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Bellarius sees if the Imperial Fists can be done justice in Seventh Retribution by Ben Counter.
“A tale of how ambition and concepts cannot drive forwards a story by themselves.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
There is one exact word to describe this novel: Overstuffed. Ben Counter has always been an author of great ideas when it comes to big concepts or Chaotic conspiracies. He has repeatedly shown this well in the past and more than once been able to combine the two together to great effect, Dark Mechanicus for instance. Here though, it felt simply like he was trying to press several ideas at once without fully exploring or developing any individual one. Perhaps also going a little too far in bending the lore of the universe for once.
Sent into open rebellion and drawn the attention of the Imperium thanks to the death of an Inquisitor, a massive Imperial assault fleet is sent to bring the world of Opis back into compliance. With moral threats appearing on the battlefield and an entire world to reconquer, the Imperial Guard call upon Captain Lysander and a company of Imperial Fists. However, this is no simple compliance and someone is working very carefully to make sure the war stays on a specific track…
Let’s make this very clear to begin with: For all the novel’s flaws, the Imperial Fists themselves are not one of them. Despite a chapter who seems to be brought up whenever someone needs a space marine to be brutally killed, often en-mass to make someone look better, they are treated with dignity. They die, but no more than other space marines would and are frequently shown to be a very effective fighting force. Better yet, their status as a first founding chapter is made clear with the relics and knowledge they bring into the fray. Besides the confusingly unexplained presence of an Emperor’s Champion, they are otherwise depicted accurately without invoking the idea they are only skilled at siege warfare. While not as well explored in their background as some other forces, the real problem comes from the other factions involved.
Multiple times descriptions of engagements bring up unique ideas for Guardsmen regiments, daemons and the like but never fully utilise them. In the massive ground assaults you are given the impression this is a huge Imperial undertaking with many regiments involved, countless figures with different tactics and traditions, but none seem to be used more than once. Unlike Crimson Tears, the book never focuses upon one group long enough to leave a proper impression. The same goes with many daemons. They will be described in quite extensive detail, sometimes fully named and with descriptions, but then discarded never to be utilised again. Overall, the narrative just doesn’t flow as well as previous titles and feels too often caught up on minor points. It just fails to truly re-incorporate many of the elements it brings up. This is likely something done to suggest the powers involved and scale of the battle, but it just ends up making many points feel extremely disjointed.
The few times such elements work are when they are minor background elements which are interesting enough to be well detailed in brief, or those with a visible purpose as a character. Well, that’s not entirely true with some being overused while others are obviously more interesting. One champion encountered early on proves to be fascinating thanks to the book outlining his history and acts. This is done thanks to a very graphically detailed invasion by a Librarian who rips into the creature’s mind and tries to wrestle information from it. Unfortunately he doesn’t last long. By comparison Karnikal, a World Eater, lasts throughout the book and serves as a major figure but is utterly one dimensional in his behaviour. This goes for a lot of people, where the ideas behind them seem much more interesting than the characters themselves.
Much of the book’s problem leads back to the conspiracy in question, which runs throughout the narrative. We see far too little of the right parts throughout most of the book, and as a result it seems more like a distraction at first, involving more efforts of the cover up. When finally revealed, everything is explained In one massive info-dump which has an Imperial agency performing multiple acts of outright heresy in their ambitions and getting away with it. It’s honestly up there to the point of making a certain Grey Knight Khornate blood ritual look tame by comparison, and just like there the group is never called on it. The core idea might have worked were it not so heavy and not compressed down to fit in with everything else, but far too much is simply told to the reader in a statement. Not naturally developed over time so it can be accepted or eve properly shown.
Perhaps the only thing to really credit is that most of the battles themselves are competently handled. There’s no truly massive failings in the descriptions and pacing themselves, just often how they fit in around the conspiracy plot.
This should have been a relatively straight forwards plot to help the Imperial Fists in their first novel since Sons of Dorn. Just to help readers adjust to the chapter, like it for a direct conflict and perhaps have Counter weave his usual brilliant madness in later tales. Unfortunately, this ends up being a major let down. Buy it if you want some decent Imperial Fists action, but you should really be looking for something elsewhere.