The Macharian Crusade: Angel of Fire by William King – Book Review [Bellarius]


Examining the beginnings to William King’s Macharian Crusade trilogy with Angel of Fire, Bellarius finds some unusual qualities within its pages.

“An interesting novel with a surprisingly unique approach to storytelling.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields

As a work of fiction Angel of Fire is a hard book to judge. While writing it William King made some unusual choices which, while you can see why they were made, hinder the book as much as they serve to strengthen the narrative.

Following the events of the seven year Macharian Crusade, the book is told through the eyes of Baneblade crewman Leo Lemuel and his fellow soldiers as they mount an assault against a major target of the crusade. Fighting their way inside the Hive City of Irongrad, Lemuel and his comrades find themselves fighting at the side of astartes and even Lord Commander Macharius himself as they successfully take the city. However, it quickly becomes clear that occupying the hive is a far more difficult task. Especially in light of what lurks within its walls…

In many ways the book shares a number of parallels with that of the Ciaphas Cain series. It is written in the manner of a soldier’s diary, recording the events of the battles which are being collected following the campaign. Between the chapters are the occasional reports of Inquisitors and other reports, often used to flesh out events which could not be seen or explained by Lemuel himself. However whereas the Cain series is a work of comedy, Angel of Fire is played far more straight and has a far more tricks to make it seem like the genuine article.

Many quite obvious spelling errors occur with certain terminology or in records, often with words being done in two or more ways throughout the book. In any other novel this could be put down to bad editing, but combined with the ultra-short sentences and uncultured nature of the protagonist it’s more an effort to make it feel as if this is a record. Lemuel was a soldier after all, not a writer, and the style in which it is done is comparable with what you would expect of a soldier’s diary from the First World War. Very blunt, very basic, structure and lacking in a number of key areas.

In many respects this makes it more effective than the similar Last Chancers series, showing the mind of someone involved and those around him. From Macharius to his crew, you are given some indication of each person’s personality. While none of them are extraordinarily complex or overly compelling, they’re written with an element of humanity which manages to make each stand out. Despite the intentional shortcomings the writings of Lemuel himself constantly felt as if they had originated from a person, unlike those from Vulkan Lives.

Most surprisingly the battle scenes are not hurt by this change in perspective, often having much of the strength and impact they would in any other tome. Lemuel’s notes do make them lack scope beyond skirmishes or what is directly in front of him, yet what he does see is fast paced and well documented.

For all it works however, the style does fail the story in a number of key areas, especially with Macharius himself. Being low ranking soldiers the characters see little of Macharius himself until a considerable way into the book, and despite this being his series we are given little insight into his personality. There’s no real opportunity to explore what makes him tick or his ultimate skills. Even for all the book tries to show his charisma and influence, it fails to truly back it up save for one or two scenes towards the conclusion. The distinct lack of any grandiose or weighty descriptions hardly helps.

Furthermore, Angel of Fire never feels as if it is trying to push any boundaries. Besides the way in which the book is written, no events ever surprise you and it never feels as if it is trying something with the story which hasn’t been done before. Or, unfortunately quite often, been done better in another Black Library book. The lack of a single discernible villain or a face to their enemy hardly helps matters. While the cult of the Angel of Fire is shown to be a force of powerful zealotry and a true danger, no single leader ever appears to help characterise it. While some of the psychers help give their foe an identity, it just doesn’t go far enough. This shortcoming is hardly helped by the fact that King eventually resorts to an almost Gotrek and Felix style conclusion to events. An ending which feels more at home in a book of high adventure rather than the semi-stylised realism being presented in the first person perspective.

Ultimately this is very much a love it or hate it novel, depending very much upon the reader’s patience and enjoyment of its style. If you are an Imperial Guard fan or have enjoyed more characterised depictions of events, Angel of Fire will be worth your time but don’t expect to read it more than once or twice. As a trilogy opener it does its job, but fails to truly stand out.

Verdict: 5.3/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
Find more of his reviews and occasional rants here: