Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders – Book Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius reviews the Space Marine Battles novel Legion of the Damned by Rob Sanders.
“A grim tale of survival and war which exemplifies how to truly write about a space marine chapter.” – The Founding Fields
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way.
If you’ve looked up any criticisms about this book you’ll know that the main characters aren’t from the chapter on the front cover. No member of the Legion itself has a speaking role and largely are explored as a background presence. Rob Sanders himself has written a articles on this subject; defending his choice of title, focus and even just expanding upon minor details surrounding the book. I would strongly recommend anyone with criticisms to look at these and see the thoughts behind the novel.
With that out of the way, on with the review.
Set in the dying days of the 41st millennium, the novel follows the severely under strength Excoriators fifth company. After attending the traditional Feast of Blades, the space marines are called to defend a minor cemetery world against an oncoming crusade of Khorne berserkers. The planet’s defenders face seemingly inevitable defeat but the spectres which haunt Zachariah Kersh may yet have a role to play in their war.
If there had to be a single Space Marines Battles novel to which all future instalments of that series should be measured against, it would be this one. Why? While it might lack the complex plot of some books it retains the tone and characters which make Warhammer distinctive.
From beginning to end the book retains a grim atmosphere fitting of the era, emphasising upon the Imperium’s dark darkest hour as much as that of the Excoriators. Every victory is written as being an arduous costly affair and even those leading the Imperium’s spiritual arm are presented as decadent, disrespectful to even their faction’s own edicts. The descriptive style used for the environments only enhances this. Giving the locations the mood of grim darkness you would want but never reaches the cartoonish levels the franchise has been mocked for.
The success of this tone is helped heavily by the Excoriators themselves. The chapter’s entire traditions and ideals surround an almost masochistic emphasis upon wounds, self-flagellation and survival. Founded from those Imperial Fists who stood on the walls of the Imperial Palace when the Emperor went to confront Horus, they follow Dorn’s single command prior to leaving: “Do not lose.” Regarding survival itself of being a kind of victory and wounds something to be openly displayed as a sign of endurance.
In 413 pages we learn more about one chapter than some which have had multiple trilogies and multiple codices devoted to them. As a series which gives the opportunity for lesser detailed chapters such as the Crimson Fists and Black Dragons to have a day in the limelight, this is something many of the novels should use. Using the series as a chance to explore the chapter itself rather than the characters involved or detail an individually great story.
Furthermore the astartes actually feel like space marines. A common criticism within many books featuring them is that they are often written as humans in power armour, lacking any sign of mental conditioning. The reasoning for this is understandable. A reader becomes more invested in a character when they are relatable and stories work better when they have character flaws to work with. Said flaws also help to give individual, distinct identities. Legion manages to get around this by having the chapter and characters themselves portrayed at their darkest hour, emphasising upon their relationship with Kersh.
For all these strengths it still suffers from the problem of a large number of characters being interchangeable. While written individually the grim faced stoicism they share made them feel one note. It takes more than one read-through to differentiate the characters beyond the core two or three Excoriators.
Further problems extend from certain choices of the story’s structure, namely the introduction. While the inclusion of the Feast of Blades to better introduce the Excoriators and Kersh himself, the prologue displaying the aftermath of the war for Certus-Minor makes an already predictable story worse. Letting you know the fates of nearly all the characters and effectively how the story will conclude. Well, stop at any rate. There’s not so much an end to the tale as a climax before it peters out to bring everything back to the prologue.
An issue also stems from his focus. While the Excoriators are fully fleshed out, there is no single character to serve as an antagonist leading the Khornate crusade. Segments are given to certain berserkers who make up the crusade but they never encounter any of the Excoriators in a direct fight or exchange dialogue. Making the potential behind their inclusion feel unfulfilled.
Despite these issues Legion of the Damned is still well worth getting. The story is well crafted, showing how to use a story to explore the culture and personality behind an ancient force like a space marine chapter. As an added bonus it actually does the Adeptus Sororitas some justice, using them as more than just cannon fodder to beef up the villain or captives for chaotic rituals even if they are kept largely in the background. It’s not for everyone, and it may take multiple read-throughs to like, but I would still strongly recommend this one.