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With another Chaos focused tale focusing upon the Horus Heresy’s aftermath, Bellarius steps in to give his own verdict on Khârn: Eater of Worlds.
“A blood-soaked yet surprisingly introspective tale of a legion on the brink of annihilation. Reynolds once again proves why he is among the best authors to write for the Traitor Legions.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Of all the characters brought into the spotlight over the past few years, few have changed more than Khârn the Betrayer. Defined for many years as the epitome of berserker rages and blood fueled madness, both he and the World Eaters were sadly defined only by obsessive screaming and skull taking. As with Abaddon the Despoiler however, this has recently taken a change for the better, more thoroughly fleshing out his character. Along with Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Betrayer, fans have received Chosen of Khorne and Khârn: The Eightfold Path to help flesh out the legion, and Eater of Worlds easily slides to help fill in the gaps between these tales.
Following their flight from Terra, the World Eaters legion is crumbling in upon itself. Isolated amid the time-warped reality of the Eye of Terror, more of their number are falling prey to the Butcher’s Nails with every passing day. Already several warbands have broken off from them, with others threatening to leave, and the legion itself commanded by blood-thirsty maniacs. To the few who still retain their sanity, it is obvious that the XII is on the brink of fracturing, totally and utterly, and needs unity. To Draeger, one of the few to still bare the cerulean and white of their colours, the answer to this dilemma lies comatose within his warship…
The first thing to praise immediately is the novella’s length. Something which has all too often hamstrung certain tales is the ultra-short nature of many previous Black Library stories, and sticking to that size would have crippled Eater of Worlds. Thankfully, as a result of this foresight, what fans get is more of a short novel, two-hundred-and-twenty-two pages long and fully fleshing out the road leading to Skalathrax. As a result, rather than a rushed tale focusing purely upon a few primary characters, what readers are given is a sizable cast worthy of any Horus Heresy installment and more time to really focus upon its ideas over immediate conflict.
The novella makes it clear from the very start that the World Eaters are only inches away from the blood frenzied warbands of M41. While largely still deploring Chaos, many of their number have fallen into praying to the Blood Father, and many more are losing themselves to war. Confined aboard their vessels, sudden, manic outbreaks of violence are rife among the warriors. This is depicted with an atmosphere of quiet resigned dread, even acceptance among their number. Much of the opening half of the book focuses purely upon a pair of leaders tracking down a homicidal astartes, the impact of his actions and the breakdown of even the most basic signs of trust which once existed. Rather than just rushing into things, it takes tips from Betrayer to use violence only as it is truly needed rather than turning into pure bolter porn. This said, as we see everything from legion serfs to former Centurions reflecting upon their bloody nature, it avoid’s Betrayer’s mistake of turning them into a broken joke of a legion. Even on the brink of annihilation here, time is taken to still show that they are exceptionally capable fighters without going utterly nuts with it.
Many of the more memorable moments of the book stem from two aspects. The first is that, while still ultimately a Warhammer tale, there are some surprisingly effective horror tropes at work here. While having nowhere near the impact of Joe Parrino’s stories, Reynolds is the one other author to try to tell a horror story with the astartes, and manages to get it right. This is largely thanks to the aspects found among the human crewmen, especially the medicae Skoral, who find themselves on the receiving end of violent outbursts more than once. At these points, the tale emulates some of the better aspects of slasher films or Alien in these moments, and it helps make their hostile nature all the more clear. Even if these are the legionaries serving as the tale’s protagonists, it makes it very evident just what kind of monsters they truly are while still giving you reasons to root for them. It further helps to better emphasise the losses and strain following Terra, all the while cranking up the tension among the characters.
Speaking of the characters themselves, Eater of Worlds takes an unusual angle with Khârn. He’s on the cover, he’s in the title, but in this we never see into his mind. Instead we see him through the eyes of others, often legionaries, as he is gradually built up narratively into a living legend. Rather than following examples in recent years, what we have here seems to follow an older approach Black Library once took with its big name characters. By using competent, capable paragons of certain forces as viewpoint characters, it boosts the heroes on the tabletop to new heights. They are incredibly proficient in the art of killing yet Khârn is a league above them, and through this the reader is helped to gain a better impression of something which is less human and more a living avatar of war. We only get bits and pieces about the Betrayer himself, yet it’s presented in enough of a way to keep you invested rather than feeling cheated of any interesting tidbits.
As ever however, for every strength there is a failing of some kind, and Eater of Worlds has its fair share. The most prolific among these is that, while boasting a wide and varied ensemble of characters, the novella struggles to balance them out. Each has an interesting history to them and background information, and yet all too often many are pushed far into the background. Atop of this, without some true introductions and limitations on easing the reader into detailing who is who, the characters sadly start to blur together. While Skoral, Brond, Galerius, Dreagher, and Khârn himself obviously, all stand out, the others can be hard to keep up with at times. This unfortunately hurts the tale badly as it lays the groundwork for a potentially outstanding series, but it’s so crammed in here that even the focus characters simply aren’t given enough of a chance to shine. They instead seem too much like archetypes and representations of ideas, not characters in of themselves.
A further problem also stems from the novella’s pacing. While building up to a later event and using violence surprisingly sparingly, there are some surprisingly dense scenes of dead air during the first half. The fact the World Eaters are doomed is rammed home again and again, that without something to unite them they are as good as dead, but there isn’t enough drive to it. The initial hunt helps to emphasise this to a point, but following that too many scenes seem as if they are a diversion. An interesting diversion to be sure, but it becomes an increasingly repetitive one before the end.
Then of course there’s the problem of the story’s structure. Much of it seems to rely upon the reader already having some considerable awareness of the setting, the events of the heresy and what will follow. It’s the middle of a tale, following on from Terra but stopping right before Skalathrax in some truly frustrating sequel baiting, and unless you are familiar with events it can be hard to keep up. Furthermore, the novella also ties in heavily to Chosen of Khorne, with many of the same characters and even themes emerging. It seems to have been written at least in part to serve as a prequel, and without that grounding some of the meaning behind a few twists might be lost on readers. This is, of course, not to mention the fact that the aforementioned sequel baiting leaves the tale very open ended. We do not see the fates of many characters and there are still plenty of plot threads left dangling. It’s enough to set up something solid for a series, and makes me truly hope we are getting one, but as a stand alone story it just lacks the closure a casual reader would want.
Also there’s the cover. Honestly, this might seem like a petty gripe, but after Chosen of Khorne the image of him on the cover looks cartoonish. Khârn’s hardly the exemplar of subtlety yet we’ve seen far better with him done many times before, and it’s only made worse when compared with the wonderfully illustrated legionaries adorning the book’s back.
For all this good and bad however, Khârn: Eater of Worlds proves itself to be an entertaining book which remains a cut above the usual bolter porn. Fans of Chaos Space Marines will definitely get a kick out of this story and it provides far more content than the average hard back short story Black Library wheels out. While primarily presenting the potential for a running series, it nevertheless does enough to keep you wanting to read until the end and helps to flesh out the universe that little bit more. As something to help bridge the gap between the Horus Heresy and the Black Legion series, you could easily do far worse than this.