Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews Graham McNeill’s latest, the first in a stated duology about the Tech-Priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the organisation that creates, maintains and hoards all the technology of the Imperium of Man.
“A wonderfully distinctive and engaging look into what makes the Tech-Lords of Mars tick, this is an absolute must-read.” ~The Founding Fields
The Adeptus Mechanicus is one of the factions of the Imperium, they are actually an allied state rather than a subordinate organisation, that has had little more than short cameos at best over the years. There is scope in there however, to tell a whole variety of stories about them. They are the caretakers of all Imperial technology, they create new machines, they maintain them, and they are always searching for more knowledge. Added to that is that the Mechanicus is also a religious institution, for they believe in a Machine-God, a sliver of who’s will and power resides in all pieces of sanctioned technology, even something as small and inconsequential as an on/off switch. They are also biologists, explorers, linguists, and so on. It makes them one of the richest Imperial factions, one which has the potential to be the subject of some really fascinating and other-worldly stories.
That is exactly what Graham McNeill does in Priests of Mars. He takes one of the most central tenets of the religious tech-experts, their eternal thirst for lost knowledge, and writes the beginning of a grand tale of exploration that culminates in a surprise ending.
The novel is about a disgraced Tech-Priest, Lexell Kotov, gambling everything on a single mission, hoping to regain his lost glory. Of course, he’d just say that he’s doing it for the good of the Mechanicus and in the service of the Deus Mechanicus. Of course. Having lost some of his forge-worlds to various enemies of the Imperium over the years, and with his reduced standing in the Martian Priesthood’s hierarchy, this is his last chance to essentially make things right. Or have the last of his forges, on Mars itself, taken away from him and given to his peers. In light of this, why Kotov assembles the mission to the Halo Scar, searching beyond the boundaries of the Imperium for the lost fleet of Magos Telok is, is abundantly clear. Throughout the narrative, Graham visits this again and again to really hammer home that this isn’t just any other Explorator mission, this is something more, a chance for redemption and validation in a cross-galactic brotherhood where politics are as much as a weapon as faith in the Machine-God. With Kotov, Graham succeeds in giving us a character to care about, although he is not the sole protagonist of the novel, or the sole focus of it either.
The novel goes beyond Kotov and takes a deep look at the Mechanicus from several different angles, many of which we have never really seen before.
An example of this is the father-daughter duo of Vitali Tychon and Linya Tychon, stellar cartographers of the Mechanicus whose services Kotov is employing in his mission as they have studied the Halo Scars for a great number of years and have amassed a great amount of knowledge about it. And as we know, the Mechanicus values knowledge more than anything else. These two characters are very humane in their characterisation, something I initially found myself at odds with when reading the novel. Thing is, most Tech-Priest characters in BL fiction tend to be the heavily-cybernetic type with voice-boxes, extra appendages, red cowls, three eyes, hunched look and so on. And they always talk formally and in detail. Not the case with the Tychons here. The way they are written, it presents another facet of the Mechanicus and shows that not all Tech-Priests are cut from the same mold. If anything, the Tychons are very reminiscent of a previous such character that Graham has written about, albeit in the time of the Horus Heresy: Magos Koriel Zeth, one of the very, very few prominent female Tech-Priests in BL fiction. These characters are about more than just blind devotion to the Machine God, they look outwards from its (often) tyrannical tenets and they seek to aspire to much more than they are. Great stuff.
In a similar vein are some of the other Mechanicus characters, such as Secutor Hirimau Dahan who commands Kotov’s primary cohort of battle-servitors and skitarii units. He is a much more traditional Tech-Priest but his martial bent differentiates him quite a bit, for no less the fact that he actually issues a challenge to the Black Templars who are accompanying the mission, seeking to settle the debate of whose approach to war is better. I liked Dahan quite a bit and I really want to see him get a more prominent role in the sequel, Lords of Mars. Then there’s Tarkis Blaylock, Kotov’s second-in-command and someone who seeks to gain Kotov’s Martian forges for himself, although he still supports the mission to the Halo Scar and beyond. He was an interesting character with that dichotomy of his. I was never sure if he was someone I should trust to do the right thing or not, because although he professes his loyalty to the mission, he still engages in several political games to get the one-up on Kotov. The sequel shall tell where Blaylock ends up, and I’m looking forward to see what Graham does with him.
Not all the characters in the novel are of the Mechanicus itself, for Graham uses a wide variety of rich characters to look at the Mechanicus personnel themselves. The most prominent of these is Roboute Surcouf, captain of the Rogue Trader vessel, The Renard. This made for a really “complete” experience. In the setting it is more often than not Rogue Traders who look beyond the boundaries of the Imperium and seek out new things, whether it is entirely for their personal gain, or for more altruistic purposes or a mix of both. Surcouf, a man of Ultramar and named after the Ultramarines Primarch Roboute Guilliman himself, brings a fresh touch of perspective to the Mechanicus. Graham uses him to compare and contrast how the Tech-Priests are different from “normal” humans and what makes them tick. With Surcouf’s crew also involved, we gain a fuller understanding of what exactly the Rogue Trader Captain is doing on this voyage and how the Mechanicus behaves around those not of its own.
