The Emperor’s Gift by Aaron Dembski-Bowden Review [EJ Davies]


EJ Davies reviews the long awaiting Grey Knights novel from Aaron Dembski-Bowden, The Emperor’s Gift.

“Brutal, visceral, emotional, surprising.  All the hallmarks of Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s wonderful prose.” ~The Founding Fields.

The blurb:

“The Grey Knights are all that stands between mankind and the ravages of Chaos. Since their secretive beginnings during the Horus Heresy, these legendary Space Marine daemon hunters have journeyed into the dark realms of the warp – and beyond – in pursuit of their supernatural enemies. Through an intensive regime of psychic training, new recruits are brought to the clandestine fortress of Titan to join the hallowed and vaunted ranks of the 666th Chapter. More than ever, these legendary battle-brothers must be vigilant and ever ready to defend the Imperium for the forces of Chaos are never truly defeated, and Armageddon beckons…”

From the prologue we are thrown into the secretive world of the Grey Knights, and introduced to our protagonist through the agonising, sleep deprivation and sensory overloading of the Grey Knight’s preparation chambers.  Of all the chapters these must be the purest, strongest, most devoted, holiest, and mightiest of all Astartes hopefuls, and from the first sentences we are left in no doubt of this fact.  We quickly, then, side-step into our protagonist’s mind, and this – then – requires a new paragraph.

The novel is told almost exclusively in the first person, very similar to sections throughout Helsreach, with which it shares some common threads.  Stepping into the brain of a trained psyker, a battle-hardened Astartes, and living daemon-weapon like a Grey Knight is clearly a daunting prospect, yet at no point did I ever feel that our author was not capable of meeting the challenge.  We see things clearly through Hyperion’s eye lenses, we taste his sweat, and we feel what it is to be a Grey Knight, psychically linking to our squad-mates and feeding our combined power to our Justicar.

Hyperion is a strange protagonist, though he shares common ground with others in Aaron’s novels – Reclusiarch Grimaldus, Soul Hunter – in that he is a creature who walks with others, but differs from them just slightly enough to make him accessible to the reader.  From the get go we are able to understand the difficulties that new recruit Hyperion has in balancing himself amongst his peers in Squad Castian.  Sothis and Malchadiel – true twins, one a gifted telekine and mechanic, and the other a spirited combatant; Dumenidon, and the silent Justicar Galeo – stern and duty-bound seeming to have little patience for distraction.

Other characters are superbly well drawn: Annika Jarlsdottir, Fenrisian Imperial Inquisitor – interestingly enough a character created by a close friend, and one I had the pleasure of writing at one stage – is given such depth, and such power that she easily stands equal to Hyperion in my eyes during the novel.  The two share a relationship throughout, and its through Hyperion that she persuades Castian to follow her own agenda.  Her conclave is suitably characterful also comprising Darford – Mordian warrior, Merrick – former Adeptus Arbites Enforcer, Khatan – a playful and flirtatious former rough rider, Vasilla – a waif like gentle character, and Clovon – former heretic and redeemed soul.  Clovon provides an interesting dynamic being effectively anathema to Grey Knights and yet serving so closely to them.

As the story unfolds we learn more of each of the characters, their movites, their motivations, and – more importantly – how they react in a variety of situations, both pedestrian – and more uncommon.  All of this is filtered through the perception of Hyperion, albeit after the fact as his eidetic memory recalls each of the details through the story.  Combine that with the view of humans from the Astartes perspective (usually we see it the other way around) and the inability of these post-human genetic monsters to comprehend what it is to be human.  This is where, for me, Aaron really excels.

In this novel, there are certain plot points and action beats that have to be hit but it isn’t those which drive the story – it’s the characters.  The aftermath of Cheth provides Annika with the opportunity to request Castian stays, from their they decide together to follow her – and from there they discover what is about to happen on Armageddon.  The characters drive the story, and not the other way around.  It’s in the latter stages, then – in the wake of events on Armageddon – that the characters are truly tested and their mettle is weighed and measured.

With the Night Lords series Aaron Dembski-Bowden succeeding in giving us a Chaos Space Marine warband we could not only sympathise with, but actually cared about.  A group of brutal killers, and murderers that we felt something for.  In this novel, he has managed to not only breath personality into blandness, but also enlighten readers (those who don’t play the army and haven’t read any of the codices) to an ephemeral and mercurial chapter.  In his opening he acknowledges that when the current iteration of the Grey Knight Codex dropped in the middle of his novel, he had to go back and rewrite – and that those rewrites focussed the story to the one he actually wanted to tell from the get go.  I applaud this admission, and completely agree that despite it torpedoing the proposed trilogy of Grey Knights novels, that what we have been given has been crafted and honed to absolute dramatic glory.

There are some things I took issue with, but these are very minor things.  The end, I believe, is a little obvious though when you consider the pay-off for the characters there really is only one logical conclusion.  One of the Grey Knights goes missing for the last third (or so) of the novel only to reappear at the very end having had no bearing on events – but again this was the only logical choice at that stage of proceedings.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Emperor’s Gift, and is a fine stand-alone novel and would still work as the start of a series of Grey Knights novels, though perhaps these characters are done.  I would heartily recommend this to anyone looking to get a feel for Aaron’s style, and although the first-person narrative is a little challenging to begin with (like the opening 10 minutes of a 3D movie as your eyes adjust, or the opening scene in The Social Network where you get your ear tuned in to the speed of dialogue), once you break that barrier it is immersive, visceral, and exciting to walk along with the members of Squad Castian.

For me, it is a firm excellent read with some great features and will keep you gripped from the outset.

The Emperor’s Gift is available now from most retailers in hardback print, and from Black Library as an eBook.

EJ Davies

EJ Davies: reader, reviewer, writer; and an avid lover of Black LIbrary products since the release of the seminal Horus Rising. EJ is currently working through the massive back catalogue of Black Library titles, and plugging away at his own fiction-based efforts in the vain hope of cracking his way into the author pool.