This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Sons of Dorn is a Black Library novel with a mighty legacy to live up to. Written by Chris Roberson, it is (to my knowledge) the first Warhammer 40,000 novel to focus on the Imperial Fists Chapter of the Space Marines since Ian Watson’s classic Space Marine. The cover proudly proclaims it to be “an Imperial Fists novel”, which makes me wonder whether it is meant to be the first part of the series. If that is the case, Roberson seems to have done his research; apparently he read Space Marine carefully before he started off, and the prior novel seems to have been a major influence. Space Marine, in summary, is the story of three lads from different social classes who came into conflict on their homeworld, but ended up being recruited into the Imperial Fists and training together, undergoing the experience of being Scouts and eventually graduating from that to becoming fully-fledged Marines; the story is notable mainly for the fact that it was dripping with homoeroticism to the point of self-parody, with scenes involving men bound in skintight bodysuits reaching ecstasy through pain and young recruits bending over so the Sergeant can brand a Fist logo on their buttocks.
Sons of Dorn, in stark contrast, is the story of three lads from different cultures who come into conflict on their homeworld, but ended up being recruited into the Imperial Fists and training together, undergoing the experience of being Scouts and eventually graduating from that to becoming fully-fledged Marines; the story is notable mainly for being much less preoccupied with thinly-veiled man-on-man BDSM fiction.
Immobilised and rendered mute as he was, Zatori had not even attempted to cry out in pain as they inserted metal probes into his every orifice, everything from long snaking coils to metal rods to others in shapes stranger still.
OK, there’s that. And the pain glove is still present, and is still a skintight bodysuit that you wear whilst lashed to a metal frame. And two of the Space Marines are referred to as bickering constantly despite being the best of friends, calling to mind the cliches about old married couple. But whilst there’s space to interpret the Imperial Fists chapter as a sweaty hotbed of barely-concealed masochism, with the great emphasis placed on pain as both a punishment for transgression and as a route to spiritual ecstasy, and whilst you could very easily imagine various relationships between the various characters if you were of a mind to, the text is in no way as relentlessly Freudian as Ian Watson’s.
Roberson is, apparently, a fairly accomplished author in his own right outside the realm of tie-in fiction, which I suppose explains why this is the only Black Library book in my possession in which the back cover includes praise for the author by some guy whose name I forget who the original Warhammer 40,000 designers were apparently fans of. As far as comparisons between him and Watson go, it’s a difficult one; whilst the main plot of Sons of Dorn is, I think, significantly better than the episodic story of Space Marine, and Roberson does a better job of establishing who the protagonists are and where they came from and how they differ than Watson did, at the same time I think Ian Watson managed to handle the developing relationship between his protagonists better in Space Marine, and provided more closure to said character development. My fervent hope is that Roberson didn’t want to advance that particular plot point too far because he was intending to write sequels for the series – the presentation of the book certainly seems to imply that it is the first of a number of Imperial Fists books – but that doesn’t change the fact that the relationship between the three core characters is rather static for much of Sons of Dorn, and if Sons is meant to be a standalone novel the resolution of the conflict between them is pitiful.
Our heroes are Zatori, du Queste and Taloc, three youths from the world of Triandr – a planet that has been cut off from the Imperium for sufficiently long that access to high technology has been all but lost altogether, and what knowledge they have of the Imperial truth has become garbled fragments of the local cultures’ religions. When the Imperial Fist recruitment mission arrives – led by Captain Taelos, who has been put in charge of the Chapter’s 10th Company (the Scouts) and recruitment processes – three of those cultures are fighting over the island of Eokaroe. Du Queste is a young noble from Caritaigne (think Renaissance France), one of the great powers contesting for control of the island, and he’s out to prove his honour on the battlefield. Zatori is the squire to Father Nei, a warrior-monk of Sipang (who are Caritagine’s great geopolitical opponents); Zatori is traumatised during the battle when du Queste – fed up of other Caritaigne warriors stealing his kills – kills Father Nei in an attack from behind. Taloc, meanwhile, is a youth from one of the various bickering tribes of Eokaroe who have banded together in order to kick out the two invaders; Taloc enters the battle keen to get some good kills in order to complete his passage into adulthood, but is horrified when his father, Eokaroean leader Tonan (the Barbarian?) is killed by Zatori.
