Shadowhawk reviews Graham McNeill’s first omnibus of the year, focusing on the jaded siege-masters of the Iron Warriors Chaos Legion.
“An absolute joy to read from start to finish, the omnibus is a book of the year for me!” ~The Founding Fields
I’m a huge fan of Graham’s work, whether its Uriel Ventris and the Ultramarines of M41 or the Emperor’s Children and Thousand Sons of the Horus Heresy. At times his prose is highly descriptive, at times it is very straightforward. Some times he brings you to tears, and other times he makes you punch the air with a grin on your face. Suffice to say that he is a very versatile author who can write for anything and everything. He’s written everything from High Elves and Kislevites for Warhammer Fantasy, Space Marines of all stripes and Imperial Guard for Warhammer 40,000, has a horror series in progress for Fantasy Flight Games, has written for StarCraft and has also worked extensively with the Games Workshop Design Studio. Among other things. I would easily set him up in the top 5 Black Library authors any time of the day or year. He just has that quality of drawing the reader into his narrative and not letting them go until they are done reading. So I was quite excited for his first omnibus of the year, Iron Warriors, to arrive in the mail.
This collection contains one of his earliest novels, Storm of Iron, alongside his (I believe) first novella, Iron Warrior, and a whole bunch of short stories, some of which have been in print before and some of which are brand new. Simply put, this is one of the best collections of stories that Black Library has ever put out. Period.
First in the omnibus is Storm of Iron, a no-holds barred novel about the cold and analytical Chaos Space Marines of the Iron Warriors legion, the siegemasters of the Chaos forces. Beginning with a simple infiltration of one of the most heavily-defended fortress-worlds of the Imperium and then laying waste to the entire planet in a series of brutal and bloody sieges, Storm of Iron, shows why the Iron Warriors are a serious force to be reckoned with and what makes them tick.
Beginning to end there is no letup at all in the story. We see a whole host of perspectives in the novel, which tell the battles on Hydra Cordatus from both sides, whether it is the triumvirate of treacherous Iron Warriors captains and their Chaos-favoured Warsmith, or the brave and loyal men of the Imperial Guard. My three favourite characters in the entire novel are: the bastard Iron Warriors captain Honsou who has Imperial Fists gene-seed and is considered impure by his peers, the stoic Lieutenant-Colonel Mikhail Leonid of the Jouran Dragoons 383rd who garrison Hydra Cordatus, and a certain character who is simply bad-ass because he dual-wields power swords. I cannot give the identity of the third character because that would be quite a major spoiler for the novel, but I will say that it is a pity Graham hasn’t been able to go back and write more of him. As a side-character, he shines very brightly.
Overall, I do like Graham’s characterisation for all his characters, be they small ones like Guardsman Hawke or big ones like Honsou. This is a very early Black Library novel so a decent amount of the nuance and subtleties we get and expect today from the writers are missing but I did still enjoy reading about both the good guys and the bad guys equally. Some solid building blocks for future stories about these characters. The pacing of the novel is also brilliant as it closely follows nearly all aspects of the Iron Warriors conducting a grand siege and the action throughout is incredibly descriptive and visceral. The dialogue is at times quite straightforward and cliche but that’s fine, going back again to the point about the novel being one of the very early novels and what with Graham still getting the hang of the setting and the character types he is working with.
To date, Storm of Iron remains one of the best novels from Graham and Black Library alike for me and it is just one of those early novels that are a joy to read again and again. The only thing I would really fault the novel on is that there is a lot of implied backstory to the characters and that can sometimes prove to be detrimental since the reader is led on for quite a bit and then nothing. But all well and good. Its all worth it just to see some massive artillery shaking things up and Titans in action!
Next up we have the short story The Enemy of My Enemy, featuring the survivors of the Jouran Dragoons who have been captured and forced to work as slaves for Honsou’s Grand Company back on Medrengard, the legion’s homeworld in the Eye of Terror. Its not as enjoyable of a short story as the rest in the anthology but it is still pretty darn good. It marks the first chronological appearance of the renegade Raven Guard warrior Ardaric Vaanes, who is always quite a bit of a bad-ass the way I see it. Almost downright honourable too at times although he does well at hiding it all beneath an exterior so rough you’ll cut up your skin into sheesh-kebab. Good pacing of the story however and personally this is very a necessary story since it fills in some much-required lore gaps between Storm of Iron and the third Ultramarines novel, Dead Sky, Black Sun. I always wanted to find out about Vaanes and his renegades band and this story fleshes that out very well. A thumbs-up for this one.
Next we have another short story which has also been printed before in the Planetkill anthology, The Heraclitus Effect. This is one I enjoyed thoroughly. This is a pure revenge story, set right after the events of Dead Sky, Black Sun and shows Honsou’s petty, vengeful nature. What this short story really succeeds on is showing how futile heroism really is. As a direct sequel to the second and third Ultramarines novels alike, this is a chilling novel. A world can be saved from the greatest danger it has ever faced and then be unwillingly set on a path to destruction. I seriously had shivers reading the ending of this. So many lives lost to defend a world in one bloody battle with a high butcher’s bill and all for naught. Excellent pacing and great continuation of the excellent characterisation of Honsou and his band of renegade and traitor Astartes.
Then we have one of my favourite short stories ever, Skull Harvest. This was original printed as part of the Heroes of the Space Marines anthology (which is an excellent collection in its own right) and tells the tale of how Honsou goes about finding an army to take his revenge on Uriel Ventris and destroy all of Ultramar. This was also the first time I read of Huron Blackheart, the Tyrant of Badab, in person as it were. Lots of great action and varying fights which keep the narrative ticking along to a successful and satisfying conclusion. Seeing Honsou back in again (originally when the above anthology was published) after the events of Dead Sky, Black Sun was great and for me, he became one of my favourite Chaos Space Marine characters. An underdog, an outcast, a butcher, a traitor, a bloodthirsty warlord, etc; so many different facets to him.
And now we move on to Iron Warrior, the one and only novella in this collection that was originally released in the dim mists of time as a limited edition offering and sold out fairly quick, if I remember right. Upon reading it initially, I was pretty confused. The premise of Honsou’s Iron Warriors laying siege to the, umm, installation they lay siege to seemed very far-fetched and unrealistic, even among all the other such concepts and ideas that Warhammer 40,000 is chock-full of. However, it grew on me pretty quick. Graham has that kind of an effect on the reader when he really hits his stride in his writing.
With that said, by the end of it, I can honestly say that I really enjoyed the novella. The narrative and all the little twists and turns that pepper it are all nicely handled and Graham really delivers on a perfect Iron Warriors story. As my friend Marc said when we were discussing the novella after I was done with it, “The Iron Warriors can siege anything”. I definitely agree with those sentiments now. The story also hearkens back endearingly to Storm of Iron and the siege in the novella is just as exciting and brutal as it is in the novel. You end up feeling really bad for the good guys here but you can’t stop cheering the bad guys on either. Its just that kind of a story.
So yeah, excellent pacing, decent dialogue, great and fantastic action scenes, and some really great cinematic moments throughout the story. If I had an extra pair of hands, I’d give it four thumbs-up.
As the omnibus begins to wind down, we have the short story The Iron Without. I haven’t read the second Ultramarines trilogy so I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly confident that this is a parallel story to The Chapter’s Due, in which Honsou’s revenge on Uriel Ventris begins with an all-out attack on Calth. If you are well-versed in Ultramarines lore, then you’ll know that Calth has always been some kind of a big come-punch-me planet since the Word Bearers also did a downright number on it during the Heresy. Honsou’s attentions certainly couldn’t have had a good impression. And its all true too.
This is not a Honsou-focused story as all the others have been so far but instead features one of his new lieutenants, an Iron Warrior whose Warsmith he defeated back on Medrengard during the events of Dead Sky, Black Sun. Given the alternative perspective, it was very refreshing and certainly just as enjoyable all the rest. Graham is becoming quite the master at writing Iron Warriors I’d dare say and this shows here in his characterisation. This also makes me really, really want to read The Chapter’s Due. Hopefully the wait will not be too long since I should receive the Ultramarines Second Omnibus sometime next month. I have my fingers crossed on that.
And finally, we have the last short story in this collection, The Beast of Calth. Hands down, this is the best short story in the entire omnibus. Period. It is chilling, it is brutal, it is intense, it is fantastic and it is awesome. I enjoyed this far more than I did any of the other ones. This is, I believe, a sequel to The Chapter’s Due and shows some of the aftermath of the Iron Warriors siege of the cave world. The Beast of Calth is, in my humble opinion, short story gold. It has everything you can want in a short story, even an element of horror and suspense thrown in for good measure and it hooks you in from straight to finish. This is also one of Graham’s finest short stories ever, certainly in the top 3 he has ever written. It makes me really wish for some kind of a follow-up or a sequel because it is just that great.
Overall, all things considered, this is one excellent collection that Graham should really be proud of. It contains some of his best work and is a really tight, focused collection as well. All the stories, irrespective of format, are highly enjoyable and in their entirety, really give us a very, very big window into Iron Warriors and their doctrines and their leaders and all. It has served its purpose admirably and only leaves the reader wanting more by the end of it. Job well done.
I highly recommend the omnibus, doesn’t matter if you are an Iron Warriors fan or not. By the time you are done with it, you will be.
Overall verdict: 9/10
Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.
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