Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the latest Space Marine Battles novel as Rob Sanders tackles the enigmatic, mysterious and ghostly Space Marines of the Legion of the Damned.
“An in-depth study into the character of the Excoriators and delving into some of the mysteries of the ethereal Legion of the Damned, Rob Sanders leaves you wanting more and more.” ~The Founding Fields
Note: The review contains minor spoilers.
Legion of the Damned, the latest novel to join the ranks of the Space Marine Battles range for Warhammer 40,000, is a case of Rob Sanders delivering yet again. My previous experiences with his work are his two short stories, The Long Games at Carcharias in the Victories of the Space Marines anthology and Iron Within for the Age of Darkness anthology, as well as his Inquisitor Czevak novel, Atlas Infernal. The latter sadly lies half-finished in my to-read pile of physical books since I’ve been bitten by the eBook bug for the last two and a half months and haven’t read a physical book in that time.
However, the relevant fact here here is that I’ve liked all his work so far and it is massively enjoyable because of his quirky approaches and non-traditional insights into what we would generally consider the norm. For instance, Atlas Infernal is chock-full of dozens of different factions and characters and yet it is all part of a cohesive whole where all the cameos never become overbearing but instead flow smoothly together.
The same holds true in Legion of the Damned, but on a smaller scale and one that is all the more personal.
The novel is told primarily through the warriors of the Excoriators Fifth Company, an Imperial Fists successor chapter of the Second Founding and their disgraced, new captain, the former chapter champion Zachariah Kersh. As such, Legion of the Damned serves as a rather in-depth study into the psyche of the Excoriators and just what makes them tick.
The biggest draw of the novel is that Rob Sanders has succeeded so well in making the Excoriators such a distinct chapter from their other brethren. All the major Imperial Fists legion’s successor chapters of the Second Founding have had their day in the sun and have been explored by several authors. Going up against such old chapters as the Imperial Fists, the Black Templars, the Crimson Fists and the Soul Drinkers (depending on who you believe) is not easy since these chapters have all had massive exposure by both Games Workshop and Black Library alike.
Yet, Rob Sanders makes them a force to be reckoned them. They have their own distinct legacy from their Primarch, which in itself is very different to that of their blood-brothers. Their tactical doctrines are completely different to that of their blood-brothers even though the intent of their actions and that of the Imperial Fists in particular are quite similar. And they are, just, different as a whole. If Rob had used any other chapter than the Excoriators, then the novel would have been far, far different.
Specifically, their own brand of self-torture is something that sets them apart from the others of Dorn’s blood in that it is far more bloodier and is a shared experience with their serfs, rather than in isolation as is the custom of the Imperial Fists. The scenes with the Excoriators punishing themselves are quite chilling to read and quite emotionally charged too since there is always so much tension surrounding these scenes.
Some of the best moments, in the entirety of the novel, are the ones involving Zachariah Kersh and the 816th Feast of Blades, a centennial ceremonial event that gathers together all those of Dorn’s blood and pits the chosen champions of these chapters against each other in a series of brutal, close-combat matches. Each and every scene here is distinct and Rob’s style really evokes images of the fights in my mind. They are also fluid, entertaining and not without their own twists and turns that make them very enjoyable to read. Additionally, these fight scenes are also quite brutal, as neither Rob, nor the sons of Dorn shy away from getting personal in the arenas. Definitely some of the best action scenes I have yet read in Black Library fiction.
Zachariah Kersh is also a very engaging character that you sympathise with and hate with equal measure. His mistakes have cost his chapter dearly, with its chapter standard lost, several battle-brothers dead, and his chapter master near death. Therefore most of his brothers now revile him for his apparent weaknesses and thus Kersh now has to rise above their hatred of him and prove himself worthy as he is promoted from chapter champion to captain of the fifth company. The emotional self-conflict is all there in spades. Kersh constantly fights against the restrictions of his new rank because while he would like to do nothing other than reclaim the chapter standard and punish those responsible for its theft, he also has warriors of his own to command and the orders of his chapter master to obey. This is compounded since his own warriors want to hunt down the traitors who took the chapter standard.
Kersh is definitely not the typical Space Marine hero we read about in Black Library fiction, like Ragnar of the Space Wolves or Uriel Ventris of the Ultramarines or Hazon Dak’ir and Zek Tsu’gan of the Salamanders. However, he still manages to evoke aspects of each of them. He is insubordinate, a believer in the Codex, and he drowns in self-misery and self-blame throughout the novel. But just like his peers from other chapters, the point isn’t that he rises above all of that, but how he does it. Being the big punching bag of the universe is never fun, just ask Tsu’gan and Uriel that. (Thanks to a friend for that excellent observation!)
