Shadowhawk reviews the latest premium edition publication from Black Library, the second in the Space Marines Battles series.
“Flesh of Cretacia may very well be the defining Flesh Tearers book, capturing the very essence of the cursed chapter against the backdrop of the Horus Heresy aftermath.” ~The Founding Fields
Andy Smillie is one of the newer authors writing for Black Library, and with that newness comes a marked difference in his approach to the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy that many of the older, more experienced authors are greatly beginning to experiment with. This difference is that in the last two-three years (by my count) there has been a significant shift at Black Library in terms of how nuanced the stories have become. The days of Bill King’s Space Wolves novels, or Graham McNeill’s first Ultramarines trilogy, when the characters and settings were less complex and the authors’ interpretations of the source material were rather straightforward have given way to Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Night Lords novels, and Sarah Cawkwell’s various Silver Skulls stories. That comment is not meant to be seen as in any way derogatory of the former two authors though, since I’m a big fan of both those early bodies of works and they are what got me into the hobby and solidified my interest in it. Andy has the benefit of seeing that evolution come about and he makes full use of it. Yes, there have been a few publications in recent times that I’ve found to be quite below par, some of which I quite detest, but those have thankfully been very few and far in between.
I have some experience with Andy’s 40k work and before I read Flesh of Cretacia, that experience was about equal parts good and bad, although to be honest it was leaning towards the former. His short story The Torturer’s Thirst (Flesh Tearers) in the Treacheries of the Space Marines anthology was extremely good, as was the eShort Immortalis (Flesh Tearers), but his Space Wolves audio drama Deathwolf didn’t work for me at all. I approached Flesh of Cretacia with a bit of caution but was still pretty excited for it since one of the protagonists, Chapter Master Amit was a favourite character of mine from James Swallow’s Heresy novel Fear To Tread and because Clint Langley’s cover for the novella was just so darn good. Not to mention that I thought, at the time, that Andy had a fairly decent grasp on the Flesh Tearers. This novella proves that he has, in fact, a very good grasp on their ideology and culture, and that he really does understand what makes them tick. We saw overtures of this ideology in James Swallow’s third Blood Angels novel, Red Thirst, and Andy’s understanding of them builds on that portrayal, giving the chapter an even more feral and brutal outlook on life.
For starters, Flesh of Cretacia is not what I call a “safe” story. Amit, being the first Chapter Master and a character of some repute from the days of Horus Heresy, has a fair bit of plot armour as expected, but the novel does not focus exclusively on him, as do Bill’s Space Wolves novels on Ragnar Blackmane or Graham’s Ultramarines novels on Uriel Ventris. Andy has crafted a really rich cast of characters for this story, ranging from Chaplain Zophal who commands the Death Company (and is the Chapter’s leading Chaplain I believe), to newly-minted Sergeant Manakel, to Captain Barakiel and many others. Through their eyes, we see how the Flesh Tearers are beginning to define themselves amongst the successors of the former Ninth Legiones Astartes, the Blood Angels, how their experiences since the end of the Heresy, particularly the death of the Primarch and the sundering of his legion have changed them, as well as Amit’s own increasingly fatalistic command of the chapter.
Among all the successors of the Blood Angels, the Flesh Tearers have suffered the most from the twin curses of the Red Thirst and the Black Rage, and Andy does a great job of exploring that concept. The chapter, the warriors who take part in the mission to Cretacia of Orks at least, suffer great casualties, many from these twin curses, and the experience leaves many of them emotionally and psychologically changed. Some of them rise to a higher calling among their brethren, while others fall just as far into the madness that they bring. And in that respect, Amit and Zophal emerge as the most important characters in the novella. One is driven by the fatalistic realisation that he may one day fall to the genetic defects of Sanguinius’ bloodline, and the other is weighed down by his responsibilities as the commander of the warriors who have already fallen to one of those defects.
Its not an easy task to write about Space Marine characters that a reader can care for, since by their very nature such characters are quite inhuman and often unable to relate to the masses of humanity around them. But in Amit and Zophal challenge that perception as Bill’s Ragnar, or Graham’s Uriel, or Gav Thorpe’s Branne Nev, or Dan’s Garviel Loken have done for me. Amit is even more important in that regard since he’s a bridging character here: he served under the Primarch himself during the days of the Great Crusade, and the Heresy that followed, and he is now a relic of those times who is struggling to redefine himself. There is an especially poignant scene in the novella when he is talking to one of his ship captains and he compliments her on her decades of service to the chapter. Another when he is haunted by the worst atrocity he ever committed, his own personal shame that he is constantly atoning for (the atrocity is shown in Fear To Tread).
Andy Smillie’s Cretacia lives up to its expectations from the lore that has been written on it over the years. If anything, the planet is much more brutal than any of those accounts, and comes quite close to how ruthless of a character is attributed to Fenris, the homeworld of the Space Wolves. Which is fitting since they are both some of the most prominent of death worlds in the Imperium, planets where the natural order of life is utterly hostile to human civilisation, where every second is a struggle against a hostile environment. Until the Flesh Tearers came to the planet, they were a crusading chapter with no world to their name. The novella marks how the Flesh Tearers bend the planet to their will against its own will. The various lifeforms that the Flesh Tearers end up fighting against, the indigenous tribes and their cultures, Andy packs it tall together in this novella. You really do get the feel that the entire planet is against the Flesh Tearers.
There are a lot of characters in the novella and the pace often slows down when the switches happen, but Andy keeps the general flow of things going. There was no slowdown in terms of the mood and atmosphere that Andy is going for, and those are often bleak since the Flesh Tearers have a rather dim view of things, compounded by Amit’s fatalistic attitude to everything.
I call Flesh of Cretacia the defining Flesh Tearers book since that was the impression I took away when I was done with it. The characters all give off the feeling that they are part of this unique chapter culture that is theirs and theirs alone. The twin curses keep them focused on being sons of Sanguinius, and their attitudes and personalities and actions keep them focused on being Flesh Tearers, often literally.
The novella is definitely Andy’s best work to date, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next, hopefully a full-length novel on the M41-era Flesh Tearers!