Games Workshop’s “Warhammer 40,000” universe has so many cool and diverse elements, but one part of it that I’ve always been lukewarm and kind of “meh” about is the Machine Cult of Mars. They just always felt a little too weird and uninteresting to me. So I approached Graham McNeill’s ninth entry in Black Library’s “Horus Heresy” series (which is sort of a prequel series that chronicles the intergalactic civil war that sets the 40K universe up), “Mechanicum” with some trepidation. A whole novel focusing on the tech priests of Mars? I’m not sure if that’s something for me. Turns out I was quite wrong. “Mechanicum” is a highly, enjoyable, read where McNeill pulls off some Herculean heavy lifting and pretty much succeeds at everything he had to do and intended to do.
In “Mechanicum” McNeill had to bring Horus Lupercal’s rebellion to Mars, which meant he had to introduce many readers like me to a whole new world. He had to establish the power players on this planet, the places they lived and worked, and also introduce a number of characters in Mars’ various military orders like the Titan Legions and mecha piloting Knights. He also had to make us care about them. Then he had to create an interesting tale about the subtle and insidious way civil war comes to Mars and how it gives birth to the Chaos and Horus aligned Dark Mechanicum. Then he had to give us a number of gripping, action set pieces as the Chaos and Imperium aligned members of the Machine Cult war against each other for control of Mars. Plus he had do that without relying too much on established, cool concepts like the Space Marines. Some members of the Imperial Fists chapter of the Adeptus Astartes appear in “Mechanicum,” but they appear very briefly and only towards of the end of the book.
Admittedly some elements were better than others, but McNeill accomplished all of that. What made “Mechanicum” especially enjoyable though and showed how great a writer he is was the fact that he didn’t stop there! On top of all those interesting things we also got a very cool and incredibly imaginative tale about the ancient past of the Imperium’s ruler, the Emperor of Mankind. We also got a fun almost Lord of the Rings quest style adventure featuring an incredibly endearing band of characters that I don’t recall ever seeing before in a “Horus Heresy” or 40k book.
Those sections of the book were the high point of “Mechanicum” for me. In those portions we journey to Mars with Dallia Cytheria; a compassionate, curious, transcriber with an eidetic memory. Dalia is a great character and her kind and caring perspective is a refreshing one to see in the “Grim, Dark” world of the “Horus Heresy” and 40K. That perspective also earns her a band of loyal and caring friends. My favorite member of Dallia’s band of friends was the cybernetic being assigned to protect her, Rho-Mu 31. He starts off as kind of an aloof, almost alien character but as his relationship with Dallia changes and grows you get to see the humanity beneath his cybernetics.
Midway through the book Dallia and her friends embark on a quest to get to the heart of an ancient Martian mystery. What they find at the end of their journey is fascinating, poignant, and powerful.
Of course while Dallia and her friends are on their quest things unravel on Mars and some epic fighting breaks out. The Mecha style combat between the rival giant robot pilots of the Titan legions and Knights was cinematic and breathtaking. There was apocalyptic pace and tone to the battles that just made them pop and flow.
So in “Mechanicum” McNeill did the unthinkable for me. He changed my mind about the Machine Cult and Mars. He did that by telling a hell of a story that included a ton of great world building, memorable and fascinating characters, and some intense action. Plus he did all of that in just a little over 400 pages. It made for a hell of an impressive feat and and incredibly enjoyable novel.
One of the reasons the archetype of the detective resonates with me and so many others is they are driven to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. Whether or not a detective has a badge often determines what type of investigation he’ll undertake and the police procedural and private detective novel can both be highly satisfying and powerful detectives narratives, but what happens when a dogged investigator suddenly finds himself with both a badge and a P.I.’s license? Michael Connelly answers that question in “The Wrong Side of Goodbye,” the latest installment in his long running Harry Bosch series, and the result is a hell of novel that blends the Police Procedural and P.I. novel together with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup style perfection.
Anybody who’s read the other 18 entries in the Bosch series knows Connelly is the master of the police procedural. He’s demonstrated time and time again with the previous Bosch books. We even saw Bosch pursue a career as a P.I. for a little while both in “Lost Light” and “The Narrows, the ninth and tenth entries in the series and in “The Crossing,” the previous Bosch novel. All of those were interesting, but part of the fun of “The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is watching Connelly expertly weave together the tropes, hallmarks, and twists of the procedural and P.I. novel.
