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.
The story so far: It is the 41st Millennium which as any fule kno is Warhams time. In Soul Drinker our hero Sarpedon takes over the Soul Drinker Chapter of Imperial Fist-derived Space Marines and leads them in rebellion against the Imperium because the Imperium are poo heads who won’t make the Adeptus Mechanicus give the Drinkers their toys back. Then they realised that they were being manipulated by Chaos and yelled NO CHAOS YOU ARE POO HEADS TOO and tried to go a third way, refusing to either be normal Space Marines or Chaos Space Marines because they’re just that special.
Then in The Bleeding Chalice they tried to stop being mutants and they ended up stopping being mutants thanks to some Stop Being Mutants juice they found. Also there was an Inquisitor who did some cool shit and a Sister of Battle who did some cool shit.
Then in Crimson Tears they fight some Crimson Fists and some Dark Eldar and a planet gets blown up and you get the impression that Sarpedon isn’t that good of a leader because he kind of accidentally lets underlings go off and worship Khorne on his watch.
Then Ben Counter wrote three more novels about them! Let’s go!
By this point in the series two things have been very clearly established: the Soul Drinkers are in the precarious position that they are in primarily because of Sarpedon’s leadership, and a large number of the new recruits they’ve brought in since their rebellion have no real investment in preserving the Imperial power structure on any level. These matters come to a head in Chapter War. Set after a reasonably spacious gap in the timeline – enough time passes for most of the Scouts from the previous book to become well-established full Marines, and for Counter to set various additional books in the series once he wraps up the main plot – the novel sees Sergeant Eumenes (who in Crimson Tears was the most prominent and promising of the scouts) challenging Sarpedon for leadership of the chapter.
At first he does so openly and honourably, pointing out that instead of swooping in and saving Imperial worlds in peril when nobody else seems in a position to do so, the Chapter should just bite the bullet and work to bring down the whole corrupt structure of the Imperium. Later, when honourable methods don’t work, Eumenes resorts to full-on treachery – and half the Chapter, including veterans who’ve been major players since the first book, are with him. Their timing proves to be disastrous not only for Sarpedon’s loyalists, but also for Vanqualis, the planet the Soul Drinkers are ostensibly trying to save from a massive ork invasion at this point. Things get even worse with the arrival of the Howling Griffons, a loyalist Space Marine chapter who, between Sarpedon’s mutations and some miscommunications, mistake the Soul Drinkers for the sinister bearers of the Black Chalice, a dire Chaos-tainted threat who menaced Vanqualis long ago, after which the Griffons swore to protect Vanqualis from the Chalice’s predations for all time.
Of course, Sarpedon knows that the Soul Drinkers and the Black Chalice aren’t one and the same; then again, he might be wrong on this point. Chaplain Iktinos, whose idea it was to come to this system’s aid in the first place, is playing a game in which Sarpedon and Eumenes are only pawns – a game so subtle that neither Soul Drinker faction has the slightest clue he’s playing it…
One notable thing about Chapter War is the way it treats both factions in the Chapter War in a more or less even-handed manner. It’s clear that Eumenes wouldn’t be a good person to be left in charge of the Soul Drinkers, and his faction’s decision to backstab their comrades mid-battle is pretty odious, both in terms of the treachery involved and in terms of the consequences for the people of Vanqualis. On the other hand, Eumenes also talks a lot of sense. As far as the Soul Drinkers’ long-term goals go, Sarpedon’s position is completely untenable; he isn’t willing to contemplate provoking a revolution against the Imperial power structure, but at the same time he doesn’t exactly have the leverage he needs to spark any substantial reforms – and isn’t even trying to get that sort of leverage. He considers Chaos to be the primary enemy rather than the Imperium, but can’t really offer much help against any of Chaos’ big pushes because the Drinkers’ very presence would be too distracting to the other Imperial forces involved. He seems to seriously intend for the Soul Drinkers to bum around space solving problems the Imperium isn’t bothering to deal with, but in the case of Vanqualis the Soul Drinkers’ presence does little beyond complicating the situation – if they hadn’t shown up then the Howling Griffons would have been able to focus their full attention on smushing the orks. The Drinkers’ only real source of recruits are rebels and malcontents who have turned against the Imperium but haven’t embraced Chaos, but at the same time Sarpedon has entirely failed to understand that such recruits might want to take the odd action against Imperial oppression now and then that extends beyond helping a few minor insurgencies. Sarpedon constantly claims to be all about doing the Emperor’s work, but the Emperor was hardly one to smile on people dissing the chain of command or splintering off from the all-encompassing Imperium.
Of course, despite all that it’s clear that in the absence of anyone else stepping up to take on the job, Sarpedon is the only real option. Towards the end of the book, when he addresses the Soul Drinkers after defeating Eumenes, he offers to abdicate in favour of anyone who steps forward to claim mastery of the Chapter. Nobody does, but it’s hard to see this as a ringing endorsement of Sarpedon; more likely, it’s a recognition that taking on the leadership would mean having to take personal responsibility for the godawful situation the Chapter is in, and nobody feels up to tackling that burden. Sarpedon is actually outshone when it comes to honour, dignity, and leadership skills by General Varr, the leader of the 901st Penal Legion which represents the only Imperial Guard force sent to help Vanqualis. Here Counter puts his own spin on this particular setting detail, answering the question “if the rank and file Penal Legion troops are criminal scum and disgraced Guardsmen, who are their officers?” The answer, of course, is “disgraced officers”, and the particular form the General’s disgrace takes makes him one of the coolest characters in the series.
Another standout character is Inquisitor Thaddeus, who makes a return to the series after The Bleeding Chalice in a mysterious and desperate bid to warn Sarpedon about something which, thanks to his failure to get the Howling Griffons onside, he never gets to say. The death of Thaddeus is genuinely surprising, particularly since his subplot seemed to be geared up to open Sarpedon’s eyes to Iktinos’ manipulation. In fact, quite the reverse happens – Iktinos’ plots are never revealed at all in this book except, of course, to the reader, who is left to puzzle out what the hell is going on with him. Counter seems particularly taken with the idea of having several plot threads unfolding over the course of multiple books in the series, but this is the first one I’ve encountered where a plot point is so clearly enunciated and then left dangling without any closure at all. I suppose this is why Counter was down with Phalanx being serialised, because at this point the plot of the saga begins to resemble one long soap opera as opposed to a series of self-contained novels – as becomes very apparent in Hellforged.
Aside from these efforts to stretch out certain plot threads, Chapter War provides more or less what I have come to expect from Counter: a tense meatgrinder of a battle with lots of Space Marine action. Unfortuanately, Counter seems to be continuing his drift into the NO GIRLS ALLOWED club within the Black Library; although he does refer to some women serving within the Vanqualis armed forces (one of whom is described as dressing more rakishly than the men), they pretty much all die without getting to do anything remotely killed. Countess Ismenissa, the ruler of Vanqualis, is in theory a powerful woman but in practice spends the entire book sitting at home being a convenient viewpoint character for Counter to use whenever he wants to let us know how things are going in the hive-cities. This compares poorly to Sister Aescarion from The Bleeding Chalice, who yes was an Inquisitor’s sidekick but did get to lead missions of her own and actually do something. Hell, even Saretha in Crimson Tears, despite the whole “Bitch-Queen and Whore-Priestess” thing, got to do more than any female character in Chapter War ever does.
In short, the book offers some interesting plot developments and showcases most of Counter’s merits and flaws as an author. The merits are on full volume this time, at least, and the flaws are a bit less blatant than they have been in the past but aren’t so muted that you won’t notice them if you are at all discerning about your Warhams fiction, so on the whole I enjoyed the book but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t enthused by the first omnibus.
Having been put through the meat grinder, the Soul Drinkers need a breather – so Iktinos, serving his dubious master, suggests that they make for the Veiled Region, an area of space where due to local anomalies navigation is tricky and astropathic communication impossible. It seems like the perfect place to lie low until the Drinkers run straight into the path of a massive Adeptus Mechanicus explorator fleet on a mission to probe the region’s mysteries. BEEP BEEP IT’S THE SOUL DRINKERS GET THEM shout the Mechanicus, and the Drinkers are forced to flee, but not before the Mechanicus’ massive firepower does great damage to the power generation centres of the Brokenback, the Soul Drinker space hulk headquarters.
Left critically low on fuel, the Drinkers are forced to try and scavenge what they can from the local worlds – only to discover that the local human federation, a rare interstellar enclave that hasn’t been gathered to the Imperial bosom, is coming under sustained assault from masses of recently-reawakened necrons. In fact, only one planet still harbours life – Raevenia, a world which the necrons are preparing to purge. Offering their help to Queen Dyrmida of Raevenia in return for fuel, the Soul Drinkers prepare a desperate gambit to track down and destroy the necron leader whose will animates the dread legions on Selaaca, the former capital of the local empire now turned into a necron machne planet – but to do that, they’ll need to play nicely with the Adeptus Mechanicus, who’ve also become caught up in the fight against the necron menace.
Astute readers will note that the plot to Hellforged bears a very strong similarity to that of Chapter War. In both books, the Chapter are manipulated by Iktinos into going to a remote star system where it turns out the local human population, led by an aristocratic woman, is under threat from besieging xenos forces. In both books matters are complicated by the involvement of powerful Imperial forces with little love for the Soul Drinkers. Both stories tantalise the reader with glimpses of Iktinos (and, in Hellforged, those loyal to him) behaving in a clearly dodgy manner. In the long run, it turns out both star systems have ancient Soul Drinker sites which only Chaplain Iktinos knew about.
In short, Hellforged reads a lot like an inferior photocopy of Chapter War. Unlike Chapter War, the book takes far too long to manoeuvre the Soul Drinkers into the thick of the action; moreover, said action just isn’t as interesting as the Soul Drinker-vs-ork/Imperial Guard/Howling Griffon/other Soul Drinkers action which the previous book offered. The necrons, being soulless personality-devoid steamrollers, just don’t sparkle in Counter’s hands to the same extent that the orks did, and the fight scenes against them prompted much eye-glazing and skimmage compared to the really edge-of-the-seat battles in Chapter War. I had some hope that Dyrmida would get to do more stuff than Ismenissa did as governor of Vanqualis, but despite getting to wear combat armour and carry a gun she doesn’t actually get to do much when the chips are down aside from attempting to run away from the necrons, failing to escape, and then killing herself so she wouldn’t be skinned alive by their Flayed Ones. And the “Chaplain Iktinos is doing dodgy shit” segments seem much more perfunctory this time around. On the whole, I’m left wondering why the plot twist to set up Phalanx couldn’t have been engineered to take place in Chapter War instead, since Counter clearly didn’t have an especially distinct story to tell here and most of the major characters who die here had perfectly credible opportunities to die in the previous book.
To be honest, the parts of the novel which work best are the bits which revolve around the Adeptus Mechanicus. Archmagos Voar and his band of explorators manage to be surprisingly characterful as far as tech-priests go; I particularly like the way Counter gives each of them radically different bionic augmentations to both indicate their specialities and to give them some personality. Particularly fun is Magos Hepsebah, because she’s the weapons expert who commands the ship with the really big guns and gets to shoot up the Brokenback something fierce. She’s mentioned as having retained more of the emotional centres of her brain than her colleagues, not so she can do the sensitive emotional woman bit but so she can take pleasure in blowing her enemies to bits. In short, she’s a female character who is allowed to be really good at science and engineering and also gets to Kirk it up and yell “Hit it with everything we have!”, which qualifies her as the least embarrassing attempt at a female character who gets to do stuff on Counter’s part since The Bleeding Chalice. In fact, most of the Adeptus Mechanicus get to do awesome stuff this time around, to the extent that it’s kind of a shame that they get shuffled off into a supporting role once the Soul Drinkers take the lead in the raid on the necron leader’s base on Selaaca. On the other hand they do arrange for the Imperial Fists to show up and arrest the Soul Drinkers on charges of treason and high naughtiness, so they at least get the last laugh.
