Friday, 29 July 2011

‘Imperial Glory’ – Richard Williams (Black Library)

The Imperial Guard aren’t kitted out for battle in the same way that their Space Marine comrades are; no power armour for them, just the cheapest mass produced helmets and flak jackets. No hi-tec weaponry for them either, just a mass produced las-rifle that they’re told to point at the nearest enemy and then open fire. Not only are the Guard cheap to supply but there’s so many of them (billions) that they’re totally expendable. No matter how well defended the obstacle, throw enough Guardsmen at it and you’ll win through... eventually.

For me, all of this makes the Imperial Guard one of the most interesting armies to read about in the Warhammer 40K setting. They’re not super soldiers or armed with daemonic powers; they’re just ordinary people in the last place they’ve ever wanted to be, the frontline of a major warzone. This perspective can really open a story up in terms of character exploration and how this in turn can affect the plot. As far plot goes, you’ll see Guardsmen doing things that Space Marines (for example) would never do and, for me, this really refreshes the setting as a whole.
Having said all that then, you can safely assume that my ears prick up when I hear the thud of another Imperial Guard novel landing on the doormat. You’d be right in that assumption, these are books that work their way up the reading pile very quickly (apart from that rather cumbersome omnibus edition, you’ll need to give me a little more time with that one). Richard Williams’ ‘Imperial Glory’ certainly made it to the top of the pile very quickly. Not only is it an Imperial Guard book but I’d also very much enjoyed Williams’ ‘Reiksguard’ and was looking forward to more of the same here. What I got though wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for...

The Guardsmen of the Brimlock 11th have been fighting in the Ellinor Crusade for some twenty years and their very souls are exhausted by constant warfare. Now they have been given the chance of retiring from the frontline and settling on a frontier planet (Voor) where they can live out the rest of their days in peace. All they have to do is fight one last battle in order to claim that planet. The secessionist colonists already there have no wish to see the Imperium establish a foothold on Voor but they had no choice but to ask for aid. A plague of feral Orks are spreading across the planet and only Imperial firepower can turn them back. Are the men of the Brimlock 11th up to this one final task though? They have been through a lot already and, for some, this final push may well be too much.

Richard Williams had already proved that he could write military fantasy, in ‘Reiksguard’, and with the Warhammer 40K being far more popular (than its fantasy counterpart) it was perhaps inevitable that readers would see him attempt the same kind of thing with military sci-fi as well. ‘Imperial Glory’ does its job well enough but there was something missing there for me that made it less than the read it could have been.

That’s not to say that ‘Imperial Glory’ isn’t a good read in itself. While I wouldn’t say that it was a compelling read there’s certainly plenty to recommend it and there was never any doubt that I’d finish the book once I got started.

Williams tells a well thought out tale of a military operation carried out by men who are on their last legs. Every stage of this military action is carried out methodically (you can see where it all fits in an overall plan) but you find yourself wondering if the exhausted troopers will be able to complete their orders. This adds a nice air of tension to the plot but, at the same time, the methodical way in which the Voor operation happens comes across a little too strongly in that plot. More often than not, it’s very much a case of ‘X happens, then Y happens which means that Z happens last’.  This approach gives you a very clear picture of the relentless force of the Imperial war machine but it also makes the plot feel like it’s plodding along when it should be moving with a lot more purpose. It’s far too easy to plod along yourself and you can end up missing out on things worth picking up; I had to go back on more than one occasion to re-read bits that I’d missed.

When Williams picks up the pace though... That’s when things do get interesting and you find yourself feeling glad that you stuck around. Williams’ family has its own share of military figures and you get a sense of this in the book when the chips are down and combat is joined. If Williams never stood on the front line himself (and faced down the enemy) then it’s clear that he knows someone who has and this is what comes across in the book. The enemy is fearsome but the line has to held, that’s the message that we’re given through the reactions of every single Guardsman in the fight and it’s a message of bravery under the most extreme conditions.
These battle scenes have the appropriate amount of pyrotechnics as well. There’s plenty to see and hold your attention, Williams holds these moments together with fine aplomb.

It’s a bit of a shame that the one thing I was really looking to seeing didn’t actually happen, I’m talking about the chance to really explore what was going on for the Guardsmen while they were on Voor and elsewhere. Williams did a fine job of exploring his characters development in ‘Reiksguard’ but he didn’t have a whole regiment of them to deal with. This is of course the case in ‘Imperial Glory’ and, what with everything else that’s going on, Williams simply doesn’t have the time to go into a lot of detail with his cast; a couple of the main players (Stanhope and Carson) get the treatment that their status deserves but the rest are left to get on with it. That’s not something you can really take him to task for (you can only do so much with so much room) but, at the same time, I was left with a cast the vast majority of which had one characteristic tacked on which is meant to see them through. This, in turn, robs quite a poignant ending of the impact that it was clearly meant to have.

‘Imperial Glory’ won’t rank up there with my all time favourite Imperial Guard novels, it plods along when it shouldn’t and doesn’t really do what I’ve come to expect from these books. For all that though, ‘Imperial Glory’ kept me reading and when it really got going I was glad that I’d stuck with it.

Seven and a Half out of Ten

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