The Emperor’s Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews The Emperor’s Gift, a novel that chronicles one of the defining moments of the war-torn 41st Millennium through the eyes of one of the most secretive and shadowy factions within the Imperium, the Space Marines of the Grey Knights Adeptus Astartes chapter.
“The Emperor’s Gift is easily Aaron’s best work for Black Library to date and it sets a really high bar for future novels.” ~The Founding Fields
The Grey Knights are one of the most intriguing chapters among the Adeptus Astartes because of the nature of the foes they fight (almost to the exclusion of all else) and because of their ties to the Inquisition. Indeed, they are the militant arm of the Ordo Malleus and their sole remit is to combat the most dangerous threats of Chaos throughout the galaxy. In many ways, they are elites among elites and their association with the Ordo Malleus means that they fight extremely specific battles with extremely specific goals in mind. And should their presence become known to those who do not have the authority to do so, well, what happens to them is not pretty. My love for the Grey Knights started with Ben Counter’s Grey Knights novels and I’ve always reading about them. I’ve even gamed with and against them on the tabletop. As such, they are a chapter I’m quite intimate with so I was very curious to see how Aaron Dembski-Bowden would deliver, and whether I would enjoy The Emperor’s Gift as much as I’ve enjoyed Ben’s work with them over the years.
The Emperor’s Gift is a novel that gets everything right and checks all the boxes on the list of “what makes a novel great”. It is seriously character-driven to the extreme, has great set piece battles and, by the time you are done with it, it leaves you on an emotional high. In more ways than one.
Like with the majority of Gav Thorpe’s work, Aaron knows how to get in the mind of his characters and write as if its the characters themselves writing. Our protagonist Hyperion, from whose first person perspective the novel is written, is a deeply-flawed “good guy” character that you learn to appreciate over the course of the narrative and seeing the world around him through his eyes is a learning experience that is not to be missed by any fan of the setting. I liked Hyperion from the get go, mainly because he is the protagonist in a great novel, and because he is written as a (mostly) realistic and believable character. Since the novel is written as his account of the events leading up to the First War for Armageddon, the defining battle of that conflict, and its aftermath, we really get into his psyche and see what makes the Grey Knights tick and how they interact with everyone around them. There is a particular revelation about Hyperion in the novel however, that I didn’t really like because for me it detracts from the narrative. I can’t see it as anything other than a random cool moment that is just meant to score cool points. Especially since there aren’t actually a lot of people who are going to get the reference too! Ah well.
The strong characterisation that we get with Hyperion extends to his squad-mates as well, Justicar Galeo, Malchadiel, Sothis, Enceladus and Dumenidon. Each of them is a compelling character in his own right and they have some really intriguing backstories to them. Together, these six brothers of Squad Castian are a great mix of personalities, whether its the level-headed and straight-thinking Galeo or the reckless Hyperion or what have you. Its interesting but there are some similarities between Squad Castian and First Claw, the protagonists of Aaron’s Night Lords novels. There are similar interactions and power plays between both teams but there is enough there for the reader to know that they aren’t carbon copies either. The nature of Squad Castian, as a frontline formation of the Grey Knights, is quite different to that of First Claw, which is a squad of highly mercurial warriors. Reading about both has been quite fun and group dynamics is something that Aaron writes quite well.
There are several other characters, major or minor, who left a strong impact, and so there are some of them I quite liked and some I didn’t. Inquisitor Annika Jarlsdottyr was, I think, a great character because as far as I know, she is the first Fenrisian who is not part of the Space Wolves chapter. It sets up some really great dynamics for later or in the novel and even getting to that climax, it is a strong plot point where the Grey Knights, particularly Hyperion and Malchadiel, are concerned. However, I will say that I wish she had had a bigger role than she already did and that her personality and her relationship with the Space Wolves was explored a bit more. Still, there is a really touching scene between her and an old Space Wolves hero on Page 292 of the harcover edition. That is a scene that lasts for no more than a handful of lines and yet it has a power of its own. Lost glories, another lifetime and all that.
