Shadowhawk reviews the latest Space Marine Battles novel by Black Library.
“Grim, brutal, and clinical, Siege of Castellax is an excellent representation of the Iron Warriors and of Warhammer 40,000.” ~The Founding Fields
Siege of Castellax marks C. L. Werner’s first foray into full-length Warhammer 40,000 fiction for Black Library, although he has been writing in the Warhammer Fantasy setting for a number of years already and is one of the most experienced, and one of the best, writers for said setting. Siege of Castellax is another first in that it is the first Space Marine Battles novel to feature Chaos Space Marines as the primary cast of characters, thought their enemies here, the Orks, are a common threat in the series (having already featured in Rynn’s World and Purging of Kadillus for example). In those terms, the novel has a lot to live up to, especially since Werner is a writer noted for bringing out the inner… darkness of his characters and for his excellent atmospheric writing, such as you can find in Blood for the Blood God and Dead Winter.
As far as I’m concerned, Werner has proved admirably that he has what it takes to write full-on 40k fiction (he has written at least one short story previously), and GOOD 40k fiction at that.
The meta-plot is fairly simple: an Ork Waaagh! has descended upon the Iron Warriors-controlled planet of Castellax, somewhere near the Eye of Terror, and is intent on destroying everything in its path. Led by Warsmith Andraaz, the Iron Warriors are prepared to defend against the invaders at almost any cost and to keep their manufactories and workshops intact so they can keep their supply lines to the legion’s daemon-world Medrengard open. There are of course several sub-plots that are woven into this larger narrative and they all serve to properly flesh out the nature of the Iron Warriors, their relationship to Chaos, and the manner in which Space Marines wage war against an enemy like an Ork Waaagh! composed of tens of millions of warriors.
Siege of Castellax is everything that I wanted from it and then some.
To start off with, Werner’s characterisation is top-notch here. Raptor Captain Rhodaan, and Obliterator Merihem are definitely his standout characters here, both of them shining a spotlight on aspects of Chaos soldiery that are rarely, if ever explored in any depth. The closest I can recall to either is Lucoryphus and his Raptors warband, called the Bleeding Eye, from Aaron Dembski-Bowden Night Lords novels, and even then, his warband is little more than a footnote there. With Rhodaan, I got a Chaos Space Marine I can readily get behind, someone as nuanced and interesting and devious as Graham McNeill’s Warsmith Honsou or William King’s Sorcerer-Lord Madox. Rhodaan is a focal character in the novel and he drives a lot of the narrative since Werner plays up quite a bit of the internal Iron Warriors intrigue around him. He is a rising star of Andraaz’s warband and his superior, Over-Captain Vallax, is determined to keep him in check, permanently if need be. Merihem is a former member of the Warband and one who has been incarcerated far away from the warband’s base of operations as becoming an Obliterator, a potent mix of man, machine and Chaos, has unhinged him, making him a dangerous berserker who would sooner kill his brothers than the enemy. And it so happens that Rhodaan is sent to “ask” for his aid against the Orks. Merihem’s deranged personality, his contempt for his brothers, and his very nature are quite fresh to read about. Characters like him are very, very few and far between in 40k fiction. He also gets some of the best lines in the novel, which serve to highlight the aforementioned contempt quite well.
By the way, that’s Captain Rhodaan on the cover. His “jump-pack” is actually a “demi-organic wings” that he divested a former Iron Warrior of at some time in the past. One thing that always came to mind whenever I was reading Rhodaan’s scenes was “You Are Not Prepared”. High-five if you get the reference!
