Ultramarines: The Second Omnibus by Graham McNeill – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second omnibus of the popular Ultramarines series by Graham McNeill as the valiant, heroic Uriel Ventris and his friend Pasanius Lysane return from their journey into the Eye of Terror and are reunited with their chapter.
“This is a collection that made me feel really sad and really upbeat throughout. A great reading experience in the end that does make me want more Ultramarines action.” ~The Founding Fields
Note: Review contains some spoilers for the previous omnibus. This is also a long review, longer than normal.
The Killing Ground and Courage and Honour are two novels I regrettably missed out on in the months I took a break from reading any new fiction and buying any novels. When The Chapter’s Due came out, it looked like I was going to be missing out on that too because I’ve never bought hardcovers. So when Black Library announced the omnibus edition of the second trilogy novels, I was pretty excited. The last omnibus ended with a fairly big plot thread and I was really looking to get back into reading about the adventures of the Ultramarines 4th Company and their maverick Captain.
I needn’t have worried how good the second trilogy was going to be. Mostly.
First in the collection is The Killing Ground, which follows on roughly soon after the ending of Dead Sky, Black Sun and has Uriel and Pasanius arrive on the world of Salinas, fresh from their hellish time on Medrengard, the homeworld of the Iron Warriors Legion within the Eye of Terror. (Excuse the name overload). The narrative for the fourth novel in a series is a really interesting one. Salinas is a world where the “ruling class” is a former Imperial Guard regiment, its soldiers given right of conquest over it after they eliminated a rebellion that had erupted on it some years before. Right off, we had the makings of a superb setting for the novel because there are people on Salinas who desperately need some redemption, the same as Uriel and Pasanius.
Truth be told, The Killing Ground didn’t really work for me. I was expecting to be wowed and that just didn’t happen. In that respect, it is a very similar novel in terms of its feel to Dead Sky, Black Sun. They are both extremely bleak novels, the former more so. What Graham got right here was that he portrayed the desperation of the people of Salinas and soldiers, both former and current, of the Achaman Falcatas regiment. You can really feel it as you turn each page. And in that respect, the core theme of the setting was plain as day throughout the novel because, in the grim darkness of the far future, the galaxy is a very bleak place.
Characterisation-wise, there were a few things off in the novel. The people of Salinas, including the Falcatas were a little too accepting of Uriel and Pasanius’ tale and their experiences in the Eye. I expected things to be a lot more severe than they were but they never quite make it there. There is a justification in the novel for that but I’m not sure if its a sufficient one so I’m still on the fence about it. Uriel and Pasanius however were pulled off perfectly. They were just as I remembered although there is still some great room for them to grow and learn from all their mistakes. Some nice touches there. The Grey Knights however, failed to deliver. They come across more as a checklist of “this is what Grey Knights are and what they do” rather than a sufficiently distinct faction.
The honourable mention however goes to the Lord of the Unfleshed, who was introduced in Dead Sky, Black Sun and is one of the companions to Uriel and Pasanius. His arc, and that of his “tribe” was very emotional and, once again, highlighted the bleakness of the setting. I shed a tear at the end. Graham wrote a really emotional plot thread with the Unfleshed, and if nothing else, then this plot thread is the worth the price of picking up the omnibus.
The pacing of the novel was largely comfortable, although the ending is somewhat haphazard as there is a fair bit of foreshadowing early on that is quite significant by the end. The novel picks up pretty quickly however and then it keeps going right until the ending. Characters, whether major or minor, take a lot of beating and are literally put through to hell. And it is all helped through the world-building which, frankly, was impressive. Graham captured the look and feel of a conquered world really nicely, more so for the fact that Salinas is a world given as a “right of conquest”. The visuals of its people living in hollowed out tank chassis, and other vehicles of war were really evocative. The best though is the visual of three Capitol Imperialises, one of the ultimate vehicles of war employed by the Imperial Guard, being converted into hospitals. Now that’s a punchy visual!
Overall, The Killing Ground is borderline decent. It didn’t work for me particularly but I can appreciate its place in the series, and that’s an important one.
Next up is Courage and Honour, the fifth novel in the series. This was an absolutely mind-bending novel. This novel echoed everything that made Warriors of Ultramar so good and on top of that, it was heavy with symbolism. This novel sees a restored and reinstated Uriel Ventris return to the battlefields of the 41st Millennium alongside the proud warriors of the Ultramarines 4th Company, his old command. And its not just any battlefield but Pavonis itself, which was Uriel’s first theatre as a Captain. Quite fitting that he returns to the once-more troubled world and that this time he is fighting against the Tau of all aliens. In this novel Uriel has to prove that he has learned the lessons of deviance from the Codex Astartes and that he is fit to be an Ultramarine once again.
