Soul Drinkers: Redemption By Ben Counter – Omnibus Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius looks into both the strengths and failures of the first trilogy of Ben Counter’s Soul Drinkers series.
“A reasonable trilogy in spite of an extremely flawed start” – The Founding Fields
The Soul Drinkers series is one which is generally either hated or held in low regard. While not as universally reviled as the things produced by Goto it’s definitely has more arguing its flaws than praising what it gets right. While many problems can be excused by various fan theories and ideas, there’s little to deny the execution was less than stellar. Much of this comes down to Ben Counter himself flip-flopping on the direction it would take and the conclusion more than anything else. That being said, it’s rarely judged fairly. Few critics ever seem to reference any events beyond the final pages of Soul Drinker however, so how is the trilogy as a whole? Let’s find out.
As the opening stated, this introduction to the series isn’t that good. While not the worst thing Black Library has ever published it has very distinct problems in pacing, direction and general logic.
Set in the dying days of the forty-first millennium (no change there) the Soul Drinkers are active throughout the Imperium. A fleet based chapter with a glorious history, their acts have been well documented and their deeds remembered. From the dark days of the Second Founding to helping end the mad reign of Goge Vandire, they have fought to defend humanity from the horrors both within and without.
Yet for the first time in thousands of years they find themselves with an opportunity to regain that which was lost.
The Soul Spear, prized weapon of Rogal Dorn himself has been uncovered on a rogue star fortress among a collection of relics. Racing to take back this artifact of a bygone age, the Soul Drinkers do not realise that they are being easily manipulated for greater goals…
The crux of the problem here is in the introduction. You know the Soul Drinkers are being manipulated right from the start and it’s increasingly clear that it’s not by natural forces. It’s not long before this reaches the point where you desperately want someone to jump into the narrative yelling “YOU’RE ALL BEING DUPED!” Preferably while punching Sarpedon, the protagonist, in the face. While some ignorance might have been acceptable due to distractions and what we learn later on it definitely could have been better handled.
Up to the point where Sarpedon duels their Chapter Master their actions are just about believable. After they start gaining mutations, calling them blessings of the Emperor, it’s much harder to accept. This isn’t helped by many of the often mind-numbingly bland characters.
The cast needed to either show aspects which could be latched onto for Chaos to influence them or sympathetic personalities. Ones diverse or varied enough to keep interest amongst the marines, but we don’t really have either here. While Luko, Lygris, Graevus and Tellos work well others like Pallas, Sarpedon, Givrillian and others do not. This is especially problematic as many require you to care about them or at least appreciate what they are saying, especially in Sarpedon’s case. He’s written some sort of warrior philosopher you’re never given a real reason to care about him or want him to succeed. While his actual decisions, fights and thoughts might be interesting he lacks that edge to make him truly interesting. Unfortunately many of the non-astartes secondary characters are no better, either seeming very bland or come across as blanks. The captains of the ships, Arch Magos Khobotov and the minor sects worshipping the Architect of Fate all lack any real attachment. Some have aspects which should work but they aren’t pushed far enough.
The problem with the limited characterisation is that Counter tends to give every character a history. While this can help to make the universe feel bigger, it tends to bog down the narrative and doesn’t really add to them. Worse still, the same thing goes the same way for the Soul Drinkers chapter itself. The army was retconned into being a creation of the Second Founding, specialises in boarding actions and has a unique doctrine they follow. For all this nothing is really given to set them apart from any other force. Had this been intentional, showing even an extremely codex adherent chapter falling easily, this might have worked, but the Soul Drinkers are an atypical force within the imperium. The only time when this is used effectively is one particular Chaos champion, largely due to the author’s descriptive capabilities with mutations and unnatural phenomena.
The book contains plenty of decent writing along with the bad, but it’s usually reserved only to the scenery descriptions and mass violence. There are some explosive battle scenes from the opening purging of the star fortress to the final battle on the Soul Drinkers’ new base of operations. Each one is given a vastly different flavour than the last and enough unique features to make them truly stand out. Plus it’s not every book you end up getting both orbital battles, giant zombie sharks and a beach assault all within a few chapters of one another.
