So last week, I read Dark Imperium, the tie-in novel for the new 8th Edition goodness for Warhammer 40k. If I’m honest, I was expecting something completely different to what the book ended up being, but the story is so good anyway, and I’m still a little caught up in the new 40k that I enjoyed it all the same!
The book opens sometime in the 31st Millennium, and shows the battle between Fulgrim and Guilliman that resulted in the primarch of the Ultramarines being put in stasis for the next 10,000 years. We then fast-forward to a century after the events of the Gathering Storm, but we’re still somehow in the 41st Millennium, and we see Guilliman leading the destruction of a Chaos temple at the Battle of Raukos. Success over the Chaos forces leads to a Triumph similar to that at Ullanor all those millennia ago, where Guilliman decrees the Indomitus Crusade over. The Primaris Marines that had been created for the purpose are filtered into some pre-existing chapters of Space Marines, as well as formed into several new ones, and the primarch then marches back to Ultramar to do battle with his daemonic brother Mortarion. Arriving back at Macragge, Guilliman re-forms the worlds of Greater Ultramar back into the empire as he knew it, establishing a tetrarchy to govern them, and then leads the Spear of Espandor assault, believing Mortarion’s power base to be on that world. Unfortunately, Guilliman was mistaken, although manages to destroy a warp-crafted daemonic engine to cripple Mortarion’s hold over the segmentum.
As I said at the start, I really liked this book, despite the fact it wasn’t what I had been hoping for. Rather than showing the return of Guilliman and the arrival of the Primaris Marines in the galaxy, instead we learn quite early on that the novel takes place a century after the events of Rise of the Primarch, and deals mainly with the continued adjustments of Guilliman to the world he now finds himself in. On reflection, I think it was probably better to do it this way, as we don’t really need the endless “this is different, and this is different, and so is this” and so on. Guilliman still finds things like the ecclesiarchy difficult to grasp, and a good chunk of the novel deals with his struggle to accept the worship of the Emperor as a god. But he otherwise functions not so much as a man out of time, which could have gotten old quickly, but rather as a man with different ideas.
I’ve never been one to go along with the accepted denigration of the Ultramarines – indeed, I actually like their Roman aesthetic and have long wanted to build an army of them. I’ve not yet made it to the Horus Heresy novels that deal with Guilliman in any significant way, however, so it was nice to finally get to read about the man. In his way, he’s just as interesting as any of the other primarchs – I like the fact he’s described as capable of devouring so much technical information with barely a glance, it makes him so much better than merely “good with a gun” or something, and really forms that link with the Ultramarines as being good statesmen and not just warriors. However, I did think he came across as a bit too much of a tyrant during the Council of Hera, issuing his demands like an autocrat and just slapping down any objections. Though I suppose the Imperium needs someone to cut through the incredible bureaucracy and make things happen…
I think the tone of this novel felt very much like it was meant more to give us the feel for how the universe now is in 8th Edition. The setting hasn’t changed in the manner of Age of Sigmar but, much like the Gates of Azyr, this book feels like its main point is to give us a taste for the new landscape that we can expect to see games developed within. For starters, we see Guilliman trying to make sense of the Imperial dating system, and we learn that there have been a number of calendars in operation, and nobody can say with real authority what the year actually is – in this way, then, we can be a century after the events of the Fall of Cadia, and yet remain within the 41st Millennium. A nice, subtle bit of retcon there, that doesn’t feel outside the bounds of possibility for this universe.
A lot of the battles feel almost vignette-style, which I do enjoy as it means we don’t get a lumbering mess but rather get a story that sweeps along quite well. For instance, the Battle of Raukos is quite self-contained, and there are a couple of actions described within the realm of Ultramar that tell just enough of what we need to know for the story to keep going. I think this is especially important with Warhammer novels that deal with Nurgle, though Khorne can be a similar issue, where the plot gets bogged down in all the gruesome details and so on. There are only so many descriptions of marines wading through effluvia that I can read, you know? The Fall of Altdorf did this really well, as it happens, but there have been times where I do feel myself growing quite ill reading the endless descriptions of filth-encrusted folks.
The book is quite Ultramarines-centric, and I think anyone who appreciates the 13th Legion and its descendants will be happy to see what’s going on. I particularly enjoyed a number of scenes that show such luminaries as Captain Sicarius, Captain Ventris, and Marneus Calgar himself all show their attitude to the return of Guilliman. When the Triumvirate of the Primarch box was first shown, many folks were wondering how Calgar would feel as his place was essentially usurped, though we see that Guilliman is in fact forced to deal with much more than just his own Ultramarines as the Imperial Regent. I wonder if/how that position will change as we get more loyalist primarchs released in plastic. Being a fan of Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines novels, I did enjoy seeing Uriel Ventris return here!
We also get a sense of time moving on within the Imperium, although admittedly this might pass some people by. For example, the Chapter Master of the Novamarines is said to be Bardan Dovaro, whereas we’ve previously been told it’s a chap called Gaius Hadraichus. Admittedly, I only know this because I’m building an army of them. In the main, of course, this sense of time passing is given through seeing the attitudes to the new Primaris Marines, which overall seem to have been accepted by the regular marines of old. A subtle hint that we as players and collectors should also just accept them? I did get the impression at many times that this is almost a catalogue for the new marines, much like Gates of Azyr and some of the early Age of Sigmar stuff seemed to be advertising the new Stormcast Eternals. We get to see the Intercessors in action by and large, which seem to be more akin to the Tactical squads of old. The goofy Inceptor marines are given a really amazing introduction during the Battle of Raukos, though however badass they come across in the lore, the models still look vaguely silly. And we get to see Hellblasters too, which seem to be a specific name for plasma-wielding marines, and makes me think we’ll get similar squads carrying massive melta versions and las versions of those plasma incinerators. Further versions of marines are mentioned, including the Reivers that seem to be a stealth squad that has no previous version, and the Aggressors, which sound like the Primaris versions of Terminators. The repulsor tank and the redemptor dreadnought are also featured. Inevitably, reading about these new chaps made me struggle to get a sense of them in my mind, and the similarities to AoS kept me thinking more about them as models on the tabletop than characters in the story. That’s probably more down to me than anything else, however!
Overall, it’s a very interesting book, and definitely worth picking up for anyone with an interest in the 40k universe to see where we’re headed!