However, the good showing by the Mechanicus can’t hide the fact that this is a novel which doesn’t really want to exist. Nor can it gloss over the sloppy proofreading job – there’s a bit where Chaplain Iktinos is mentioned as being present at the talks between the Soul Drinkers and the Mechanicus, despite the fact that he was left behind at Raevenia in order to co-ordinate the defence there. And when the Black Library editors can’t be bothered to pay attention any more, why should the reader? Certainly, I don’t have very much to say about Hellforged because it really doesn’t offer very much of substance to talk about in the first place.
So, at the end of Hellforged the Soul Drinkers were captured by the Imperial Fists; this novel follows immediately on from that, with the Drinkers incarcerated on the Phalanx, the Fists’ legendary starfaring headquarters. However, rather than simply exterminating them outright, the Fists intend to give the Soul Drinkers some semblance of a fair trial – a trial attended by delegations from numerous Space Marine Chapters, as well as the Inquisition and the Adeptus Mechanicus. In fact, more or less every institution of the Imperium which considers itself wronged by the Soul Drinkers, or which has crossed their path, or which is simply curious as to what the outcome is going to be has sent along a little embassy. One of these groups is a rag-tag sect of pilgrims called the Blind Retribution, a cabal who travel throughout the Imperium observing and documenting the various processes of justice practiced within it. Chapter Master Pugh of the Fists allows them onboard and then the Fists forget about them, which proves to be a mistake – for the Blind Retribution follow a secret agenda, one symbolised by a mysterious chalice, and strike to give the Soul Drinkers a chance to escape – or, at least, to go down fighting rather than being slaughtered like sheep.
However, Sarpedon is forced to wonder whether by fighting back the Soul Drinkers aren’t just serving someone else’s agenda. Between the nefarious acts of the pilgrims, Chaplain Iktinos’s revelation of the fact that he’s following his own agenda, and the disturbing revelation that the Soul Drinkers aren’t actually descended from Rogal Dorn’s geneseed at all, it’s clear that something else is going on here – and has been going on ever since the Chapter was founded. And it all seems to revolve around Daenyathos, the long-lost ideologue who penned the Catechisms Martial which the Drinkers have always held sacred and which regularly reiterate their Astartes-supremacist tendencies. Who, as it just so happens, has just been discovered alive and well (albeit a Dreadnought) and is aboard the Phalanx…
Early on in Phalanx it is made abundantly clear that this is the end of the line for the Soul Drinkers. Counter goes so far as to include a scene in which the Imperial Fists shoot the Brokenback to pieces in order to underline this – without their ride, the Soul Drinkers’ old approach of bumming around the galaxy looking for trouble simply ceases to be viable. What is particularly interesting about the early stretches of the novel, however, is the fact that it is built around a brace of short stories, presumably as a deliberate attempt to engage with the format of Hammer and Bolter. Hammer and Bolter, in case you hadn’t heard, is an ebook-only revival of Inferno, Black Library’s previous short story magazine. On the whole it’s actually pretty good value – yes, it’s a marketing tool trying to sell you other books and a testing ground for prospective new authors, but each issue usually has a decent stash of self-contained Warhams stories of which most will be of at least reasonable quality. On top of that, as well as including previews of hot new releases, Black Library have also taken to serialising novels in it, and Phalanx did in fact premier as the first novel to be so serialised before it was released in standalone format.
For the early part of the book the episodic format works reasonably well, because Counter is able to break things down into reasonably satisfying chunks of story. For instance, there’s a bit with a scout squad heading down to Selaaca to explore the ancient and very, very secret Soul Drinkers base where Daenyathos is hidden, and the trial itself yields some nice short stories formed from the testimony of Varnica of the Doom Eagles (testifying for the prosecution) and N’Kalo of the Iron Knights, testifying for the defence. This is such a neat way for Counter to get out a few final Soul Drinkers stories which he didn’t get a chance to turn into full novels that I honestly expected that most of the novel would unfold like that, with story after story being told until the final episode sees Daenyathos and Iktinos put their plan into effect at the last moment before being heroically slapped down by Sarpedon, thus earning the Soul Drinkers a humane and honourable execution.
This isn’t, however, how it pans out – shit hits the fan less than halfway into the book, but despite the latter half of the book forming a single continuous story Counter seems to have been compelled to make an effort to hammer it into an episodic format anyway, despite this not necessarily really fitting the story any more. What this means is that the climax of the series devolves into a series of boss battles – there’s three different epic boss battles against Greater Daemons of various flavours, a boss fight against Iktinos, and a boss fight against Daenyathos. This is about three or four more boss fights than a book really needs, even if it is the last book in an epic series.
Boss fights aren’t the only thing the book has too many of: so many Imperial factions and Space Marine Chapters are represented in the book that there’s far too many characters present, meaning only a tiny fraction get to be anything more than cardboard cutouts. Of the non-Soul Drinker Marines present, the Imperial Fists probably have the best showing, not least because a lot of the features we know and love from great Warhams literature of the past seem to be present and correct. The Pain Glove is back in a more biomechanical than usual form, adding a dose of Giger to the whole “suspended in a skintight bodyglove which applies pain to every nerve” deal, and the Soul Drinkers are actually kept in a special area of the ship which has dungeons and torture chambers built for the personal use of the Fists – not for holding prisoners they capture in battle, but so that if they personally feel they have been naughty they can go and lock themselves in and spank themselves until they feel they’ve had enough punishment.
On top of that, Counter is somehow able to make the Imperial Fists seem even more awesome than they actually are because they actually have a haunted dungeon on their ship – an oubliette where particularly foul enemies are dumped to die off and where the Fists dump old technological experiments of theirs which turned out to be really bad mistakes. There’s actually a segment towards the end of the book where some of the Soul Drinkers, having convinced the Fists and their allies to let them help in the fight against Daenyathos and the rampaging Chaos hordes, form up a little adventuring party and go on a dungeon crawl through this area as a means of getting to the Chaos portal undetected, which is simultaneously spectacularly silly but also kind of brilliant – more 40K novels should include dungeon crawls.
Actually, the breakout character from the book isn’t a Space Marine at all – it’s Sister Aescarion, returning from The Bleeding Chalice as part of the Inquisition’s delegation to the trial. She’s more or less the only female character in the book, and for the first part she’s relegated to being a background character until she suddenly breaks free from that. It’s almost as though halfway through she snaps and says “Fuck this, I’m not going to be another token woman who stands in the background and doesn’t do anything so Counter can pretend he’s met his woman quota,” at which point she goes off-script and upstages everyone else. She saves Chapter Master Pugh of the Imperial Fists – the Fistiest living Fist in the universe! – from nigh-certain death and holds her own in battle alongside him, she wins a staring contest against a Greater Daemon of Tzeentch because of her fervent religious faith, and she’s one of the more competent members of the adventuring party that goes through the haunted dungeon. She also gets to be the point of view character during the epilogue due to being one of the few survivors of the final confrontation at the Chaos portal. It’s not a perfect turn-around, but it’s at least Counter attempting to do a better job than he did with the previous two books. If he could only bring himself to include more than one or two prominent female characters per novel, I think he could start to make real progress.
