Bellarius reviews the latest installment of the Space Marine Battles series, The Death of Antagonis by David Annandale.
“Some decent ideas let down by truly horrible execution.” – The Founding Fields
Sweet mother of mercy where do I begin with this one…
In this world there are many kinds of bad novels. Those which had no research put into them. Those which aren’t so much stories as badly disguised hate crimes by the authors towards fictional characters and fans of said characters. Those which are not bound by any logic and those which are in bad taste. The Death of Antagonis is a new kind of bad novel, the sort which seems to intentionally torment its reader.
The story this time is about the enigmatic Black Dragons, a force spawned out of the cursed 21st founding and sufferers of gene mutations. Specifically their overgrowth of bones resulting in members of their kind being massively proportioned even by space marine standards and with some even developing retractable bone blades which they coat in adamantium. Feared by the people of Imperium, hated by higher ups in the Terran hierarchy, shunned by many chapters; they’re effectively one Canadian away from fighting for a better tomorrow under Chaplain Xavier.
Fighting this time for the planet Antagonis as it is struck by a plague of undeath, the Black Dragons’ second company is deployed to rescue the planet’s populace. This is where things start to go horribly wrong. Oh not for the marines, that comes later, but for the book itself.
Most authors actually take the time to establish things. David Annandale does not.
Within the first three pages you jump cut from a remote event from weeks ago to the plague already overrunning the planet, the Black Dragons already conducing and operation and everything going to hell in a handbasket. You don’t know who anyone is, what their character traits are, who the people they’re protecting are, what state the planets in or even how the virus got there in the first place. Nor does the novel offer any initial attempt to even try to explain who is who.
You’re given no incentive to become involved and aren’t so much eased into the plot as slammed into and expected to keep up. For all the impression they make and meaning the names of the Black Dragons have for the first few chapters it might as well be Ron, Harry and Hermione purging heretics with their bolters. It’s so bad that you end up over a hundred pages in to the novel before you’re properly introduced to some characters who were there at the very start.
While there’s a bit of context for what is going on there’s no real introduction to get you invested in events. Something which doesn’t get any better when you start to run into the book’s moments of stupid. The Death of Antagonis has a very special kind of stupidity. Whereas Warrior Brood was a relentless bombardment of Whisky Tango Foxtrot, this one paces itself. It tricks you into a false sense of security with some admittedly decent writing for several pages. It knows exactly when the pain from its last moment of ridiculousness will ebb and you’ll lower your defences before it drops the proverbial hammer and tries to reduce you to a gibbering wreck.
Halfway down page sixteen of chapter one you encounter the first of these. Just when you start to get into the book it throws out a moment of such glorious insanity you’re left repeatedly read it to make sure you’d gotten it wrong –
“Load-bearing walls had become heretical.”
Believe it or not, that line actually makes even less sense in context. And this is the first of many such moments in this, each being somehow worse than the last one. Ones which find entirely new ways to make you desperately seeking the nearest source of alcohol and new things to screw up.
Just take the next moment, a surprisingly reaction on the part of an inquisitor upon being confronted by the Black Dragons about his association with His Divine Majesty’s Hallowed KGB –
“Only Grey Knights were supposed to know that there was even such a thing as the Ordo Malleus.”
Yes, no other chapter knows about the inquisition. The Ultramarines must just shrug their shoulders at the looming daemonhunter fortress world on the edge of their home system and pretend its not there. And I’m sure the other two Ordos have no idea who keeps quietly closing Warp rifts and lynching daemons every time they turn up on an Imperial world. No, no, no one knows Ordo Malleus exists at all.
Even giving the author the benefit of the doubt and blaming this on the convoluted, contradicting, contrived mess which was the Grey Knights codex the novel manages to contradict it itself. Following this bit not too long afterwards with the same damn Inquisitor stating this –
“We both know the relations between my Ordo and your Chapter have been difficult.”
So yes, he thinks the Black Dragons have no idea there’s even an order of daemonhunting Imperial spies but knows they’ve been quite unhappily talking to each other for the past several hundred years. They also reference multiple actions by the Ordo Malleus such as purging the Flame Falcons and the fractious history between the two. Completely unknown aren’t they.
This is something the novel never really addresses or tries to rectify in any way. Plus it’s the first of several instances where a specific fact is introduced, made very clear to the reader, then blatantly contradicted. It’s so bad at times that if the story suddenly pulled time devouring chainsaw teethed meatballs out of its rear it would only solve plot holes. Thank you to the five Steven King fans who got that reference.
The reason I’m making such a big point of this is it’s because it’s these moments which really ruin The Death of Antagonis. When it sticks to just the facts, action and some of the more wider scale stuff it’s not bad. Hardly Abnett tier literature but far better than what James Swallow was writing when he joined Black Library. You could see traces of a really good idea forming on the pages, one which looked like it was worth getting invested in. But as soon as you do you’re blindsided by things like a human revealing himself as corrupt by quickly slashing what’s suggested to be the eight pointed star of Chaos into the air with a chainsword. Or lines like “This building is a sorcerer.”