Characters such as Skinmaster Algol, Vallax, Skylord Morax, Admiral Nostraz, Fabricator Oriax, Sergeant Ipos, Captain Gamgin, even Andraaz himself highlight the best and worst of the Iron Warriors. There is a great amount of intrigue in the novel, based on all of Andraaz’s officers wanting to outdo each other and garner greater glory for himself at the cost of his brothers. Vallax, Morax, Nostraz and Oriax are at the forefront in that regard, even Rhodaan, although he is often reactionary to Vallax’s subtle attempts to sideline him throughout the novel. I’ll be frank. These are all Chaos Space Marines. Man of them have lived for millennia, and even fought in the Great Crusade and the Horus Heresy that followed. To a man, they are all traitors and bastards who are always looking out for number one. That absolutely needed to be brought forth in the novel: that they all work at cross-purposes even though they are loyal enough to want their side to be ultimately victorious against the enemy, whomever it may be. With his rich cast of Iron Warriors, and the many humans, slaves and conscripts alike, Werner does exactly that.
We also get to explore the Iron Warriors mentality, and that they praise the machine over the flesh. Or rather, they praise the Iron over the Flesh. The former term is used throughout to refer to all Iron Warriors, and the latter to their slave armies, their conscripts, and other mortals. At times, the character of the Iron Warriors that Werner puts forth is similar to what we have seen recently of the loyalist Iron Hands, particular from Chris Wraight’s Wrath of Iron, but I didn’t see that as a bad thing. The Iron Warriors have almost as much of a “machine is superior” mentality as the Iron Hands and many of them in the lore are often techmarines (there was a unit to the effect in one of the older versions of the Chaos Space Marines codex), and they used to have a very profitable relationship with the Mechanicum in the days of the Great Crusade. Plus they are one of the best siege-specialists in the galaxy, and thus they rely on machines quite a bit, siege war-machines in particular (Graham McNeill’s Storm of Iron is an excellent example). As a snapshot of the Iron Warriors legion, Andraaz’s warband is a great representation of their legion.
And as I said, Werner also explores their relationship with Chaos. One of Rhodaan’s Raptors and Merihem (and another Iron Warrior I cannot mention because of how big of a spoiler that’d be) are the only Iron Warriors in Andraaz’s warband who are touched by Chaos to any substantial degree. How the Iron Warriors, particularly Vallax and Rhodaan look at Merihem underscores this relationship. They would sooner kill him rather than have his help with anything. Funny how Merihem feels the same way about them! The Iron Warriors treat Chaos as nothing more than a tool to be bent to their whim, and little else. It’s a naive point of view really, given everything that is a “fact” about Chaos within 40k, but no less believable. The Iron Warriors have always been a legion who have had little to do with Chaos, even though their Primarch Perturabo is a Daemon Lord on an almost equal footing with some of the greatest servants of the four Chaos Gods.
One of the striking things in the novel is that Andraaz’s forces are limited to some sixty-odd Astartes, following a warband-split that happened some time back. And they are up against millions of Orks. This necessitates a grand strategy of hit-and-run, where Vallax, Rhodaan and their men are often used to devastating effect. One of Gamgin’s tactics in particular is noteworthy of how the Iron Warriors stem the tide of the Orks from overrunning the Chaos Space Marines’ defenses all over the planet. I’ll admit that sometimes I was bewildered as to how it would all work out since the Iron Warriors really don’t have that many of their ilk around, but Werner handles that wonderfully. He devalues neither the Iron Warriors, nor the Orks, and gives both factions a great outing despite the discrepancy in their strength parity.
There are lots of twists and turns in the narrative. Sometimes the Iron Warriors manage to shock the hell out of the Orks, sometimes the reverse happens. Iron Warrior turns on Iron Warrior in some of the most amusing ways, and there’s an emotional attachment to each of those moments to some degree. One particular betrayal towards the end of the novel, when it comes to Andraaz’s long-promised one-on-one against the Ork Warlord Biglug is especially noteworthy in that regard. Hate the Iron Warriors as servants all you like, but in that moment, I really, really wished that the Iron Warriors were a more unified legion than they are. Not quite a heart-breaking moment, but still one that has resonance of its own.
By the time I was done, all I wanted was a sequel to this novel with the characters that survive the crucible of Castellax. There is so much potential here that can be taken further. As Werner’s first 40k novel, Siege of Castellax is brilliant.