Because in the book Harry, who was forcefully retired from the L.A.P.D. two novels earlier has been earning a living as Private Investigator, but he’s also spending time as a reserve member of the police department of the small Southern California town of San Fernando, which has found an ingenious solution to budget problems; taking in retired cops still looking to do some good, giving them a badge, and treating them as volunteers.
In “The Wrong Side of Goodbye” Bosch’s paying job let’s Connelly have some fun with some of the classic elements of West Coast P.I. fiction as Bosch is hired by an aging and wealthy business magnate to find a potential heir that may or may not exist. While he’s doing that he’s also hunting a serial rapist that’s been plaguing San Fernando and surrounding towns.
Either of those stories could have been a novel in their own. So I was initially worried that Connelly was perhaps packing too much story into one book, and that the two separate cases would not be given a chance to be as fleshed out and interesting as they could be, or that they would tie together in perhaps some hackneyed and non-organic way.
My worries were completely unfounded though. In “The Wrong Side of Goodbey” Connelly expertly weaves together and paces both of Bosch’s cases. One heats up and leads in some interesting directions. Than the other case takes a dramatic turn and Bosch is forced to follow that one for a while. Both cases have some fun twists and it’s great to see Bosch intertwined in the classic shadowy rich client leads to powerful enemies style detective novel. Also highly satisfying is watching Bosch adjust to life as a small town detective and hunt a twisted criminal outside of L.A.s mean streets.
The cast of the San Fernando Police Department make for some fun and interesting new characters, but for me the best characters in “The Wrong Side of Goodbye,” outside of Bosch himself, were the returning ones; Harry’s daughter Maddy and his half brother, the star of Connelly’s “Lincoln Lawyer” series, Mickey Haller. I’ll never tire of seeing Harry and Mickey work together. They’ve got a great rapport and there’s a fun, buddy action style vibe whenever they work together. It’s also fun seeing Maddy grow older. Perhaps one day she’ll follow in her old man’s shoes? Or maybe Connelly we’ll give her a story of her own while she’s away at college?
Those would both be interesting options for when Connelly finally decides to retire Bosch stories or perhaps shift him to a supporting character. “The Wrong Side of the Goodbye” though proves theres still lsome great Harry Bosch stories left as the character moves into his twilight years. So I can’t wait to see what Connelly does next with this little universe of characters he’s built. Whether it’s more Harry Bosch, a relative, or someone completely new I’ll definitely be there ready and waiting for what comes next.
It’s interesting that fans of Games Workshop/Black Library’s Warhammer 40,000 universe tend to align behind the two sides in the “Horus Heresy,” the great galactic civil war that set up the status quo of the universe. So you have fans of the Emperor of Mankind and his loyalist Space Marines and forces and you have fans who root for the Space Marines who turned traitor and aligned with the forces of Chaos. Both sides have noble and ugly qualities based on your perspective, but I tend to identify and root for the Loyalist Imperium of Man forces. I tend to see them as more heroic and the Chaos forces as more petty and brutal.
So when it comes to my 40K reading I’ve tended to stick with novels that focus more on Loyalist Space Marines and humans aligned with forces like the Imperial Guard and the Inquisition. However I do remain a fan of crime fiction, a genre that I think provides a more nuanced version of morality and humanity by showing the best people at their worst, and the worst people at their best.
On top of that I always found the warriors of the Night Lords Space Marines Legion to be very cool looking and kind of fascinating. Essentially they’re a warrior culture that was born when their founder, the godlike Primarch known as Conrad Kurze used his power and cunning to violently strike back at the criminal gangs that had taken control of the night shrouded world known as Nostromo. So essentially imagine if someone with the physical power of Hercules took up the Punisher’s lethal approach to crime fighting and used Batman’s tactics of spreading fear and cunning subterfuge. That’s the ideas they were founded on, but many of the Legion’s recruits were men with a love of violence. So some could even be described as the Joker if he used Batman’s methods.
So, intrigued by those ideas I looked into giving the fiction of that particular Traitor Legion a chance. “Night Lords: The Omnibus” by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, which contains his novel trilogy “Soul Hunter,” “Blood Reaver,” and “Void Stalker” as well as three short stories featuring the members of the Tenth Company war band. These stories appeared to be widely loved by a variety of readers so I picked up and read “Night Lords: The Omnibus” to see if it lived up to the hype surrounding it. I’m happy to report that it does. Dembski-Bowden’s stories are fantastic and deserved to be mentioned in the same company as Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn stories, which are some of the best Black Library stories ever (IMO), and they made me a fan of the 40K setting.
The reason why “Night Lords: The Omnibus” is so good is the fantastic job Dembski-Bowden does with his cast of characters. It’s comparable to great character work in TV series like “The Shield” or movies like Rob Zombie’s, “The Devil’s Rejects” where you’re given these deplorable, violent individuals and you suddenly find yourself rooting for them in spite of the awful acts they commit. Dembski-Bowden does not let you forget the awfulness the Night Lords are capable of, in fact there are several powerful moments where he sort of kicks the chair out from under you and reminds you these guys are killers and vicious torturers, but he also shows the nobility they’re capable of. The Night Lords are also often the underdogs against more powerful and arguably even more twisted forces in several stories. So it’s very easy to root for them as they devise and enact cunning and daring plans to escape, trick, or take down much tougher enemies.
The chief character of the stories in “Night Lords: The Omnibus” is Talos Valcoran, a Space Marine who was given the moniker “Soul Hunter” by his Primarch, a nickname he despises. He is also known as the Great Prophet of the Night Lords because of the often crippling prophetic visions he receives. What make Talos, especially interesting to me though is that ultimately he’s a tragic figure. When we first meet him he’s a very noble individual trying to stay above the moral and supernatural corruption that plagues the Night Lords in the aftermath of the Horus Heresy, a war that he and his fellow Legionaries committed to fighting thousands of years ago. Now millennia later they remain committed to fighting what seems like an unwinnable war against the forces of the Imperium of Man, because if they give up what kind of worth would their several thousand years of existence have?
Surrounding Talos are the equally flawed and fascinating members of his combat squad, First Claw. What I love about these guys is that they don’t really like each other, but they would and do kill to protect each other. They’re a very dysfunctional band of brothers. So they’re fun and easy to root for and when their personal demons lead them into conflict against each other it makes for some powerful and haunting scenes.
Over the course of “Night Lords: The Omnibus’” three novels and three short stories Dembski-Bowden has the members of First Squad interact with and battle an eclectic cast of allies, adversaries, and some characters who are both. Some of the ones I found especially intriguing were the mutated and monstrous members of the Night Lords Raptor division, the two human slaves Talos employs, and the members of the alien race known as the Eldar. Personally I had written the Eldar off as characters that didn’t really resonate with me, but in one of the novels of t“Night Lords: The Omnibus” there’s an especially fascinating Eldar antagonist who tests the mettle of First Claw.
What makes Dembski-Bowden’s character work even more resonant, haunting, and powerful is that the choices his characters make have very real consequences. Over the course of “Night Lords: The Omnibus” characters I liked and identified with got injured and some even died. So the stories had a thrilling almost anything can happen vibe to them.
It’s hard to pick which of the stories in “Night Lords: The Omnibus” is my favorite because all are fun, powerful and exciting. Plus they’re a diverse bunch of tales that feature a wide variety of locales and exciting action. If pressed though I’d have to say the second and third Novels were the ones I enjoyed the most. In the second novel “Blood Reaver” you get to see Talos and company do what they do best as they engage in a daring and cunning assault against rival Space Marines and then pull off a cunning heist. In the third novel, “Void Stalker” you get a fantastic climax that provides a ton of fulfilling and powerful payout to the storylines from the other books and short stories.
If you’re a 40K fan who has yet to read “Night Lords: The Omnibus” yet you need to remedy that. It’s a fantastic series of stories and I look forward to reading more of Demski-Bowden’s 40K work, especially his Horus Heresy novel, “The Last Heretic,” which focuses on the Word Bearers Space Marine Legion since I think they’re some of 40K’s best/worst villains.
