Friday, 23 March 2012

‘Legion of the Damned’ – Rob Sanders (Black Library)

The ‘Space Marine Battle’ series has been a bit hit and miss as far as I’m concerned. Hang on, a ‘bit hit and miss’? More like ‘more than a bit hit and miss’ actually as the quality see saws wildly between superb and, erm… its polar opposite. For every ‘Helsreach’ there’s a ‘the Purging of Kadillus’. For every ‘The Gildar Rift’ there’s a ‘Hunt for Voldorius’. And so on…
I keep going back though, as much for those hidden gems waiting to be found as for a morbid sense of curiosity that wonders which direction the series will swing in next.
Add Rob Sanders to the mix and my curiosity was piqued yet further. I’ve read two of Sanders’ books so far and I’m still sat firmly on the fence about his work. It’s not that Sanders can’t write, he’s very good but prone to sometimes forgetting the story and going overboard on the background. You can’t ‘not read him’ though as you are potentially missing out on some great stuff if you ignore his books.
Which side of the fence did ‘Legion of the Damned’ fall on then? Lets just say that I’m looking forward to reading Sanders’ novella in the forthcoming ‘Primarchs’ collection.

Heralded by a blood red comet, the Cholercaust has come to the cemetery world of Certus Minor… An unstoppable horde of cultists, daemonkin and World Eaters Traitor Marines seeking to burn a path to ancient Terra itself. Only one company of loyalist Excoriators Space Marines stand in their path, not nearly enough to halt such a tide of blood. Or is it?
Inquistorial forces arrive on Certus Minor to find one Excoriator left alive amidst a veritable sea of traitorous corpses. Just what happened on Certus Minor to have victory spring from inevitable and crushing defeat? Sometimes, only sometimes, prayers are answered in the strangest of ways…

Like I said, I’ve had trouble with Sanders’ books in the past and this time was no different in that respect. This time though, Sanders rose above those issues to deliver a novel that proved to be only a hairs breadth away from being a compelling read. I could put it down; to do other stuff, but doing that was very difficult. I’ll have more along these lines please!

The issue I’ve always had with the ‘Space Marine Battles’ book is that a lot of them take the easy way out and just make the battle the focal point of the entire plot. In fact there isn’t a plot, just one big battle where the outcome is predetermined because of who is involved. The good guys either win or make it so that the Traitors cannot win themselves. It kind of takes the fun out of the read for me…

Thank goodness for Rob Sanders then who turns the whole thing upside down and presents us with a question out of that seemingly foregone conclusion of a victory. Yes, there was a victory but how could there have been? What the hell really happened? It's a great hook to snare the reader on, I was certainly interested to read more and find out what happened.

This was where the journey started to get a little choppy though. Sanders likes to delve into the murky background of Warhammer 40k and give his readers a full on encompassing view of these times of war. The only problem is that the story gets shoved to one side and you’re left with a whole load of detail. That’s what happens here with the ‘Feast of Blades’, a great piece of action but one that becomes mired in the politics of the competing Chapters a little too much to hold up properly for the length of time that it takes to recount. There were some awesome bone crushing moments of raw combat but I couldn’t help but feel that I wanted to hurry along and get to the main event.

It was a good job then that the main event ended up proving to be more than worth the wait.

Sanders clearly knows that a battle isn’t just about weapons being fired, it’s also very much about the people forced to pull the trigger in the heat of the moment. What are they feeling? Do they even want to be there?
These questions are answered in the contrast between Marines bred for war and un-enhanced humans forced to defend their homes and livelihoods. There’s a full range of emotions and motivations on display here and Sanders balances these nicely with the constant bark of bolter fire to give us an in-depth look at the conflict.

What’s interesting though is that this contrast is very much evident in the lead character of Zachariah Kersh himself. Kersh is a Marine who glories in warfare but would much rather be doing it elsewhere. Duty has called him and his men to Certus Minor though and Kersh will see that duty fulfilled despite the grumbling from within his company. Kersh questions himself (and his very sanity) at every turn and this keeps his character fresh, there are lots of questions to be answered in the heat of battle.

This battle is depicted very clearly without becoming too ‘technical’ and like a White Dwarf battle report. You know just what’s at stake from the sheer energy and focus that people put into just staying alive. What you do know though is the outcome and Sanders faces a tough task springing something that we already know onto us. He does it but it’s a very close thing, the answers are with us the whole time but you won’t see them until everything fits together and the picture is complete. Yet another plot device that holds the attention superbly.

‘Legion of the Damned’ suffers from a choppy start but recovers to become something really close to a stand out moment in the ‘Space Marine Battles’ series so far. I’ll happily keep reading these books if I can have more moments like these.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

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