Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill – Advance Review [Lord of the Night]

An adventure to the edge of knowledge, the domains of gods and titans that once strode the galaxy, and to the ruins of what they left behind as they faded from time itself.

Lord of the Night reviews the dramatic Priests of Mars, the first part of the Mechanicus duology, by New York Times Bestselling Author Graham McNeill.

“An fantastic story reminiscent of a space opera, powerful drama, dreams of the future, violent bloodshed and ancient mysteries all abound in this first half of this epic tale of a desire for knowledge and a journey into the unknown.” – The Founding Fields

Priests of Mars was a clear first start for the August releases for me, after hearing about a duology based around the Mechanicus and a hunt for ancient lore how could I not want to read this? And I was even more delighted than I thought I would be by this epic adventure, by the distant branches of the Imperium coming together in a shared mission, and by the legend of knowledge older than the Emperor himself. Also just be aware, I will mention one or two characters that you may regard as spoilers but you’ll read about in the Dramatis Personae on the first few pages so its nothing you won’t know going into the book.

A thousand years past saw the disappearance of Magos Vettius Telok in the cosmic graveyard known as the Halo Scar, his quest for knowledge ended without warning and explanation. Now a new fleet is gathering to seek what Telok sought in his final act, the Breath of the Gods. Space Marines, Rogue Traders, Imperial Guard, the Titan Legios and even the common citizens of the Imperium all flock to the call of the Mechanicus on this crusade of knowledge, its goal to find what Telok sought and return it to the sacred forges of Olympus Mons. But every passenger aboard the Speranza has their own motivations for this journey, and not all of them see the Breath of the Gods as the ultimate prize lying behind the Halo Scar, and others who would see this glorious expedition brought to ruin lie within and without.

The story of Priests of Mars is astounding. The idea of a hunt for archeotech is a simple one, yet McNeill turns it from the mundane idea of a fleet prowling the stars in search of data to a gathering of the Imperium’s best and its lowest venturing into space that has never known the light of Him on Terra, the mystery behind the Breath and the Halo Scar is palpatable throughout the novel and only becomes more prominent as the latter appears and reveals its dark glory. This is also a character driven story, each character adding to the story with their interactions with others and their reasons for travelling so far from the Imperium and into the unknown, and the story does a marvelous job of making an interesting novel and setting up part two of the story.

The characters are engrossing from the lowest menials Abreham Locke, Vannen Coyne and Julius Hawke as they slave away in the bowels of the Speranza, to Archmagos Lexell Kotov and his bridge crew who have dedicated themselves to this quest for ancient lore and technology. Characters from the Space Marines with the proud Kul Gilad and his Black Templars are present alongside the Rogue Trader Roboute Surcouf and the crew of the Renard, or the 71st Cadian Hellhounds and the Titan Legio Sirius, and of course many many of the Adeptus Mechanicus from all its disciplines from biologis to cartography to hexamaths, and each tech-priest is a stunning piece of individuality and imaginative design. The best part of the characters comes from their interactions with each other, the clashing ideaologies and cultures make for fascinating reading. And of course McNeill doesn’t just write the Mechanicus well, the Eldar that feature in the novel really come across as xenos, rife with Thorpe’s lexicon of war-mask, skein and other Eldar dialect he has brought to the table, but one in particular with a remarkable human desire and motivation really stood out amongst them as alien yet relatable. Though I could not help but notice that a few of the Eldar characters mentioned in the Dramatis Personae did not actually appear at all, or else I missed them which considering which character did not appear, I highly doubt. Hopefully they’ll be in the next book.

An adventure to the edge of knowledge, the domains of gods and titans that once strode the galaxy, and to the ruins of what they left behind as they faded from time itself.

The action in the story is enjoyable but clearly not the focus of the novel. No real battles occur until the final segment of the novel, this is more a novel about exploration and mystery rather than violence. But the battles that do take place are viscerally fun, with some very unique enemies that actually made me shiver when imagining them, and some more familiar enemies that wage war in their own graceful and elegant style, and the forces of the Imperium meet them all with bolter and blade and lasgun. The quite low number of battles may be disappointing to some but the few battles that are featured are enjoyable enough that it makes up for it, at least it did for me.

The pacing of the story is very nicely done, spread over 21 chapters in three sections, Priests of Mars is a very easy to read book. At no point did I feel even an amount of boredom, the interactions between characters, their pasts and motivations and the remarkably well fleshed-out scriptures, actions and beliefs of the Adeptus Mechanicus always held my interest. Those who dislike novels that take the focus away from battle may not appreciate this, but I did as when done right, these things can be more powerful than even Titans killing each other.

And now for my favourite quote, there are plenty of great lines in this story featuring fire and the Emperor’s Wrath and the Omnissiah’s bounty of knowledge but mine is this short one because it was so spine-chillingly delivered and added a whole new layer of horror to a particular part of the novel,

“That’s not a recording is it?”

The ending is tantalizing, but very clearly not the full ending to the story. Priests of Mars is only part one of this story and the ending reflects that, rather than wrapping up the story it serves more as a cliffhangar mixed with an interlude. Each faction has their story advanced a bit and left on different notes, some mysterious, some ominous and some depressing, but the story has yet to end and will continue in the second novel, title unknown. But each cliffhangar is enough to make you want to read the next part right away, I know its like that for me!!

For the start of an epic tale of adventure and mystery, some highly imaginative characters and enemies and a very space opera story in the 40k universe I give Priests of Mars a score of 9.0/10, a great score, that I agonized over for a few minutes as part of me desired that score and part of me felt it was more along the lines of an 8.5+ but I decided that the character-driven story and less reliance on bolters and blades make this story deserve a better scoring, one that hopefully will increase for the second novel that continues and will wrap up this odyssey. I have many theories on how it will end, though one is most prominent in my mind chiefly because of one character’s motivation and his interaction with another character that make me think their story has yet to really begin.

Should you buy this book? Anyone who wants more Mechanicus in their 40k will definitely want to try Priests of Mars, but really I would recommend this novel to those who want more focus on characters and stories and the themes of 40k rather than a pitched battle every chapter. This is a novel about adventure and mystery, anyone who likes them should enjoy Priests of Mars. But if constant battle is your thing or you dislike the Mechanicus, then this is not the novel for you sadly.

That’s it for this review. I will be listening to Malediction later tonight and will review it afterwards, so expect another review tonight. Until then,


Lord of the Night

Lord of the Night is one of TFF’s original reviewers. He’s done quite a few for TFF and that number keeps expanding. You’ll enjoy his diverse mix of book reviews. Always a treat.

  • Reiverne

    An enjoyable read but an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending in my opinion. However now knowing there will be a sequel novel I feel much more happy.

    • abhinavjain87 Abhinav Jain

      It’s called Lords of Mars apparently, as per Graham’s blog :-)