Deathwatch by Steve Parker – Book Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes a look at another alien hunting novel, Deathwatch by Steve Parker.
“A standout, fast paced example of how to get the Deathwatch right.” – The Founding Fields
If you’ve been following The Founding Fields for a while you might know Black Library doesn’t have the best track record with Deathwatch novels. With previous efforts having featured Razorbacks transforming into Land Raiders, multilasers, and leaps in logic which would leave an ork scratching its head in confusion. At best they were a bad joke. What’s more, they were frequently not about the Deathwatch per se so much as the battlefield they were on. Doing little to expand or detail the Ordo Xenos’ militant arm or represent them as elite spec ops strike teams.
This one however? Not only does it actually manage to focus on the Deathwatch and expand upon their methods, but it’s possibly one of the single best books focusing upon the difficulties of astartes from different origins working together.
Serving as a prequel to the short stories Headhunted and Exhumed, both also by Steve Parker, Deathwatch focuses upon the formation of Talon Squad. As tempers fray, old chapter grudges arise and clashes occur as a result of egos, the space marines from a thousand varying origins must learn to work together. To overcome their natural opposition to one another, adapt to the methods the Deathwatch employ and fight as an effective combat unit. They must learn fast however, as a thousand worlds away the agents of the Inquisition are uncovering a new threat to humanity. One which will require the elite tactics, skills and warriors of the Deathwatch before it can be slain.
The book’s strongest element ultimately comes from how it was planned out, with it divided into three parts and two separate plots. One focusing upon the action of Inquisitorial agents as they spy upon their enemy even as the space marines are recruited. One focusing upon the Inquisition’s initial efforts to combat the threat as the space marines are retrained via Deathwatch methods. Then a final section after Talon is formed when they are deployed together for the first time. Despite an awkward opening which jumps from location to location with little establishment of what is really going on, once the book gets into the swing of things the story runs like clockwork.
It would have been an easy thing to simply have Talon already assembled in the introduction but this way more is detailed about the Deathwatch. Giving light to just how the organisation has so many rival chapters or direct opposites learn to effectively fight together, the level of retraining required and the sorts of individuals who are sent to their ranks. With some being offered because of the honour they regard the chapter with. Others to try and rid themselves of/improve the attitudes of trouble makers. Yes, the Deathwatch is to certain chapters what boot camp is to certain parents. In all seriousness though this does work, with the flaws of some individuals serving as a great source of conflict. At the same time making it evident that the Deathwatch is used to dealing with less rigidly disciplined factions as much as they are marines from extremely codex adherent origins.
Kudos definitely has to be given to Parker for handling this with such skill and for who he chose as the trouble maker in Talon. Clearly establishing that no chapter is innately superior and simply outright better than any other. Also for managing to simultaneously integrate the Fantasy flight RPG’s insanity system into the narrative to some degree. The only unfortunate thing about this is that the aforementioned character goes largely underdeveloped.
Throughout the book only three of Talon Squad are truly fleshed out. With others either being left largely as an enigma or left largely blank. Either due to being previously detailed in Headhunted or an apparent lack of focus as the story emphasises upon certain details. This means that changes, such as the development of some to be more accepting and a part of the squad, happen without apparent development. Their problems either simply fading into the background or mysteriously disappear part way through. As a result the only ones who are truly examined are Karras of the Death Spectres, Zeed of the Raven Guard, and the dreadnought Chyron to some degree.
The book has far more of a spec ops or tactical feel than you would tend to get with space marines. Something helped in part by the structure and overall build-up to the conclusion. With almost the entire tale builds up to a single brief but bloody surgical strike after weeks of planning, practice runs and operations. One which requires a vast amount of equipment, effort and feels in some respects more like a Shadowrun operation than it does something within Warhammer 40K. What helps keep things clearly in this universe however are the space marines themselves, who despite their differences from the norm in many cases are clearly space marines. That and also the details we learn about the Death Spectres through Karras, fleshing out their attitudes, traditions and methodology. Both giving a primary detailed example to contrast with the Deathwatch besides the better known chapters and give something familiar to readers expecting something more traditional.
