Fists of Rebellion

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.

Space Marines in Warhammer 40,000, in principle, come in two distinct flavours: there’s the evil, deranged Chaos Space Marine, comprising those Legions who betrayed the Emperor back in the Horus Heresy and a number of renegade Chapters who dropped out to join them later on in Imperial history on the one hand, and ranged against them are the honourable and proud Imperial Space Marines, whose Chapters are all descended from those Legions who remained by the Emperor’s side back in the day. When Games Workshop had to explain why early 40K materials referred to Space Marine Legions and later ones referred to Chapters the Horus Heresy was over and the High Lords of Terra laboured to repair the Imperium, it was decided that no one individual should have control over an entire Space Marine Legions, so the Second Founding took place – each Legion split up into a number of Chapters, with the core of the Legion retaining its old name and leaders and the newly-founded Chapters taking on new names and establishing their own command structures.

This means two things. Firstly, if you want your Space Marine army to work like a Space Wolves army but have a different paint scheme and name, you totally can – you just say your army is from a Second Founding chapter of the Wolves, or from a subsequent Founding descended from the Wolves. Secondly, it means Games Workshop have a pile of Space Marine chapters that they have names for but don’t have anything to do with – perfect fodder for up and coming Black Library authors to cut their teeth on.

The Soul Drinkers, a Second Founding successor chapter of the Imperial Fists, were thus offered to Ben Counter so that he could have his way with them – perhaps on the basis that Ben, being a previously unpublished novelist, might botch the job, and if he did nobody would really get upset that some Second Founding chapter nobody had heard of had been ruined by some duff novels. The initial idea was to chart the Chapter’s rebellion against the Empire and descent into the vile worship of Chaos, but along the way a more interesting idea presented itself: given that both the Imperium of Mankind and the forces of Chaos are completely abhorrent on many different levels, could a Space Marine chapter rebel against both? Well, obviously they couldn’t do it and win, but Ben and his editors decided it’d be worth exploring what sort of situation that chapter might find themselves in. They’ve been playing it out for six novels so far, the first three of which are collected in the imaginatively titled Soul Drinkers Omnibus – let’s see how they did.

Soul Drinker

The first novel opens with the Soul Drinkers assaulting a privately owned space station at the hub of an officially-sanctioned slave trading network whose heads, the Van Skorvold twins, have been dabbling in unsavoury territory – xenos artifacts, selling people to the dark eldar as opposed to the Imperium, that sort of nonsense. Amongst the pieces of archaeotech believed to be in the Van Skorvold collection is rumoured to be the Soulspear, an ancient archaeotech object given to the Soul Drinker Chapter by Rogal Dorn himself when they were split off from the original Imperial Fists Legion at the end of the Horus Heresy. Knowing that the Soul Drinkers would never pass up the opportunity to regain the item, the Administratum official in charge of retaking control of the space station has made sure they were informed of its presence, sensibly realising that this way he could get them to do the dirty work and then the Imperial Navy under his command can sweep in to pick up the pieces.

It’s a good plan, but for the perfidiousness of Archmagos Khobotov, leader of the Adeptus Mechanicus forces sent to back up the Naval flotilla. Khobotov is out to obtain the Soulspear for the Mechanicus, seeing how it’s a piece of ancient tech from pre-Imperial days and all, so once the Soul Drinkers uncover its location he teleports in a squad of Skitarii (the Mechanicus’ highly augmented shock troops) to nab the thing and teleport out again. What follows is a diplomatic snafu in which the Soul Drinkers and Mechanicus face off against each other, and the naval forces are reluctantly obliged to side with the Mechanicus (since the Soulspear was dispatched via high-speed warp shuttle to the nearest forge world, it would be futile to ask Khobotov to give the Soul Drinkers their ball back). Counter does an excellent job of depicting the brinkmanship involved and highlighting the irony of the situation; both sides are sure their opponents will fold once the shooting starts, and so neither side sees any reason to back down, causing things to escalate entertainingly rapidly. It doesn’t help that Sarpedon, the Librarian (read: brain-meltingly powerful psyker) assigned to the mission, is grieving over the ignominious death of Commander Caeon, the initial leader of the mission who passed command to Sarpedon before expiring.

Soon enough, Sarpedon and the Drinkers under his command are wanted fugitives, having effectively declared war on the rest of the Imperium; after the Chapter Master and Sarpedon face off against each other in a duel and a bloody internal civil war following on from that, the rest of the Chapter come around under Sarpedon’s leadership. Making a new headquarters in the Brokenback, a long-lost space hulk, the Drinkers believe they can serve the Emperor’s will whilst opposing the institutions of the Imperium, which in the light of their perceived betrayal they believe has completely distorted the Emperor’s plan for the universe and serves only as a breeding ground for Chaos. Speaking of breeding grounds for Chaos, in the crisis of faith occasioned by the Imperium’s failure to back their claim to the Soulspear, the Soul Drinkers have found themselves listening more and more to the theological theories of the mysterious Yser, a rescued slave from the space station who claims to receive visions from the Emperor in his aspect as the “Architect of Fate”. Apparently, the Soul Drinkers have caught the attention of the Architect, who would like nothing more than to help them take on the Imperium. To help them do this, he’s been warping their bodies and minds with outrageous mutations – look, Sarpedon has eight legs now! Isn’t that nice?

Soul Drinker is probably my least favourite novel in the collection – though it’s still a fun enough read, it exists mainly to act as setup for the rest of the novels, and I do wonder whether the series wouldn’t have been improved if it had simply begun with The Bleeding Chalice and the events of Soul Drinker were narrated through occasional snippets in flashback or allusions by the main characters. The basic problem is that Counter has set himself the problem of getting the Soul Drinkers from point A to point B in the course of one novel, point A being “loyalist Space Marines” and B being “renegades fighting both Chaos and the Imperium alike”. This is a fairly radical change, particularly since there’s a halfway point between the two stages where the Soul Drinkers are dupes of the Chaos God Tzeentch thanks to the heretical teachings of Yser, and it often seems that Counter rushes over parts of the emotional journey of Sarpedon and the Drinkers from loyalty to heresy to their eventual “love the Emperor, hate the Imperium” stance.

The upshot of this is that Sarpedon and the supporting characters often end up looking like emotionally unstable morons. It takes one little spat with the Adeptus Mechanicus to prompt them to tell the entire rest of the Imperium to fuck right off. They are completely oblivious to the obvious implications of the runaway mutation affecting most of them, and they are happy to listen to the teachings of Yser despite the fact that they have a perfectly good Chaplain amongst them to be their ideological leader. (In fact, the Chaplain seems to accept Yser as his spiritual superior despite having little basis to beyond Yser being a bit weird, even though Space Marine Chaplains don’t usually accept any ideological sources aside from their own peers and predecessors.) When the final reveal comes and, shock!, it turns out the Architect of Fate wasn’t the Emperor after all but a demon of Tzeentch, the plot twist is telegraphed so far ahead that the Soul Drinkers seem like complete idiots not to have put two and two together – particularly since it’s established that they are aware of the Horus Heresy and the existence of Chaos Space Marines.

To be fair to Counter, I can sort of see what he was trying to do with the Drinkers’ evolving attitudes; it’s established very early on that they are a proud and hubristic Chapter, the reasons why the stand-off with the Mechanicus gets so bad so quickly are very believable, and I can sort of see how the Drinkers’ pride and refusal to admit that they might be wrong blinds them to what is actually happening to them – it all just happens a bit too quickly to really have a ring of truth to it.

Where Counter really excels is in both coming up with interesting things to do with the Warhammer 40,000 canon and not allowing the canon to get in the way of coming up with his own awesome ideas. Whilst at points he plays fast and loose with the canon to the point where he ends up making outright mistakes – at one point he states that if a Genestealer gets the worst of you you can expect “an implanted pupa and a messy death”, which suggests that Counter was thinking of the way xenomorphs in Alien reproduce rather than the way the heavily xenomorph-influenced Genestealers reproduce (they don’t do the chestburster thing). But this is a minor detail which only the fussiest fans will even catch; more important, and more successful, is Counter’s imaginative use of existing Warhammer 40,000 canon and his own embellishments of it. For instance, it’s often been suggested that the more advanced “machine spirits” worshipped by the Adeptus Mechanicus might possibly be AIs of the sort which technically qualify as vile tech-heresy, and Counter takes this idea and runs with it with some cyberpunk-inspired VR hacking sessions on the part of some of the tech-marines. Likewise, Ve’Meth – the demon of Nurgle that Tzeentch manipulates the Drinkers into going to war against, which manifests as a disease with a collective consciousness – is a Counter original, but a far more interesting concept for a Nurgle-aligned demon than yet another Great Unclean One. Equally, the way the Archmagos’ tech-acolytes are corrupted by a tech-heretic answering to the “Engineer of Time” – another aspect of the same Tzeentch demon masquerading as the Architect of Fate – is a neat way to get across the idea that Tzeentch’s schemes span interstellar distances.