Even ignoring all of these problems the villains only help to compound this issue. Whereas the Black Dragons at least have background from some old White Dwarf issues to be worked off of, the villains in the form of some extremely badly defined traitor marines. Usually you get some form of background on the enemy, a few distinguishable characters or even their patron god. In this case we’re lucky to get a name, colour scheme and basic emotion. The Swords of Epiphany are traitor marines obsessed with purity, are evangelists and are always blissful, but that’s it.
Unlike, say, the Word Bearers however we don’t get any indication of their culture or presence of power, just that they really like gold and are led by a human traitor cardinal. They’re effectively defined only by the fact they are the complete opposite of the Black Dragons in every respect, but the book never approaches it in the right way. We never learn their bloody history or anything or real value about their origins or even the past conflicts between the chapters. You never even hear them declaring any praises towards any god of Chaos or worship to any aspect of the four major powers. They effectively serve as little more than an excuse to die at the hands of the protagonists, thread out an increasingly loopy doomsday plot, and make the wild moodswings of the real villains seem more believable.
To try and make something out of the mutations present within the chapter, Annandale opted to write about an internal conflict between the two. There’s nothing wrong about that except rather than a smooth curve towards the two sides coming to a head he opted to get Chaos involved. Which results some character shifts so sudden it’s all but impossible to see who they originally were.
The characters, whose names I shall not reveal, start by wanting to turn the Black Dragons back onto what they perceive to be the right path. Avoiding mutation, adhering to the codex, all that good stuff. The resentment towards some of the changes they implement lead to frustration, leading to more extreme methods, which leads their head honcho to shooting up the company’s chapel and blaming the Emperor for their failures. Which then leads them to deciding the chapter isn’t worth saving nor was anything which knelt beneath the Golden Throne and joining the Swords of Epiphany without question.
At the beginning of the novel they were reasonable good loyal servants of the Emperor. By the end they are the Battle-brothers Von Doom. While there is a somewhat traceable curve towards turning traitor throughout the book it keeps making leaps which don’t add up or feel believable.
A key example of this?
Page 199 has one traitor saying this – “Captain, both you and the sergeant have avowed commitment to purity. Let me remind you that evil has its own perverted purity.”
Fourteen pages later the same character talking about how purity must be maintained at all costs to some very questionable degrees. All without the slightest indication that the previous line had ever been uttered.
At least in Soul Drinker with Sarpedon when he was turned against the Imperium you could see how most things added up and his faith in the Emperor could be used to turn his chapter. Here there’s no such reasoning and the turn will only leave you scratching your head. Or facepalming repeatedly and groaning, whichever you prefer.
Speaking of facepalming, there’s the final act and the doomsday weapon of the book. If you somehow want to still read after all this, then abandon all hope ye who enter here. This is what the whole story leads up to:
Swords of Epiphany are after a big Warp powered weapon capable of devouring entire systems. One which is two giant reinforced adamantium planetoids which slot together when in use, start grinding devouring any world in their path and powered by the souls of its victims.
Let me just repeat that – The big feth-everything-I’ll-kill-the-galaxy weapon is a giant pair of Chinese baoing balls which chew up worlds by crashing into them and are powered by the blood of the innocent.
This is the sort of thing you’d put in a parody and it’s played straight faced right from the beginning, right to the end. Unfortunately that only makes its inclusion funnier. With this monstrosity’s introduction the book finally, completely and utterly, jumped the rails and never looked back. Any interest, any tension you might have had falls to bits as you figure out that the remainder of the novel is taking place on what’s effectively a giant-sized Warp traversing Pacman.
If you’ve not gotten it by this point, The Death of Antagonis really is not a good novel. An abrupt beginning, a shaky middle and a thoroughly ludicrous end peppered with moments so insane they might as well have read “Al’whya al Cthulhu fhatagan, K’kili’far al is ar’arkas fal dep’wa”.
That being said let one thing be made clear – While this is a bad story David Annandale is far from being a bad author. When he actually has his head screwed on straight and gets going for a few pages there is some definite talent at work from someone with considerable skill. The battlescenes, while a little lacking in description, are fairly visceral and the locations are surprisingly imaginative.
Furthermore while the villains fell flat, the Black Dragon protagonists definitely deserve to be brought back in a far better tale and Annandale can write Sororitas like no other. No, really, if there was one aspect of the book I would suggest reading it’s any part where Canoness Setheno is the centre of attention. Trying to describe some of them here really wouldn’t do her scenes justice. It’s just unfortunate the good is thoroughly smothered by the bad.
If you want a story about a damned chapter shunned by the imperium, at odds with the inquisition, trying to seek redemption and suffering from mutations; try The Bleeding Chalice of the Soul Drinkers saga. It’s not perfect but it’s a hell of a lot better than this.