The descriptions of the worlds corrupted by Nurgle and overrun by viral strains fester in your mind, with clouds of bloated flies and decaying horrors littering shorelines. Minor details from the disturbing warmth of the sea to the blackish sand all are delivered in a fascinatingly disturbing way. The ships the book is often set on are portrayed rightly as labyrinthine corroding nightmares and aged tombs as much as they are vessels of war. A fittingly gothic feel which captures the darkness the series was going for and, even when the book is at its weakest, such descriptions help to keep some interest.
The real killer in this is the tone. Ending on an oddly hopeful note and with the continual promise of improvement, Soul Drinker finds itself at odds with its own subject matter. This is likely due to Ben Counter’s change from having them fall, corrupted and willingly in servitude of daemons, into survivors. Clinging to life on the edge of the imperium through sheer determination and skill while all turn against them. It doesn’t capture the bleak nature or outlook of their lives and the bittersweet losses ensued with each victory. Despite being written with enough blood, loss and betrayal to be A Song of Fire and Ice 40,000 it’s almost positive in its final scenes with the Soul Drinkers’ eyes finally opened.
It’s clear why many people dislike the series if this was their introduction. Both with continually awkwardly shifting in locations, predictability and weaponised plot driven stupidity it’s a rather poor novel. Despite some good action, fast pacing and some genuinely great one liners it’s a bad introduction into a much better saga.
The Bleeding Chalice
Following on only months after their battles against the daemonic forces of Ve’Meth and Abraxes the Soul Drinkers find themselves on the verge of annihilation. Though no longer blinded to the force which manipulated their succession from the Imperium, they find their bodies corrupted and mutations rampant within their ranks.
With over a quarter of their marines dead and their gene-seed too unstable to replenish their numbers, Sarpedon is forced to lead his chapter into a warzone. With records suggesting a cure to their plight can be found within the sector they must avoid the traitor forces which have carved out a minor empire within the Imperium.
Almost every aspect of the book from its overall tone to its characterisation of the forces involved has been vastly improved. The difference in quality is effectively day and night and were this the first novel to the series the Soul Drinkers books would likely be much more highly regarded. Right from the beginning you understand how different the book will be when the primary Imperial character and Soul Drinkers are introduced. They’re more rounded, written far more as humans and have minor details and character quirks which help them stand out beyond their role and rank. None are effected by the virulent brain cell eating virus which was apparently spreading through the last book.
The very fact Sarpedon doesn’t try to storm the entire warzone and take it by force is proof enough of this but if you also get him reflecting upon some of his actions here. While he never says he’s wrong and still considers the Imperium to be too corrupt to be worth serving, he never tries to justify being duped by Abraxes. Furthermore a few of his thoughts come across as much more human and understandable here, especially considering the Soul Drinkers’ desperation. This improved characterisation definitely helps the book’s themes and makes its much darker tone all the more real.
The Soul Drinkers’ are no longer completely in the right and many of their actions stand the chance of doing as much damage as they do good. As such rather than overly zealous fanatics or officials motivated by greed, many Imperial forces they oppose start becoming more sympathetic. Inquisitor Thaddeus is one such example and is a vast improvement over Chloure or Khobotov; along with being far more an investigator and even handed in his judgements. While driven to perform some questionable acts he is called out on such actions and his behaviour in the final chapters shows a surprising degree of flexibility. For a force which was last seen ignoring the theft of a primarch’s weapon and declaring a chapter excommunicate traitoris at the drop of a hat, this is a far more balanced portrayal.
Another vast improvement, again with the characters, is with the novel’s antagonist Teturact. While Ve’Meth, Khobotov and Abraxes only served their purpose as villains, Teturact is a character. He has a background, motivations which make him stand out from them and while occasionally veering into cliché he is far more memorable due to his presence. He also serves a role as both a dark reflection of the Soul Drinkers, what they could become if they did embrace Chaos, and of the Imperium’s much darker secrets.
With each person being much better written, the plot is much tighter and more naturally developed. Sarpedon, Thaddeus and Teturact have their connections and serve as much more intentionally distinct contrasts with one another. Each one has his own involvement and the way they develop is far more naturally progressive than “I suddenly have spider legs, this must be the Emperor’s will!” Thaddeus might see the Soul Drinkers initially as only a force for evil but the actions he performs and the eventual lessons he learns makes his final decision feel justified. One decision clearly leads to the next and you’re not left wondering how the hell a character came to the conclusion they did.