At the end of the day though, Soul Drinker is a novel in which the training wheels are still clearly visible. The long meat-grinder battle against Ve’Math’s forces is about as exciting as the book gets, but even then the conclusion seems rather rushed and a little too easy considering what the Drinkers are up against. The climactic scene in which the Drinkers realise how far they have fallen just doesn’t work, not least because the Drinkers are more or less the only people who haven’t realised they were working for Chaos already. There’s glimmerings of what would make the series interesting here, but not enough to make the thing essential reading.

The Bleeding Chalice

Things improve markedly with the sequel. Decimated by the campaign against Ve’Meth, the Drinkers direly need to get some new recruits – but at the same time, they can neither pass on their geneseed nor mentor new Space Marine novices until they halt the mutation which is wreaking more and more havoc on their bodies and minds. Sarpedon believes he knows how this is to be accomplished – but in the course of this quest the Chapter comes into conflict with the mysterious Teturact, a monstrously psychically powerful entity that is slowly carving out an interstellar empire of plague and undeath, Imperial world after Imperial world falling to his zombie minions.

On top of that, Inquisitor Thaddeus of the Ordo Hereticus is on the trail of the Soul Drinkers, having been assigned the task of tracking them down and bringing them to book for their rebellion against the Imperium. He’s in more danger from the thralls of Teturact and the vicious internal politics of the Imperium than the Soul Drinkers, but with the assistance of his various aides – including veteran Sisters of Battle leader Aescarion – he might just win through. He has an ace up his sleeve in the form of the mysterious Pilgrim, an individual whose identity is kept an absoute secret but who has a frightening level of knowledge about the Soul Drinkers and a grudge against them which borders on the monomaniacal.

The three strands of the novel – Teturact’s war of conquest, the Soul Drinker’s quest to tame their rebelling genomes, and Thaddeus’ hunt – come to a head in an epic three-way battle on Stratix Luminae, site of a Soul Drinker action from generations ago, back when they were still a loyalist Chapter. This nightmarish meat-grinder of a battle, and the deftly handled buildup to it, shows how much Ben Counter has improved between Soul Drinker and this one, and there’s plenty to love about the novel besides that. Counter’s grip of characterisation now extends to two whole dimensions, with Inquisitor Thaddeus being a more than adequate adaptation of the “dogged investigator who keeps going even when his superiors tell him to stop” model to the setting. Aescarion being a middle-aged battle-hardened veteran sets her apart from the stock Sister of Battle character usually deployed by low-tier Black Library authors when they realise they need to occasionally acknowledge the existence of women – and in general, it’s a bit of a departure for ass-kicking female characters in escapist fiction to be older than thirty, so yay for that. (Don’t be too ready to dole out inclusiveness points to Counter though, the next novel has a few issues on that score.)

The character of the Pilgrim, as well as being an outright terrifying presence in Thaddeus’s plot thread, also highlights Counter’s improved grasp of plotting. Whereas the final twist of Soul Drinker can be guessed hundreds of pages before it actually occurs, Counter carefully manages the information he gives you about the Pilgrim, giving you enough to be well and truly intrigued about his identity but not quite enough to guess until very shortly before the reveal. As it turns out, the Pilgrim’s hatred of the Soul Drinkers – despite being rather scarily expressed – has a very sound basis indeed; combined with the fact that most of their endeavours this time around being centred on halting the process of mutation kicked off when they dabbled in following Tzeentch, this continues a developing theme over the opening three books of the Drinkers constantly having to battle the consequences of their own bad decisions (and specifically Sarpedon’s bad decisions).

The real star of the show, though, is Teturact, who even better than Ve’Math in the previous book shows how Counter has a flair for taking a bit of 40K canon, mixing it up with a bunch of original ideas on his own, and coming up with something which on the one hand is quite original to the setting and yet at the same time has sufficient precedent to not seem completely out of place. Granted, things do threaten to get a bit Dragonball Z when Teturact and Sarpedon finally duke it out, but Space Marines are built for standing in an impressive pose gurning furiously at their opponents so that’s all to the good.

What most impresses me this time around and makes me feel that Counter has genuinely grown as a writer is the structure of the novel, which is another thing which makes me think the series might have been improved if it started with this one. It opens with the Inquisitor’s investigations and for the early parts the Soul Drinkers are a very low-key presence, with occasional depictions of commando missions on their part indicating that they’re up to something but not revealing much of their agenda. It’s only later on that the pieces of the puzzle start coming together and the implications of what the Drinkers are doing – and the significance of the Teturact stuff to the Drinkers’ and Inquisitor’s stories – becomes apparent. This involves a deft touch on Counter’s part which, on the basis of Soul Drinker, I hadn’t expected to see, so I think it’s fair to say that The Bleeding Chalice is where the training wheels finally come off.