(I try to keep my reviews as spoiler free, but when you’re talking about the 13th entry in a series that isn’t always possible. So this is just a warning if you’re not caught up on the Charlie Parker series, turn back now. There are some spoilers about the endings of previous novels in the series, but this review of “A Time of Torment” is spoiler free.)
Part of the reason why I love John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series of novels is the fact that they’re essentially the literary equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in that they combine two great tastes that taste great together: crime and horror. He’s been doing that since he began the series in 1999 and with each novel he took readers deeper and deeper into a larger supernatural epic. It’s been a hugely satisfying journey.
Now that we’re here, Connolly faces another challenge with his Charlie Parker novels: providing a story that serves as a fascinating sort of one off case for Parker and his associates while also deepening the long form supernatural epic tale that has started to take shape in recent years. It’s a similar challenge faced by television writers and if his most recent novel, “A Time of Torment,” is any indication Connolly is more than up to the challenge.
“A Time of Torment” picks up with Charlie Parker in the awesome status quo we saw him in at the end of the last novel “A Song of Shadows”: recovered from his near fatal shooting at the end of book 11 and seemingly stronger than ever. He, Louis, and Angel are being proactive in their hunt for some very bad and possibly supernaturally tainted people. They’re also being assisted and paid by an FBI agent who may be part of a larger cabal aware that the stage is being set for something apocalyptic and Parker, his friends, and family have a specific role to play the coming event.
So in “A Time of Torment” Connolly serves up plenty of hints to his larger, epic story. You get some answers to questions about certain characters and larger and even more exciting questions are raised. You even get the perspective of a character who’s been part of the series for a while, but you’ve never really been given a lot of their point of view. In “A Time of Torment” you get to spend some time with this character and see things through their eyes. It lead to some fun and some chilling scenes.
The case Parker, Louis, and Angel also become involved with is both powerful and chilling. It involves a client who in a chance encounter at a gas station chose to be a hero and saved the lives of some innocent people, but in doing so he crossed the wrong people and paid a huge price. It’s a powerful crime set up and a great use of existential horror.
It also leads to some interesting new characters. Parker’s client Jerome Burel is a tragic and very sympathetic character. Once you meet him and hear his whole story you’ll be invested in the tale and rooting for Parker, Angel, and Louis to get him their special brand of brutal and sort of cleansing justice.
That quest for justice will lead to a county in West Virginia that’s populated with some interesting and fascinating characters that include the county Sheriff, a young African American boy, and the book’s villains. You do get to spend some time with the book’s villains and they are quite vile. You’ll root for them to brought down, but not everything is black and white. Connolly shows you some of the book’s villains are viler than others. They’re nuanced characters. I’m speaking generally because I don’t want to spoil anything for readers.
So in “A Time of Torment” Connolly expertly juggles a lot of different things: his regular cast, his ongoing story, and a new tale involving a whole host of nuanced and fully fleshed out characters. The end result is another deeply satisfying read that’s powerful, creepy, exciting, and a heck of a lot of fun. You also get another great final scene that will leave you very eager for the next Parker novel.
In “I Am Slaughter” and “Predator, Prey,” the first two novels in Black Library’s 12 part mega event “The Beast Arises” story for their Warhammer 40,000 line a massive threat was introduced to the Imperium of Man; the Orks. The story takes place after their “Horus Heresy” story line, but before their novels set in the 41st millenium. So it’s been years since the bestial but often comically unintelligent Orks have been seen. In these first two novels though they come roaring back more powerful than ever because they’re better armed and their intelligence and cunning levels appear to have evolved.
So in the first two novels the stage is set by establishing just how dangerous a threat the Orks are. We see them tear planets apart and they even bring an entire Space Marine chapter to the brink of extinction. Those made for fun and exciting novels, but I’m glad for the third novel in the series “The Emperor Expects” Gav Thorpe does something different, but just as interesting; he focuses on telling a story of political intrigues.
Much of the action in Thorpe’s novel takes place in two locales; in deep space as the massive spacefaring vessels of the Imperial Navy muster to prepare for an assault on Ork battle moon. (I love typing those words. The idea is so fun and imaginative) that’s attacking a vital Imperial shipyard, and on Earth in the Imperial palace. The Navy scenes are enjoyable, but they didn’t really kick off until to the second half of the book for me when I had become attached to the new characters that Thorpe had introduced. The Imperial Palace scenes were excellent all the way through though.
