Dark Apostle by Anthony Reynolds – Book Review [Bellarius]
Taking a look at another Chaos dominated novel, Bellarius gives his thoughts on Dark Apostle by Anthony Reynolds.
“The single best introduction to Chaos a person could ask for.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Even in the dark and twisted nightmare future of Warhammer 40,000 getting the reader to root for a villain is always a difficulty. While at least with the Imperials and eldar you know they are fighting something far worse, but something so self serving as Chaos? It’s like walking a tightrope. Go too far into their villainous nature and no one has a reason to root for them, stray too far away from it and you betray the essence of the characters. While it can be done, many of the most successful ones seem to find ways to tone down these elements. Henry Zou’s Blood Gorgons showed them as monsters, but they were still far better than the true soldiers of the Long War. Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s works are highly deserving of all credit, but it also seemed to often sidestep association with daemons or the more unrepentant aspects. Often with the marine protagonists themselves being exceptions within an otherwise insane, backstabbing and utterly corrupt legion. Dark Apostle meanwhile shows the Word Bearers in full daemon worshipping mode, killing innocents and yet manages to keep them as the heroes.
Set in the days leading up to Abaddon the Despoiler’s 13th Black Crusade, the 34th Host of the Word Bearers legion has departed on a mission of great importance. Guided by the visions of Dark Apostle Jarulek has sought out the world of Tanakreg. Falling within hours of their arrival, the Host need to now hold it against the vengeful Imperial Guard and Adeptus Mechanicus deployed against them. However, even the most loyal of Jarulek’s followers are not privy to his personal ambitions and few realise just what their leader is seeking to accomplish. Or the price they will pay to achieve such ambitions.
As the opening quote says, this is arguably the best introduction to Chaos a new reader could ask for. Along with being set in the current age of the Imperium, the writing minimalises background and history to a point people can easily accept without too many questions. Rather than leaving a vast number of allusions to the greater scope of the Heresy or the Emperor’s plans, it sticks to the basics when it comes to the facts while leaving emphasis upon the action. It drops enough names and ideas to help players look up future lore information, but leaves enough interesting details to encourage players to look up the more diverse facts for themselves. This is important as it doesn’t leave the book’s plot bogged down with exposition and it leaves it just as enjoyable to fans familiar with the setting.
The novel is tightly written, getting to the meat of the action very early on and maintaining focus on the battles from there on. While a few opening chapters do devote themselves to establishing the book’s major viewpoint characters, it rapidly moves onto the actual campaign itself and the developments throughout. While so quickly leaping into the main conflict, or devoting almost the entirety of the book to endless fighting, has easily sunk novels it works here.
You’re given a good idea of how carefully the Word Bearers planned their assault very early on and the battles always find a new way to escalate the conflict. As soon as the Imperium’s counter assault arrives to drive the Chaos worshippers off the world, it quickly becomes a case of each trying to outwit and outfight the other. This typically involves the deployment of Mechanicus war-machines, but quite often the ingenuity of the battlefield commanders and troops as well. Even as one side deploys a weapon which can totally destroy them, the other invents a risky plan to bring it down. It’s important to note this as, along with keeping the story’s momentum moving ever forwards, this treats both sides with equal levels of respect. You’re given a very clear insight into how both forces work and at no point is it ever apparent that one is utterly dominating the other. In these respects it emulates many of the best aspects found in Storm of Iron.
Unfortunately while the book does succeed on many levels, there are definite areas in which it has problems. The characters themselves often feel very one note at times. The many introspective scenes often lack punch, and they are often far more memorable thanks to certain past actions or events within the book. As such, Dark Apostle works far better as an examination of armies and the greater forces involved than it does as a character piece. Even accounting for that however, certain bigger facts often seem to be lost within the tale. The Word Bearers lack the apparent variety you would expect for a force devoted to the entirety of Chaos, with no time taken to examine any offshoots or bothers who might be influenced more by one god than any other. Furthermore, the subject of gene-seed is not mentioned at all and we see no effort to collect it nor the valuable equipment left on the battlefield.
These would be fine in of itself, but there are a few distinct other flaws which do hold the book back from true greatness. The mystery behind Jarulek’s objectives only holds up for so long and the eventual lack of reveals behind it does become a point of frustration. There are few details which are ever built upon it until the end reveal, and being left out of focus or without development does harm the story. It’s easy to becomes less interested in the Word Bearers’ campaign than why the hell they are there in the first place. The major flaw however comes from the variety of words and terms used by Reynolds to describe the events taking place. Certain words and terms were repeated ad nauseam to describe certain scenes, a damning shame given how easily fixed this error could be with another rewrite and a wider vocabulary. Especially in regards to “kill” “shot” or “died” when it comes to describing certain battle scenes.
Despite these failings, Dark Apostle is a decent start to a decent trilogy. It’s flawed to be sure, but the novel does offer exactly what is promised and depicts an entertainingly gory engagement between Imperial and Chaos forces. The insights into how the legion operates make it a must buy for anyone wanting to create a Word Bearers army following the Heresy, and the surprise reveal gives one faction far more dignity than anything seen in their last codex. It stands up relatively well on its own, though later books would greatly improve upon a number of the failings found here. Pick this one up if you like the looks of it and want some good old fashioned Chaotic villainy.