Ravenwing by Gav Thorpe – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first book in the Legacy of Caliban trilogy, penned by Black Library’s resident Dark Angels expert.
“A worthy successor to the classic Dark Angels tale, Angels of Darkness, this book furthers the plots and events of that novel and presents a really intriguing look into the chapter from the perspectives of the specialist warriors of the Ravenwing.” ~The Founding Fields
The Dark Angels are one of the most intriguing Space Marine (Adeptus Astartes) chapters within the Warhammer 40,000 setting. They are certainly the most secretive and one of the most accomplished, with a roll of honour that goes back to the Imperium’s founding, to a time when the Emperor himself still walked among Mankind. They were the First Legion to be created, and that is a mark of their distinction among their fellow cousins of the Adeptus Astartes. There have been several stories about them in various formats over the years – audio dramas, short stories, novels, etc – that explore their secretive nature, both cause and effect, and they have all been fairly intriguing to say the least. In the ongoing 50-book Horus Heresy series, the entire mythology behind the Warhammer 40,000 setting is being explored and the Dark Angels and their Primarch, Lion El’Jonson, have featured in a few of the more prominent stories, as the various writers explore how and why the Dark Angels came to bear the great shame that the chapter still endures ten thousand years later.
Ravenwing is Gav Thorpe’s latest book, a direct (continuity-wise) successor to Angels of Darkness, which remains one of the best written 40k books to this day, pretty much a classic, if I may be so bold. Angels of Darkness presented some rather shocking revelations about the Dark Angels, and these revelations have been the cornerstone of their lore ever since. The stories featuring them in the Horus Heresy series have either supported or invalidated these revelations, depending on how you look at them, and the overall picture is of a chapter that is conflicted with its own past down to the very core of its existence. In this new book, the first in a new trilogy exploring the chapter and its the arch-enemies of the Fallen, Gav Thorpe takes the strands first woven in Angels of Darkness, further and shows what the fallout of these events has been.
The novel is told from three distinct and perspectives that are integral to the story. Each perspective offers a very distinct look at the Dark Angels’ hierarchy and shows how convoluted a system the Chapter has evolved to keep the terrible truths of the Horus Heresy from its rank-and-file members. This entire concept is at the heart of what Ravenwing is, and why I loved the novel so much. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been such a detailed look into the Dark Angels as yet, certainly not one that has been as compelling, not even Angels of Darkness, which had a completely different focus.
The first character we meet is that of Battle-brother Annael, newly inducted into the Ravenwing from the Fifth Company, and thus one of the few members of the Chapter who knows something of the truths that the Chapter has hidden for ten thousand of years at any cost. For a Chapter mired in secrecy and half-truths for the betterment of its battle-brothers, Annael’s arc throughout the novel exposes some of these secrets. Internal misinformation is something that the Dark Angels are very good, and through Annael we see how this entire web is woven by the Interrogator-Chaplains and the Grand Masters of the Chapter. Annael, given his new promotion, provides a sympathetic view on the warriors of the Ravenwing and the Second Company’s current leadership. He is one of them now and the novel is as much about his adjustment within his new Company, as well as him learning more about the Fallen and how these traitorous Space Marines have affected the course of the Chapter’s history.
With Annael’s induction into the Ravenwing, the character has already gone through his “loss of innocence” phase, where he learns of how the Lion was killed, and is promised eternal vengeance as long as he is a part of his new brotherhood. Gav takes things a few steps further and he teases out further hints that show how Annael grows over the course of the novel. He learns some further truths on his own, and is faced with moral dilemmas with respect to the consequences of his actions and his orders. The way the novel ends, Annael is still doing some soul-searching, and his need to learn the full truth is not sated.
Through him, we are also exposed to a whole different style of warfare within the setting: mobile assaults via bikes and land speeders. The Ravenwing, being a “pursuit” force that relies on speed and mobility, is all about hunting from the saddle. To the best of my knowledge, there are no other books in the setting that focus on this style of warfare, at least not to the degree that the character is a major one. There are several scenes in Rob Sanders’ Legion of the Damned with Space Marine Scouts on bikes, but the characters are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. A case could also be made for Andy Hoare’s The Hunt For Voldorius which features the White Scars’ Third Captain Kor’sarro Khan and his bike-mounted Command Squad, but we never really get a good sense of mobile warfare in the book, not to the extent that Gav Thorpe handles it.
We see Annael and his brothers fight through huge city-blocks, open plains, and even a Star Fort (a very large space station). Each situation is different from the one previous, and while it took me a bit of creative adjustment to make sense of bike-mounted squadrons fighting through the tight corridors of a Star Fort, I can’t deny that Gav Thorpe wrote all these scenes with an eye for detail and that he made full use of bike-mounted tactics and strategies. These scenes made for some of the most thrilling moments in the novel, partly also because these were unique scenes.
Then we have Grand Master Sammael, the current senior officer of the Ravenwing, and thus one of the most highly-placed individuals within the Chapter who knows much about the deepest secrets held by the Dark Angels. He made for a very different sort of character than Annael. One of the reasons for this is because of the knowledge he possesses, and the duties and responsibilities that come with such knowledge. Another reason is that he is a much more confident character, confident in his purpose and confident in his command. Throughout, he makes some really tough decisions, and it is quite fascinating to see his thought-process. Given his status within the Chapter, I expected a much more… arrogant character, but Gav has done a great job at humanising him, at making him someone that I could sympathise with.