Although it does alleviate some problems of the last two novels, Phalanx exacerbates others. For instance, the fact that the tomb of Daenyathos was on Selaaca makes little sense – this is a place we were told that the Imperium never touched, and moreover it’s a planet where the necrons had reshaped every inch to fit their design. Are we really to expect that the necrons completely failed to notice the presence of Daenyathos’s tomb? It would make much more sense if Daenyathos were on the secret Soul Drinker base which Iktinos explores in Chapter War – that would also provide a reasonable explanation for the Black Chalice rumours in that novel (which were never actually resolved in the end). This is yet further evidence, in my mind, that Hellforged was never meant to be part of the series at all, but Counter was prompted into squeezing out one more novel in order to fill out the inevitable second omnibus.
In addition to picking at previous plot holes and yanking them open just as they’re beginning to scab, Phalanx also makes the bizarre call of introducing additional slabs of nonsense in order to make its plot work for no good reason. For instance, there’s the sudden plot twist that the Soul Drinkers aren’t actually descendants of Rogal Dorn at all; it seems to be completely bizarre to introduce such a game-changing plot element so late in the series and to not provide any sort of resolution as to who they are actually descended from. It appears to be a decision made solely so that Iktinos and Daenyathos can’t open the Chaos portal which can only be opened by spilling the blood of one of Dorn’s descendants simply by cutting themselves, but they’re able to solve that problem so easily that it hardly becomes relevant – and surely that restriction only exists because Counter decided the portal worked that way in the first place? The other significant effects of the revelation are a) to make Sarpedon and the others all sad because they aren’t really Fists, they’re phony Fists and feckless fakers, and b) to make it more poignant later on when the Imperial Fists decide to quietly commemorate the Soul Drinkers by including their names on the list of Fists who fell in the Battle of the Phalanx.
I mean, I guess you could assume that the original Soul Drinkers were a cabal of Alpha Legion infiltrators who’d deliberately refrained from being tainted by Chaos so they could masquerade as loyalist Marines for the sake of this big old deep cover mission Daenyathos has set up (though that’s pure fan speculation because none of it is laid out in the book)… which leads me on to the final effect of the revelation, which I think is to flag to the reader what a master manipulator Daenyathos is meant to be. Unfortunately, in the name of making Daenyathos seem like a master manipulator, Counter has to include things like him duping Abraxas, a Greater Daemon of Tzeentch, someone who canonically really ought to be far better at this whole master manipulator deal than any human – and yet Abraxas absolutely and 100% falls for it without batting an eyelid. It’s as canonically inappropriate as someone making a Khorne Daemon sit down and be quiet by yelling louder than it, or beating a Nurgle Daemon at a gross-out contest, or beating a Slaanesh Daemon at a fucking contest. And at the end of the day, Daenyathos’ plan just isn’t that good: he wants to reform the Imperium and make it stronger by having Chaos conquer most of it, on the basis that humanity gains strength through adversity. Because, of course, in the grim darkness of the far future there is only puppies and picnics and cuddle-piles and everyone is nice, so humanity is getting soft. Wait, what?
But the novel also fails because it tries to get us to accept an idea even more unconvincing than that of Daenyathos as a master manipulator: it asks us, at the end of the day, to see Sarpedon as someone whose philosophy and outlook had a shred of support to it. Sarpedon’s final monologue boils down to “Well, look, I know Daenyathos ended up manipulating my entire Chapter into becoming pawns for Chaos, and more or less every significant decision I made over the entire series turned out to advance his agenda… but that just proves my point that the Imperium’s oppression is what drives people to serve Chaos in the first place! We should be nice and kind to people like the Emperor intended!”
