The Macharian Crusade: Angel of Fire by William King – Review [EJ Davies]

Angel-of-Fire

EJ Davies turns his Kindle (other e-readers are available) towards another Imperial Guard novel, this time written by Black Library stalwart William King, for the first in a proposed trilogy of novels featuring on the Lord General Solar Macharius and his holy crusade.

“Exciting, evocative, and thrilling action.” ~The Founding Fields.

From Black Library:

“At the dawn of the forty-first millennium, Lord Commander Macharius and his forces embark upon the re-conquest of over a thousand worlds. A man of steel and fire, Macharius is the only one with the will to lead the massed armies of the Imperium to victory. As the crusade rolls onwards, it reaches the world of Karsk. In the city of Irongrad, the Imperial forces face the crusade’s end, unless Macharius and his army can defeat the dreaded Angel of Fire.”

This novel deals less with the man that is Lord Solar Macharius, and more with his influence on the warriors under his command.  The story is told in the first person from the persepctive of Leo Lemuel, driver of the Baneblade Indomitable; and his fellow crew members Oily, Ivan, Anton, the Lieutenant, the Understudy, and the New Boy.  Indomitable sees action early on and suffers critical damage, and the surviving members of the group are pressed into a rag-tag infantry platoon who then go on to experience war in an entirely new dimension.  The battleground is the world of Karsk IV – the Indomitable has seen action already during the crusade, and its crew are largely volunteers from the industrial planet of Belial.

In the first instance, this is my first William King novel, so I’m new to the author and I’m new to his style.  I do know that when it was announced that he was returning to Black Library to publish (made at Black Library Live! in 2010) there was some excitement around the decision – indeed, the topic of his first novel – Tyrion & Teclis – was similarly exciting.  I, myself, having no prior knowledge of Mr. King and his writing could feel little to this news, and less still since I’m no large fan of High Elves.  Still, a BL author of old coming back to the pack is a good thing, right?

In the first instance, the setting for this piece is the hive city of Irongrad.  William has placed a great emphasis on the devotional nature of the city with having the cathedral at the centre and great sculptures, embellishments, and iconography of the angel of fire – said to stand at the Emperor’s right hand.  The loyalist Imperial forces have declared this heresy, and so attempt to scourge the heretics from the city – only the cultists are covering a dark secret.  It’ll be no great surprise what that secret is.  In uncovering such a secret, you would therefore imagine that there be some element of jeopardy, or drama infusing the novel from this point on; and to a degree there is.

Our characters are seen through the lens of Lemuel’s eyes.  He himself is something of a blank; someone on to whom we project our own emotions and our own conclusions, yet still we are able to see some elements of his rather muted personality.  He is a straight down-the-line trooper, certain of his own place in the pecking order, unwilling to take decisions save for pointing his comrades in the direction of the nearest line commander.  His contemporaries – the coolant swigging Oily, Anton the joker, Ivan the daft with his metallic half-face (the lower half, if you’re interested) make a not-unintersting band; when contrasted then with the Lieutenant and then the Understudy – a character who becomes a little more intriguing as the piece progresses – become a little more heart-warming.

Though I have stated this is a book that doesn’t centre on Macharius, he does appear, and his depiction does mirror the work done in some novels with regards to how humans see and relate to Space Marines – there is the same level of awe and respect for the Lord Commander here, although as the comrades and other characters (High Inquisitor Drake and Anna who crop up in the second act) get used to his presence the awe quells until they see him in battle.  It is explained why this is and it adds to the mystique and legend that surrounds Macharius.

The novel is peppered with references from Departmento Munitorum data sheets, and evidentiary documents to the ‘duplicity of former High Inquisitor Heironymous Drake.’  These add a layer of universe-outside-the-world realism that helps root the story into the 40K Universe well.  As do the descriptions of the actions of the Death Spectres chapter of Space Marines who are in support on Karsk IV, and the final assault on the Cathedral in which the legions of the surprise are well documented but, in my opinion, rather undersold in their use.  The battles within Irongrad itself, with the central group on foot, are also well told and detailed, as was the nature of the Angel of Fire cultists and their devotional ‘activities.’  In point of fact, the cult of the angel of fire were crafted beautifully as an enemy and I would even go to the level of stating they are on a Blood Pact level of preparation (though please remember, I am only as far as Traitor General in the Ghost’s saga.)

There are some other reservations I have.  As much as I applaud the first person narrative, I think it’s a very hard medium for an author to get right.  All manner of things can go wrong.  In as much as the author is able to put themselves in the position of their narrator, by doing so it may distance the reader if they do not share a view.  That was certainly the case with me.  As much as I feel like I’m ‘one of the boys’ when reading, I tend to side more with the ‘strange loner’ characters, and so I couldn’t sympathise with Leo, and consequently I was simply ‘out for a ride’ with the novel.  The descriptions of the battles and the encounters themselves were good, and as I’ve stated in my one-shot the action was exciting and evocative.  What I lacked, though, was any sense that at any point we could lose any of the main characters.  It’s a fairly safe bet that Macharius will make it through and as much as I wanted Leo, Ivan, Anton, and the others to survive, to me the greatest losses are those we care most about – or are close to those we care most about.  Since there was no occasion that really sold me that anyone could have died, it felt more that the group were on rails heading for their destination, rather than battling for their very lives.

William King clearly has some game with writing.  He’s been doing it a long time, and his stories – rightly, as I understand it – are beloved by his fans.  And they are legion.  I felt, though, that Angel of Fire was a safe novel not really designed or planned to push the boundaries of 40K literature, and to give an entertaining, and pleasing novel that sets up a franchise.  That’s how I saw it, and that’s pretty much how I read it.  In no way did I get bored reading it, and in no way did I find it disappointing.

So, in conclusion, I’d have to say that The Macharian Crusade: Angel of Fire is a good read.

The Macharian Crusade: Angel of Fire is available in hardback from retailers, and from Black Library as an eBook download.

EJ Davies

EJ Davies: reader, reviewer, writer; and an avid lover of Black LIbrary products since the release of the seminal Horus Rising. EJ is currently working through the massive back catalogue of Black Library titles, and plugging away at his own fiction-based efforts in the vain hope of cracking his way into the author pool.

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