As such, the novel was a beauty. Whether it was the scenes with the Ultramarines and the 44th Lavrentian Hussars defending Pavonis, or Uriel’s scenes back on Macragge with his superiors, the novel is quite perfect from beginning to end. The action scenes in particular were extremely well done. The Tau rely on surgical strikes and a fast, adaptive form of warfare and they make natural enemies for the Ultramarines, not to mention that they are the perfect “test enemies” for Uriel to prove himself against. All the action was fast, brutal and very visceral. Not to mention that there was a great amount of variety in the scenes as well: we get Thunderhawk deployments, regiment-level mechanised assaults, drop-pod assaults, behind-enemy-lines missions, lightning raids and so on. We also get a good look at how an entire company of the Ultramarines makes war, right from Uriel coordinating planetary defences from a prefab command post in the capital Brandon Gate, to their armoured assaults, and everything else. Whether its the Ultramarines, the Lavrentian Hussards and the planetary defence forces or the Tau themselves, Graham makes good use of the varied units on both sides to deliver a single, unified sequence for each battle.
I have to say, at the risk of repeating myself, that this is a novel that really worked for me. It had everything I wanted in it, especially the character development. Uriel grows in the telling of the novel and comes to accept that his maverick decisions as during the defence of Tarsis Ultra in Warriors of Ultramar are, while not quite heretical, ill-advised and ultimately harmful to the cohesion and unity of his warriors. The fact that his former mentor Chaplain Clausel is his unofficial watch-dog was a really great touch, in my opinion.
Of course, we are back on Pavonis so I expected to see some old faces in the novel and it was great to meet once again with best of them. Jenna Sharben, who was just a lowly Arbites enforcer in Nightbringer is now the chief Arbites officer on the planet tasked with restoring Imperial Law. Lortuen Perjed, who who was Inquisitor Barzano’s (now dead) assistant previously, is now the chief Administratum adept on the planet and the Imperium-appointed right hand man of the planetary governor. And then we have Mykola Shonai, who was the Imperial Governor when Uriel first came to Pavonis and has now since retired to let her surviving nephew take up her duties and responsbilities. Each of these characters brought something fresh to the narrative and seeing them reconnect with Uriel and the warriors of the Ultramarines 4th was absolutely great. There are a host of new characters too and together, they all made the novel really enjoyable.
The Tau don’t get much pagetime in the novel but what few scenes they have were well-written. We had an Ethereal, a Commander, a Pathfinder and a few minor others all working towards their philosophy of the Greater Good and trying to bring Pavonis within the folds of the Tau Empire. Their scenes were really compelling, especially when they try to convince certain characters that the Tau Empire is a far better society than the Imperium. Those scenes had a power of their own.
The only negative aspect of the novel is that there isn’t much connection between the Ultramarines and the Tau. What I mean by that is that while Graham has handled the cultural and military differences between the two quiet well, there isn’t much of a personality clash between them. Uriel and the Tau Ethereal never really actually go head-to-head with each other, and the same for Uriel and the Tau Commander. Those scenes would have put the novel into the truly great category.
Overall, this was a fantastic novel. Some people may be put off by the fact there is a lot of combat in it and the action is nearly non-stop, but let me assure you that there is ample character development here and that Graham has not skimped on any of it.
The last novel in the omnibus is The Chapter’s Due, which marks the return of Warsmith Honsou of the Iron Warriors since his last novel-length appearance in Dead Sky, Black Sun. If you have read Iron Warriors: The Omnibus, then you know how Honsou rose to prominence and how we was brought down by Uriel Ventris. You’ll also be aware of the depths of Honsou’s need for vengeance on the one man who has dared defy him and refuse his….benevolence in equal measure. A good portion of Iron Warriors: The Omnibus sets up events for The Chapter’s Due and also shows its aftermath in part, so finally getting to the novel itself was something I had been anticipating for a good while yet.
If anything, The Chapter’s Due is much better than Courage and Honour, although the latter didn’t really go wrong much. The characterisation was much stronger, the action scenes much more varied this time (trust me!) and we really get a sense for how the Ultramarines fight on a chapter-level in multiple simultaneous enagements in different battlefields. There are a few novels that have shown chapter-wide deployments, like Rynn’s World with the Crimson Fists, Grey Hunter with the Space Wolves and Nocturne with the Salamanders, to name a few. They each brought something different to the table, with the first two being focused on a few individuals, and the latter being focused on a lot of different characters from across the chapter heirarchy. Nocturne is also a novel that got chapter-wide warfare just right. In that respect, The Chapter’s Due was just as great and while overall it has a similar feel to it, it is different in that we see the Ultramarines in defending not just a single planet, but multiple different ones, since they actually command an entire sub-sector of space, the Ultramar Empire.