This is ultimately what marks The Bleeding Chalice as an improvement over its predecessor, but it also keeps all of its previous strengths.
The characters which previously stood out continue to remain decent here. While not outstanding they feel like they have more of a dimension than the others, having been more clearly established and fleshed out as characters. At the same time the writing quality with the others seems to have caught up with them and those like Pallas and the newly introduced Salk feel like they’re worthy of focus. A few previous strengths are overlooked to accommodate this new focus, most notably Tellos who is pushed into a background role, but these mostly consist of characters whose arcs are over.
Despite the improved writing the pacing is excellently done. It’s easy to find yourself racing through the endgame of events on Stratix Lumine before you realise you’re well over halfway through the book. Similarly the descriptions and battles remain as good as ever with some nightmarish ideas and details being given to the reader as the usual over the top action and bolter fire erupts onto the pages. In this case imagine Operation Market Garden with zombies and a corrupted Emperor Class battleship.
Overall The Bleeding Chalice generally feels as if it knows what it wants to be. It’s a sobering tale in spite of its more outlandish elements, one dealing with the fallout of the Soul Drinkers’ actions and depicting them close to death. It doesn’t end on a high note or try to show it as some glorious tale of victories and war. Even when the Soul Drinkers do emerge victorious it is not without severe costs and any celebration of their accomplishments is notably subdued.
This is the book I would recommend anyone considering the series to start on. While by no means perfect and with a few areas which needed improvement, it’s nothing like the disaster Soul Drinker was. It fits the tone of the series far better, handles the characters with much better skill and overall is clearly much better handled. When the book does refer back to the events of their departure from the Imperium; it gives enough information to make you understand what happened but nothing more. Enough to come up with your own idea of what happened but without the flaws of the first novel’s telling.
Ultimately it is a decent tale and one which shows what the series is capable of when handled correctly.
As the last book in the trilogy, Crimson Tears shows the Soul Drinkers still attempting to recover from the wars which have sapped their strength.
Still numbering only five hundred astartes even with the influx of new recruits, the Soul Drinkers have been avoiding many wars in the effort to ensure their survival. Unfortunately for them they are once more forced into battle, this time to ensure their secrecy. Despite having apparently been killed on Stratix Lumine, Tellos and his warriors have re-emerged on a war-torn world where the Imperium is fighting the Dark Eldar. Frenzied and having succumbed to Chaos, they now slaughter everything in their path. Despite this Tellos knew of the chapter’s secrets and of their base’s layout, something which could give the Imperium an edge it would need in destroying the chapter. Leading the astartes they have left, Sarpedon departs to deal with Tellos once and for all.
The novel is best remembered in the series for how it portrays many factions involved besides the Soul Drinkers. Both the Crimson Fists and Dark Eldar gain details which affect them for both better and worse, but it’s the Imperial Guard who benefit the most from the additional focus.
As a force who is wrongly normally presented with the tactic of throwing badly trained troops into meat grinders, they’re here shown in a more normal light. Having been gathered together at the last minute to retake the world the crusade consists of various regiments which have not been trained to work together. Ones who while having flaws and problems are not presented as utter incompetents sent in only to clog up the enemy’s guns.
Much of this is due to Lord Commander Xarius, a favourite among fans, who is an exception to your usual Imperial Supreme Commander. He values the lives of his men and understands the battlefield but remains a solid and surprisingly human character throughout. One who is desperately trying to hold a failing campaign together even as it falls apart around him, but isn’t willing to throw away lives at the drop of a hat.
What’s interesting about this is that it works in spite of the obvious use of the Imperials Counter was going for. He presents the campaign as the Imperium as a whole, at least from the Soul Drinkers’ perspectives. A force made up of various different regiments of different skills and varying degrees of competence who are all trying to act on their own, even as a single force tries to command them. One which while vital to the overall effort in bringing down their enemies can’t keep up with the battle as it takes place due to continual delays and interference. All the while the astartes themselves act as a law unto their own, pursuing their own agendas and often ignoring the force which is supposed to command them. They’re loose cannons who seem to have no regard for any overall plan and seem to frequently undermine any effort to effectively combat their enemies as a unified force. Something which is also not helped by the hit and fade tactics the Dark Eldar employ.