Much as Boreas was challenged in Angels of Darkness, so it is with Sammael in Ravenwing. It is given that in any story about the Fallen, any Dark Angels characters involved will face a certain crisis of faith. This is expected, and this is the norm since the very existence of the Fallen is a challenge to the authority and existence of the Dark Angels, one of their darkest secrets that if it is ever made public, the Chapter could very well be labeled traitor and rogue. Boreas, being an Interrogator-Chaplain, faced a great personal challenge when Astelan made him question his beliefs and his convictions in Angels of Darkness. In Ravenwing, Sammael has to do a lot of the resultant soul-searching on his own, particularly after he is made aware of Boreas’ final transmission to the Chapter forces at the end of Angels of Darkness. Interrogator-Chaplain Malcifer is able to provide a solid rock of belief and convictions for Sammael to latch on to, but the conflict exists until the very climax of the novel.
Whether Sammael outright rejects some of Boreas’ conclusions, or whether he harbors doubts that result from these conclusions, Gav Thorpe has made Ravenwing very much a character study as far as the Master of the Ravenwing is concerned. I believe it is the first time that we get such a deep psychological look into the mind of such a senior Dark Angels character, and therein lies the attraction and charm of Ravenwing, the element that makes it into a far superior book than it would have been otherwise.
One other thing that made Sammael such an interesting character was that he is the only Space Marine mentioned in the 40k lore who goes to battle riding a jetbike. Within the 40k setting the technology to create new jetbikes, the Imperium’s version of a grav-bike, is lost by the 41st Millennium, and any existing jetbikes that survive are the last of their kind, having once been common during the Great Crusade and Horus Heresy days of the Imperium. Jetbikes now are little more than powerful relics and thus the fact that one such, named Corvex, is Sammael’s chosen “steed” says much about the esteem he is held in and is a mark of his status. Gav occasionally contrasts the Corvex against the bikes that the Ravenwing battle-brothers ride to war, and it is (once again) really interesting to see. I really wanted to see a lot more of Sammael and the Corvex in action, both because of the uniqueness of it, and because the image that is conjured up as a result is something that is truly 40k. In the 41st Millennium, the Imperium often relies upon technology that is thousands of years old, whether this be the mighty warships, or machines that construct tanks and hand-held armaments, or even the battle-armour that the Space Marines wear. In Warhammer 40,000 technology is something to be revered, and it is no surprise really that the keepers of the Imperium’s technology are part of a patriarchal priesthood that worships a Machine-God.
The final character of note in the novel is Telemenus, a simple battle-brother of the Dark Angels’ Fifth Company. He was, for me, a singular character in the novel who exemplified and even typified the frustrations of his battle-brothers at the actions of the Master of the Ravenwing when the combined Second and Fifth Companies jump from warzone to warzone without completing their objectives. Since Sammael is on the hunt for the Fallen, his duty and responsibilities necessitate that all other concerns must be put aside in pursuit of this singular goal. Therefore, one warzone after another, the warriors of the Fifth Company task-force under Sergeant Seraphiel, undergo a personal conflict that makes them question the motives of Sammael and the Ravenwing. And Telemenus is the front-man for all this outpouring of discontent.
Of course, he is also close to achieving his First Marksman’s Honour, a feat of ranged combat marked by one hundred thousand bolter kills. Thus, having to quit the field of battle for reasons that go unexplained and unaddressed, his frustrations boil out repeatedly, to the extent that he is chastised for his behaviour by both Seraphiel and Interrogator-Chaplain Malcifer. What is not immediately apparent however is that Telemenus represents one of those few Dark Angels who are not content with their role and status within the Chapter, who are seeking to question authority and thus keep the authority in balance. It is a path that leads to either censure or advancement, depending on the whims of the Chapter’s senior leadership.
For me, Telemenus was the most sympathetic character since unlike either Sammael or Annael; he is a grunt soldier, just a battle-brother. Plus, there is always something charming and memorable about characters who challenge, even question, authority so Telemenus was even more likable in that respect. Constantly being crapped on by the universe doesn’t help either, although he does come out of it with enough glory to satisfy someone as ambitious as him.
So, much like Annael, Telemenus is also a character who is attempting to come to terms with his status. The Dark Angels reward obedience above all, and even minor discontent is treated with harshly, all for the good of the battle-brothers since none of the rank-and-file are deemed worthy of learning the truths that the Chapter guards. Under the guise of “protection for their own benefit”, the Dark Angels officers are able to do much, and in Telemenus we have a character who represents the other side of that “shadow” conflict.
With all these characters combined, Ravenwing also becomes a novel about trust and brotherhood. The Dark Angels have a tenuous relationship with both these concepts, and Ravenwing surpasses itself in that respect. It is a novel that takes a very detailed look into the culture and identity of the Dark Angels, in a way that has not been covered before for the chapter, and thus becomes one more novel which actually does just that for a Space Marine Chapter. Rob Sanders’ aforementioned Legion of the Damned (featuring the Excoriators) is another example of a novel that takes a detailed and deep look into chapter politics, culture, and attitude, much as Sarah Cawkwell’s The Gildar Rift (featuring the Silver Skulls) does.
There are a few places where Ravenwing is a bit weird, such as section where the Ravenwing squadrons are fighting inside the Star Fort, or the section involving a tourney between the warriors of the Ravenwing and the Fifth Company. The tourney felt a bit forced, more so since it was in the final third of the novel, a little before the big showdown towards the end, and so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d wanted to. But, Gav once again uses internal conflict of interests between his Dark Angels characters to show more of workings of the chapter, such as he did in Angels of Darkness and his other Dark Angels novel, Purging of Kadillus, which is a prequel to Angels of Darkness.
Ravenwing is a novel that I would definitely recommend to all the fans of Warhammer fiction and Military SF alike. It has tons of action, tons of intrigue, and quite a bit of minutiae that make action novels that much more interesting. To put it simply, this isn’t simply bolter-porn, but is much more.