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Bellarius takes an early look at the return of Kaldor Draigo with Mortarion’s Heart by L J Goulding.
“An outstanding tale of fate and dark histories Daemonhunters fans can be proud of.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
If you have been reading my reviews on this site for some time now, you’ll likely know my opinion of the recent Codex: Grey Knights. Along with punching plot holes the size of the Eye of Terror into an otherwise relatively stable canon, I regard the lore as not only childishly simplistic but completely misunderstanding even the most basic aspects of the universe.
What’s the point of all this? Because I want you to know where I am coming from when I say Mortarion’s Heart is a genuinely great story.
Set during the Battle of Kornovin in M41, the vast bulk of the Grey Knights chapter has been gathered to combat a massive daemonic incursion. Many worlds have been sacrificed and gambits played out to bring their leader, Mortarion, to a place where he might be defeated and destroyed. Fighting on the frontlines, Draigo is frustrated at the idea of missing such a foe’s end but when Geronitan is unexpectedly slain everything is thrown into doubt…
What immediately shows this story has been written in the right way is that there is a clear awareness of the major criticisms of the Grey Knights’ latest incarnation. Dreadknights are kept to a few sentence cameo well away from the heroes. Draigo does not merely steamroll Mortarion within seconds to meeting him, and his victory is reminiscent of something Justicar Alaric would pull off. The Grey Knights are notably puratical, not only balking at the idea of using heresy, even using true names with extreme care, but seeming all things xenos as impure. Unlike what the codex might say, it’s hard to imagine them willingly obeying a man with a dozen daemonhosts at his command.
This understanding extends to the story itself. Draigo’s introduction seems to be following the exact style of the original but this is only so such expectations can be quickly subverted. It introduces legitimate reasons of why he fought Mortarion alone, why his ascension to Grand Master was so swift, and even plays out a few fan criticisms. Geronitan and his bodyguard are brought down in seconds by Mortarion decaying them from within thanks to a horrific mistake.
So it corrects many things, but what about the story itself?
Along with maintaining a steady momentum and enough combat to please most 40K fans, there is a great emphasis upon character and lore.
Draigo himself proves to quickly be likable. He’s a character here with vastly more personality than seen in the codex or Knight of Titan. There’s a degree of arrogance to his character, perhaps even glory seeking, but he’s beloved by his men and has more than simple power. Displaying both skill and intelligence in his battles, and ultimately winning them through those qualities.
While the majority of the focus is placed upon him, there is a wide assortment of figures present in the tale. Along with Librarian Torvus, an aged warrior of the chapter and the only other viewpoint character, each of the Brother-Captains are included. Meeting in a council following Geronitan’s death, you’re given a general impression of each warrior’s personality without it overshadowing the plot. While they are not given enough time to truly stand out, there are plenty of nice moments here. Notably Mordrak is shown to mourn his old ally’s death more than the others, indicating just how heavily each loss weighs upon his shoulders.
The Grey Knights themselves are shown to think in the long term. The battle here was not something they engaged at random, and had far more thought put into it than others would guess. The chapter guided Mortarion to this world, sacrificing others and displays qualities of thinking in the extreme long term. Relying as much on prophecy and hidden truths found within Warp prophecies and fate as much as battlefield logic.
Both the structure and voice acting are strong here. Mortarion’s Heart has been written in the exact manner it needs to, letting the vocal direction take the emotional weight and place emphasis on words while including plenty of descriptive moments. While not overly long, they give some idea of the battle at hand and the weight behind events, building up to just how much is at risk. This also sees the return of a number of prominent names recognisable within Warhammer 40,000 audio tales with Chris Fairbank and Martyn Ellis standing out. Each performs well with their role, though one or two do feel miscast.
While Draigo himself may sound a little young, that can be excused by his rapid ascension. Mortarion meanwhile has an actor who simply does not match with the character. Despite being described as having a voice “like cracking bones” he speaks with loud booming tones and bellowing, wheezing laughter. It would be fine for anyone else, but not for how the part has been written.
Unfortunately Mortarion’s problems do not stop here and he is definitely the weak point of this whole audio. While treated with vastly more dignity than the first story, and a clear threat, there are a few too many failings. The descriptions never really impress the true scale of the incursion or how much has been lost just for this one chance to destroy Mortarion.
Furthermore, his appearance is fairly unimaginative. Seemingly barely changed from his mortal self, he’s just a tall humanoid figure with robes, baroque armour and a scythe. Compared with the towering monstrosities Magnus, Angron and Fulgrim became he seems very underwhelming. Nothing like the alien horror creatures of the Warp should be. Even once Mortarion is taken down, it still feels more than a little too easy. This is likely due to the novel’s length, but there is a simple lack of preparation or impact to his fall. As a result it ends up feeling like a weaker version of what Alaric pulled off in Grey Knights.
Some other characters also feel superfluous, such as an Inquisitor who appears purely to cause problems but little else. He ultimately adds nothing to the story and his removal could have freed up time to flesh out more prominent elements. Perhaps even dealing with one small plot hole surrounding the titansword which is never truly resolved or commented upon. Otherwise his role seems to only be to play out a clichéd bureaucrat who gets in the soldiers’ way.
Speaking of clichés, there’s also Geronitan’s death. While the early elements work fine, his eventually death among his soldiers feels a more than a little ham handled. The descriptions of him convulsing, bleeding out and dying try to convey how massive a blow his death is but it feels like a mentor death from some B-movie in its handling. Admittedly this is something not helped by Mortarion laughing evilly in the background.
Finally, there are not nearly enough environmental descriptions. Some terms do help to outline certain scenes and define where a character is at that moment, but all too often they focus too much upon the armies. Take those away and there isn’t much to the scenes themselves. This is especially clear during a psychic council meeting, with few descriptions of just how unearthly such a scene would truly be.
Despite a few failings however, this is actually a decent story. L J Goulding truly crafted something great out of the most abysmal source material imaginable, rewriting huge chunks of it from the ground up. It combines great lore with well-handled characterisation and revelations which make it meaningful. If you have become jaded or disliked Draigo up to this point, Mortarion’s Heart will likely change your mind about the character. Let’s hope this is the first of many Grey Knights stories with this author.
Mortarion’s Heart will be released on the 21st of this month and can be pre-ordered from the Black Library website.