Gods of Mars by Graham McNeill – Book Review [Bellarius]
Looking into the third installment of the Adeptus Mechanicus series by Graham McNeill, Bellarius lays out his thoughts on this latest turn of events.
“Ambitious, but the sea of ideas, characters and plot twists drowns out much of its potential.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Following directly on from the bombshells left in the wake of Lords of Mars, the latest novel by McNeill is a very strange tome indeed. On the one hand it’s the perfect example of a possible angle for Warhammer 40,000 novels to approach, focusing away from the battlefields in favour of a space opera and ongoing tale of conflicting agendas and secrets. Brighter than the average setting of the universe, more akin to Gotrek and Felix than the Ultramarines series, the Adeptus Mechanicus books are a clear way to break away from the perpetual grimdark style some readers have come to hate. With a plethora of fascinating characters, the rare 40k setting of a true space opera and a wealth of new opportunities, it should be a shining example to all of Black Library. On the other hand, it never seems to truly embrace all of this and many points keep trying to be less Battlestar Galactica and more Star Trek: Into Darkness, often pulling back into familiar territory. This is taken to the next level in Gods of Mars and it badly hurts the series as a result.
Having finally arrived in orbit over the stronghold of the enigmatic Magos Telok, survivor of an ill fated expedition and keeper of the legendary Breath of Gods, the remaining ships of the Explorator fleet lick their wounds. On the world below the Black Templars, Rogue Traders, Mechanicum Adepts and Imperial Guardsmen find a realm of wonders. Telok’s creations are far in advance of anything the modern Imperium retains, but the decades of isolation have taken their toll on his mind. Even as the various factions aboard the Speranza deal with internal feuds, one truly realise the true threat which awaits them below…
Those of you who read the previous review of Priests of Mars might recall that one point praised was the restraint when it came to mass violence. While the novel offered a full blown fleet battle and calamitous events of fire and shrapnel, the main drive came down to its characters. Backstabbing, personal ambitions, old grudges and apparent curses were rife throughout, and these allowed the series to remain head and shoulders above the usual bolter porn seen in Black Library. Unfortunately this seems to be forgotten here and Gods of Mars switches things around.
All of a sudden the violence is front and centre, with many personal events being quickly wrapped up or shoved entirely into the background in favour of battles. Several secondary figures are abruptly killed off early on, the Legio Sirius are barely in the book, and many thrilling ideas are suddenly squashed. Chief among these is the ambition and drive of Archmagos Kotov and his compromises to join up with Telok. Throughout prior books we have seen him deal in very shady acts and even outright heresy to chase after Telok, but the book resolves this entire point within a chapter. He just sees the light of his actions and then goes hardline against them, going all-out to stop further heresy and preventing any further drama from this angle. The same goes for a few other characters as well. The conclusion of the previous novel ended with Captain Surcouf and Linya Tychon undergoing severely traumatic events, with one being turned into a potential sleeper agent and the other torn from her body. These really cranked up the wham moments from the end of the book, but they’re almost forgotten here. Linya is important but the horror of her situation is subdued to a ridiculous degree and Surcouf’s manipulation is all but forgotten.
As this was a part of an ongoing tale, with each book leaning directly into the next one, Gods of Mars itself seems to be treated as a third act. It’s more action packed, trying to tie up events and giving many explosions. On this at least it delivers in spades, but it’s nothing we’ve really seen before and the unique and unusual situation of being trapped on a rogue Mechanicus world is something we’ve seen done before. While Kotov’s band is amazed and horrified by what they find, it’s nowhere near as well done as similar ideas found in Ben Counter’s Dark Mechanicus. To stand out this needed to be the Warahmmer version of The Island of Doctor Moreau or give more initial ambiguity to Telok, but McNeill’s use of him as a shallow doomsday villain merely robs much of the story of its potential.
All this said though, there was enough here to keep anyone who has seen the story before now reading. Foremost among these was how the story continues to treat machine spirits as something potentially real rather than the mere superstition they are so commonly regarded as, and this is taken to the next level. Further concepts and ideas are added here, which are obviously more spiritual in nature than merely misunderstood technology, and this adds a great deal of variety to the universe. It’s worked into the plot’s very core, and even as it discards its main strengths this one remains constant throughout.
In addition to this the main battles themselves hold up surprisingly well. While the enemy consists largely of faceless drones without much personality, there are enough hints and discoveries made by Kotov’s crew to give them some real interest. Suggestions are made that they might be of necrotyr origin or perhaps even some other creation, but completely unlike anything seen from that race before. There’s always slight suggestions here and there which keep them intriguing, the same elements which help the likes of the true necrons and tyranids over other variations. Plus it helps that, even when he’s eroded the main foundations of his storyline, McNeill always knows how to stage a huge battle, last stand or major skirmish.
Ultimately Gods of Mars is ridden with many of the same problems Vengeful Spirit was. It needed to have a much clearer focus, less emphasis upon the huge battles and a far better balance throughout its spanning storylines. What we have here is only really excused as the tale itself does not end with this story and there are suggestions the series will keep going onto future installments, hopefully getting back to what was successful prior to this. If you’ve read Priests and Lords of Mars, the third part of this series will keep you going until the last page, but it lacks many of the strengths of its predecessors. Pick it up if you want to keep going with this story, but keep your expectations firmly grounded.