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.
So, Christmas Eve I get an e-mail circular from Black Library suggesting that they would be sending out a special freebie on Christmas Day, which would involve an opportunity to acquire an e-book version of Rob Sanders’ Legion of the Damned, the latest volume in their Space Marine Battles series which doesn’t emerge in print until April. Oh, what a good idea, I thought. There’ll be lots of people with brand new e-readers on Christmas Day, so giving out a substantial sample of Legion of the Damned, or offering a big discount on the ebook download price, or even giving away a free ebook from the Black Library back catalogue which is connected to the book in some way, or anything like that would be a really good way to hook those potential new customers of their ebook range.
Christmas morning comes around and I’m sat with a freshly unwrapped Kindle in my hand, I check my e-mail and sure enough, there’s a message from Black Library bearing links to an exclusive download of… a desktop wallpaper featuring the cover art of the book. Plus a link to buy the thing at their standard e-book price. Not one to be thwarted, I plugged in my credit card details and got to downloading the thing.
Ha! I thought. That’ll teach ’em to drop oblique hints which could be misinterpreted as suggesting a free e-book giveaway, prompting people to build up expectations of being able to read Legion of the Damned on Christmas Day! I’ll just pay money to do it and it’ll be just like they gave me that free sample after all! Those cheapskates can’t stop me from giving them money and buying their stuff… from… buying…
But enough of Games Workshop’s marketing tactics and the fact that I fell for them like a total rube. How is the book? Well, it’s an interesting one. The Space Marine Battles series is pitched as somewhat larger than average Warhammer 40,000 novels based around depicting the iconic battles from the histories of various Space Marine chapters, as alluded to in various 40K army codexes and rulebooks. In practice, this means you are guaranteed three things: the book will be full of Space Marines, the focus will be on enormous epic battles as opposed to squad-based stuff, and if yours is a mind crammed with 40K setting trivia you probably know how each of the books is going to turn out; the exercise here is taking those one-paragraph Codex descriptions of legendary battles and expanding them into interesting stories which make finding out precisely how the events in question unfolded enjoyable.
In this case, Sanders tells the story mostly from the point of view of Zachariah “the Scourge” Kersh, a member of the Excoriators. Like the Soul Drinkers, the Excoriators are a spin-off Space Marine Chapter from everyone’s favourite Chapter, the Imperial Fists, broken off from the Fists after the Horus Heresy when Rogal Dorn reluctantly agreed to split up the original Imperial Fists Legion. Like the Fists and the other Fist successor chapters, the Excoriators proudly bear the genetic heritage of Dorn, and like the Fists themselves like to seek ecstatic communion with Dorn through pain. On top of this, the Excoriators are prone to the Darkness – a catatonic state which they can fall into spontaneously, in which they are overwhelmed by the despair which washed over Rogal Dorn when it seemed that the Emperor had died at the end of the Horus Heresy.
Kersh, when the book begins, is deep in the Darkness, and deep in dishonour on top of that. In the midst of a heated battle with the Alpha Legion faction of Chaos Space Marines, Kersh both allowed Chapter Master Ichabod to be gravely injured by his enemies, but also failed to stop the Legion from stealing the sacred Stigmartyr – the battle-standard which bears the bloodstains of each accepted brother of the Excoriator chapter. Whether Kersh’s fall into the Darkness was the result of these dire events or whether it preceded them is left ambiguous: what matters is that Chapter morale is at an all-time low, and more or less everyone blames Kersh.
The Apothecary Ezrachi takes drastic action to awaken Kersh from the Darkness when it becomes clear that he is the only champion of the ten dispatched by the Chapter Master who still has a hope of winning the Feast of Blades – the epic duelling tournament that the Imperial Fists and their successor chapters hold in order to celebrate their shared bonds by hurting each other in a respectful, brotherly way. As it turns out, Kersh wins, and having regained some semblance of honour is promoted to Corpus-Captain and placed in charge of the Chapter’s 5th Company – the segment of the Chapter tasked with tracking down the lost Stigmartyr. Before they can crack on with that, however, certain Chapter obligations born of oaths from centuries back oblige the 5th Company to do a minor favour for the Ecclesiarchy – visiting the cemetery world of Certus Minor to lend Space Marine levels of firepower to an investigation into strange Chaos-related phenomena on the planet.
In taking command of the Company on his first mission as a leader rather than a follower, Kersh faces three major challenges. His first problem is that every single Space Marine in the Company hates him – because he lost the Stigmartyr, it’s his fault they’ve been tearing around the galaxy chasing up wild goose chases and getting killed in order to try and get the thing back. His second problem is that he’s haunted by a ghostly Space Marine – a mysterious skeleton in power armour which nobody else can see – and he’s not sure whether he’s losing his mind, suffering the after-effects of the Darkness, or being influenced by the Warp. His third problem is that the Chaos manifestation on Certus Minor turns out to be a beacon that brings the Keeler Comet to the system – and wherever the bizarre, Chaos-tainted Keeler Comet goes, the horrifying Khorne-worshipping horde known as the Cholercaust follows. Led by the terrifying World Eaters legion of Chaos Space Marines, the Cholercaust makes a habit of massacring every living thing on every world they get close enough to – and that puts Certus Minor next up on the omnicide list.
At its core, then, Legion of the Damned is a siege story of the sort which is hardly uncommon in Black Library novels. The first thing a siege story needs is an interesting location for the heroes to defend, because that establishes what the stakes are, gives us some reason to care about the place in question, and helps to explain what the characters’ stake in this is. Certus Minor is a great setting for a 40K siege story because it is the sort of ludicrous society which could only exist in the Warhammer 40,000 setting; it’s the last resting place of Umberto II, a universally respected leader of the Ecclesiarchy, and so the planetary economy is based mainly around renting out space in graveyards all over the planet so that people from across the Imperium can have the honour of being buried on the same planet as the holy Umberto – that is, for a century or so, before the rent runs out on their plot and they are turfed out for the next customer to go in their place.
The fact that Certus Minor is a cemetary world does at points help shape the action of the book. For instance, the defence of the planet is centred on the mausoleum of Umberto II because the Sisters of Battle have over the years turned it into as impregnable a place as any (but at the same time their priority is defending Umberto’s remains as opposed to the living citizens of the planet, putting their leader at odds with Kersh), and Kersh hits on a novel way to use the graveyards to shelter the planetary populace against the invasion. This is all a nice bonus, but it’s not the main reason it works so well as a setting. That reason is a lot more straightforward: the cemetary world concept is a simple idea which instantly gives you an evocative image of what the planet is like – lots of shrines, lots of priests and gravediggers, and graveyards as far as the eye can see. We don’t get much more detail than this on the world beyond the capital, but as far as totally metal backdrops for a siege story go you don’t really need more.
The next thing a siege story requires after an interesting location is interesting defenders, and of course the primary focus of the novel is going to be the Excoriators. As a chapter, these guys take the whole Imperial Fist masochism deal to startling extremes; their daily devotions include the practice of “Donning the Mantle of Dorn”, which involves the Marines having their serfs flog them until they are good and bloody before donning their power armour in the hope of attaining communion with Imperial Fist primarch Rogal Dorn through pain. So dedicated are they to this practice that when Kersh wants to punish one of his officers for insubordination he orders him to refrain from being flogged for the next week or so. Likewise, naughty Scouts (who not being full Marines yet don’t get to flog themselves) are punished by not being allowed to wear their full armour, so that everyone can see their shamefullly baby-smooth skin which lacks the massive scarring that a full battle brother would be able to display with pride.
As well as making them recognisable off-shoots of the Pain Glove-loving butt-branding Imperial Fists we know and love, the particular form the Excoriators’ devotions take makes them a good chapter to line up against the World Eaters: take a Chapter where bloodletting is a side-effect of their religious devotions, pitch them against a Chaos force where bloodletting is the religious devotion, and then when a Marine or two gives in to the aura of bloodthirsty rage engulfing the planet and luring people into the service of Khorne it makes a lot more sense than if an Ultramarine started seeing blood as holy. That said, what makes the Excoriators really interesting is the clash of personalities within their ranks, which makes sure that their internal politics is just as tense as the situation on the planet.
Sanders also does well when it comes to helping us root for people other than the lead Marines whilst simultaneously making sure the additional viewpoints are limited enough that the novel does not lose focus. The best non-Kersh segments are the two snippets from the point of view of Lt. Heiss, both of which only show up at the end of the novel; we are introduced to Heiss as she strolls into her Captain’s office to report that the Marines have ordered their ship – more or less the only functional planetary defence vessel left around the planet – to engage the incoming Cholercaust fleet. Discovering that he’s killed himself out of fear of what’s coming, Heiss as second in command takes over and proceeds to completely steal the novel’s spotlight for a brief chapter and a short cameo in a later chapter. These segments work as well as they do mainly because Sanders is able to give us a really good idea of who the main officers on this ship are and what their relationship with each other is like in a very quick and no-bullshit sort of way – for instance, the tense exchange between Heiss and the ship’s chaplain suggests a history between them which we really don’t need to know the details of, but the implication that it exists is more than enough to lend a bit of flavour to the chapter. Note to Sanders and Black Library: give Heiss a posting in the Imperial Navy or a Rogue Trader commission or something (I seem to recall that it isn’t confirmed she’s dead at the end of the book) and give her a series of her own, please, because I will read stacks and stacks of omnibuses about this crew.
As well as people we can root for, a good siege story also needs good bad guys to besiege the heroes. (It is a big plus if these bad guys do not look like, say, Mongols or Arabs or Native Americans or Mexicans with the serial numbers filed off, as is so often the case in SF/fantasy siege narratives.) The Cholercaust, despite having a completely stupid name, fits the bill. Between the outbreaks of psychotic rage which see hordes of unthinking maniacs ranging over the grave-strewn countryside and the masses of gibbering Chaos creatures who fall out of the warp-rift in the tail of the comet and make planetfall in a decidedly grumpy mood, the defenders already come up against a hellish array of foes before the Cholercaust proper makes planetfall. When it actually arrives, Sanders goes to town with the descriptions, vividly evoking the crazed rag-tag mass of Khornate cults and champions who flock to the Cholercaust’s banner. The few chapters which lend any sort of insight at all into the inner workings of the enemy are some of the best depictions of a Khorne cult I’ve ever read in a Black Library novel; the starship commander’s bridge which is part operations centre, part VIP viewing space for the captain’s very own personal gladiator arena is particularly metal.
In fact, any part of the novel which involves violent action – which is what most of us read Warhammer 40,000 novels for in the first place – can be relied on to be totally metal. Incidents like the Feast of Blades, Kersh’s duel with his second-in-command over the leadership of the Company, and all the battle sequences present some of the most vivid and violent fun the Black Library has to offer. Sanders does a particularly good job of maintaining tension – aware that a subset of his readership is going to know exactly how the battle is going to go down, he’s completely upfront about it, providing in the prologue the first half of a framing story showing that the Cholercaust was eventually defeated on Certus Minor and that only a single Marine survived and there’s indications that something not completely unreminiscent of divine intervention from the Emperor might have happened. What Sanders is able to do well is introduce aspects and subplots to the story which go beyond what sparse details we already know, so that when the framing story wraps up in the epilogue there’s still some matters to resolve and still some surprises to be had – including Kersh’s own small victory against the Cholercaust, of a sort which isn’t immediately obvious from the prologue.
About that victory. Kersh is probably one of the most interesting Space Marine protagonists in a Black Library novel, because Sanders is able to provide him with motivations and goals which we as readers in the modern day can sympathise with, but have these arise from values and ideals which make perfect sense in the context of the setting. It’s extremely clear that between the extensive modifications that transformed him into a Space Marine, the extreme S&M hit-me-harder-I’m-not-bleeding-enough culture of the Excoriators, and his personal experience with the Darkness and his dishonour, Kersh has become almost completely alienated from the average citizen of the Imperium, and indeed the Excoriators in general have a fairly aristocratic “we’re technically descended from the Emperor, you know” take on the relationship between Space Marines and normal human beings.
Yet, at the same time, despite the rest of the Company urging him to drop the whole Certus Minor thing so they can go tearing off after the Stigmartyr, Kersh is determined to stick around on-planet to aid the defence against the Cholercaust and save the lives of at least some of the planet’s citizens. In the hands of a lazier Black Library author this would be because protecting the citizenry is an end in itself, but of course it’s the grim darkness of the far future and that isn’t actually the case at all. Here, Kersh sticks around at first because if he ditches the planet he’d be breaking the Chapter Master’s obligations and dishonouring the Excoriators yet again, and then later because he realises that the Cholercaust has built this fearsome reputation around killing every single human being on every planet they encounter, so if Excoriators can save just a few people from the carnage then even if they don’t stop the Cholercaust from moving on in the wake of the Keeler Comet, they’ll have pulled off a victory which proves that people can survive its coming, and so the morale of every single planet down the line from Certus Minor to Terra will be improved and they’ll have a better shot at actually stopping the Cholercaust.
The end result is that there’s plenty of tension surrounding the fate of the citizenry and whether Kersh’s desperate plan to rescue them will work, and when the end results of the plan become apparent in the epilogue it’s genuinely moving – despite the fact that our reasons for being glad a bunch of people didn’t die don’t quite map onto Kersh’s reasons. In short, Sanders has managed to be both on one hand true to the grimdark nature of the Warhammer 40,000 setting whilst on the other hand presenting a protagonist who isn’t a morally vacuous shitwipe, which is more than many grimdark SF/fantasy authors who aren’t writing in tie-in fiction can claim.
The one place where I would say Sanders falls down a little is in his handling of the titular Legion of the Damned. If you know your Warhammer 40,000 lore, of course, you already know who they are and so don’t need any real introduction to the fact that there is a legendary chapter of Space Marines out there who got trapped in the Warp and mysteriously materialise where they are needed the most and when all else has failed, and might possibly be acting at the direct beck and call of the Emperor himself. Knowing this, you’ll expect the mildly deus ex machina nature of the ending and will be prepared for it. If you don’t know your lore, you’re not going to have a clue who the Legion are, you’re not going to have that much of a better idea once you’re done reading, and whilst the Legion don’t come completely out of nowhere – there’s Kersh’s visions foreshadowing them – the fact that novel builds up to them showing up and wiping the floor with the World Eaters might throw people who aren’t expecting it (which is why I’m spoilering it right here). Aside from that, as far as generic 40K novels about Space Marines blowing shit up go, Legion of the Damned is the best I’ve read so far.