Dark Disciple by Anthony Reynolds – Book Review [Bellarius]
Continuing with Anthony Reynolds’ Word Bearers trilogy, Bellarius reviews Dark Disciple.
“An interesting twist for the series with action, horror and xenos aplenty, but a slight step down from its predecessor.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Shifting gears from the last novel, Dark Disciple sees the trilogy approaching a different kind of warfare. Despite being a continuation which examines the impact of Dark Apostle’s finale, especially the internal politics created from the recent change in power, the primary focus here is squarely placed upon Marduk’s ambitions. We see here just how far he will go to go in order to achieve power, and some elements which display how the Word Bearers still manage to remain relatively united even after their total corruption.
Still reeling from the casualties inflicted by their conflicts with the Adeptus Mechanicus and Imperial Guard, the 34th Grand Host now flies through the Warp towards a new world. With the first part of Marduk’s ambitions now achieved, he leads his forces into a war-zone, where an Imperial fleet is desperately trying to buy a world time against a Tyranid Hive Fleet. Embarking on an insane mission to retrieve the next piece of their puzzle from this world, Marduk’s forces race against time, even as he faces dissent from within. Yet upon this world, a danger unseen by all awaits them.
As with the last book, we see warfare through the eyes of both loyalists and traitors alike to show the full scale of a conflict. While this is a tactic which has proven successful in countless novels from a vast multitude of authors, what makes the Dark Apostle notable is that many barely meet one another, nor even directly fight against each other.
Rather than seeing two massive armies clashing and their power plays to try and overcome the opposing side’s forces, we see the network of efforts, ambitions and individuals who represent parts of the story. The Imperial Admiral’s hard choices fighting the tyranids, the desperate effort by one man to see a child survive the war and a smuggler’s greed all play their part in the stories, but they rarely meet one another save for fleeting moments. While normally this would be something to condemn the tale, here is works in its favour by showing the scope of events even as the heroes themselves rarely meet or even know of them. Marduk’s forces are forced to resort to subterfuge and stealth to achieve their goal rather than a full scale invasion, and unlike last time they care nothing for domination of the world.
The Word Bearers here are treated more as a small band on a pilgrimage or quest rather than a full blown crusade and it does allow them to be shown in a different light. It displays to some degree how the legion is capable of performing smaller, subtler operations and just how far they are willing to go in the name of their gods. They, or at least primarily their leader, are entirely focused upon a single objective above all, hunting it relentlessly and doing all they can to avoid contact or suspicion from greater forces. As such the combat is far smaller, but it does seem to be more individually focused, allowing for more concentrated information than the far broader details trying to convey an entire campaign.
Due to this smaller focus we also learn more of the characters involved and their changes. While only one undergoes any massive developments, what we do learn mostly comes from their reactions to the recent change in power among their number. Some are now visibly out of favour or display open contempt for the one who now leads them, and it’s interesting to see how their loyalties react to this. Especially those who are loyal to the legion as a whole than the man who leads the 34th Grand Host.
Sadly however, this is as big a problem as it is an interesting development. Much like Ben Counter, Reynolds’ characters seem to represent ideas and concepts more than being fully well rounded individuals. This makes them excellent for exploring the army as a whole, and works extremely well in stories of sweeping battles and huge campaigns. With its removal and far more focus placed upon the characters, it’s sadly obvious that they lack some of the depth of other protagonists. Kol Badar is interesting for what he stands for, but has little beyond his role, and a daemonically possessed Magos is humorously twisted, but mostly plays out for humour or twisted robotic behaviour.
Another problem goes with many factions involved. Unlike last time we are only given fleeting glimpses of them, and beyond one particular encounter, the book displays little of the tyranids as a threat. Understandable perhaps given that they are a descending foe, but all too often they seem too distant to be a genuinely hostile force facing the heroes.
The same problem goes for another xenos faction which soon emerges. While their half seen atrocities and carnage helps with some brilliantly, but because they are a surprise reveal they lack the presence antagonists need to really drive the story forwards. It also doesn’t help that, despite an otherwise respectful treatment, this faction falls for an obvious trick and a battle involving them breaks a big taboo involving Chaos. Namely that, despite being effectively scavengers, they draw the full attention of one of the Chaos gods, more or less totally manifesting to fight them.
This also goes for the problem that the final segment of the story rapidly shifts gears, trying to return to the massive combat of the previous book. While this might have worked as a finale with a build-up, the way it is presented seems more forced than a natural development within the story.
Really, Dark Disciple suffers from being the middle part of a story and failing to truly realise a few new ideas than being outright bad. It’s still worthy of a read, and manages to contain some surprisingly effective horror elements for a story involving space marines, but it’s best read as a part of the omnibus. As such, if you’re after the quintessential depiction of Chaos astartes you’ll enjoy this one, but unlike many series it’s best read as a part of an ongoing narrative than on its own.