The Eternal Crusader by Guy Haley – Novella Review [Bellarius]
Looking into an older novella release, Bellarius gives his thoughts on the brilliant but flawed Eternal Crusader by Guy Haley:
“While sparks of brilliance show through, Eternal Crusader is sadly held back by the desire to tie into the larger universe than be its own work.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields.
Following in the footsteps of any great man is always a daunting task, no matter the field. To have your works directly compared with another, critically acclaimed success, is always going to be an uphill battle, and it’s always going to risk leaving potentially good works in the shadow of something greater. This always has to be the fear of many authors handling the Third War for Armageddon these days, given the runaway success of Helsreach and then the Yarrick series. Both have rightfully been lauded for their deep narrative and perfectly executed themes, and they’re so entwined into Armageddon’s key figures that they’re impossible to avoid. This is, sadly, at work here with The Eternal Crusader, but perhaps not quite in the way you would expect.
The story here follows the leader of the venerated Black Templars as they sally forth for another crusade. Fuming over his failure to find and annihilate an enigmatic alien race lurking among the Ghoul Stars, High Marshall Helbrecht celebrates news of the Ork WAAAGH! approaching Armageddon. Hungering to perform an act in the Emperor’s service to mitigate their failure, the venerated Battle Barge sails to war once more, but this time against a threat greater than any would expect.
As anyone who has read Helsreach could tell you, this is sadly intrinsically tied into Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s works. With Helbrecht playing a role key to Grimaldus’ stories, the novella needed to reflect that as much as possible, navigating about or working around these scenes as much as possible. This is a difficult task to be sure, and sadly Guy Haley chose a way which, really, only enhanced this problem. Rather than skipping over certain scenes present in Helsreach or working around certain themes, the novella unfortunately focuses upon them. The meeting between great generals featuring the famous stare-down between Yarrick and a Fire Angel Captain, the closing moments of the book with the Eternal Crusader speeding away to hunt after the Warboss of the WAAAGH! and quite a few other moments are replicated. The problem is, there isn’t enough room to really substantiate upon what was shown before, so rather than depicting an interesting alternative view, it sadly repeats certain scenes with slightly different running commentary. The few bits it could expand upon to great effect, notably the losses taken by the Celestial Lions in orbit, are sadly skimmed over and lack impact. The most we see is a few paragraph description of one mentioned event, and that’s about it.
Now, repeating certain events from Helsreach would be fine, but the problem is that the novella then needs to reflect upon Helbrecht’s other actions during the war. Again however, rather than skimming over them or mentioning them, it instead focuses upon this conflict. The rend result is reading about a famous raid on an ork held Space Hulk promptly followed by a few month time skip and then the departure from Armageddon. Now, this might seem like less of an issue to others who don’t remember a very old battle report from over ten years ago (unlike this reviewer) but it leads into the problem that there’s no single narrative. The novella sadly is left jumping back and forth between events, and it doesn’t seem like there’s enough of a cohesive focus upon events, with the consequences and impact of one scene failing to lead into later events. As such, while still entertaining to read as bolter porn, it can leave those with knowledge of the other material The Eternal Crusader ties itself into hungering for something more. Thankfully however, between events, the novella does offer some entertaining moments of character drama.
Much of the story’s opening act focuses upon establishing the Eternal Crusader as an ancient warrior. Guy Haley has a talent for bringing the age and personalities of vehicles to life, and that’s in full force here, as he spends several pages building up the power and grandeur of the ancient warship. You’re given a sense of its warlike nature, its hunger for war and builds the image of the ship as an elder questing knight hunting for new foes. It’s easily one of his best moments since Baneblade’s prologue, and it’s quickly followed up by the introduction to Helbrecht himself. While certainly a different interpretation from the version of the character seen in Helsreach, what we get is nevertheless engaging. While a truly mighty warrior, he presented less like Dante, Calgar or the others, but instead as someone new to his post and looking to cement his new position as head of the Black Templars. While hardly glory seeking or arrogant, he instead is presented as someone not yet fully attuned to his role and still feeling more like a Marshal than the leader of a chapter, something not helped by the failure of his first crusade. While none of his warriors met their end and no ships were claimed by the void, the illusive nature of the xenos species he hunts is galling to him, made all the worse by the countless bodies of Imperial citizens he finds there.
The whole section is grandiose, detailed and overt when it needs to be, yet leaves certain sections purely down to the reader’s imagination. It’s a careful balance rarely found outside of the works of Graham McNeill or one or two others, where the narrative is bombastic and loud enough to be distinctively 40k, but at the same time it’s underplayed and direct when it needs to be. These sections crop in several times in the book, between major events, and it’s during these bits that there’s some real value to be found. You can see that Guy Haley, were he not quite so heavily tied down to replicating other events, could produce a truly outstanding Black Templars novel detailing their nature and some further aspects of their lore. Well, almost anyway. What’s likely to infuriate anyone who truly cares for these moments is when the recent lore keeps creeping in. We repeatedly have Black Templars venerating psykers (even when they’re engaged in hedonistic orgies, like the Eternal Crusader’s navigator) and an entire section focuses upon their lack of a Librarius thanks to an old mistake. It’s hard not to sigh and shake your head in these moments, as they undermine the truly best bits of the novella.
As you might have guessed, it seems that for every step forwards the novella takes each chapter, there’s another step backwards to be made. It’s hardly bereft of positive or fun elements, and it is a sign of Haley’s skill as a writer under the right circumstances, but there are few points where you can read it without stumbling over one problem or another. If you want some great flavour text or for a few great scenes which build upon the character of the Black Templars, this one is recommended, but it’s sadly not worth a full price purchase.
Verdict: 3.8 out of 10