While Parker’s willingness to progress beyond what would usually be expected of Imperial factions, even the Inquisition, is usually of benefit to the story he does occasionally go too far. The most notable examples of this is when it’s clearly a radical Inquisitor commanding Talon and the widespread use of elder tech. At least unlike with Goto eldar technology isn’t simply something widespread and casually accepted by all Imperials, but both Sigma and the Deathwatch use it. The former isn’t so much of a problem but the latter? It’s something which makes the xenos hunters look like hypocrites and feels out of place even amongst the more pragmatic space marines. It’s really a step too far even with what he was apparently aiming for in how the Deathwatch differed from ordinary space marines. Though even that has its problems at times.
While Parker might have been writing about space marines, if you look at his previous books he’s more experienced with Imperial Guard. That seems to bleed over here in more than a few places with the behaviour of the astartes feeling more like those of unenhanced humans. Mostly this is Zeed admittedly, and you’ll see why when you read the book, but a few things just didn’t feel right. The nicknames Talon uses in particular felt more like something out of a Last Chancers novel than something focusing upon the Deathwatch.
Getting back to the positives, other elements which help to keep the spec ops theme are the levels of restricted information and advanced operations. Both when Talon is being trained and under the command of an Inquisitor code-named Sigma, who might be even more of a threat to the Imperium than the villains, they are kept in the dark. Other kill-team’s missions, just what their operation actually involves, who their commander actually is are all details which are restricted to them. Even why they specifically were hand-picked is something never gone into and instead left for the future.
As for the advanced operations, the Inquisitorial agents which are first sent in clearly define some of the methods utilised by the Hallowed God-Emperor’s KGB. Mostly those less seen in the likes of Eisenhorn and Ravenor. With shape changing agents willing to assassinate any in their path and information gathering bionics to infiltrate cults and deliver direct information to superiors. There are enough elements here to make it feel like it’s in the same universe as the other books, but their more procedural spy-like methods make them feel a bit more like a secret service.
All this is definitely helped by Parker’s very cinematic writing style. He delivers just enough information for the reader to understand yet more than enough to have them create an image of events in their heads. While not as heavily detailed as Abnett or McNeill it still creates a distinct feel to each environment and, like James Swallow’s books, feels extremely streamlined. Allowing you to quickly absorb information and progress through the book at high speed. Something it definitely needed with the sudden twists the plot takes more than once.
Even with all these positives there are one or two niggling problems which hamper the book. While the review up to now might have commented upon occasional weaknesses and problems in the script there are a two which stand out. Both are introduced in the book’s final pages and are handled nowhere near as well as they should have been.
A clear problem is that while Sigma might be an interesting character with hints of power, manipulative abilities and planning, he doesn’t make a lot of sense. Well at least his plan doesn’t. While it might seem fine throughout most of the tale, in the final pages it’s eventually explained and revealed to be borderline insane. Convoluted and wasteful to the point where Daenyathos’ infamous several thousand year gambit looks reasonably straight forwards.
The other flaw is that the ending is blatantly sequel baiting. On the one hand this isn’t an entirely bad thing given the story’s quality and it’s easily good enough to be the start of a series. On the other it’s not that well implemented; only really coming into play at the very end. Not only is there no real build-up towards this but you can’t take it as a possible conclusion to a standalone book. While Xenos in the Eisenhorn trilogy might have also hinted at a follow-up story, it was small and done in a way ambiguous enough that it could work as a single novel. Here? Not so much and it leaves more than one major character’s plot thread hanging. A frustrating and mostly unnecessary addition to what was otherwise an extremely solid novel.
Despite its flaws this is definitely recommended to almost anyone interested in the Ordo Xenos. It gives a large number of unseen details, serves as an interesting tale and has contrasting characters to keep you interested for more than one read-through. Furthermore the amount of ideas and lore it contains makes it a must buy for anyone planning to run a campaign of the Deathwatch RPG. As it manages to show certain details the rulebook never could in its format or without specific focus characters.