The prime focus of the novel is, as it should be, Uriel and the Ultramarines 4th Company as they are tasked to defend the cavern-world of Calth. Lord Tigurius, the chapter’s Chief Librarian has seen visions that the fate of the chapter rests on the Ultramarines being successful on Calth and defeating Honsou’s armies on the surface. Other focus characters include Tigurius himself and Marneus Calgar as they fight to defend Talassar with the aid of Captain Agemman and the Terminators of the Ultramarines 1stfrom the ravages of the Great Daemon M’kar Reborn. Then we have Sicarius and the Ultramarines 2nd tasked to root out heretic forces elsewhere within Ultramar. So we have the makings of a truly phenomenal novel as some of the greatest heroes of the Ultramarines of the current age give their all to defend their birthworlds and the legacies of their Primarch.
Like I said, the characterisation here is truly great, and each character gets ample page-time. Graham does a great job of connecting us with each and every one of them, whether it be the senior officers, or the company sergeants. Each of them is shown as being an important component of a whole, with their own idiosyncracies and beliefs and modus operandi. Honsou and his band, along with M’kar himself are also given some key scenes to show the other side of the war and as a whole, the narrative of The Chapter’s Due is fairly tight. Some of the scenes that really worked for me were with a certain Tech-Priest who makes a return appearance, last seen in Warriors of Ultramar. He brought something unique to the novel, the Mechanicus at war, which isn’t something that you see everyday in Black Library fiction. The Chapter’s Due gets +1 just for that!
Another twist to the narrative of the novel is the apperance of a Raven Guard strike team, led by Shadow-Captain Aethon Shaan of the 4th Company. The Raven Guard have appeared to bring one of their own traitors to justice, no points on guessing who that is, and they got some of the coolest action scenes in the novel. My love for the Raven Guard increased quite a bit. Maybe Graham should tackle the sons of Corax next!
The action is non-stop of course, given the subject material. But this time we have some really brutal sieges because its the Iron Warriors that the Ultramarines have to defend against this time. And as we all know, the Iron Warriors are masters of siege warfare, and have had that reputation since the days of the Great Crusade itself. There are curiously few scenes with the Iron Warriors themselves during the siege but I suppose that deficiency is partly covered by one of the short stories from Iron Warriors: The Omnibus. So in totality, we get a really good picture of what happened on Calth.
The big twist of the novel is quite a surprising one, one that I did not anticipate at all. What really makes the novel standout is that twist itself, as well as how the climax between Uriel, Pasanius, Honsou and the Newborn plays out. It was a really stirring combat sequence, both in terms of how atmospheric it is, and how emotional it is at the same time. The climax doesn’t quite pan out the way you’d expect and Graham keeps you guessing right at the very end. There is a slight warp-wizardry scene at the end though, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it given that it ties in massively to the climax. I’ll let you
Overall, The Chapter’s Due is a fantastic novel, on par with Nick Kyme’s Nocturne, and so much better than Warriors of Ultramar and Courage and Honour, which were both absolutely great themselves.
The second last story in the omnibus is the print version of Eye of Vengeance, which was released as an audio drama this very month and which I’ve reviewed here previously. The prose version is slightly better than the audio drama because I could follow the characters better, and get the names right even! Torias came across as even more competitive and compelling character. Overall, its a great short story that ties in to the events of The Chapter’s Due since it, for the benefit of those who haven’t heard it yet, follows veteran Scout-Sergeant Torias Telion and his squad on the world of Quintarn with Captains Epathus and Galenus of the Ultramarines Fifth and Sixth Companies are engaged against the Dark Mechanicus forces of Votheer Tark. Some really great scenes in the story and some nail-biting action.
The last story in the omnibus is the reprint of an old Ultramarines comic from the days of the Inferno! magazine, the predecessor of the current Hammer & Bolter eZine. Black Bone Road is about 8 pages long and is chronologically the first Uriel Ventris story as it exposes the young Sergeant to his first taste of out-of-the-Codex tactics under Captain Idaeus. It really is quite short and, some would say, a simplistic story as well, but I think the charm of it is in its format and the very simplicity itself. The comic is very much an “innocent” story, although that is not quite the word for it. I definitely enjoyed it. Now, if only we could get Black Library to print Defenders of Ultramar, which is a Boom! Studios comic.
Overall, Ultramarines: The Second Omnibus is a great collection that speaks to everyone. There is plenty of high-octane action in it, as well as some deep character development, all of which highlights the nature of the Ultramarines themselves, and the Warhammer 40,000 setting itself. I would definitely recommend it to people. As a whole, it is a fantastic romp through the entire setting, and that’s the main charm of it.
Overall rating: 8.5/10