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EJ Davies takes a look at Chris Roberson’s first Warhammer 40,000 novel which tackles the Imperial Fists chapter, a chapter first seen in the seminal Space Marine by Ian Watson. The short story Gauntlet Run (available in Heroes of the Space Marines) takes place around the halfway point in this novel.
“A read that treads faithfully over some old ground.” ~The Founding Fields.
“Having survived the Imperial Fists brutal recruitment regime, rivals Zatori, du Queste and Taloc advance to the ranks of Scouts. When they join the Imperial Fists in their action on Vernalis, a planet blighted by Chaos, their loyalty to the Emperor and their fortitude in battle will be sorely tested. They must overcome the power of the Roaring Blades Traitor Guard in order to ensure victory.”
The story itself seems simple enough take three initiates from three rival factions on a recruiting world, induct them into a space marine chapter and force them to coexist. Then bring them into a warzone and galvanise their brotherhood. In as much as the story is set, it is largely successful. Scouts Zatori Zan, Jean-Rober du Quest, and Taloc s’Tonan are recruited from a brutal homeworld from three rival factions, each having a blood debt against one of the others; are inducted into the Imperial Fists chapter and trained in the ways of the Astartes, then taken to a warzone where they have to prove their worth against the Roaring Blades traitor guard, and traitor marines of the Emperor’s Children warband.
If the description sounds a little bland, then it really is nothing to the blandness of the reading. Chris Roberson has some game in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, but for all that there is something greatly lacking in the execution of the story. I think, mostly, what it lacks is character. Zatori Zan – from a faction that shares much in common with the feudal Japanese Samurai; Jean-Rober du Quest – from a faction that resembles Alexandre Dumas’ era French Musketeers; and Taloc s’Tonan – from a faction I’m not wholly familiar with, though the ironbrand sword got me thinking it was vaguely spanish influenced. Each of them totally respects their swords, and is a brave young warrior from their respective clans. Yet I didn’t care about any of them. At all. Not even a little bit.
As for the Imperial Fists treatment in the novel? It’s clear Chris has read and researched a bit. There are nods to Ian Watson’s taken on them in Space Marine with the duelling scars, and also the creation of a space marine information that you can find in Codex: Space Marines. Yet in trying to flesh out a chapter that (until this novel) saw relatively little attention in the 40K universe, much has been made to give this chapter a personality. Now, as much as I’m good with invention (Rob Sanders does this wonderfully in Legion of the Damned) you still have to be a little careful with where it goes.
The Book of Rhetoricus was created for the novel as a means to an end, that end was to imbue the chapter with personality, and that personality has been ‘the Imperial Fists soul is his sword.’ Each Imperial Fist carries a sword, and our scouts are no different – in their pre-Scout days and their post-Scout days. Imbuing them with this philosophy, though makes them ‘feel’ more like Samurai, and less like the Germanic/Prussian chivalric behaviour that has previously been tied to them. That’s not necessarily a direction that’s neither one way or the other, but it does take the Imperial Fists in a new direction, and not necessarily one I’m overly comfortable with.
There are two other significant issues I have with the novel. First is the repetition of certain stock phrases – the phrase ‘golden yellow armour with jet black trim’ crops up quite a lot. The warcry pops up several times too, which isn’t necessarily one that trips off the tongue easily – ‘Primach – Progenitor. To your glory and the glory of Him on Earth’ is quite unwieldy. It is present in the lore, and it is present in the background, but had I been in Chris’ position this would have been one of the things I’d address. The salute was also a little long winded, and used plenty of times. Finally, is the heavy religion angle throughout the piece – which for a chapter that fought at the Emperor’s right hand throughout the Battle for Terra would (IMHO) be less likely to manifest.
So far all the work, and for all the words; is it worth the read. I’d say if you’re expecting little and want a glimpse into how an aspirant becomes a Battle Brother, and you don’t mind the flaws, or the predictable plot line, then this would be a wonderful read for you. If, however, you’re looking for compelling characters who are pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds, and jeopardy that might risk one of the main characters lives then you’ll need to look elsewhere, I’m afraid.
For me, this was – at best – a poor read with some solid features. I didn’t care about the characters, or the situations, and I cared little for the personality attempted to be injected into the Imperial Fists chapter. I think it was telling that the words ‘An Imperial Fists Novel’ are printed on the front of the novel indicating a potential series, and the novel ends on a note that sets up a sequel – and that after 2 and a half years it hasn’t manifested that the book has not lived up to expectations.
Sorry, Chris, but this really wasn’t my bag.