Angel of Fire by William King – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the new The Macharian Crusade trilogy, penned by Black Library heavyweight William King, author of the Space Wolf novels for Warhammer 40,000 and the creator of Gotrek & Felix for Warhammer Fantasy.
“Coming back to Bill King after all these years is like a dream come true and the man does not disappoint as he tells one of the most adventurous tales in the far future.” ~The Founding Fields
As I’ve mentioned previously in a few reviews, I’m a long term William King as his third Space Wolf novel Grey Hunter is what got me started with Black Library fiction all those years ago. I’ve read a variety of his work since those early years and I’ve never been disappointed with it. Even when it comes to his self-published work, one of which I’ve reviewed before: Terrarch Chronicles – Death’s Angels. When this particular trilogy, The Macharian Crusade, was announced last year (in so far as I can tell it was last year around this time), I was quite excited for it. Bill had been absent from the scene for quite a while and had penned no new BL novels in the meantime (that had already seen publication that is). Given how important an event this crusade is in Imperial history, particularly for M41, there was a lot of inherent promise in this novel, as it tells the story of the greatest Imperial Guard commander of the millennium.
One of my initial expectations for this novel was that we’d get a really in-depth look into Macharius himself and see what makes the man tick. But reading Bill’s blogs at the time, it seemed he was taking the outsider viewpoint, by showing us Macharius throw the eyes of his soldiers. In particular, the crew of a Baneblade as they get hitched alongside the Warmaster in one of the defining early battles of the crusade. At the time, that didn’t interest me as much as the idea of a look into Macharius’ psyche through his own eyes but that passed rather quickly. After all, this is the crew of a Baneblade we are talking about, one of the most iconic battle-tanks of the Imperial Guard, one of the super-heavies in fact, worth an entire squadron of mainline tanks on its own (some would say an entire regiment).
Bill launches straight into action from the very first pages, as war rages for control of the planet Karsk IV and Macharius himself takes an interest in this particular campaign. We also get a really delightful introduction to our protagonist, Lemuel, and his friends Anton and Ivan. What struck me right off the bat was the camaraderie between these three. It is very reminiscent of the banter between Ragnar and Sven in the Space Wolf novels, also by Bill. For me, this was like a trip back to the rather “simpler” days of BL fiction, when the novels were up front about their narrative and characters, when you didn’t have to dig through layers of nuance to get through to the heart of a story, when the author didn’t dazzle you by narrative sophistication but with simplicity. As a long-term William King fan, I can tell you that simplicity is his strength.
Sure, he writes some really descriptive and evocative prose, but he doesn’t bury these descriptions under layers of nuance. Some people may not like this novel for that very reason but I’d really encourage you to stick with it. It is a great war adventure novel, told through the eyes of a very unusual protagonist (a Bnablade driver as I mentioned). Lemuel is also one of the most likable characters I’ve read of in BL fiction. He is just a simple tank driver who’d rather be behind the controls of a Baneblade rather than taking hordes of misguided civilians head-on alongside the great Macharius. The first person narrative is great here to show us how and why Lemuel does what he does. And since he is our window to Macharius himself, the first person narrative is all the more important because we truly get to see how Lemuel feels about him and what kind of an effect a man like Macharius has on the common soldiery. Lemuel is written with an eye for humour and quite-strength and loyalty, the kind that only the greatest generals inspire in their men.
In that regard, Anton and Ivan are no slouches there. While we don’t have any scenes from their perspectives, Bill nevertheless conveys their own sense of awe and wonder through his excellent dialogue. Macharius has a different effect for each of them and that is how we get a much fuller picture of the Warmaster than is apparent from the first few pages. That cover art, done by Raymond Swanland? That is a scene from one of the first few chapters and it conveys exactly how that scene plays out in the mind of Lemuel and his friends. I can so imagine that guardsman on the cover (who may or may not be one of these characters) saying to his comrade: “Dude, that is bloody Macharius himself, the Lord Solar and Warmaster. Bloody frakkin’ Macharius!” In the context of the scene of course!
Macharius is portrayed as the indestructible hero and saviour, in keeping with how his mythology has come about. When Lemuel says that he can feel the power of Macharius’ charisma, you can feel it too. When Lemuel and his friends talk about Macharius as some kind of an immortal hero of the Imperium, you can really feel the weight of those words and you just have to agree. The various flashes of him that we see over the course of the novel bring to mind Alexander the Great, which really is no surprise since Bill researched him to death while writing the novel and Macharius is pretty much meant to be the Alexander of the Imperium. His lore about liberating a thousand worlds during his crusade, stopping only when his men refused to go any further, and his conquests and generals falling into bitter rivalries after his death all bring Alexander to mind because that is how it all happened with the Macedonian Prince.
This all necessitates a rather over-the-top portrayal of Macharius at times however, one which jars at times, but that is kept to a bare minimum. When three guardsmen, an Inquisitor, an assassin and a Warmaster go against an entire city, where even the civilians are hostile, the approach is justified in the end. I don’t really like that aspect of the whole thing but in the interest of fairness, I get it. Also since this portrayal is not just there for the hell of it, but it has a purpose. Again, that brings us back to the mythology of Macharius that has grown over the countless years since his death.
The pacing of Angel of Fire was spot on. The exhilarating moment that Bill begins the novel stretches on right till the end to give a consistent experience. And because of that, this was a really quick read, more so in the beginning. I burned through the first 150 pages in a jiffy and when I looked up, the novel was half-over. All I can say is that the novel just goes from strength to strength.
What I really liked about the novel in the end is how much of a different novel this is from the Space Wolf novels in its content but yet so similar. Just as those tales of Ragnar, Angel of Fire is very much a light-hearted story of grim, unrelenting war where death is always at an inch away. Bill blends the dark realities of the setting with his own brand of humour. He has also portrayed tank assaults in one of the most cinematic ways I’ve read of in all my readings. When Lemuel’s regiment goes to war in its massive armoured columns against the primary Karsk hive-city, you can really feel the thunder of their guns. Whenever a shot is fired, it is as if you are watching the shot leave the guns and impact on the enemy. Some great visual stuff in the action scenes.
I’d really like to talk more aboutAngel of Fire in this review, and generally I would too. Time constraints force me to give you this half-review of sorts and I really apologise for that.
Suffice to say that with this novel, Bill has proven once again why he is one of the best writers currently writing for BL and why he is so good at what he does. Angel of Fire is a novel that can go toe-to-toe, or demolisher cannon-to-demolisher cannon against the best that Dan Abnett’s highly popular Gaunt’s Ghosts series and still come out with victory points to its name. While less is more and more is yet more, Bill also strikes a great balance between those two.
All in all, consider Angel of Fire to be a must-read of this year. If you read nothing else from BL in 2012, then read this. Bill King has struck gold. And I really hope that Angel of Fire is nominated for some industry awards next year, even if only for the cover! Incidentally, Raymond Swanland won the Ravenheart Gemmell Award this year for Blood of Aenarion, another Bill King novel. A winning team if ever there was one.