Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill – Book Review [Bellarius]


Bellarius analyses Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill to see just how a 40K novel can hold up when not at the centre of a war.

“A very good, very interestingly detailed story which desperately needs to be continued.” – The Founding Fields

If there’s one thing which is all too frequently forgotten about the Warhammer universes, it’s their diversity and depth of lore. For a franchise whose most recognisable tagline is “There is only war” and seems to only feature stories military campaigns against one enemy or another, there’s often a lot of opportunity squandered. All too often the content of Black Library’s novels emphasises upon warzones and crusades rather than the cultural differences or societies of worlds. Priests of Mars seems to be one of the exceptions to this.

Magos Lexll Kotov of the Adeptus Mechanicus is a desperate man. Having lost his forge worlds in uprisings or the hordes of the Great Devourer he is close to having his remaining assets seized by rivals. His only hope comes in the form of debris found by a Rogue Trader suggesting the survival of an expedition to find the mysterious technological artefact “The Breath of the Gods”. Using his remaining influence, Kotov gathers forces for an explorator fleet to pursue the expedition beyond the Halo Stars.

Now, just to be clear this is by no means a novel which outright avoids conflict. It’d be an extremely dull one if it did, but instead it treats war and bloodshed in the same way A Game of Thrones does. It’ll turn up in short bursts, occasional fights and eventually escalate into war; but the drive behind the narrative comes from the characters.

Along with having a huge ensemble of figures within the novel, Graham McNeill seems to have taken the time picking out representatives of the most diverse factions of the Imperium. Tech Priests, Cadian Imperial Guard, Black Templars, Legio Titanicus, Rogue Traders and even poor sods pressganged into running ships. Outside of Titanicus or Warriors of Ultramar this is probably the most widespread collection of figures you can get, many of who have an increasingly fractious relationship due to their contrasting differences and goals. While they might be working together the potential for personal agendas to lead to infighting and is always on the cards. Many clash with the Mechanicus over their mission, strategies or the actions of their leader. Others are haunted by their personal demons and past failures.

The novel always depicts unity between the characters but it’s a tense unity. One always in doubt due to the desperate, borderline insane, mission of Kotov and the natural opposition some characters easily have to one another. Let’s face it, just how long do you think a Rogue Trader and Black Templar Reclusiarch will remain on good terms for. This is just with those who meet however and in a few cases some focus characters are the stars of their own side-stories, completely detached from everything else but with signs of much greater importance coming later on. This is especially true with Julius Hawke (yes, THAT Julius Hawke) and the eldar or Beil-Tan.

The novel also goes a considerable way to dispel a lot of ideas about the universe in its own way such as the Imperium’s blind ignorance to basic logic or failing nature. That particular one is brought up a few times with the Mechanicus. While the novel does take the point of keeping their flawed opposition to creative thinking, it doesn’t portray them as so opposed to it or so logically driven that they are incompetent. Another great one is with the Imperial Guard who, contrary to frequent jokes, act here like a modern military force rather than hordes of cannon fodder sent into clog up the enemy’s guns.

Yet for all this good the it has flaws, some moderate and one very big one.

The initial problems come from two things: The number of characters and the need for conflict. While it’s understandable that some characters would be overlooked or have limited focus in their tales, some in particular feel as if they’re ultimately unneeded. This is especially clear with the internal power struggle within the demi-legion of Titans the explorator fleet carries. While the tech-priests and command crew are given enough scenes for the reader to care about them the princeps themselves, those who are trying to usurp control or are potentially being usurped, are mostly talked about. We don’t get much of a look into any of their minds and they seem to serve mostly as background figures, something which is a definite misstep on McNeill’s part with their story.

You could cut out their entire sub-plot and it wouldn’t be a loss to the novel. In fact it might be an improvement as it would remove one head-tilting event which, even after being suggested early on, feels like it comes out of left field.

To try and punch things up beyond just character issues and verbal sparring, a very large, very explosive event happens which affects everyone on-board the fleet’s flagship. Taking out not only some major resources but is an act which feels out of character with what we know, even with the aforementioned build-up. It feels so contrived, so obviously desperate to trigger conflict, the only thing which stopped me believing Brian Michael Bendis had briefly hijacked the novel was the lack of ignominious character deaths. Its inclusion is only made worse when an outright heretical decision is made by Kotov which would be far more natural for having characters on edge but is treated with nowhere near the severity it should be.

Still, these aren’t the biggest problems. No, the biggest problem is one painfully obvious thing: This is only half a novel. No matter how you look at it, the novel lacks the pacing and basic structure to be a full story. What we get is only the first and second acts up to a potential mid-point reversal and then it ends. Were this a TV series, this would be every episode up to the first part of a mid-series cliffhanger and then nothing else. It’s gallingly frustrating to have, especially when the story itself was very strongly written despite a few outlying flaws.

The fact it’s only Priests of Mars: Part 1 is what makes it so hard to really judge. On the one hand while great details on the Imperium were made and plots were given, the novel contains far more questions than it does answers. The lack of closure is a definite weakness and it’s hard to recommend without knowing the quality of the sequel. If you are planning on buying this, wait until you start seeing a few reviews of the second half of their story first. Until then, stick to some of the older Mechanicus novels.

Verdict: 7.5/10


Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
Find more of his reviews and occasional rants here: