healthier than before he died. This renewed vigour and the Spear returning stolen soul energy rips off the closing chapters of Valedor almost verbatim; since Valedor's events occurred before FoBT it elicits déjà vu and reeks of a complete lack originality - we've already been here before with this character.

FoBT does pay lip service to one of the unresolved plot threads from Valedor however; the existence of a dangerous new hybrid strain of Tyranid created by the intersection of two Hive Fleets. The entire purpose of Iyanden and Biel-Tan in Valedor was to stop this disastrous union from taking place. Ultimately they are very nearly successful, but the arrogance of Lelith Hesperax and her desire to kill ever-more-exotic beasts in ever-more-unusual fashions resulted in her returning to Commoragh with some live specimens. It is very clear that this is a really, really Bad Idea. FoBT picks up this dangling plot thread and neatly ties into a boring bow. The Tyranids feature as beasts to be bested in Commoragh arena fights and.... that's it. Later, after the dysjunction occurs and shatters Commoragh to its core, it is briefly mentioned that these Tyranids rampaged about a bit. The Eldar literally blew up an entire planet in Valedor to stop these creatures from coming into existence, but it is entirely unclear why such drastic measures were deemed necessary at this point. Perhaps a future book focusing on the Tyranids will pick this up again and give it the attention it deserves, but as things stand, their inclusion in FoBT seems pointless - it would have been better left out entirely.

Lastly, nothing in Yriel's vision from Valedor has come to pass in FoBT, or even appears to be in motion. Perhaps the events of The Gathering Storm in general have meant that the skein has twisted onto a new future and those visions never will become reality. If that's the case, then it's pretty disappointing. I was much more interested in Iyanna's search for the Tears of Morai-Heg and her forbidden quest to raise Ynnead than the events that we have been presented with in FoBT. A sequel (or worthy successor) to Valedor, this is not.

This isn't even most egregious example of treating established characters poorly though; not by a long shot:

Look! It's Kysadu.... Oh, he's dead.

The prophecies of Kysaduras the Anchorite have been featured in the Eldar background for years. He first foresaw the birth of Ynnead and the potential salvation of the Eldar race and the destruction of Slaanesh. He quite literally wrote the book on Ynnead, which is why it is so galling that he features so little in FoBT and (worst of all) is then killed off. He should have been a major player in these events; hell, he should have had a model produced and rules too. I'd trade any of the Triumvirate of Ynnead models for a Kysaduras miniature, because he's actually someone that may be familiar to Eldar collectors and has some established importance in the existing background. The treatment of this character in FoBT is shameful.

The Visarch

The Visarch's character presents several issues as well. It is implied that he used to be a Dire Avenger Exarch, who left his shrine, posed as an Incubi and is now Yvraine's sworn protector. Firstly, it is well established in the existing background for the Craftworld Eldar that becoming an Exarch is a one-way process; the eldar in question has become completely lost on the Path of the Warrior, unable to remove their war mask and trapped embodying that particular aspect of Khaine. Once they don the Exarch's armour, their soul mingles with those contained in the soulstones of the armour's previous owners. Leaving the shrine is one thing (there is no physical, psychological or spiritual reason to suggest this is an issue; after all, they leave the shrine to wage war) - it is quite another to suggest that they are no longer an Exarch, which if true, would represent a massive event in the Craftworld Eldar's history. This isn't even covered in much depth in the book; more detail is offered in the accompanying White Dwarf (Feb 2017, p57), suggesting that his love for Yvraine caused this "lapse of tradition". That's understating things a bit; it isn't tradition that makes an Exarch behave the way that they do, it's a fundamental limitation of the eldar psyche and their obsessive nature.

Conflicting information also exists about how the Visarch came to possess Asu-var, the Sword of Silent Screams. In FoBT, Yvraine pulls Asu-var from Biel-Tan's wraithbone core and then entrusts it to the Visarch (p44), who had previously wielded a "mortal blade" (p14) and it is implied that he sought to replace it. However the White Dwarf background (Feb 2017, p57) states that he claimed Asu-var from a Klaivex as right of conquest; an act that brought him closer to Ynnead and would go a long way to explaining how he might possess knowledge of the location of two of the Croneswords (FoBT, p48) - privileged knowledge that he has no reason to possess and that Yvraine, as emissary of Ynnead, doesn't appear to know (even though she does expect to find a Cronesword on Iyanden, p65, and knew of the one in Biel-Tan's core, p39). These contradictory backstories don't help to make the story look well-planned.

If the writers really wanted a mysterious figure, with links to the Incubi and Craftworld Eldar, then they had a massive opportunity staring them right in the face in the form of the enigmatic character of Drazhar. It has been implied (but never confirmed) that he may be Ahra, the fallen Striking Scorpion Phoenix Lord, and he is also desperately in need of a new model. But instead the writers opted to create a very similar new character, with a backstory that is a confused mess.

It's never explained where he got the ancient Bel-Anshoc armour from either. The Visarch states that he once walked on Coheria (p14) so maybe that can explain something, though what exactly and how is left as an exercise in guesswork for the reader.

The Croneswords of +4 Arbitrariness

In FoBT, it is stated that "Should all five [Croneswords] be drawn and blooded together, Ynnead should have enough focus in realspace to awaken fully and manifest his potential as the downfall of Slaanesh" (p39). The significance of this cannot be overstated; by the conclusion of the book, four of the five swords have already been found. As the fifth is presumably also still on Belial IV, the Eldar have only to amass a force, return to the crone world, locate the sword and presto - they may very well be able to save their entire race and destroy Slaanesh. It is totally baffling why Yvraine's objective at the end of the book is instead to resurrect Roboute Guilliman and entrust the future of the galaxy to the human race. It's not even clear if she has any intention to return to Belial IV (given that she went there looking for two swords, and the Yncarne was resurrected with two swords, you can understand she might be a bit confused and assume she's finished - but that's just because one of the two swords can appear as two swords, for reasons best left to the miniature designers to explain).

Eldrad performed a ridiculous feat of psychic power to make sure he could meet the Yncarne and Yvraine as soon as possible (I have problems with this as well, given the potential for disaster, see p46, when weighed against the incredibly dull objective of getting the Ynnari to Ulthwé a bit quicker) - it must be within the capabilities of the Eldar to return to Belial IV with extreme haste. Better yet - they retrieved the other Cronesword by having the Yncarne "die" and be reborn on its surface (p65); if they can repeat that trick it's even more straightforward. But seeing as how there is no consistency whatsoever to how the other four Croneswords were located, obtained, look or act, I suspect it will need some other totally arbitrary method to retrieve (and it probably resembles an axe, because why not?). Possibly Yvraine will have to cut off her other hand whilst riding her Gyrinx backwards under a lunar eclipse at 4pm on a Sunday (don't worry, Kysaduras told her by psychic message a half second before he died; it doesn't matter how he knew though).

Alternative approaches

There are a lot of odd choices in the story presented in FoBT and the writers could have chosen to go in several different directions. Rather than attempt to plot out a completely coherent alternative story, I will present a few observations and thoughts that I've had about the plot; these aren't all consistent and indeed some are mutually exclusive. I can't help but feel though that there are a number of tantalising opportunities that were missed:

In conclusion

All of the above really doesn't matter; Yvraine, the Visarch and the Yncarne are here to stay. Kysaduras is dead, Yriel is now boring and Iyanna irrelevant as she's been effectively supplanted by Yvraine. Years of background material has been tossed aside, ignored or quickly resolved so that we can enjoy some new miniatures that no-one actually asked for. Would a trio of models of Drazhar, Iyanna and Kysaduras have been so bad? This book could have done so much, but ultimately I feel that it is a colossal wasted opportunity and tremendously disappointing.

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