The battle is, of course, interrupted by the arrival of Imperial Fist dropships. Nonchalantly strolling onto the battlefield – their power armour being more than enough to protect them from anything the locals might throw at them – the Fists head out and grab any surviving combatants who look young enough to undergo the various surgical enhancements Space Marines are subject to but brave and capable enough to make decent Fists. Taelos himself encounters du Queste, Zatori and Taloc just as they’re about to have a three-way fight, and is so impressed by the way they instantly decide to present a common front against this giant metal menace from the stars that he instantly invites them to join the Fists.
After a brief period covering the early stages of the aspirant Fists’ training – during which Zatori realises that the only honourable way to get his revenge on du Queste if both of them survive the training process and he challenges du Queste to an honourable duel. (Aspirants and Scouts aren’t allowed to duel each other – only full Battle Brothers are allowed.) Likewise, Taloc realises he needs to bide his time and fight a duel with Zatori if he is going to get his revenge, because whilst he isn’t so concerned about honour he is worried about being busted down to Chapter serf or servitorised for his trouble if he breaks the rules by attacking Zatori. So it is that whilst the three are in the midst of their tour of duty as Scouts, they – along with Captain Taelos and most of the other and other Scouts and officers of the 10th Company – end up struggling to repel a Chaos assault on the planet of Vernalis, mounted by the Slaanesh-worshipping Roaring Blades regiment of Imperial Guard outcasts and their Chaos Space Marine masters.
The missions that Lexandro and the gang went on in Watson’s Space Marine had a number of flaws from a narrative standpoint. The major one was that they were all kind of stupid – flying a dropship up a Tyranid starship’s anus and eating the brains of Titan pilots so that the Marines can pilot the Titan not being the sort of activities which inspire you to take the scenarios presented seriously. A minor one is that none of the missions actually engaged with the characteristics of the Imperial Fist chapter – in particular, the fact that they are supposed to be the masters of siege warfare. Both issues are corrected in the scenario presented in Sons of Dorn, which sees the Marines embroiled in precisely the sort of siege warfare situation that the Fists are meant to be good at. Roberson shares Dan Abnett’s ability to make battles exciting and to easily convey the strategic and tactical issues at hand.
The Roaring Blades, moreover, make excellent adversaries; devoted as they are to Slaanesh, the troops have had their nervous systems rewired so that they interpret all pain, of whatever source or variety, as ecstatic pleasure. The consequent loss of their sense of self-preservation, combined with their ability to ignore keep fighting until they physically are no longer able to, makes them fearless and nigh-suicidal shock troops, as well as making them twisted counterparts of the Fists, who experience pain as pain but seek to find within it communion with the Emperor and Rogal Dorn. Even better, whilst Roberson clearly intends the Roaring Blades to be dark reflections of the Fists, he’s a good enough author not to loudly declare that they are dark reflections of the Fists in the narration, trusting the ability of the readers to work it out for themselves.
It helps a lot that Roberson does a good job of establishing the three main Scouts’ personalities upfront. By the time the novel reaches Vernalis, du Queste is clearly established as the arrogant glory hound who’s wonderfully oblivious to all kinds of social niceties (not least Zatori’s burning need to kill him), Zatori’s regular reliance on Father Nei’s swordsmanship lessons and his agonising over the differing demands on his honour illuminates his personality nicely, and Taloc’s Conanesque love of a good fight and burning need for revenge have set him up as the wild one of the group. What’s particularly nice is the way Roberson manages to make the distinctions between du Queste’s concept of honour and Zatori’s, or the differences between Zatori’s attitude towards revenge and Taloc’s; rather than making his three protagonists very, very different from each other, Roberson gives them enough commonalities to establish that they do, at the end of the day, come from the same planet, but also makes it clear that they come from different cultures on that planet. A lot of the time he manages to convey all this by their contrasting approaches to swordsmanship, an art prized by all three of their cultures and a key skill of the Imperial Fists, which helps because what you want to see in a Warhammer 40,000 novel is Space Marines with chainswords killin’ dudes.
