Soul Drinkers: Annihilation by Ben Counter – Omnibus Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius concludes his look at the Soul Drinkers saga with the Annihilation omnibus by Ben Counter.
“Ending in fire but not in darkness, the omnibus gives the finale fans wanted.” – The Founding Fields
While the first omnibus focused upon the Soul Drinkers trying to start anew, Annihilation depicts them suffering from their mistakes. It was at this point the series shifted direction, moving in a more coherent plotline towards an ultimate conclusion. While the novels were still episodic and separated from one another, the events of each began to have more impact upon the following tales. Furthermore the shadowy dealings of Chaplain Iktinos provided a distinctive thread to link them together previous installments had lacked. Is this addition a boon or a liability to the final half of the saga? Find out below.
The strange thing about both omnibuses is that they both start with the weakest stories in the series before moving onto much stronger tales. This might be due to Counter being at his best when his heroes are trying to recover from some great loss, with their backs against the wall, but it’s a flaw which can easily put off new readers.
Set decades after the conclusion to Crimson Tears, Chapter War shows the Soul Drinkers having rebuilt to their full strength. While lacking in vehicles and specialists, they once more number one thousand battle brothers and are united in their cause to protect humanity rather than the Imperium. However, some interpret their cause differently. Eumenes and many of the later recruits, lacking the indoctrinated loyalty of the chapter’s teaching machines, wish to directly wage war against the Imperium. Striking out against Imperial strongholds with the eventual goal of assaulting Terra itself and smashing the astronomican.
As the Soul Drinkers find themselves on the brink of another chapter war, caught between the Orks they arrived on Vanqualis to fight, Imperial Penal Guard regiments and the loyalist Howling Griffons; a grim truth about their history begins to surface…
As with Soul Drinker, the novel has good ideas but fails to realise them and is largely undercut by its plot. In an effort to make a kind of “soft reboot” many elements were altered from the previous novel and several acts are very questionable. Most notable among them is the personality transplant Eumenes has suffered, turning him into Starscream and resembling little of the Scout Sergeant from before. While this could be put down to changes which have taken place over decades, we’re not really told or shown them and they’re hard to accept given the dramatic changes in attitudes between novels. Many of the long standing character who side with Eumenes are little better, with only their duties or a handful of scenes to support their decisions.
Furthermore the fact the rebellion itself could take place seems like a level of incompetence Sarpedon would not be capable of on his worst days. It seems unlikely that he, Karraidin or Luko would go so long without noticing any undesirable traits among their scouts or significant signs of disloyalty. While their actions in Soul Drinker can at least be somewhat justified, here it’s fairly inexcusable.
Along with the Soul Drinkers, the Howling Griffons have suffered somewhat in their portrayal. In their handful of other details they seemed to be written as somewhat level headed crusaders. A chapter who followed the Codex Astartes as a guideline to war rather than holy writ but followed it none the less, acting like Black Templars with a degree of sanity. Here though, Counter portrays them as fanatics obsessed with correcting any slight against them and crossing the thin line of what passes for sanity in the 41st millennium. They seem constantly like screaming madmen hell-bent upon serving the Emperor, okay more than a usual space marine, with many of their later decisions seeming questionable. Contradicting their established personalities or as if the plot as suddenly jumped several scenes without warning.
This also isn’t helped by the fact that, despite near non-stop action, areas of the plot in the second and third acts definitely drag. Feeling sluggish or uninteresting in their delivery, it’s enough to make you forget some of the big turns later on. Lost either due to the endless battles or their predictability. The best moments of the novel tend to either be reserved for the final moments following the war or take place during the first half.
Yes, there are actually good moments in this.
For starters the Orks have one of their better “serious” portrayals outside of Rynn’s Word. Having insights into the WAAAGH!’s leader and presenting them more as raiders than pub brawlers, and lacking some of their more humourous elements. While this might not appeal to some readers, a more straight faced look at them is certainly interesting to read about. Furthermore the Imperial Guard regiments seen consist of elements not often seen. Those initially fighting the Orks maintained control of their systems through appearance of power rather than actual training and the Penal Legions consist of those the Inquisition wished disposed of. The book repeatedly makes use of them to examine ideas of the Imperium rarely explored; and the focus characters stand out enough to keep things interesting.
