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Shadowhawk reviews David Annandale’s first full-length novel for Black Library’s Space Marine Battles series.
“One of those rare novels tackling a chapter of the Cursed Founding, The Death of Antagonis does well in serving as a vehicle to explore the Black Dragons and offer a great action treat, but fails to provide a wholly consistent plot.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
David Annandale is one of the most recent authors to have started working for Black Library in the last two years or so. Starting with a short story about the infamous Death Guard Captain Typhus, he has gone on to write some really top-of-the-line stuff, like this year’s Yarrick: Chains of Golgotha novella about the famous Imperial Guard Commissar Yarrick and Eclipse of Hope, a Blood Angels short story. He has also taken some dips in the Heresy series with his short audio drama Veritas Ferrum which is set during the disastrous Istvaan V Dropsite Massacre and has also written a short story for the recent Mark of Calth anthology. In short, he’s being kept busy by the powers that be, and that’s perfectly fine with me, since I enjoy his work.
Having prior experience with his work, I definitely wanted to see a full-length piece from me, mostly because I was interested in how he would tackle the larger format. Writing short stories is different from writing novellas and that’s completely different from writing novels, as I’m discovering personally. For the most part, The Death of Antagonis is a fairly good read and it matches a lot of the expectations I had from it, but at the same time, it does disappoint in a few areas.
First and foremost, the novel is about the Black Dragons, so naturally I’m looking to see how David is going to approach their culture, their beliefs, their idiosyncrasies, their attitudes and so on. The Chapter has a very rich background, in terms of… quality, not quantity, and I wanted the novel to get as in-depth as possible without taking away from the narrative. And the author does exactly that. Reading the novel, I got a good sense of what makes the Black Dragons who they are, how they identify and represent themselves in an Imperium where lesser Chapters would already have been destroyed for the… shortcomings that plague the Black Dragons and others of their ilk.
For those who don’t know, the Black Dragons are a part of the 21st Founding, known infamously as the Cursed Founding. Every Chapter that was created during the Cursed Founding is a victim of genetic mutation, like the Black Dragons, or other more ephemeral effects such as extreme bad luck, such as is the case for the Lamenters, a Blood Angels successor Chapter. For the Black Dragons, their mutation manifests as bone growths on their heads and arms, usually taking the form of claws that the inflicted warriors of the Chapter take care to sharpen into extremely effective “backup” weapons. The only reason that the Black Dragons still exist to this day is because whenever their genetic samples are tested for mutation, results state that there are zero genetic drifts to indicate anything that is wrong with them. This has created a rather precarious position for the Chapter since the Inquisition is always on guard to condemn and eradicate them for their faults.
In Death of Antagonis, this is the central theme and concept that the author plays with it, and turns over its head for the Black Dragons we see here, forcing them to confront the very idea and what it represents: that they are monsters, with the most pertinent question in relation to that being whether they are the monsters that the Emperor meant them to be. Quite fascinating really, and David explores this conception really, really well. I loved his interpretation of the Chapter’s practices and culture, as well as his characterisation of the characters, for the most part.
Toharan and Volos, both senior Sergeants of the Black Dragons Company that we meet in the novel, are decorated warriors who have served their Chapter for a number of years, with distinction. But there is a growing disconnect between the two of them. Toharan is of pure gene-seed stock, one of the majority Black Dragons who do not suffer from any genetic mutation. Volos however, leads the Dragon Claws, an elite formation on the Company-level within the Chapter that consists of all those Black Dragons who do suffer from genetic mutation and are trained to use their outsized bone-growths as deadly weapons. As the two primary characters in the novel, they represent the two sides of the Black Dragons nature that are at odds with each other and through their characterisation, the author explores how deep these divisions can go, and how adverse an effect these divisions can have on the cohesion of the Chapter’s warriors.
I enjoyed reading about both the characters, although I did feel at times as if their development over the course of the novel was… unambitious. Or rather, it just fell a little short. Its no surprise to see how the divisions play out, but the themes of manipulation and subterfuge that run through the narrative seemed to rob the characters of some agency, and this bothered me. It is something that has been done before in other Space Marine novels and it wasn’t all that much different this time around, so its not exactly new fare. Perhaps that has something to do with it, that I was expecting the novel to aim too high, in retrospect.
The pacing of the novel suffers at times from all the traveling that the Black Dragons do. The action isn’t grounded on one particular location, and the Black Dragons end up taking the fight to the enemy on too many fronts, one after the other. It works in a way, showing off the different locales at the backwaters of the Imperium, and giving the novel a very mystery/thriller feel to it, since the Black Dragons are hunting an agent of Chaos and his unholy armies, someone who manages to stay several steps ahead of them at every turn. Still, I would have preferred extended scenes at a smaller number of locations, so that the pace and the narrative are much more grounded.
Additionally, the opening pages are rather confusing. I had to go back a couple times to reread as newer information presented itself, and this contributed to the pacing issues I had. The connections between the villain and the Black Dragons take some time to become clear, and this worked to the detriment of the narrative at times, although not too much.
And we actually spend very little time on Antagonis itself, which seemed odd to me, given the title of the novel.
Still, all things said and done, much as with Anthony Reynolds or Ben Counter or Dan Abnett providing some really interesting depictions of Chaos and visions of technology that is both ancient and alien to the Imperium. And I loved this. It adds a perfect grand space opera feel to the novel, and to the setting. This is the kind of vision in a Warhammer novel that I enjoy and David delivers fantastically in a rather pleasingly unexpected way.
So, in essence, The Death of Antagonis is an interesting enough novel that I would recommend most definitely. It is well-written for the most part, with some kinks to be worked out, something that I hope David is able to correct in future works. And at the same time, I would also love to see a sequel of some sort, perhaps a novella or a short story or something similar if a novel is out of the question.