Nope, sorry, wrong-o. It’s manifestly clear that Sarpedon’s rebellion against the Imperium played into the hands of Daenyathos and Abraxas that this in itself constitutes a compelling argument against personal freedom in the 41st Millennium: the best course really is to subsume your will entirely to serving the Imperium and to place your faith in the Emperor. The action of the novel shows this through the fact that it sure as shit isn’t the loyalist Marines or the Inquisition or the Adeptus Mechanicus or the Sisters of Battle who open up the big-ass Chaos portal, and none of the actions of the aforementioned groups advances the Chaos agenda one iota. Sister Aescarion’s faith in the Emperor doesn’t turn out to be a falsehood through which the forces of Chaos leak into the world, for instance. Although Aescarion and the Imperial Fists are left ruminating on how to tell the story of Sarpedon and the others to future generations, it would be ludicrous for them to turn around and decide that the Imperium needs to be radically reformed on the basis of what the Soul Drinkers did, because had the Soul Drinkers just shut up, followed their orders, and respected the Adeptus Mechanicus’ right to the Soulspear none of this shit would have happened. The inclusion of the Soul Drinker names amongst the Imperial Fist dead suggests that the Chapter itself must, out of necessity, be tossed down the memory hole, and the true heroes of the Chapter must be remembered as loyalist Marines who did their duty by the Emperor.
And that Emperor can only be the Emperor of the Imperium, not the conception of the Emperor that Sarpedon followed – a conception which conveniently forgets that the Emperor was a rampaging fascist who was no stranger to brutality and oppression himself. (For instance, when he wanted to chastise a particular Space Marine Legion he genocided that Legion’s favourite city and made them watch.) There’s only one moral the Imperials can be expected to take from the Soul Drinkers’ story, and it’s not the one Sarpedon wants to push (or which Counter seems to expect us to take away). Ultimately, the 40K universe is one where true freedom just plain doesn’t exist – if a human being asks yourself “who do I serve?” and the answer isn’t “the Emperor” or “Chaos” then they’re probably being manipulated by someone. And the Emperor made it very clear in his lifetime that there was only one way to serve him: with total, undying, unflinching obedience. That’s the whole point of the grim darkness of the far future deal: there’s no nice, fluffy, tolerant alternative to the Imperium, because the universe has been too screwed up to make such a thing viable for over ten thousand years. We have to cling to Big Brother because the alternative is to be snuffed out utterly.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a fist branded on a human bum – forever.
The Marine That Burns Twice as Fast Burns Twice as Stupid
In the first Soul Drinkers omnibus there was the sense of Counter settling in for the long haul. A large implied downtime between The Bleeding Chalice and Crimson Tears suggested that Counter was looking to shift gears a little, moving away from the desperate scrabble for survival of the first two books and moving the Soul Drinkers into a steady state where they could rest up and gather new recruits between novels before plunging into their next meat grinder. Whilst another implied downtime happens between Crimson Tears and Chapter War, it does seem that this is the point where Counter decided to begin to wrap things up for the series. The three books of the second half of the series have no significant chronological gaps between them at all – the action of one leads directly into the scenario of the other. On top of that, the revelation of the extent of Chaplain Iktinos’ manipulations in Chapter War suggests to me that Counter couldn’t have possibly intended to spin the series out for that much longer after it.
Of course, there’s room for Counter to pull an Elric here – there’s no reason he can’t go back and write more stories set in the gaps in the chronology. I don’t get the impression that this is the plan though. Phalanx doesn’t feel like the culmination of a heap of foreshadowing like Stormbringer did – it feels more like Counter taking his creation out the back of the tool shed in order to put it out of its misery. Between the abruptness of the Fists’ arrival at the end of Hellforged and the sheer sadistic thoroughness of their destruction in Phalanx, Counter turns on his creation and rips it to shreds with such thoroughness that it’s hard to see him going back to it. And given that the series had been delivering rapidly diminishing returns in terms of entertainment value, I can’t see myself bothering with any latter-day additions to it.
To give Counter his due, whilst the last two novels do tend to fail when taken as a whole, there’s individual scenes and characters in there who turn out to be quite fun – it’s just that once you’re done with the book in question you’re left feeling that they didn’t add up to very much. And the same is true of the series as a whole, which comes across as a very long and roundabout means of saying that rebelling against the Imperium and Chaos simultaneously is suicide. I’m not sure Counter really needed to write six novels to make that point.