In those scenes we get to spend more time with Drakan Vangorich, the Grand Master of the Officio Assassinorum, who has played a major part in the first two books. We also get to know a little more about his mysterious and reluctant ally Inquisitor Wienand. The two are part of ongoing struggle in the Imperial Senate over how the Imperium should cope with the Ork invasion. So we get lots of machinations, double dealings, and political gambits with them. It’s not something you often see in 40K novels so it’s fun to watch unfold, especially when rival Inquisitors show up to try and oust Wienand and seize power.
Thorpe also checks in with Captain Koorland, one of the last (if not the last) surviving members of the Imperial Fists Space Marine chapter. I really liked Captain Koorland in the first novel and seeing how he copes with the fact of being perhaps the lone surviving member of his chapter is fascinating. I look forward to more scenes with the character. Watching how he carries himself and tries to reconcile his place in the universe humanizes the Space Marines in a way you don’t often see.
“The Emperor Expects” isn’t all about politics and survivor’s guilt though. There are some great action scenes. The second half of the novel is when the time you spent aboard the Oberon class voidship with Captain Rafal Kulik and his chief officer First Lieutenant Saul Shaffenback pays off. You root and fear for those characters as their ship takes part in the assault on the Ork armada protecting the battle moon and as they repel some green skin invader that board their ship.
While that’s going on we also get some action on Holy Terra as Inquisitor Wienand deals with an attempt on her life. Those scenes are a lot of fun because Thorpe writes them like scenes from a great spy/political thriller and they unfold against the backdrop of another facet of 40K we don’t often see the pilgrims that come to Earth.
I don’t want to reveal to much, but another reason I love the action scenes in “The Emperor Expects” is Thorpe gives them some hope. Too often in stories like this, where brave underdog heroes are put on the back foot against a powerful alien menace, there’s a tendency to have the heroes lose all the time and get their asses handed to them. It’s frustrating and makes the heroes look kind of incompetent. So it’s refreshing to have the heroes score a victory here and there, what’s even greater about the victory in this novel is that it by no means turns the tide of battle. If anything the stakes are escalated and the Imperium is in even greater danger by the end of “The Emperor Expects.” So Thorpe not only gives readers a fun, refreshing story with great characters he also moves “The Beast Arises” story forward in a way that makes me excited to read the next novel in the series.
In the ‘90s I became a pretty big fan of the Weird Western genre thanks to the Jonah Hex comic books that writer Joe R Lansdale and artist Tim Truman did for DC Comics Vertigo imprint and some of the short stories I read by one of my favorite pulp writers, Robert E Howard (creator of Conan), that mixed elements of the Western with horror and darker fantasy. The Weird Western was just a fun combination. It was like the literary equivalent of Psychobilly; a musical genre that melds punk and rockabilly and often featured horror imagery and lyrics.
So it’s no surprise that the cover to Shane Lacey Hensley’s “Deadlands” roleplaying game caught my eye in 2006 when I was browsing through a book store. The cover of an undead gunslinger by Gerald Brom and the tag line of “The Weird West Roleplaying Game” just spoke to me and I quickly bought the book. I also picked up pretty much all the source books in the line and it’s two spinoff lines “Deadlands: Hell on Earth,” and “Deadlands: Lost Colony.”
What made “Deadlands so intriguing were its fun rules and great character design mechanics, but also the fantastic world that Hensley and his later collaborators built. Essentially “Deadlands” is a cleverly conceived cocktail of the alternate history, steam punk, horror, and fantasy. Everything melds together to form an insanely cool world, and the way that world blends actual real world history with the genre elements is fascinating.
In the world of “Deadlands” American history was changed forever by two major events. The first was a massive supernaturally triggered earthquake that dropped much of California into the ocean and transformed the area into a network of cliffs, canyons, and waterways dubbed “The Great Maze.” That earthquake also lead to the discovery of “Ghost Rock” a new mineral that acts super fuel to a whole host of steam punk style devices. The other major event was that the American Civil War never ended because at the Battle of Gettysburg the soldiers that died got back up . . . and they were hungry. A consequence of the war never ending is that Sioux were able to build their own nation within the United States borders.