Crimson Tears

The third book of the series sees the Soul Drinkers once again trying to clear up a mess of their own creation. At the close of the nightmarish battle on Stratix Luminae at the end of the previous book, the Drinkers were unable to evacuate their Assault Company from the battlefield. Led by Tellos, a Drinker whose mutations had rendered him a nigh-unstoppable killing machine with an unquenchable thirst for battle, the Assault Company could be expected to put up a valiant fight, but considering the numbers they were facing it was thought that there would be no prospect of survival. As it turns out, they did survive – physically, at any rate. Here and there, members of Tellos’ Assault Company have popped up on Imperial Worlds and run amok. When a scout mission captures one of them and brings them back to the Drinkers’ headquarters for interrogation, Sarpedon’s worst fears are confirmed when the Marine proves to be hopelessly mad – and, worse, a worshipper of Khorne, Chaos God of blood and slaughter, who Tellos apparently now serves. Before being executed, the captured ex-Drinker tells Sarpedon that Tellos will face him on the planet Entymion IV.

As it turns out, Entymion IV has problems of its own. Its population has been corrupted by the insidious influence of a group of dark eldar, led by Prince Karhedros of the Kabal of the Burning Scale, and all communication with the Imperium has been cut off. When the Soul Drinkers arrive, they find the planet a war zone, with Imperial forces facing off against Karhedros’ men. Realising that Tellos’ men must be working on behalf of Karhedros, Sarpedon feigns an alliance with the dark eldar in order to gain their confidences, in order both to work out how to find Tellos and the exact nature of Karhedros’ plans for Entymion – plans which have ramifications both for the fabric of the universe and for dark eldar society as a whole.

To make matters worse, the Imperial forces don’t just consist of a rag-tag collection of Imperial Guard regiments – though said rag-tag collection is in fact present. Along for the ride are a detachment from the Crimson Fists – who are, of course, a fellow Second Founding successor chapter to the Imperial Fists, like the Soul Drinkers. When the Crimson Fists realise the Soul Drinkers are here, they summon massive Fist reinforcements and launch an all-out assault on the Soul Drinkers – not merely because they are renegade Marines who’ve betrayed the Empire, but they’re renegade Marines who’ve betrayed the Empire who, like the Fists, also have the blood of Rogal Dorn flowing through their veins. Can the planet survive the havoc caused by urban warfare, vast Chaos magic rituals, and furious, pounding Fist-on-Fist action?

Spoiler: no.

At some point between writing The Bleeding Chalice and this one Ben Counter seems to have have realised that the best parts of the previous novels were the climactic battles at the end, and set himself the challenge of writing a novel that focuses less on interstellar quests and more on a single knock-down, drawn-out, chaotic battle with a million different things happening at once. As it turns out, this works really well. Counter wastes little time getting the Drinkers to where the action is and from that point to the end continually racks up the stakes and the bloodshed. He shows a particular knack for making you say to yourself “Wow, the situation in this battle is really messed up,” and then dropping something which makes things get even more frantic just as you think things are as crazy as they are going to get.

One of the nice things Counter does with this book is how he begins to isolate Sarpedon from the rest of the Soul Drinkers, and does so in a very natural and believable way. For some of the Drinkers, being asked to take up arms against fellow human beings at the behest of a Chaos-worshipping alien – even if it is in pursuit of a subterfuge – is a bit much, to the point where they begin to have serious concerns about Sarpedon’s leadership of the chapter. For others, Sarpedon is essential to the chapter’s survival – the way they see it, he’s a symbol both of the things they need to atone for and the things they can hope to achieve, and consequently a vital figurehead for the chapter without whom they cannot hope to maintain their former cohesion. Since the next book in the series is called Chapter War, I guess these are hints towards the direction that might take, but they’re not done heavy-handedly because they fit the context they appear in perfectly.

Another neat thing with the continued evolution of the chapter is the new recruits working their way through their indoctrination in the scout company. Led by Eumenes, the most promising of the recruits, they are interesting because the Drinkers have made a habit of finding recruits from rebellions against the Imperium – though obviously not Chaos- or Xenos-flavoured ones. Eumenes himself is an individual who has never lived under Imperial rule, whose people were disenfranchised by the coming of the Imperium and have always fought to liberate themselves from it. It’s not yet clear what his attitude to the Emperor – who the Drinkers still venerate – actually is, but it’s already clear that he and the rest of the scouts are much happier to tangle with the Imperial Guard and Crimson Fists than the veteran Drinkers are. Though again this is an interesting foretaste to a clash of outlooks which might cause trouble for the chapter in the near future, I don’t think the scouts are handled quite as well as the distancing of Sarpedon from his fellow Drinkers; whilst the action involving them is tense and exciting, you don’t get much of a sense of what they are like aside from noting their keenness to prove themselves and become full members of the chapter.