The returning character of Inquisitor Thaddeus is another welcome return but his presence is minor and even Iktinos’ behind the scenes actions are only briefly touched upon; ominous as they are. The truly great character moments tend to be in the heat of combat such as Karraidin’s stand against the traitors, which can result in them easily being forgotten as one battle jumps to the next.
As was the case for The Killing Ground in the Ultramarines series, Chapter War ultimately feels more like an excuse to tie up loose ends and start anew than something the author wanted to write. The few interesting elements it has exist outside of the main plot and it can be a real slog to force yourself through the book. While unfortunately necessary reading to understand the second arc of the series, it’s definitely a novel otherwise worth ignoring.
Still reeling from their losses from the events on Vanqualis, the Soul Drinkers find themselves severely diminished in number and lacking in resources. Things are only made worse when they discover an Adeptus Mechanicus fleet determined to bring the chapter to “justice” who severely damage the Brokenback and a force lurking in the unknown worlds of the galaxy’s rim: The Necrons.
On the surface Chapter War and Hellforged seem like very similar books. You have a world under threat from an enemy, the Soul Drinkers attempting to rescue its people from oblivion while the Imperium attempts to fight the Soul Drinkers. Efforts initially go well but are undercut by later revelations which turn the tables against them, forcing later alliances against mutual enemies. What separates them is ultimately two things: Focus and delivery.
Chapter War was supposed to be about the conflict within the chapter itself, yet tried to juggle one too many elements. Resulting in a plot which had too many sides, too many characters and too much endless combat. Lacking the breaks between fights, single true enemy or the focus needed to give the novel a more coherent plot. Hellforged thankfully corrects this and is a more superior novel as a result. Rather than being a three sided melee, the Mechanicus, Soul Drinkers and Necrons fight one another on separate occasions. Each encounter separated out or outlined well enough beforehand to easily keep track of events, often using more memorable quiet moments to enhance the atmosphere.
As with The Bleeding Chalice there is very much a feeling of dread and nihilism within the book, emphasising upon the chapter’s diminished state. While It’s never so much to overwhelm the book or reach Evangelion levels of tediousness, it works well in combination with the book’s place within the series and the alien foe they face. It was clear that the Soul Drinkers were not going to meet a happy end and with their recent losses it was obvious said end was coming soon. Between Iktinos’ plotting and their continued losses, whatever finale was planned for the series was going to be grim and bloody.
The Necrons themselves represented what the Soul Drinkers faced in some respects – inevitability. Unlike their current versions, these were actual Necrons. Rather than cyber-toffs prancing into battle while quoting Ming the Merciless and using the C’Tan as Pokemon, they were the silent legion of old gods. They couldn’t be reasoned with, distracted or feinted and at best their force could only be temporarily slowed via the death of their leaders. Outside of the Word Bearers series the novel shows how chillingly horrifying a force they could be; not requiring long speeches of death or characteristics lifted from the Tomb Kings to feel compelling. When they strike they strike in force and even the absolute most staunch defence will only temporarily turn back the tide, often with heavy casualties as a result.
This level of doom and gloom is only emphasised further by the characters. Sarpedon’s self doubt is evident after the initial engagements against the Mechanicus and Luko’s state can only be described as fatigued. Both have been worn down by the continual fighting and more than anything else some are simply desiring to see an end to their conflict. Contrasting with this is the populace of the worlds the Necrons are invading, staunch and determined humans who can best be described as a 40K Slayer cult. Many war aspects of their society revolve around finding a worthy death in battle, sacrificing themselves against the Necrons to continually buy more time.
While this is very basic and borderline cliché, the way it is used is surprisingly fitting for the story. It’s easy to see the culture’s actions performed by space marines and criticises the ultimate flaws in such a mentality. The tactical issues and problems which can arise from warriors determined to fight to the bitter end; and how complete annihilation can undermine such resolve. The Mechanicus mirror the human populace in some respects, but it is more out of cold logic than warrior spirit. Many elements from their military forces and fleet being willing sacrificed against the Necrons to try and ensure ultimate survival.
If there is one major flaw to be found within the novel it’s the conclusion. While setting the stage for Phalanx and feeling like an end to events befitting the novel’s themes, how exactly it took place is questionable at best. The way it is set up suggests that a specific military force hurtled across the galaxy in days If not hours at extremely little notice. It might seem like a nitpick but it comes so far out of left field and without prior hints that it can easily throw a reader off at the last second. This lack of explanation is not helped by the book ending on a cliffhanger, leaving what happens next unclear.
Still, it’s an otherwise minor problem for an otherwise fairly solid book ignoring some very minor canon discrepancies and definitely one of the best of the series.
Finally, we reach the end of this series. As was stated in its review, please note that the Daenyathos novella took place between books. If you are reading this series it is strongly recommended you pause to look through that for information crucial for understanding the final installment of this series.
After the events of Hellforged and the betrayal of the Adeptus Mechanicus, chapter master Sarpedon and the remaining Soul Drinkers have been taken captive, stripped of armour and weapons. As a chapter of Rogal Dorn their captors, the Imperial Fists, jail them in the Phalanx to await stand trial for their actions rather than outright killing them due to chapter traditions.
It is not simply the Soul Drinkers’ fate which hangs in the balance however. Thousands of years old machinations are coming to a close and the chapter is beginning to realise their “freedom” might have been a part of a detailed plan devised by another being.
Ben Counter has always excelled at two things in Warhammer, showing just how dark the universe can be and giving bittersweet endings which allow for the protagonists to gain some victory even in failure.
Counter fully uses both in this and gives the chapter a send off entirely fitting of the series. It makes it very clear from early on that the novel will feature the Soul Drinkers’ final hours. They have lost everything, imprisoned on one of the best defended fortresses in the Imperium and are standing trial for their crimes. Crimes which are not simply against the Imperium but also against the God-Emperor, and Sarpedon is quickly beginning to realise they could all too easily be guilty of all charges.
The novel spends a lot of its first half focusing upon the Soul Drinkers’ actions in the past and their current state. It’s something used well as this is a finale but some readers might find the build up to be ponderously slow. It’s a similar problem people have brought up with The Outcast Dead, there is a great deal of time spent talking but very little in the way of action until quite late on.
Thankfully the weight of the revelations being given helps keep a reader’s attention, giving away information which changes much of what we knew about the Soul Drinkers. Very little of this can be talked about without giving away spoilers but what is revealed here makes the novel the most significant installment to the saga since the original novel Soul Drinker.
These revelations were definitely needed as without them it would have killed off much of the reader’s interest in the first half. Whatever your opinion of the series, unlike the Night Lords or Word Bearers trilogies, the Soul Drinkers saga is driven more by its ideas than characters. When more personal moments or tracts do take place it is often only to compound the themes of the book rather than push a character arc. Even with them however, the trail does feel very slow at times and it’s often the more individual conversations outside of the courtroom which are the more interesting events. A definite problem when said trial is supposed to be a key scene.
When the book does move from the trial to a battle what it gives us is one of the most desperate battles seen in the books, with astartes from a good dozen chapters focusing on combating a single enemy assaulting the Phalanx. The intensity of the fighting is detailed well into the pages and Counter helps to emphasis upon just how cataclysmic the consequences will be if the space marines cannot halt the invading force. Fighting against a force surpassing even the Necrons in their sheer lethality the battles are depicted as desperate firefights to hold choke-points within the vessel. This unfortunately robs it of some of the scope and environmental descriptiveness which made his more memorable battles so good to read, but does give an additional layer of desperation to events. Especially when astartes begin to fall in battle. Being the saga’s finale the body count is high, not just among the soldiers appearing in the book but among Soul Drinkers characters as well. Many of those who have been with the series since the beginning meet their end here, either at the hands of the loyalist chapters or the force which Iktinos’ true master unleashes onto the Phalanx.
The novel’s ending is neither happy nor triumphant, concluding on a very bittersweet note. While the Soul Drinkers do emerge victorious the cost is staggering and Sarpedon’s final actions make it clear that this is the end of his tale.
There’s an old idea that a single good scene can sometimes redeem a bad film, raising its quality. This seems to count for books as well, as despite an overall weaker plot the final scenes with the Soul Drinkers are among the series best. This is only compounded by a follow-up which suggests that things might have changed ever so slightly in the otherwise immutable 40K universe. Perhaps, just for once, for the better.
As with Redemption, the novels which make up Annihilation vary heavily in terms of quality. With an extremely poor start kicking off events contrasting with an otherwise decent second and third tale, but unfortunately require the novella to fully appreciate. The second half of the series eventually gives very different ideas about freedom, choice and the Imperium than the first, evolving from the pages of the preceding novels. if you enjoyed the first novels then this one is recommended, but just be ready to endure a multitude of flaws to reach its good points.
Omnibus Verdict: 5.8/10