On the flip side, Inquisitor Lord Kysnaros and Grey Knights Grand Master Joros were characters I absolutely detested. They both emphasise the utter bull-headedness of the Inquisition and at no point in the novel did I sympathise with them. I only wanted them both to die horrible deaths, the more agonising the better. Sadly, we don’t always get what we want, or, if we do, then its not how we want it to happen. Page 246 is ample ammunition for me to utterly detest both characters. For those who are familiar with the lore around the aftermath of the First War for Armageddon will probably have some inkling of what I mean, but all the same, let me tell you that things are far, far worse than we were ever told. Quite worse. The Inquisition exemplifies the saying that “might makes right” except, in their case its an even more galling version of that: “our perceived might and authority makes right and we can tell you to do whatever the hell we want”. And all of it exacerbated by the fact that the Inquisition is not a unified organisation and you’ve got the makings of a tinderbox sitting on a room full of C4. Not a pretty sight.
Still all in all, I may not have “appreciated” what the agents of the Ordo Malleus do, but by damn I’m glad at the same time that they what they did. The reason for that is that it all allowed the Space Wolves to really shine. And shine they did. The Space Wolves have been getting a lot of traction recently, and a lot of that is quite good in fact, which is a trend that Aaron continues in The Emperor’s Gift. I first read of Logan Grimnar in William King’s Space Wolf novels and I’ve always been intrigued by the character. The First War for Armageddon is as much his tale as anybody else’s and in the novel, while we don’t get to see him properly in action on the planet, the scenes he does have blow the rest of the novel out of the water. As does the entire third of the novel. If you love Space Wolves as a faction, then there will be a powerful vindication for you in how Aaron portrays them, honourable to a fault and believers in doing the right thing. If you detest them, then I at least hope that you’ll come to appreciate what they do, because it takes a hell of a lot of guts to do what they do: go up against the Ordo Malleus and defy it again and again. Damn me if my love for the chapter didn’t increase tenfold.
Aaron has taken the best of Chris Wraight’s Space Wolves from Battle of the Fang and really made them into the Space Wolves of M41. I can also see a strong streak of William King’s Space Wolves in the writing and for me, that was absolute gold since his work is what got me into reading Black Library fiction in the first place and his Grey Hunter was my first Black Library novel. So yeah, the portrayal of Space Wolves was right on the money and exceeded all my expectations. For such a thrilling experience the author deserves a high-five.
The action in the novel is also great because there is so much variety to it, whether it be void-duels between ships, boarding actions, or elite infantry-type warfare. Aaron’s scenes are really evocative and atmospheric, which is a great touch because you are completely pulled into those scenes and its as if you are right there with the characters, just behind their shoulders and experience exactly what they do. Some really vicious, visceral stuff right there. The scene with the Grey Knights going up against Angron is one of the best moments in Black Library fiction period. You can feel the tension in the air. What follows once Angron and the Grey Knights clash has very much a mythic feel to it and is like the stuff of legends.
And in that context, the pacing was perfect, whether we are romping through various facets of Grey Knights lore, both spoken and physical, or whether we are in the nitty, gritty of the cold war between the Ordo Malleus and the Space Wolves. The Emperor’s Gift simply grabs you from its very first pages (the prologue reminded me very, very strongly of a certain sequence of events from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician: Master because of its eerie similarity to them) and never lets you go. You will be hooked.
Overall, The Emperor’s Gift is simply a fantastic novel. Irrespective of how you feel about the Inquisition or the Grey Knights or the Space Wolves, this is an absolute must-read novel because for me, it is the best one that Aaron has written to date and topping this novel cannot be an easy matter because there is a certain confluence of events and variables in the novel that the author has got just right. If nothing else, this is simply one of the most emotionally charged novels from Black Library in recent years and it definitely rivals some recent greats such as Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders and Bloodsworn by Nathan Long.