Actually, in terms of characterisation the best success this time around is the Imperial Guard, both in terms of the regiments involved in the action and in terms of their leader, Lord Commander Xarius. Though Xarius is in theory in overall charge of a unified force, in practice he’s exerting authority over a bunch of different Imperial Guard regiments from a swathe of different worlds with a range of different backgrounds, outlooks, and behaviours on the battlefield. The Crimson Fists, as soon as they realise there’s Soul Drinkers present on the planet, are more interested in fighting their own private war to exterminate this stain to the honour of Dorn’s bloodline than helping with Xarius’s plans, and Xarius has no authority to bring them to book. Large sections of the most competent Imperial Guard regiments under Xarius’s control keep going off to help the Crimson Fists because, hey, who says no to a Space Marine? As for the other regiments, they include an artillery group who are so scared of the threat of the Soul Drinkers – and so keen to be able to claim their scalps – that they gladly toss the most devastating weaponry they can at the battlefield when they get a hint of the Soul Drinker presence, and another regiment who essentially fight like the colonial British Army – having more expertise in putting down poorly-armed rebellions on low-tech planets than combat against technologically advanced foes like the Eldar.

All this helps create the image of Xarius as a deeply tragic figure – a competent individual given command of a situation which nobody could be expected to manage effectively, and utterly at the mercy of circumstances. Xarius’ inability to exert command over his people – particularly the Crimson Fists and those bits of the army they commandeer for their own purposes – is a direct consequence of the way the Imperium is structured, and his ignominious end is likewise a sharp indictment of the way the Imperium is set up. This is good not only because it means we care about his story and feel sorry for the guy when he’s screwed over, but also because it stops the Soul Drinkers from looking like complete morons – it’s a timely reminder of the fact that the institutional structure of the Imperium is deeply dysfunctional, so the Soul Drinker’s refusal to engage with it or abide by it isn’t completely insane (though it’s debatable exactly how sustainable it is).

So much for the best character. It would be wrong of me not to mention the worst one. Remember how last time Counter managed to alleviate the fact that Space Marine-focused novels tend to have a lack of female characters (Space Marine chapters being sausage parties by design) by including Aescarion, an interesting female character who managed to avoid being a complete cookie-cutter figure by the fact that she was middle age and feeling it? Well, this time around Counter decides do something similar by including a reasonably prominent female supporting character on the villain’s side.

She is Saretha the Bitch-Queen, the Whore-Priestess of the Dark Prince of Chaos.

Yes, those are her actual titles which Counter actually applies to her.

She’s a Slaanesh cultist and Counter plays the “slutty witch” archetype to the hilt. Then he blows her up and puts us out of our misery, but still, for the period she’s a presence in the novel, she’s exactly as over the top and offensive as the name implies.

By the end of Crimson Tears, Counter has proven that he’s grown immensely as an author since Soul Drinker. He’s also proven that he’s not afraid to throw magic space whores at the reader. In other words, he’s become pretty skilled at the whole 40K fiction game, and he’s clearly a smart guy, but he’s smart enough to know better. A round in the pain glove for that man, I think.

Final Round

Taken over the course of the entire omnibus, I do wonder whether Counter is writing himself into a corner. He does seem to be doing an increasingly good job of working in hooks for subsequent novels in the series into the stories, and there’s a sense that the saga of the Soul Drinkers is actually progressing – that rather than dragging on interminably until Games Workshop finally allow the plug to be pulled, like Gaunt’s Ghosts, the series is constructed with a definite end in sight which Counter is steadily progressing towards. I suppose the major success of the first omnibus is that it makes me want to get the later books in the series, because I’m fascinated to see where this is going to go – particularly since there’s a car-crash-in-slow-motion aspect to the proceedings. After all, Sarpedon has basically led the Soul Drinkers to take on both Chaos and the Imperium simultaneously, which is like being offered a choice between being set on fire on the one hand and being decapitated on the other and saying “Why don’t we do both?”

That said, as we’ve been discussing lately tie-in novels tend to be a guilty pleasure, and some are definitely guiltier than others. Counter’s less guilty than some, but I still wouldn’t recommend him as an introduction to the setting. Particularly considering the whole Bitch-Queen thing.

4 thoughts on “Fists of Rebellion

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