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Lord of the Night reviews the latest in the Space Marines Battles series, The Death of Antagonis by David Annandale.
“A truly mixed novel that has as many pros as it has cons, but ultimately is let down by those cons being too glaring to ignore.” – The Founding Fields
The Death of Antagonis is a novel that really took some thought, deep thought, for me to determine it’s score. On the one hand Annandale has fleshed out a pretty badass Chapter and given them some badass moments and lore, but on the other hand he has written a story that feels disconnected from place to place and with a title that does not really reflect what the book is about at all. And there are plenty of other pros and cons that make this a novel that was tough to score, but I managed it.
The Black Dragons are outcasts in the Imperium. Reviled for the curse of mutation that runs rampant in their ranks, it is only a matter of time before the Inquisition decides to deal with them one way or another. As the Dragons go to war to save the planet Antagonis they become embroiled in an ancient plan, their archenemies plotting the demise of the 2nd company and a world in the balance that only the Black Dragons can save, it may be that the greatest threat to the Black Dragon is the very thing that makes them such fine killing machines. The Chapter is at the cliff’s edge, and there are those determined to push them off it and those determined to take this chapter and give it the purpose it was born to assume, but first the Dragons must survive the death of Antagonis.
Now firstly the story is, a bit spotty. The first part set on Antagonis, after reading the whole novel, feels completely meaningless. The only thing that came from it was the Black Dragons getting a hint there is something bigger going on and after that Antagonis is barely mentioned, thus the title just feels wrong, and in the end the only purpose that Antagonis served was to start the Dragons on the trail of the real enemy, which makes what the enemy did there just stupidity. And then after that it feels like the Dragons are simply planet hopping. The antagonist’s plot is a good one, with flaws admittedly, and I liked the parts that dealt with it more directly but the Black Dragons internal issues were the biggest divider. On one hand it felt like a natural plot to cover in such a unique chapter, on the other hand it felt like the entire thing was made for the behest of outside forces and that the Dragons were puppets in their hands. I also have my issues with the Grinder, those who read the book will know what that is, and I do not like the superweapon for the simple fact of it is a superweapon. 40k should not have an abundance of planet-destroying weapons lest it end up like Star Wars where a new superweapon pops up with every new trilogy of books.
The characters are again a mixed bunch. On the one hand you have characters like Canoness Setheno and Volos who have very strong moments and some good aspects to their characterisation, but who also have flaws such as a seemingly infallible character type for the former and the latter who was quite a pushover for a Space Marine. Or you have Toharan who I feel became disillusioned and bitter by being asked a few ham-handed questions by an idiot but on the other hand was an ideal aspect to the chapter to flesh out, the uncursed. Annandale has made characters that aren’t great or terrible, but rather inbetween with good and bad aspects to them. His Black Dragons had a good identity to their chapter and I really liked the secondary characters Nithigg and Keryon, but at the same time the protagonists felt very meek for Space Marines and were too easily manipulated by Inquisitor Lettinger and Canoness Setheno. His antagonists were a better group, Cardinal Nessun and his Swords of Epiphany had a very evil and joyous air to them, the guys who smile beatifically as they murder and maim and the idea behind them was a very neat one but alas only Nessun himself had any real personality, the Epiphany marines were merely background characters and thus had little to no character behind them.
The action is better but does have some downsides. First off Annandale writes his bolters as if they were machine guns, not miniature cannons that propel frag-grenade bullets so the gun battles lose a lot of their strength. Second his company numbers were totally skewed, unless the Dragons have more than a hundred battle-brothers which the book did not specify, then by novel’s end there shouldn’t have been any left if the casualties he mentions are accurate. Third he seems to overuse the idea of a stampeding crowd being it’s own force and able to drag down Space Marines, the first time was cool but by the third or fourth time it’s a bit repetitive. But there were good moments, the Dragon Claws were the best part of the book as their bone-blades really added something to the battle sequences, a sense of close-range power and much more brutal executions. Especially good was their battle with the Chaos Raptors, there I really liked the way Annandale described their battle in the air and then in melee as the two sides tore into each other. Annandale’s writing of gun battles was a bit odd, one scene where a character stands in front of a charging and shooting force of traitors and doesn’t get hit is quite eyebrow-raising, but his melee battles were narrated nicely.
The pacing is a bit off, the novel starts out a good brisk pace but slows down too much in the middle as the Dragons go hunting for the enemy and only speeds up again in the last 50 pages which creates a really uneven pace for the whole novel, which in turn lets down the middle section. One thing that really let the book down though were the lore errors. Now I say that but I stress that I do not believe that in 40k X is X and Y is Y, things can be different for each corner of the galaxy and many things can be interpreted to the author’s vision. But that said there are some things that are facts, like the Ordo Malleus being well-known or the Cursed Founding chapters being able to recruit new marines. Previous books have proven both of those things to be true, and while yes once the Ordo Malleus was a secret from all but itself those days are over and belong in Black Library’s Heretic Tomes collection along with Ian Watson’s Space Marine and William King’s Farseer. Annandale also reuses one or two narrative moments and quotes from his other recent work Mephistion: Lord of Death, and to one who has read them back to back it’s quite noticeable and not a good thing to see.
All that said this is 40k and there are plenty of awesome quotes to choose from, this one being my favourite,
“Make me your monster. Make me your dragon.”
The ending is appropriately bleak for a 40k novel and while some elements of it I did not care for I think it was a decent enough way to wrap up the story, though the end result of one character’s actions could have been explained a bit better as it was kind of unclear exactly what that character was aiming for. But aside from that the ending does finish the main plot elements well enough and gives us a good image of what the Black Dragons were meant to be, and what their place is in the Imperium of Man alongside the purer chapters. Annandale does do a good job of capturing the grim reality of the 41st millennium in the ending, but could have elaborated a little more on what passed inbetween the last chapter and the epilogue.
Pros and cons together this novel was not easy to score but I have scored it. I give The Death of Antagonis a score of 4.7/10. This is not a novel I would recommend to any but strong 40k fans, and really I can’t say whether you’ll like it or not. Personally I did not hate this novel, but I didn’t love it either. What I can say about this novel is that I liked parts of it, and I disliked parts of it, and that while the parts I liked were genuinely good the parts I did not like were quite glaring and let this novel down. I don’t regret reading DoA, but it could have been a better novel with some plot tweaking, character changes and, this one is solely my personal thing, removing the superweapon and giving the enemy something that’s dangerous but isn’t a planet-killer. I just don’t like those.
That’s it for this review. My next review will be released soon, my dual-review of Galaxy in Flames by Ben Counter with Bane of Kings as my co-reviewer. Until next time,
AVE DOMINUS NOX!