Again, this isn’t supposed to present the Imperium in any definitive way but instead as the Soul Drinkers’ see them. As a result it does a lot more to flesh out the Imperium from their perspective than we have seen in previous novels and serves as a good criticism. Many of the books in the Black Library are always from an Imperial perspective so it is interesting to see them in a way which could be critical of their tactics while not going “foolish worshippers of the corpse god.” Unfortunately though, some of this came at the cost of others.
While the Crimson Fists are given a rare degree of focus exploring their chapter’s diminished state post-Rynn’s World, the company here feels wrong. Not that they aren’t visibly space marines or act unusually towards traitors, but that they seem to have lost much of their insight. They continually pursue the Soul Drinkers above all other objectives and ignore the Imperial Guard’s war in favour of bringing them down. The problem is that the Crimson Fists are supposed to be a pragmatic chapter. One which would normally be able to keep things in perspective and have more tactical awareness than the average khorne berserker. If their commander, Reinez, had some dishonour to try and overcome or prove the Fists were a capable force even while diminished that would be one thing. The problem is that the novel never gives a powerful enough of a reason for him to be so zealously pursuing them.
The good news is that they’re the only space marines who come across as acting strangely here. The Soul Drinkers themselves behave in a far more sane manner and a few get some surprisingly good character development between events. Chief among these is Luko who, while being certainly likable, was rather one note in previous events and is given a new angle here. It presents something which is unfortunately never fully explored but makes him far more three dimensional than before. In addition to this the squad of Soul Drinkers scouts, led by Eumenes gives a new perspective on events and the chapter itself. Beyond them however we get few developments as Sarpedon remains largely the same and the few insights we get with Chaplain Iktinos don’t quite match up with what we see later.
The violence is handled in a surprisingly different way than before and it really works. The first two novels featured the Soul Drinkers jumping from planet to planet, leaving battlefields as soon as they arrive, but here they’re stuck in one place. It allows Counter to try something different and we see the Soul Drinkers trying to move through the city, lure enemies into traps and outmanoeuvre the enemy rather than just fleeing back into orbit. It’s nothing you’d not expect an army not to do, but it shows they do have more tactical sense than people usually give them credit for.
This novel is also the weakest when it comes to describing these environments. While some details do portray a truly hellish battleground of ruins and crumbling buildings, but they almost seem tame at times in comparison to daemon worlds and corrupted planets. Even the few distinct moments of gothic architecture add little to the overall atmosphere and the few times things do become interesting is when the Dark Eldar become involved. Speaking of the Dark Eldar, they’re an odd group here. Despite their role very early on little can actually be said without spoiling their involvement their plan is dubious at best. Given their relationship with Slaanesh it is just about plausible for them to attempt it, but it’s also on a much grander scale than the pirates would ever dare to try. Both because it would usually mean little to them and that at best they would gain the attention of those they would rather go unnoticed by.
At the end of the day the novel is extremely mixed with a few good elements holding out despite its flaws. There’s certain enough here to like but periodically you’re going to just raise your eyebrow and wonder “Really? They’re trying that!?” If The Bleeding Chalice got you interested enough in the Soul Drinkers then you’ll enjoy this one but just be warned it’s a step down from the previous novel.
Soul Drinkers: Redemption is very much a rollercoaster ride of quality. For everything it gets right it seems to get something else wrong and It will take the series some time to finally even out in terms of writing quality. That being said, despite a sub-par first book the rest of the series is fairly decent with ideas and details which worked. The chapter’s status as renegades is always at the forefront of the stories and you never get the feeling they’re having an easy time or not at risk of destruction. Something which shows how much a chapter needs the Imperium for survival and how risky turning traitor can truly be. If you like the concept behind the series find a few extract of The Bleeding Chalice and read through them. If you like what you see give the series a try, otherwise look for a more traditional story about traitors.
Overall Verdict: 5.7/10