What I perhaps didn’t like all that much is that the Legion of the Damned itself did not make such a strong showing in the novel, in that their scenes were very few and too far in between. Rob’s approach to show their modus operandi through the eyes of Kersh and his warriors is something that I would say mostly works but I still feel that the Legion could have gotten more exposure. Mystery and enigmaticness is all fine and good but there are cases of having too little of it and too much of it. For me, the Legion suffers from the former rather than being a balance between the two approaches.
That said, what little we do get is no less awesome. We see the Legion’s interest in our protagonist from the get-go, their will manifesting itself through seemingly random cards from the Imperial Tarot, which I have to say was brilliantly done. The concept of the Imperial Tarot deck itself is very, very under-used by authors and therefore it is great to see this small facet of the Imperium’s practices brought to light. Then there is the arrival on Certus Minor of the Legion itself and there subsequent handling of the Chaos forces. Without giving anything away, I will say that most readers will enjoy getting a kick of the scene when an Excoriator scout comes across one particular Legionnaire. Its one of those small, rewarding scenes sprinkled throughout the novel which just add to your enjoyment and excitement and, once again, leave you wanting more.
Another great moment in the novel is discovering the origins of the Legion of the Damned and the arrival of one of their warships. The novel would be quite dull without these two elements and while Rob doesn’t give everything away, he still gives the reader enough information to form their own opinions and to keep them all turning the pages to find out more. More than anything, these were the most liveliest and exciting scenes in the novel.
Then there is also the bridging the gap between the Horus Heresy and M41, something that is handled in a way that is very rewarding, especially if you already are familiar with the most prominent aspects of the Imperial Fists Legion’s history and that of Rogal Dorn himself. Parallels are drawn often between the two ages and these are refreshing to see since few authors actually go that route, preferring to keep their stories grounded in the contemporary age, drawing only a little bit from what has happened ten thousand years ago.
Rob Sanders’s style in this novel is something that often made me feel like I was reading classical mythology, especially something from the Greek myths and plays. This alone makes Legion of the Damned stand out from other Space Marine-centric novels with only Dan Abnett’s Brothers of the Snake coming close. This was… quite the novelty I should say. The character quirks, the events, the dialogue, they all conspire together to give the feel of Greek tragedies and with Kersh being very much the universe’s current favourite punching bag, I guess this was appropriate and I am sort of divided if I liked this or not. I can appreciate the style sure and it enhanced the reading experience for me but I don’t think I would like to see something like become the norm or anything. I’ll say that as a one-off experiment, or approach if you prefer, this works quite well but is not something that should be repeated, at least not for a while.
The pacing of the novel is also something that I did not have an issue with it at all. There are quite a few different worlds on which the story takes place and the flow between them as the characters travel from one planet to the next never slows down or becomes cumbersome. In that respect, there aren’t any low-points in the novel really because there is enough dramatic (and otherwise) tension aplenty in the novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. I would also emphasise that Legion of the Damned is a novel that should be read in as few sittings as possible because in my opinion, that is the best way to enjoy it.
The overall characterisation of all the characters, from the Ordo Obsoletus adept to the agents of the Ecclesiarchy, the Excoriators and their blood-cousins to the Sororitas, are all handled rather nicely too. They all act as per the dictates of their factions and organisations and there is never a dull moment where you think “umm, what the hell did he just say?” or “so and so is not supposed to act like that!”. All the characters play their part appropriately and one of the best things that Rob Sanders does is show you that disagreements between a Space Marine captain and the warriors of his company extend to those around them as well, whether they are scouts of the chapter’s tenth company, or the defenders of Certus Minor itself. Rob Sanders just keeps adding more fuel to the fire that is Kersh’s fall of disgrace, setting him up for a great climax.
And after having read through the entire novel, the climax is quite good because this is the part where the Legion of the Damned really shines. From their lore, we already know that these ethereal, ghostly warriors don’t take to battle unless the stakes are extremely high and the battle is a last stand against truly hopeless odds and Rob Sanders does evoke that mentality of the Legion. However, like I mentioned earlier, I would have liked to see the Legion truly in action here in that I wanted to see them have a bigger effect on it. Quite how that would have come about I am not sure but I did feel at the end like I definitely didn’t get a good enough look at the Legion of the Damned. Ah well, perhaps some sort of follow-up story can be worked up by Rob Sanders and Black Library!
All in all, I would highly recommend Legion of the Damned. Just like with Sarah Cawkwell’s The Gildar Rift, Rob Sanders does a great job of bringing an extremely minor chapter in the lore to life and I would even compare his handling of the Excoriators to Chris Wraight’s handling of the Space Wolves in The Battle of the Fang. In all three of these novels, weirdly enough they are all Space Marine Battles novels, we get a very in-depth look into the chapters which are the driving force of the story and that is something that is very heartening to see in the Space Marine Battles range. That is, these novels transcend the idea of being just bolter-porn and instead deliver us far more than we would expect.
Finally, I would rate Legion of the Damned quite highly as well and give it a 9.5/10. The e-Book is currently available and the print version is coming out in April this year so be sure to pick them up!