Then we have the Cadian 71st, a regiment of the Imperial Guard, who have made a pact with Kotov to assist in his exploratory mission and arrive aboard theSperanza (Kotov’s flagship, more on this later) with their entire strength, men and armour alike. Colonel Anders and his subordinates made for a nice change of pace from reading about all the Priests of Mars, mostly because they are so much more straight-forward and different than them. There is a particularly endearing scene in the novel when Dahan’s cohorts and Anders’ men undertake a joint exercise aboard the flagship and the latter “educates” the former in what really sets the Cadians apart from the Secutor’s army. Really goes to show how badass Cadians in general usually are.
As I mentioned, there are Black Templars also involved here, a squad of them to be precise, led by Reclusiarch Kul Gilad. While I liked the inclusion of the Space Marines, I felt that they didn’t get enough attention to actually justify them being part of the mission. In that aspect, I think the novel is supremely ambitious by giving us so much food-for-thought and such a detailed look into the Mechanicus. Just as with Colonel Anders and his men, there is another endearing scene in the novel when Dahan goes up against Initiate Atticus Varda and is again educated into what makes the Black Templars so very different to the Mechanicus, hammering home the point that unpredictability is a great weapon that can be used against the Tech-Priests. On the whole, the Black Templars get some decent scenes, but nothing too moving.
Rounding off the character department are two more facets of Mechanicus life: the press-ganged bondsmen of the Speranza, and the warriors of Legio Sirius, the Titan formation accompanying Kotov and his fleet. With the former, we get a very down-to-earth look at how the lives of the unaugmented, “regular” humans in service to the Mechanicus is. Harsh, tyrannical overseers. Endless work rotations. Often a denial of some basic necessities. The phobia of working in such tight confined spaces as the engineering decks, with regard to thousands packed together and working together. And so on. A really interesting look with some great twists, particularly with regards to the identity of one of these workers, a character we last saw in another one of Graham’s recent publications. This character has finally gotten a sense of closure to his story, and is so radically different from his previous incarnation that it makes you really think what Graham has in store for him. I certainly can’t wait!
The Princeps and Moderati of Legio Sirius are just as intriguing a mix. Previously, Graham has written of more straight-up Titan crews, warriors who are noble and honourable and who are very much in control of their faculties. Arlo Luth, the Wintersun, and Eryks Skalmold, the Moonsorrow, are just fascinating in their execution. Graham does a good of playing upon their differences with each other and giving us a really shocking moment of when these two finally clash for control of the Legio, the younger and brasher Moonsorrow against the experienced yet slightly going-crazy Wintersun. Joy to read.
The reason I’ve talked about the characters so much is because of how character-driven everything in the novel is. The relationships between all these characters as they seek to establish an informal hierarchy, and how they go about their somewhat conflicting objectives is a treat. It makes Priests of Mars a highly atmospheric read precisely for the reason that Graham goes into their psychology to such a degree. How does the Imperial Guard relate to the Mechanicus armies and to Space Marines? What differentiates a high-ranking Magos such as Kotov from those lower down the pecking order as the Tychons? What are the insecurities of being a Tech-Priest? What do the bondsmen think of their harsh masters? Graham answers a lot of questions but he gives the reader ample material to ask even more questions and really think about things.
One of the things that really sold me on this novel was that the location for most of the action in Priests of Mars is the Speranza, an ancient vessel known as the Ark Mechanicus, the culmination of some of the most potent and secretive technologies known and lost by the Martial Priesthood. The scenes where the various Mechanicus characters interact with the vessel and the scenes of its awakening are a royal treat. The characters are the central focus of the novel and while it’s great to read about them, it’s also important to keep in mind that the Mechanicus isn’t just about its flesh-and-blood-and-machine characters, it is about the technologies themselves too. And the Ark Mechanicus is a manifestation of that, or as any Tech-Priest will say, it is the supreme expression of the divine will of the Omnissiah, the Machine-God. A truly fantastic touch by Graham.
The major issue I have with the novel is with it’s pacing. It just takes too long to really get going, the point where the characters and the expedition sets out for the Halo Scars. I really enjoyed the build-up leading to that, but I think some of it should have been sacrificed for a much punchier and racier narrative. A lot of these early scenes happen concurrently and while they are nice to read about, after a while it starts to get annoying. Now that all the set-up has happened, I hope that this criticism is addressed in some way for Lords of Mars, as the focus shifts from the characters themselves, to the locations they are visiting. Space, the final frontier, is what Trekkies would say. Kotov just says (in my mind): Beyond the Halo Scar, the true frontier.
The ending of the novel, or rather the climax, was a welcome change to the whole characterisation and set-up that Graham pulled the reader into. We get a downright proper scrap for the characters to get into, one that provides a lot of references to the failed mission of Magos Telok, and what I can only assume are callbacks to the Horus Heresy. Really intriguing stuff. It raises more questions than it answers this time, particularly once a certain formerly-dominant species of the galaxy takes a direct interest in Kotov’s expedition, and so I think the ending itself is somewhat anti-climatic.
I put the blame for that squarely on the fact that almost two-thirds of the novel is just about getting going. If that bit had been pulled back somewhat, then Graham would have had more room to lavish attention on this final battle and give us a more rounded look into how it all went down. Yes, I know that Priests of Mars is only half the story and that more is coming with Lords of Mars, but it is not really that much of a stand-alone novel. In that respect, you can consider it to be very much like The Fellowship of the Ring. There are a lot of obvious similarities here, and some not so obvious, but still, the point holds.
All in all, Priests of Mars is the defining Adeptus Mechanicus novel in my opinion. It really gives a ton of fresh insights into the faction and shows that things aren’t as cut-and-dried as in most Mechanicus-related BL fiction, no matter how tangentially. This is definitely one of Graham’s better works.