Wednesday, 14 March 2012

‘Phalanx’ – Ben Counter (Black Library)

Was it only a month and a bit ago that I had a little rant about mediocre cover art and Ben Counter’s ‘Phalanx’? Yes, yes it was.

For the record I still stand by everything I said about the cover in that post, a cover seemingly designed purely to make me shrug my shoulders and grunt ‘meh’. I was always going to read the book though, I’ve heard great things about Ben Counter’s ‘Soul Drinkers’ series and I particularly enjoyed his ‘Horus Heresy’ novel ‘Galaxy in Flames’ (which I read way back in the day, before this blog was even a hint of a twinkle in my eye). I wasn’t a hundred percent sure about ‘Battle for the Abyss’ though (notable flaws but a fun read nonetheless) so my anticipation was perhaps a little tempered somewhat…
Not enough to stop me though! The last few weeks have been rough, what with one thing and another, so I was after a little something that would let me escape all that for a little while. Something like ‘Phalanx’? As it turned out, yes; ‘Phalanx’ did the trick very well indeed. Not a perfect book by any means but a great deal of fun that made me think a little bit at the same time…

‘Phalanx’, the great star fort of the Imperial Fists (Great? More like very dull… ok I’ll stop all that now) is the venue for a solemn and sorrowful event attended by Space Marines from many other Chapters as well as Inquisitors, Sisters of Battle and agents of the Adeptus Mechanicus. What is left of the once noble Soul Drinkers Chapter stands trial for crimes of heresy against the very Imperium that birthed them. The sentence for their crimes is death and their guilt is beyond any doubt but other forces are gathering that would use the Soul Drinkers for their own purposes. Can redemption finally be found in one last great battle or will the ‘Phalanx’ birth an evil that will swamp the galaxy…?

‘Phalanx’ is the last book in the ‘Soul Drinkers’ sequence and, as luck would have it, the first book in the sequence that I have picked up. That in itself isn’t such a huge deal though. With five preceding books in the series it’s obviously advisable to go and read those first but if you do end reading ‘Phalanx’ before the others then don’t worry too much. What you have here is a relatively self contained story, that actually stands very well on its own, with references to prior events that tie things together without becoming ‘info-dumps’. I’d love to read the previous books in the series but suspect that I probably won’t have the time for a long time to come. ‘Phalanx’ being set out as it is then is a real boon for the likes of me.

‘Phalanx’ is a novel that tackles more than one theme as it moves along. We have the more or less obligatory ‘gene-enhanced superhumans pounding seven shades of… out of their enemies’ which makes for some stirring moments as plots become clear and violence erupts. There were moments that had my eyes glued to the page, just to see how a particular battle ended, but there were also moments that made me think ‘hang on a minute…’
The fight between Space Marines Reinez and N’Kalo (to determine whether the Soul Drinkers would have N’Kalo speak in their defence) dragged on far too long to be really effective as far as I was concerned. After a couple of pages I’d had enough and also felt that the final judgement was a bit of a foregone conclusion really (it could have ended things a lot earlier).
I also found myself wondering about the exact size and dimensions of the ‘Phalanx’ itself, not a great thing to be wondering when you really should be well into the book. Counter doesn’t make an awful lot of the size of the star fort and so it became a little jarring when I took in the full size of the host that wanted to take it towards the end. How big is this thing that it could fit a… well, that would be telling but I really wanted to be in the midst of the book itself and not wondering about things like that.

The real meat of ‘Phalanx’ though is in another theme entirely and that had me not only wanting to see how events played out but also investing a lot more in the much-maligned Soul Drinkers Chapter as a result.
The Imperium of Man is a cruel and bloody regime where thousands die, on a daily basis, just to ensure it continues. There is a good argument for the necessity of this regime but readers (well, me anyway) can’t help but feel a little sympathy for those who seek to either change things or bring the system down entirely. People like the warriors of the Soul Drinkers Chapter...

These warriors have been touched by the taint of Chaos but haven’t given themselves over to it… yet. The Soul Drinkers seek to make the Imperium a better place by going against everything that it stands for, a structure so rigid that any deviance is punishable by death. You can’t help but admire the resolve of characters like Sarpedon to stand up for their beliefs in the face of execution. Counter’s masterstroke though is to place this steely resolve in direct contrast to a wider plot that has been playing out in secret. Can Sarpedon and his men still hold true to their beliefs when doing so could see their galaxy become a very different place indeed? The answer makes for some compelling reading and at just the point where it really matters.

‘Phalanx’ is a novel of two halves then and I found myself wondering if these parts really fitted together as well as Counter perhaps wanted. On the whole, the mixture of combat and contemplation didn’t quite gel for me…  The journey into the twisted psyche of the Soul Drinkers is worth hanging around for though and I can imagine a lot of people following the books will be pleased at how it all comes to a close. I certainly was and this is the only book in the series that I’ve read. Maybe I’ll go back and catch up on the others…

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten


Blitzspear said...

That's still a p**s poor cover but as i've read all the rest i'll have to go get it but it's low on the priority list.

Anonymous said...

The phalanx is pretty much the largest vessel in the Imperium. During the great crusade it easily housed a legion with room to spare and when you consider that titans can walk around in the larger battle cruisers which are themselves many times longer than star destroyers and the phalanx is itself many times larger than the cruisers it gives it some proper scale