Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
AJ (Shadowhawk) is our newest book reviewer on staff here, and he starts off on TFF with a wonderful review of Soul Hunter by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. I hope you’ll all welcome AJ and make him feel at home. -CP
“One of the most intriguing and unusual novels from Black Library, Soul Hunter will challenge your perceptions about life as a Traitor Astartes.“ ~The Founding Fields
I have read precious little of the published work of Aaron Dembski-Bowden, limited to his Horus Heresy novel The First Heretic and his short stories in the first two Space Marine anthologies and the Horus Heresy: Age of Darkness anthology. Up until I picked up Soul Hunter and its sequel Blood Reaver at Games Day UK 2011, I was fairly impressed with his work. There is something about the quality of his work, the style, the characters, the setting, the unexplored concepts that is highly evocative and suitably tight in its execution.
Truth be told, I was never interested in the Night Lords novels until very recently and my friends kept asking me to give them a chance. Of course, after reading his Horus Heresy work, I was really looking forward to seeing how he tackled a proper full-length 40k story. Short stories only get you so far.
So it was with a fair bit of excitement that I picked up this novel and started reading through it. My first reaction after getting through the first few chapters was one of surprise and not a little disappointment.
I think that is a case of buying too much into the hype surrounding the novels. Everybody praises Soul Hunter as one of the best BL novels, the reviews are stellar, the author himself is lauded all across fandom, and even has a cult following that would like nothing less than to have him be the mover and shaker in the Horus Heresy stories yet to be told.
And that really threatened to ruin the book for me and I nearly put it down because of how simple, straightforward and slow it seemed.
But I am glad I stuck through with it. I knew a little about what to expect in terms of the plot since I find spoilers so irresistible.
But you know what? I enjoyed the novel. I certainly have mixed feelings about it but it is one of the books which I will happily read again and again for the sheer entertainment value.
The Night Lords are a legion that has never really had any major screen time until Aaron came around. They featured in Graham’s prequel short story Chains of Command for his Ultramarines novels, and they featured in Lee Lightner’s first Space Wolf novel, Sons of Fenris. In the former, the Night Lords undertake a tank assault while in the latter they use misdirection and traps in a city battle. Two different cameo portrayals and two very unsatisfying outlooks on the legion. If there is more, I have yet to get around to reading any of it.
For me, Soul Hunter challenged my perceptions of the legion. I’d always seen them as vicious, murderous, Raptor-loving Chaos Marines. Those last two words are important: Chaos Marines. The Night Lords are anything but. They are also not Raptor-lovers like most people believe them to be. While the other eight legions gave themselves over to the Chaos Gods, the Eighth Legion remained separate from that inevitable corrupting influence, succeeding for the most part.
They are also not the well-off, living the high life type of Traitor Marines I thought all Chaos warbands are. They are something totally different and Aaron does a great job of portraying that aspect of it. He hammers it at you again and again until you accept it and then a bit more. I don’t say that with any disrespect however and I laud his efforts at making it so crystal clear again and again.
It is needed.
The once proud legion is now split off into warbands, scavenging off their dead enemies, allies and brothers alike. They are losing direction because their Primarch’s guiding influence has been lost to them. Bereft of purpose, they have been reduced to brokering deals with others more powerful than themselves for what amounts to scrap. Some among the splintered legion do not even care about staying true to the Night Haunter’s visions. They are all out for themselves.
All except for the First Claw of Tenth Company: Talos, Cyrion, Xarl, Uzas and Mercutian the newbie. There is a very clear vibe throughout the novel that First Claw is just tired of the state of the legion, and their company in particular. Numbers are at an all-time low, their Captain is a maniac, too much infighting in the company and so on.
Things need to change, sooner the better.
But that is not all the novel is about. We get a very human perspective into the shadows and darkness legion in the form of Talos’ servants, his artificer Septimus and the company’s new navigator Octavia, as well Septimus’ interactions with the other human crew of the company’s strike cruiser Covenant of Blood. So we don’t see the legion just from the Space Marines’ points of view, but from that of the regular humans as well.
It makes for a very nice and unusual narrative that I must say I find unique in the current offerings of Space Marine centric novels for precisely that reason. This approach is very common in the Horus Heresy series as well.
Although unlike the Heresy novels, where I am getting slightly bored by the constant human perspectives in nearly every book, it is refreshing in the mainstream 40k novels. It makes for a very gloomy, dichotomous and engaging reading which on a lot of reflection I find that I actually quite enjoyed. When I first finished reading the novel I didn’t like it, but having thought about it, my feelings were unfounded.
What makes Soul Hunter a great novel is that it challenges you at every turn. It forces you to accept that not all the traitor legions and warbands are coloured with the same heavy brush-stroke of ‘They are evil Chaos-worshippers’. It forces you to accept that sometimes even the elite Space Marines sometimes do not get to fight on their own terms with a proper execution of their trademark doctrines. It forces you to accept that not all Space Marines, whether good or bad (notice I don’t say good or evil), actually act all the time like Space Marines. Cyrion is perhaps the best example of this and he is my favourite character in the entire novel for his witty quips and comments.
In that same vein, Aaron’s dialogue is also very good and as someone who struggles quite a bit with it for my fanfics, it is also educational to a degree. All the characters, whether it is Talos the Prophet, Uzas who is slowly falling to Khorne, Cyrion the smart-ass, Captain Vandred the Possessed or Octavia the newly inducted-against-her-will servant, they all have their unique voices. They act like how they should, and they talk like they should. They are each different from each other, with different mindsets, different ideologies, different perspectives, and Aaron gets it all across very clearly.
The theme of shadows and darkness is also quite prevalent throughout the entire novel, and it makes you feel like you are walking into a house of horrors, except one where your own friends are more dangerous than your surroundings. I felt spooked at times for sure.
The only main criticism that I can really apply to the novel in all honesty is the slow pace of it, even during the action scenes. There is an attitude in the novel that things will play out in their own time and that there is no reason to rush the ending. I am not a fan of that. I can see that it is necessary for the narrative but I still don’t enjoy it. I like my adrenaline-pumping scenes too much, which is why I found the last third of the novel with its boarding actions to be the highlight of the novel. I wish it had been expanded upon a bit more.
C’est la vie.
If you want a change of pace from the other Black Library books, if you want to experiment with your reading, or if you are a fan of the Night Lords, I recommend this book. It is definitely one of the must-reads of Black Library fiction and it showcases more than The First Heretic just why Aaron is as good as he is. Not to mention that the trilogy has just started with this one and these guys are going to back in no time at all when I review Blood Reaver next.
Score-wise, I will have to give the novel a 9.5/10. Originally, after having just finished it, that score would have been quite a bit lower. But like I said, this book forced me to really think about why I didn’t like it and it ended up that I actually did like it. It is a very thoughtful novel, more so than most other Space Marine novels and it works very well in it’s favour. The epilogue is also grand, setting the stage for the eventual showdown.