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Book Review- Battle for the Abyss by Ben Counter

Battle_for_the_Abyss_WallpaperWarhammer 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 Ben Counterdifferent 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.

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