Damnos by Nick Kyme – Advance Review [Bellarius]
Taking a look at the second of Black Library’s Space Marine Battles hardback re-releases, Bellarius examines the strengths and flaws of Nick Kyme’s Damnos.
“An interesting tale of internal politics and war, the ambition behind which unfortunately exceeded the writer’s grasp.” – Bellarius. The Founding Fields
In a trend second to the Collector’s Edition copies of the Horus Heresy series, Black Library has taken to re-releasing older titles in hardback form. The first among these was Armadeddon by Aaron Dembski-Bowden and now we have the similarly place-named Damnos by Nick Kyme. Each has had a novella length follow-up story tacked onto the end, either exploring events which were not depicted in the original novel or stories which took place at a later date on the same world. As it consists of two stories, we’ll be treating this edition as an omnibus, addressing and scoring each story in turn.
That done, onto Damnos.
Fall of Damnos
Set on the doomed world of Damnos, the story follows the conflict between the Ultramarines’ Second Company and the necron horde which dwelt beneath the planet’s surface. Having been awoken long before their arrival, the astartes led by Sicarius find the world’s military broken and the remaining populace in full retreat. Determined to turn the tide, the Ultramarines mount an assault, but internal politics cause many to question the captain’s orders. After so much has been lost, how can any hope to find victory against an undying foe such as the necrons?
If there’s one thing to be said about Fall of Damnos, it clearly emphasises the scale of events, the cost behind them but most of all the story’s direction. Within a chapter it’s made very clear how great a threat the necrons truly are, with their forces being awoken and proceeding to rout any who oppose them. We see progressively bigger Imperial forces brought against them only to be smashed down in their advance. Along with setting up a number of important human characters, it gets a lot of details out of the way while setting up the book’s foe. In a very short space of time it establishes their enemy very effectively while keeping them grounded enough in power to show they can truly be fought. Better yet, their SPESS TOMB KINGZ aspects are kept to a bare minimum in this sequence, allowing for some genuine terror to seep through as they pick apart the Imperial military on the planet.
This point needs to be praised for two reasons: Firstly getting much of the busywork over and done with so what is actually advertised can actually be focused upon, a problem more than a few novels make. Secondly as it makes it very clear (even more so than the title) this will not be a joyous war and will be a fighting retreat at best. While Kyme is visibly hamstrung by much of the source material from the fifth edition Codex: Space Marines, he never goes so far as to repeat Mat Ward’s mistake of trying to write the Damnos Incident as some kind of victory or at worst a draw. Only a handful among them truly believe it can be won, through either stupidity or arrogance.
Speaking of arrogance, there’s the characterisation of Cato Sicarius and his role within the book. Despite having little more focus than any other character of the novel, Sicarius is easily its biggest strength as it utilises the few character details he was actually given beyond an obscenely long list of skills and victories. Much like in The Chapter’s Due and the previously reviewed Veil of Darkness, Sicarius is a risk-taker who skilled, brilliant, but failing to know when to retreat or when the battle is lost. This point is made clear many times when the captain is fighting the necron menace, mentioning that others would have retreated and sentenced the world to exterminatus than lose soldiers fighting as he is here, particularly his rival First Captain Agemman. The actual rivalry is made into a plot point, with distrust among the Second and First Company elements accompanying the mission and internal politics between figures being in the background even as the chapter battles against the xenos. While never fully addressed, this internal political conflict is handled far better than many 41st millennium titles with it as a major plot point such as Soul Drinker and The Death of Antagonis.
The secondary characters of the company react to the politics in varying degress, but ultimately have their own tales to tell. Each given varying degrees of focus and their own tales become either relevent to themselves as a personal arc or the story as a whole. While Scipio and Praxor ultimately fall into the former, the likes of Tigurius are unfortunately in the latter camp and heavily overlooked as a result. Often feeling fairly two dimensional, the librarian only serves to show the power of the necrons and highlight a concluding sequence of the book. Furthermore the number of secondary characters both within the Second Company and among the humans leaves many aspects either unexplained or underdeveloped such as many characteristics surrounding the guerrilla fighter Jynn. We’re told she’s a fantastic figure on par with Creed or Yarrick yet it’s never really given much weight or true backing to this point. This is one of the book’s flaws: There are a good twenty characters if not more which are being used to try and give the story scale yet the ambition behind using them overwhelm’s Kyme’s ability to balance them out. There’s easily enough named figures here to rival the cast of A Song of Fire and Ice installment, yet he needs to write about them all in only a fraction of the page length.
In order to tell the characters’ stories and that of the space marines the book utilises constant flashbacks, but these are added at the worst of moments. Almost as soon as the space marine drop begins with the Ultramarines assaulting the necron forces, it jumps back to hours prior to flesh out their personalities. A choice which immediately kills all momentum behind events and the excitement behind the attack. While some are better placed, they frequently either get in the way of the events on Damnos or feel drawn out.
A more positive note is the tactics utilised by the Ultramarines. While all Black Library authors have varying grasps of military tactics, Kyme take the time to make note of troop movements, rearguard actions and the movement of forces in trying to support one another. It’s definitely a cut above that of the previous Gaunt’s Ghosts novels and even Graham McNeill’s Ultramarines series, making the Company feel more like a tactical military force than a band of vaguely organised knights. That being said, some moments are very questionable such as guerrilla fighters apparently having astartes grade bolt clips at their camp. There’s also more of an effort to define the relationship between the astartes and mortals. While unfortunately lacking much of the reverence or respect many novels have come to use as a plot point surrounding them, the astartes are frequently referred to as “angels” and seen as religious warriors directly connected to the Emperor’s power. A point which, while always a part of many books, is more evidently explored here.