So in “Deadlands” undead gunslingers haunt foreboding trails, murderous mad scientist construct clockwork doomsday devices, and magic is a very real and potent weapon. It’s a very fruitful and fun world to play in.
Even though I don’t play the Deadlands RPG anymore (One of the downsides to becoming an adult is it because increasingly hard to find people to commit time to RPGs) I still love the setting and I was very excited that the creators were going to let some authors play in their world in a series of official novelizations. Even more exciting was the fact that one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Maberry would be first up.
If you’re a fan of Maberry’s work, especially his Joe Ledger series, you know he’s a master at genre melding particularly when it comes to blending action and horror. So the world of “Deadlands” is a good place for Maberry to cut loose and have some fun, and that’s just what he does with his novel “Ghostwalkers.”
Much of the action in “Ghostwalkers” plays out as a buddy action tale between two fun and different Western heroes. The first hero we meet is very much your classic western protagonist; a travelling gunslinger with a mysterious past named Grey Torrance. When we first meet Grey he comes to aid of, or at least attempts to come to the aid of, Thomas Looks Away a different type of Western hero. That’s because Looks Away is a member of the Sioux Nation who fled America for Europe as part of a traveling Wild West show where he acquired an education and contacts in the esoteric and dangerous world of Ghost Rock powered sciences.
Looks Away is fleeing the agents of a powerful businessman and scientist who is also a master of necromancy and needs protection on his return trip to the Great Maze town of Paradise Falls. So Looks Away hires Grey and they head out to the Maze together. As they travel Grey becomes more and more acquainted with the weirder aspects of the Deadlands world and bonds of friendship and trust between him and Looks Away are formed. They’re the classic mismatched buddy pair.
“Ghostwalkers” really picks up when Grey and Looks Away reach the Great Maze because Maberry has a real feel for the place and expertly brings it to life via his prose. He depicts it as almost a dusty combination of nineteenth century America and the world of Mordor from “Lord of the Rings.” It’s a treacherous world of canyons and cliffs where hellish and ancient monsters that had been locked away in the Earth can attack at a moment’s notice.
Grey and Looks Away arrive in Paradise Falls soon after reaching the Maze and that’s when the pacing, action, and fun in “Ghostwalkers” becomes fast and furious. More supporting characters are introduced but we also get harrowing action sequences with zombies, demon possessed undead, undead dinosaurs, giant worms, and all manner of crazy technology. It all climaxes with an epic and full out battle for Paradise Falls where a ragtag band of townsfolk and their Ghost Rock weapons face off against an army of the dead.
So if you want a rocket powered pulp western style thrill ride featuring great characters, weird menaces, and Maberry’s trademark awesome action scenes pick up “Ghostwalkers.” You’ll be glad you did. Maberry clearly had a hell of a time running wild in the weird and wonderful world of “Deadlands” and so will you.
Warhammer 40K and Horus Heresy novels can do a lot of things. They can take you to strange and futuristic worlds, present intriguing characters, offer up fascinating and complex moral questions, but most of all they’re kick-ass adventure tales. The best ones are all of those things, but that doesn’t mean the ones that don’t do several of those things or the ones that just end up telling an over the top, in your face, Heavy Metal, adventure story are necessarily bad. Quite the contrary. I look for entertainment and things that the author does right in my 40K novels, which is probably why I didn’t judge Mitchell Scanlon’s Horus Heresy novel “Descent of Angels” as harshly as some reviewers and maybe as harshly as I should of.
I say that because I just finished the eighth novel in the Horus Heresy series, Ben Counter’s “Battle for the Abyss” and I liked it. It may not have done a lot of the other stuff I enjoy about Horus Heresy novels, but it was a kick-ass, over the top in the best Heavy Metal sort of way adventure story. So was it “Legion,” Dan Abnett’s fantastic seventh entry in the Horus Heresy? No, but “Battle for the Abyss” was still a heck of a lot of fun.
In the book Counter winds time back a little bit until just before most of the Imperium of Man is aware that the Space Marine Legions of the Primarch Horus and the Legions of several of his brother Primarchs have rebelled against the Imperium. One of the Traitor Legions, the Word Bearers, lead by the religious zealot Primarch Lorgar Aurellian who worships the four malevolent Chaos gods, are looking to make a devastating secret first strike against the Ultramarines, one of the most righteous and by the book of the Loyalist Space Marine Legions. So with the help of the traitorous Tech Priests of Mars that have sided with Horus, Lorgar sends a massive warship loaded with fanatical members of his Legion to launch a surprise attack on Macragge, the Ultramarines’ home world.
In the early stages of “Battle for the Abyss” a ragtag band of Space Marines from several different Legions catch wind of Lorgar’s scheme and head off on a desperate pursuit to stop it. So Counter’s story starts off as sort of a chase novel and one of ship to ship combat, and honestly those are the weakest and slowest parts of “Battle for the Abyss.”
I enjoy it when the colossal void ships of the Warhammer universe battle, but for me “Battle for the Abyss” didn’t pick up until midway through the book when Counter opens the door for man to man battles between Space Marines. That point is where the battle against the Word Bearers and the Loyalist Space Marines gets really savage and interesting. The void ship battles pick up too because then they become battles of endurance where the mettle of Counter’s battered, bloodied, and weary heroes is tested in a multitude of ways.
It’s also where Counter tuns the action up to 11 and things get epically METAL! We get running gun battles and savage melee combat between Space Marines. At one point a Space Marine battles a demon on a collapsing star ship. I’ll say that again a SPACE MARINE BATTLES A DEMON ON A COLLAPSING STAR SHIP! When I read that fight I almost dropped the book because I had to throw up Dio style metal horns with my one of my hands. It was that cool.
Of course the battles don’t mean anything if you’re not invested in the characters and by the time the final battles start I was invested in the heroes of “Battle of the Abyss” and I really wanted to see the villains taken down– and hard. In terms of characters Counter did something a little different from previous Horus Heresy novels he drew his cast from several different Space Marine Legions instead of just one or two. That had both advantages and drawbacks.
The main drawback was that we didn’t get to take as deep a dive into the warrior cultures of the Space Marines as we had in other novels. Counter does give us quite a bit of insight into the Word Bearers since they’re the antagonists of the novel, and we get some about the Ultramarines since members of their legion make up the bulk of the force trying to stop the Word Bearers, but we get less about the cultures of the other, and in my opinion far more interesting Legions the Space Wolves, the World Eaters, and the Thousand Sons. Of course the other draw back is with time split between so many different heroes and villains it’s harder to get to know and appreciate them all.
As I said though, by the end I was fully invested in Counter’s cast. The Word Bearers are great villains and Counter uses them effectively. They’re fanatical super soldiers, that make pacts with demons and worship evil gods. So they’re fearsome and incredibly fun to hate. Counter’s heroes were kind of a mixed bag starting off. It took me a while to bond with his main Ultramarine characters since they can be a little stodgy especially if there’s not room to develop them, but the writer makes them more likable and interesting by forcing them to overcome huge obstacles and make tough calls. So by the end I was cheering for Captain Cestus, the leader of the Ultramarines and the commander of Counter’s intrepid band of heroes.
I have a soft spot for members of the Traitor Space Marine Legions who went against their Primarchs and stood by the Emperor of Mankind. So I was very happy that we got not just one, but two of those characters in “Battle for the Abyss,” the World Eater Skraal and the member of the sorcerous Thousand Sons Legion known as Mhotep. Both of those characters were fascinating and well used by Counter.
Counter also includes some Space Wolves in the band of heroes chasing down the Word Bearers, but I was not as impressed with his portrayals of them as I was his other heroes. Still, I did find myself rooting for their captain Brynngar– when he not being a jerk. Of course in Counter’s defense I’m not sure if I was supposed to like Brynngar and the Space Wolves for most of the book. The writer does provide some interesting explanations for their behavior in later chapters.
So in summary, “Battle for the Abyss” started off slow and came on really strong at the end. It may not have done as much as some of my other favorite 40K and Horus Heresy books, but it did do one thing and it did it exceedingly well– tell an epically over the top, action adventure story. And the end result was an incredibly fun book.