Dark Imperium: Plague War

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It’s taken me almost a month to finish reading this book, but I feel like I need to point out that I haven’t been dragging my feet because the book is bad – far from it, it’s a really great 40k story in what I’m coming to think of as the “iconic” mode, as opposed to all of the throwaway stories that I’ve read in the past. But, as I’ve said already, I’ve been moving house, so time has been at a premium!

Plague War follows on from where Dark Imperium finished off, with the stage set for a Guilliman vs Mortarion showdown. In many ways, Plague War is a much better book, as it doesn’t really come with all of the baggage of the new edition that its predecessor had. Rather than reading the book to find out what would be in store for the new Primaris range, we can instead enjoy it on its own merits, and while I think I’ll most likely re-read them both when the inevitable third part comes along, I do think that the second act is definitely stronger.

The first couple of hundred pages feel like they are very deliberately setting the scene for the showdown on the planet Parmenio, presenting us with a number of small vignettes focused on several major characters to the story. We meet Frater Mathieu, who has settled much more into the role of Militant-Apostolic to Guilliman, and is continuing his schemes to make the Primarch a true believer in the divinity of the Emperor. We follow the Guard, as always, alongside some Sisters of Battle as they investigate the presence of a potential Imperial Saint in the city of Tyros, who first appears at the turning point in the battle against the forces of Nurgle. We meet several of Nurgle’s daemons, we catch up a little with Mortarion, and we also get to catch up with the Primaris marine Justinian Parris, who is seconded to the Novamarines following the events of the earlier novel. It’s all a little bit of a jumble – Guilliman himself doesn’t even appear until well over 100 pages, to take delivery of a curious strongbox.

While Mortarion is cooking up something particularly disgusting on Iax, which we got some clues about in book one, his feint on Parmenio is intended to bring Guilliman to his knees, and so the main portion of the book deals with the battle there. There’s only so much disease, filth and ichor that I can really take, but nevertheless, I felt it was somewhat toned down compared with previous Nurgle-centric novels. The Novamarines manage to destroy one of Mortarion’s clocks on the planet, which means that when the daemonic incursion takes place, the Neverborn are at a distinct disadvantage, due to the lack of any Warp power on Parmenio. They still put up a good show, of course, and Guilliman is almost destroyed by Mortarion’s scythe Silence, but at the crucial moment, the Battle Sisters bring the Saint onto the field of battle (defying Guilliman’s express orders) and her mere presence manages to send most of the daemon’s back to the Warp. Mortarion escapes to fight another day, calling out to his estranged brother to follow him to Iax and pretty much setting up the third novel, and the Imperium forces are left to gather their thoughts and their dead.

The fairly ambiguous end sees Roboute Guilliman open the strongbox, and begin to read possibly the only remaining copy of Lorgar’s Lectitio Divinitatus.

I said before, this is a much more enjoyable novel than Dark Imperium, and I suppose part of that has to do with how I approached reading the earlier novel. There is still an element of seeing these sorts of novels as miniatures catalogues, although there aren’t any new miniatures hinted at that I recall. The Astraeus super-heavy tank gets a mention, though, which I suppose was new at the time this book came out!

The novel did feel a lot like a short series of disjointed events for probably the first half, which didn’t really help me get into it too much. It became easy to pick up and put down after a single chapter, rather than wanting to read through for a good period of time. Nevertheless, once the story got underway, it was very enjoyable – though my personal disinterest in Titan warfare meant a particularly long chapter about 3/4 of the way into the book was just tedious to get through.

I thought it was really interesting how the Imperial Saint, Kaylia, was handled, though. She seems to have been just a regular girl who happened to have, to all intents, the Emperor act through her, bringing the cleansing light of His majesty to the disease-ridden battlefields of Parmenio. One of the daemons actually refers to her as “the anathema”, their word for the Emperor, though once this power has proven to be too much for a mere mortal to contain, and she expires as a result, Guilliman writes her off as an unsanctioned Psyker and berates Mathieu for planting the seed that enabled the Battle Sisters to take possession of her. The war between the Primarch and the Ministorum is clearly not over yet!

I do wish that more had been explored of that, but I suppose it’s possible that we’ll see more of it in the next book, which I hope will follow up on a lot of this stuff. Will Roboute Guilliman become a believer? I don’t know what to make of it – and I really don’t know what to make of him. Throughout this and the last book, we are led to believe that Guilliman, once he had come out of stasis thanks to the help of the Ynnari, had a chat with the Emperor on Terra. During the confrontation with Mortarion, however, it is implied that Guilliman did not, which makes me wonder what’s going on there. Is he trying to create some kind of cult of personality around himself, and maybe eventually declare the Emperor to be dead at last? I think he is now aware of the reasons for the Primarch project, and their eventual redundancy, so maybe his loyalty has shifted a little. I’m not trying to say that he is about to fall to Chaos, of course! I’m just wondering if we might be setting up for a further schism on the side of “good”, with the Ministorum heading up a pro-Emperor faction, and Guilliman at the head of his own? Like an Imperium Secundus, but for the modern age? Who knows!

I was a bit disappointed by the actual Guilliman/Mortarion confrontation however, and while inevitable, the fact that pretty much all of the Nurgle commanders escaped to fight another day was disappointing. I suppose it’s difficult to have such a confrontation where, presumably, the author isn’t allowed to kill off such a hugely important character (with a £90 miniature that was only released a year and a half ago…) In addition, the battle involving Typhus was almost entirely a bit of a sideshow, and I can just imagine the Herald of Nurgle twirling his moustache with a snicker and a “until we meet again!”

“You haven’t seen the last of me, muchachos!”

Overall, it’s definitely worth the read, although as the second part of a trilogy it both benefits and suffers, by having a decent story to build out from, albeit with no real sense of closure quite yet.

Dark Imperium

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!