Unfortunately Fall of Damnos’ greatest weaknesses ultimately come from two things. The first is the source material behind the conflict, with Kyme having to use many previous details written by Ward which are either childishly simplistic or are more at home in a superhero comic. A constant point of this is the various names of the squads such as the Immortals, the Lions, the Titan Killers and such. All of which are very at odds with the overall themes of the space marines in the book. As bombastic as they might be, they are professional soldiers as much as they are crusaders and such nicknames simply feels like an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic. Many factoids taken from the previous Codex: Space Marines are always extremely at odds with the book’s themes and even the Ultramarines themselves.
The other big problem is the necrons. While far more toned down than in many other stories which feature their new incarnations, these versions of the necrontyr are overblown, well past the point of being able to be taken as a serious threat. This is especially true about the flayed ones, for all their descriptions of gore, wearing the skins of others and madness, their leader constantly screaming for a tailor and wearing them as robes turned horrifying insanity into utter hilarity. The few times the necrons do work beyond the opening chapter are always when the necrons are either silent or completely missing beyond their basic troops. The choice of descriptive names, one in particular being given the title Stormcaller, were similarly questionable.
Fall of Damnos is extremely hit and miss, but there are good ideas in here. Much like Veil of Darkness, you have to stomach Invisible Space Pharaoh Wizard Necrons and the book is visibly overstuffed, but many of the interesting ideas present here are enough to warrant a look. While I would still recommend Warriors of Ultramar as a book involving the Ultramarines facing a losing battle on a planetary scale, Kyme’s personal touches make this worth going through at least once. For the internal politics, the tactical details, the varied characters and managing to turn Sicarius into an actual character rather than a fanboy’s personal Mary Sue.
Spear of Macragge
Set during the events of the previous novel, the book follows the tale of tank Commander Chronous as he takes the fight to the necrons. With Sicarius facing impending defeat, he engages the undying warriors in a massive armoured battle as Tigurius attempts to find a way for them to survive the Damnos Incident.
Following directly on from the conclusion of Fall of Damnos, Spear of Macragge slots into place extremely well with the book. Re-using many characters, taking place within mere hours of the last chapter and focusing upon the arrival of someone seen descending from a strike cruiser at that book’s conclusion, it’s an expansion which works extremely well. If anything it’s a justified reason to purchase this collection over the original, delivering a much more satisfying conclusion to events than the abrupt ending the book originally had. Winding down and addressing the final moments of the battle rather than having the story come to a screeching halt.
The only point which really separates this from the other book is the addition of Chronous, mentioned previously but unseen in the last novel. While more human and less acidic than Sicarius, he unfortunately remains a far less interesting character without the ambition or arrogance to cause friction with the others. Any interest in his character really comes from the battle against the necrons, managing to slow down their advance but not fully halt them through as much fault of his own as their own skills. Similar problems also arise with some returning characters, while the likes of Scipio do continue with the roles we saw last time their stories were largely finished. While including them does make the story feel far more whole, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is an extension of the story rather than a truly natural progression.
The upside of the novella’s addition is the final sequences in Damnos’ remaining city and the battles which finally forced the Ultramarines to retreat from the planet. With so many elements having been left out of the fight and arriving at the last minute, it makes it fully clear just why they had to leave: They didn’t give up immediately and even after being pushed back as far as they could still tried one final time to achieve victory with what they had. The battles themselves are of a very different nature from the almost-all-infantry engagements of Fall of Damnos, instead placing a heavy emphasis upon vehicle related combat. As well as an armoured battalion led by Chronous, thunderhawk gunships and necron fliers are seen in the mix fighting and engaging one another as they attempt to finally wipe one another out. The sequences themselves lack some of the desperation of the previous battles but are still something to behold, showing the same degree of control and organisation Kyme had with the troops but with a very different style. They are ultimately what the majority of readers will be drawn to and the book does place heavy emphasis upon them, at an unfortunate cost.
Because of so much focus on the battles, a lot of the final moments feel rushed. Not given the same focus they deserved and instead shortened to make use of the page count they had left, something especially true during a certain delaying tactic Chronus is forced to make. Furthermore, irritatingly weak depiction of the marines come into play again. While this was fine with the necrons for obvious reasons, we get instances here like a space marine’s helm being crushed when colliding with a wall and one being killed by one or two bolter rounds. This isn’t to mention a very questionable take on techmarines which seems extremely at odds with what we know of their role within chapters and relationship with other marines.
Also, there are some very odd choices of vehicle names in this book. Many which are good and fit the chapter well but then you get others along the likes of The Ram, Thunderstorm and similar names. It can be quite distracting, especially when one tank is named Stormwarden among other things.
Ultimately Spear of Macragge succeeds in giving the story a better conclusion, if rushed in places, and more battles. If you like what you saw in Fall of Damnos, chances are you’ll have fun with this one. Just expect a few more flaws here and there, but thankfully less monologue spewing necrons.
There’s some obvious weaknesses in the narrative and failings here and there, but ultimately Damnos is worth your time if you’re a fan of Nick Kyme or the Ultramarines. It’s unfortunate that this depiction went with the new necrons and didn’t have more pages to fully utilise everything included within the tale, plus a few less head-scratching decisions, as otherwise this would likely have a higher score. Along with the Word Bearers trilogy it’s a rare tale which shows the space marines losing for a change, but not due to a lack of competence, skill or intelligence as such this is also recommended for potential authors wanting to have marines on the losing side in stories.