Roberson also does a good job of establishing his take on the universe, and goes out of his way to make the point that the Imperial Fists are an ethnically diverse lot; the implications of du Queste’s culture shock at seeing the wide variety of ethnicities represented amongst the aspirants is that the 41st Millennium is just as diverse as our own world is, and (considering how large the galaxy is) is probably more so, but individual planets may well be significantly less diverse due to the circumstances of their colonisation or the progress of their colonial history, which is a bit more nuanced than I’d usually expect from a Black Library author.
That said, there are a few points where Roberson falls down. Fine, the main Chaos Space Marine leaders’ name is Sybaris, that’s meant to make us think “sybarite” which is meant to tie into his worship of Slaanesh; all well and good. But don’t have your characters raise his name in a conversation and then refer to the planetary population’s leadership as “sybarites” in the same discussion; not only is that an excessively blatant clue that the leaders are going to turn out to be secret Slaanesh cultists, but it makes the Space Marines look like twits for not saying to themselves “Hey, sybarite sounds like Sybaris… and the leaders seem to have prioritised saving their luxuries over looking after their people… maybe we ought to be asking questions about this?”
Even more badly mishandled is the tension between our three heroes. Granted, Roberson does an excellent job of seeding the foundations of the conflict, but having established that it’s there he does absolutely nothing to progress it, especially since the way he establishes the strictures of Space Marine discipline means that neither Zatori nor Taloc can ever take any steps towards actually taking their revenge, so for half the novel they end up merely thinking about it on occasion. In a particularly unforgivable moment, at the very end of the novel Captain Taelos tells the three newly-minted Battle Brothers that he’s aware that there’s some sort of beef between them, but he doesn’t really know what it’s about, and he’s confident based on their performance on Vernalis that they won’t let the rivalry get in their way of their duties. Again, I hope Roberson doesn’t intend to make this a standalone novel, because otherwise that’s the most anticlimactic end to a murderous, vengeful rivalry I have ever seen.
On top of that, bull fucking shit Taelos doesn’t know the specific of the rivalry! It is clearly established in the novel that one of the first things the recruits undergo is a thorough psychic interrogation at the hands of one of the Chapter’s Librarians, which is intended to root out even the faintest whiff of Chaotic taint in their minds. It is also clearly established that both Zatori and Taloc are obsessed with their revenge at that point in time. I find it completely inconceivable that the Librarian who does the mind-scans completely fails to pick up on the fact that two of the recruits have murderous revenge fantasies directed towards other Fist candidates, and absolutely incredible that he would not report this to Taelos, especially considering that early on in the book Taelos publicly demotes an aspirant to Chapter-serf before the gathered aspirants in order to underline that you do not attack other aspirants. Granted, it’s possible that he might have known full well what the deal was with Zatori and Taloc’s vengeance kicks and was fully aware of the specifics, and indeed wheeled out that demonstration specifically to point out to them that that shit won’t fly, but since the final chapter in which he reveals that he was vaguely aware of the bad blood between the three is narrated from his point of view it seems that if he was lying about not knowing the exact nature of the feud, the narration should at the very least have pointed out that he was and described from his point of view why the lie was necessary.
This glaring error aside, Sons of Dorn is pretty decent as far as Black Library novels go; it’s not Abnett-tier, but it’s more consistent than Ian Watson’s material and I’d be keen to see more adventures of the three main characters. Not least because that would be the only way I’d get something resembling closure on their rivalry. Just murder each other already!