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.
Despite being responsible for a large chunk of the Black Library’s Warhammer 40,000 novels, Dan Abnett hasn’t written much about the Space Marines. It’s a credit to the Black Library editors that they’ve not pressured him to write more – and, in fact, they seem to have recognised the point he made with the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, that the rank and file of the Imperial Guard can be just as interesting as the superhuman Marines. It appears to be part of a broader understanding that the audience for the novels and other spin-offs from Games Workshops’ wargames aren’t necessarily the same as the audience for the wargames themselves, and quite likely have different priorities. If one puts aside his contributions to the multi-author Horus Heresy series – which takes place in the distant past of the 40K setting (Warhammer 30,000, if you will) – then Brothers of the Snake is the only Space Marine novel Dan Abnett has written to date. That in itself makes it significant.
Like the earliest Gaunt’s Ghosts books, it’s more a collection of linked short stories than a single, cohesive novel; whilst the first six are reasonably brief pieces, the final story Greenskin, is a novella which takes up about half the book and provides some closure, as well as tying up some loose ends from the very first story (Grey Dawn). The protagonist is Priad, a member of the Iron Snakes Space Marine chapter. The Iron Snakes are an invention of Abnett – I wouldn’t have expected him to be completely content writing about canon chapters – and adhere to a vaguely Hellenic aesthetic. Their names sound Greek, they keep slaves, their headquarters is on Karybdis, a moon of the ocean world Ithaka (which you just know has another moon called Skylla, even though it’s not mentioned in the novel). The chapter takes its name from the giant sea serpents that live in the waters of Ithaka, and which they hunt as part of their training, and they have taken a sacred oath to defend the worlds of the Reef Stars against alien and otherworldly threat, and in writing about the Abnett takes great joy in cooking up Homeric-sounding epithets to apply to them (though he doesn’t use them repetitively like Homer did, presumably because he’s not writing the text to be memorised and recited).
This is all great fun and is important to what makes Brothers of the Snake work; Space Marine chapters get bland if they aren’t associated with a striking and distinctive culture, and the idea of Space Marines as Homeric warriors of the far future has a lot going for it. The differences between the Iron Snakes are, however, more important than their similarities. Abnett hasn’t lost sight of the fact that a Space Marine’s chapter culture is just that, their culture – it’s not a single personality imposed on every member of the chapter, which is a common misconception. (So common, in fact, that Deathwatch – the new Space Marine based RPG from Fantasy Flight Games – includes an entire subsection on how to give Space Marines a distinctive personality because many gamers either don’t know how or simply don’t believe you can.) The Iron Snakes are not a series of cookie-cutter characters – although the front-line troops can be a bit indistinct, the officers all have distinct personalities, and those personalities often clash – Abnett does this to great effect in Crimson Wake, a murder mystery set in the chapter headquarters against the backdrop of new recruits being selected for one of the Snakes’ most prestigious squads.
The protagonist of the novel is Priad, an Iron Snake who is introduced in Grey Dawn as he goes on a solo mission to prove himself by clearing a small infestation of Dark Eldar from the world of Baal Solock – as well as introducing Priad, the story’s also a fascinating depiction of the relations between a backwater feudal world of mostly medieval technology and the Empire. By the end of Black Gold, the second story, Priad has become sergeant of his squad – Damocles Squad. As one of the Notables, the most prestigious units in the chapter, Damocles gets sent on some of the most dangerous jobs that come up – but when a horde of orks blunders into the Reef Stars in Greenskin, they’re faced with a problem that might consume the entire chapter.
To be honest, I think Abnett made the right call in making this a stand-alone novel rather than trying to spin it out into a series – not that I wouldn’t be happy to read more about the Snakes, but I think Priad’s character development comes to a natural conclusion at the end of the novel. (The fact that I can write about a Space Marine having character development is pleasing in itself.) Whilst only the novella provides room to really explore Priad’s and the other squad members’ personalities, the snapshots we get of them in the earlier stories lays the groundwork for the developments of Greenskin nicely; the short stories also manage to be diverse enough to maintain interest, and are actually a bit more varied than the first two Gaunt’s Ghosts books. At the same time, my gut feeling is that Abnett has already run through most of the major possibilities for the Snakes; without an ongoing plot, like Gaunt’s Ghosts’ ongoing hope of winning themselves a new homeworld, there wouldn’t be anything to sustain a full series. Then again, because he isn’t trying to stretch the story or character development out over a whole series, Brothers of the Snake might just be my favourite Dan Abnett novel to date.