Review: Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders [EJ Davies]

legionofthedamned

EJ Davies takes on one of the more recent books on his reading list with one of the more recent additions to the Black Library writing team – Rob Sanders.

“A rip roaring ride through the inner workings of a chapter on the edge.  Original, entertaining, witty, and gripping stuff from page 1.” ~ The Founding Fields.

From our friends at Black Library:

“Following the trajectory of a blood-red comet, the berserk World Eaters blaze a path of destruction across the galaxy in its wake. The small cemetery world of Certus Minor appeals to the Space Marines of the Excoriators Chapter for protection, but the force dispatched to deal with this grim threat is far too small and their losses against the renegades are high. Just as all seems lost, salvation is borne out of legend itself as sinister spectral warriors descend upon this planet of the dead, and the enemies of the Imperium come face to face with those who have already travelled beyond the realm of the living…”

So, some set up.  I’ll be brief:

  • I love the Legion of the Damned – I love the models and the background.
  • I have really enjoyed Rob Sanders work to date.
  • I have developed something of a love for the Imperial Fists and their successor chapters of late.

With that stated, here comes the verdict.

First, we’re greeted with a lesser-known facet of the Space Marines chapters.  The well-known ones that have already had a range of novels about them (The Ultramarines, Blood Angels) have established backgrounds, politicking, character, charm.  So imagine taking on a chapter of which relatively little is known, let’s call them the Excoriators, make them an Imperial Fists successor chapter – no less than second founding making them one of four established chapters that emerged from the Iron cage – and lets put them into the Legion’s gladiatorial competition of the Feast of Blades.  Now, let the Excoriators lose and have to call upon a character so despised that he’s been locking in a coffin for most of the competition.  Arise, Zachariah Kersh; Chapter Champion, and Scourge.  What follows is almost a textbook (if one exists) method of world-, chapter-, and character building.

There was precious little written, or even known, about this chapter by the time Rob came to writing the novel save for their details in Codex: Eye of Terror – so this was a real blank canvas.  We have a chapter at war with itself, having lost a sacred standard to, and a Chapter Master having been poisoned by, the traitorous Alpha Legion – another writing strength of Mr. Sanders.  We have a hated chapter champion elevated thanks to his prowess in the combat arena to Company Master.  We have the pain glove reduced to a simplistic, ritualised form of flagellation.  And a chapter given life, colour, character, and background.  Sergeants are called whips, captain’s are corpus-captains, and each marine venerates the bullet holes, scrapes, and burns in their armour rather than patching and repairing.  Add to this lifting some arcane piece of trivia from (IIRC) one of the Heresy books, the Keeler comet, and combining that with the red tide of the Blood God’s disciples (the Cholercaust) and we have what is rapidly shaping up to be a horrific free-for-all as they face off against the best attrition fighters in the known galaxy (depending on who you’re talking to.)

Not content with this we have some wonderful relationships built between the marines.  Zachariah Kersh, our protagonist, not only has quite a complex and personal relationship with Apothecary Ezrachi (often described as crabby), but after a swift and improvised surgery to awaken Kersh from the Darkness leads Kersh to see an apparaition – a ghostly visage staring at him from a cracked helm in midnight armour.  There is a scene early on where Kersh tries to self-diagnose why he sees the ghost with the apothecary summarily dismissing him whilst trying to get him out to fight in the Feast.  Kersh is sullen, withdrawn, amusing, patient, harsh, and caring all at the same time and it didn’t take long for me to get to like him, or Ezrachi.  The supporting cast (Epistolary Melmoch, Chaplain Shadrath, Micah, Skase) all bring their own baggage to the party and through them we see the chapter and their preconceptions, battle preparations, and some wonderful, tension-filled exchanges – including a hard fought Trial by Blades.

Finally, the world of Certus-Minor, with all its personnel, faith, and geography is told in minute detail.  Think of a planet entirely given over to burying the dead.  Think of the regions, the roads, the structures, and think of their names.  That’s right, their names.  All of them changed to match their function on a planet of dead people.  Necroplex, Lychway, all names of existing structures in cities, towns, and villages carefully altered to fit their new function on this planet.  It’s this level of detail and genius that truly brings a world alive and makes you feel like you’re their.

As with all things I’ve read that Rob has written: the story is simple, but it’s the telling that matters.  There are characters to love, care about, loathe, and want to see dead.  There are places you like, care about, things you want to know.  There are past details hinted at, and future seeds planted.

An accusation that has been levelled at the series to this point has that it has been predictable.  We know the outcome, so where is the suspense.  I have said it myself.  What I may have failed to communicate effectively is that for something where the outcome is blindingly obvious, what we therefore need is a true sense of jeopardy to pay off with the expected ending.  Example:  I’m a Dark Angels fan so I know the story of Kadillus pretty well.  I knew that *spoilers* Naamen dies, but the Orks are driven back.  I knew that.  What failed me in that book (besides the writing) was that there was no real sense that the Dark Angels were ever going to lose.  By that point, the story was on rails.  In Legion of the Damned, there is nothing but jeopardy from the first chapter.  I think Rob wrote this very well, and knew what he was doing to maximise the ‘pay off’ at the end of the book.

I’m only on 85% of the book, and the Legion of the Damned themselves have yet to turn up.  I usually like to finish a book before I post up the review.  But I don’t care.  Even if the last 15% of the book swan-dives (and I seriously doubt it will) it will not have ruined my enjoyment thus far.

**UPDATE**

Well, having finished the book at lunch today I must say that I continued to be mightily impressed.  Turns out Kersh is more than meets the eye, and doesn’t turn into a giant robot.  Also the appearance of the Legion of the Damned is handled deftly, and with care, preserving what makes them cool:  they’re really hard, and they’re ghosts; that and the flamy armour.

I also forgot to mention that the piece is rife with riffs from other media.  Please Mr. Sanders correct me if I’m wrong that I didn’t spot a Spider-Man 3/Batman (Tim Burton) scene somewhere in the novel, also references to real world places given a twist – like Samarquand.  It’s truly delightful.

**UPDATE ENDS**

I will say that this is an excellent read.  There are always some things I thought could have been tweaked, but I was gripped, amused, entertained, and delighted.  This has been by far the most engaging and entertaining Space Marines Battles book I have read to date – please note that I have read them all besides Architect of Fate and The Gildar Rift.  Bloody good work, Rob Sanders.  Please keep up the outstanding work.

EJ Davies

EJ Davies: reader, reviewer, writer; and an avid lover of Black LIbrary products since the release of the seminal Horus Rising. EJ is currently working through the massive back catalogue of Black Library titles, and plugging away at his own fiction-based efforts in the vain hope of cracking his way into the author pool.

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