Thursday, 25 November 2010

‘Dead Men Walking’ – Steve Lyons (Black Library)

Like me, if you’re relatively new to the Black Library range then you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ‘Imperial Guard’ line consists solely of Dan Abnett’s ‘Gaunt’s Ghosts’ books. After all, these are the books that seem to get all the accolades for telling it just how it is for the mortal Guardsmen on the front lines of the far future. However, the regiments of the Imperial Guard number in the hundreds of thousands (at least) and this is reflected in a number of other books that might just fly under your radar if you’re not careful. The authors of these books might have paid the price for not developing their work into a series but give their books a go anyway. In particular, I’ll recommend Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s ‘Cadian Blood’ and Rob Sanders’ ‘Redemption Corps’ as good places to get started.

Steve Lyons’ ‘Ice Guard’ was one of the first ‘Imperial Guard’ novels that I read for the blog and was enough for me to keep an eye open for more of his work. Unfortunately for me, the next thing of his that I picked up was the audio book ‘Waiting Death’ and that didn’t work for me at all. With the scores evenly balanced, Lyons’ latest book ‘Dead Men Walking’ was always going to tip the scales one way or the other...

In the Imperium of Mankind the danger doesn’t always come from the stars; sometimes it lays waiting right beneath your feet... The workers on an Imperial mining planet have uncovered something that should have been left well buried. Now the necrons walk the planet once again and an ill equipped Planetary Defence Force is being massacred almost as a matter of course. The call for help goes out but the arrival of four regiments of the Death Korps of Krieg may not be the salvation the beleaguered populace are after.
The Death Korps of Krieg are perhaps the most brutal of the Imperial Guard regiments, prepared to sacrifice anything to kill what’s in front of them in the name of the Emperor. Anything else is of secondary importance, an outlook that lends unhealthy comparisons to the necrons that they are fighting. In the face of astronomical casualties, the Death Korps are resolute in their zeal to do the Emperor’s bidding. Will there be anything left after the guns finally fall silent?

If there’s one thing that you take away from Warhammer 40K fiction, it’s the sobering realisation that war is a game that no-one ever really wins (unless you’re playing the WH40K game that is, you can win that). In this universe, warfare is merely about staving off mankind’s inevitable destruction at the hands of various alien races for as long as possible. Any kind of victory is determined purely in terms of whether the enemy is still standing at the end of an engagement, never in terms of the consequences for the civilian populace. Lyons totally gets this and has written a novel that reflects it almost perfectly. ‘Dead Men Walking’ is a dark and gloomy novel that asks the question of whether you can really die a hero when, to all intents and purposes, you already see yourself as dead. The answer very much depends on who you are asking here and the results throw up some interesting contrasts between the Imperial Guard and the citizens they are tasked to protect. Gunthar Soreson’s tale is most interesting in this respect and Lyons uses it bring the effects of the war into the sharpest relief. I wasn’t sure about Arex’ narrative though. While I get how she influenced the path of other characters her story didn’t pack the same punch as others and lessened the overall impact of the novel as a whole.

‘Dead Men Walking’ charts the gradual fall of an Imperial world at the hands of a particularly insidious menace. To be fair, all of the xenos races in the Warhammer universe are particularly insidious but there is something about the necrons that is especially chilling. These metal warriors display no emotion whatsoever (even the Tyranids have a form of animal rage) and are absolutely remorseless in their approach to warfare; they just won’t stop until you are dead. Lyons captures this very well, simply by sending by piling loads of necrons together and shelling them with Imperial guns.

On the other side of the equation is the Death Korps, an army of men with nothing else on their mind than selling their lives to right an ancient wrong their ancestors committed. The gas masks they wear mean they show no emotion whatsoever and they are absolutely remorseless in their approach to warfare; they just won’t stop until you are dead. Lyons captures this very well, simply by lining the Death Korps up in neat ranks and marching them into range of the necron gauss weaponry.

You can see where I’m going here. Lyons is essentially showing us that there really isn’t a lot of difference between the two opposing forces; both want to win and both see the surrounding area (and its populace) as expendable materiel for exploitation. This raises some interesting points where certain characters finally begin to get an idea of the regime that they live under. It’s a shame that it comes too late to make any real difference... It also helps foster a real sense of empathy for the Death Korps themselves once you realise what has made them this way. You’ve got to feel a little sorry for them.
What I would say is that an interesting basis for comparison is sacrificed in the name of lining these opposing parties up and having them shoot at each other. Don’t get me wrong, the battle sequences are suitably intense (neither side will back down, only one can walk away at the end), and the urgency of the plot demands resolution over introspection, but it just felt that there was an opportunity missed to dig a little deeper. There’s plenty to chew on but I found myself waiting for a second course that never arrived...

Maybe that was intended though. ‘Dead Men Walking’ charts the downward spiral of an Imperial planet under attack and not only is that the main order of the day but it’s done very methodically and very well. From the first hints of an alien presence on the planet to Gunthar’s final decision at the end of; everything fits together perfectly and sends the plot rolling forwards to its inevitable conclusion. ‘Inevitable’ isn’t such a bad thing either, not when it’s written so well. If you’re a fan of the Imperial Guard, or just military sci-fi in general, then ‘Dead Men Walking’ deserves a look.

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten


impaler said...

Looking forward to Dead Men Walking. I know this is totally worth my money.

Graeme Flory said...

It is totally worth your money, no doubt about it :o)

Thomas said...

I read Lyons' book Death World and something bothered me. If was like one of those corny old war films where everyone had a nickname and it just seemed less serious because of it.

Probably a ridiculous reason to dislike a book, perhaps I'll go through it again after i finish what I'm currently reading and see if I get a new view of it.

This book does sound good though great review!

Andrew Steffen said...

I have the book and I am already enjoying it. Lyons did really bring out the Necrons and Death Korp of Krieg. I believe this and Deathworld are two of his best books.

Anonymous said...

I know I’ve read a good book when the first thing I do after putting it down is discuss it. I loved the fact the characters had genuine character and showed progression and change throughout the book. Definitely worth a read especially if you prefer the darker aspects of the Warhammer universe.