Friday, 23 April 2010

‘Helsreach (Space Marines Battles)’ – Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)



In the universe of the fortieth millennium there is no peace, only eternal war. This isn’t surprising at all seeing as the whole Warhammer 40K setting is geared around a tabletop war game where opposing armies unload mass destruction on each other. It wouldn’t quite be the same if humanity and it’s sworn enemies decided it would be far nicer if everyone just got along...
The game setting has thrown up a veritable deluge of novels dealing with the ins and outs of warfare in a universe on the brink of chaos. It’s no secret here that I’m a big fan of what I’ve read so far; the output can vary in quality but on the whole it’s all well written and very entertaining. Of all the authors writing in the 40K universe, Aaron Dembski-Bowden is the one who stands out for me at the moment. Not only does he totally get what the 40K universe is all about but he’s turning out to have the happy knack of dressing this vision up in a damn good story. I make it my business to read his books now (and so should you if you’re a 40K fan or just like military sci-fi) so when I got my copy of ‘Helsreach’ it didn’t stay on the shelf for too long before I started reading...

If you’re an Ork in the universe of the far future then the one place that you can be assured of a damn good scrap is the planet Armageddon. Already the scene of an epic confrontation between the Imperium and Ork raiders, Armageddon is about to face an army of Ork raiders far greater than it has ever seen before...
The planet won’t be standing on it’s own though. Elements of the Space Marine chapters are assigned to it’s defence. These elements include marines from the Black Templars and their work on Armageddon will form just one small part of a crusade that began ten thousand years ago and hasn’t faltered since...

When I first read ‘Cadian Blood’, I knew that Aaron Dembski-Bowden was an author that I was going to have to keep a eye on. I had no choice in the matter, he’s that good. Here’s a guy who’s encroaching on ‘Dan Abnett territory’ with his ability to tell his reader just what it’s like to be the poor guy stuck in a fox hole taking fire from something large, green and totally alien. I did find myself wondering though how this was going to translate to a tale that focuses primarily on the well nigh invulnerable Space Marine who are very much of the ‘meet the enemy head on and chop them into small pieces’ kind. Was this just going to be a straightforward fire fight or was I going to get something a little more involved? It turned out that I needn’t have worried, Dembski-Bowden has written something superb...

The fight for the hive city of Helsreach is a long drawn out affair, running into weeks, where every footstep that the enemy take into the city is paid for in copious amounts of blood. Dembski-Bowden believes that on order to fully appreciate what this really means his readers should follow each one of these footsteps, whether it’s pushing forward or retreating. There are plenty of each of these as the battle for the city swiftly degenerates into the piecemeal attrition of street by street warfare. After four hundred odd pages of this, I was left almost as exhausted as if I’d been in the thick of it for real. The heroic behaviour that you see almost demands that you keep reading, it would be disrespectful not to. It’s a hard slog but in the best possible way. Gruelling urban warfare punctuated by the roar of heavy artillery and the crushing footsteps of the god-like Titan war machines.

The story’s focus is on the Black Templars, a particularly militaristic order of Space Marines who have sworn never to halt their crusade to bring the galaxy into compliance for the Emperor. You get an idea of just how hard edged these guys are when a detachment of Salamanders Space Marines are brought in to reinforce their position. While the Salamanders work to protect the civilian populace, the Black Templar’s focus is always on pushing forwards and this clash in approach makes an already tense alliance even more likely to shatter.
Demsbki-Bowden does well though to show a slightly more human side to the Black Templars which makes them actual characters rather than walking death machines on the page. Bred for the sole purpose of making war, Space Marines are curiously immature when they are required to do anything else. The Reclusiarch Grimaldus cannot help but have a little sulk when he is ordered to defend Helsreach and is denied the glory of orbital combat with the Ork fleet. The waging of war is paramount and Grimaldus cannot see any point to defending the hive populace. It’s a measure of the heroics of the Imperial Guard, and hive citizens, that Grimaldus’ views change over the course of the book, a slow and measured process that helps Grimaldus overcome his lack of confidence in his ability to live up to his former mentor.

If this was a book purely about Space Marines then no matter what the author did you wouldn’t be able to escape the feeling that the outcome was never in any real doubt. Dembski-Bowden sidesteps this issue by giving an equal amount of time to the more human defenders of the city. There’s not a lot that can stop a Space Marine (although they’re by no means safe in this book) so the real fun comes in watching a lowly Guardsman or citizen trying to make their way through this blasted landscape in one piece. You never know who’s going to end up stopping a bullet (or worse) and this had me wanting to get close to the characters while there was still time. Particular favourites here were the Storm Trooper Andrej and the Dock Master Maghernus. Here were two characters who would have never have met if there hadn’t been a war on and it was interesting to see how they got on because of it.

‘Helsreach’ throws you right into the midst of full on future warfare and doesn’t let you back out until the last gun has fallen silent. I would say that it doesn’t get a lot better than this but the truth is that I don’t think it gets better than this at all. What an amazing read!

Ten out of Ten

9 comments:

Simon said...

Hi Graham,

Hope you don't mind but I've posted a link to this on BL's facebook page...

Have to agree an ADB, 3 books in and all excellent (only just started Helsreach but so far so good). Some of the BL output is a tad juvenile but there's depth here.

Graeme Flory said...

Hi Simon,

I don't mind at all, thanks for that :o)

I've been very lucky with my BL reading so far, ADB is a real highlight though.

nicksharps13 said...

Do you plan on reviewing Flesh and Iron? I've seen some real bad reviews and some real good ones and I'd like your perspective.

Also how the hell do you pronounce your name?

Graeme Flory said...

To be honest I'm not sure about that. I've given it a few pages and what I've read suggests a similar quality to 'Emperor's Mercy' (which I didn't particularly enjoy).

As far as pronouncing my name goes, just go with whatever you're comfortable with. I'm cool :o)

nicksharps13 said...

That's what I was afraid of which is a shame because the cover art is so fantastic and the concept has potential. Much thanks Flurry :P

Luke Forney said...

I have a review of Flesh & Iron over at my site. I didn't like it quite as much as Emperor's Mercy, which I did enjoy, but I still didn't think it was a bad book either.

Badelaire said...

As soon as my closest books store that carries BL titles lands a copy of Helsreach, I'm definitely picking it up. Sounds very good, and in sharp contrast with Rynn's World, which I also thought was quite good, but portrayed the more humane but conflicted Crimson Fists in a much different light.

Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

10 out of 10.. c'mon man. It's not that good. You do no one favours with a backslap review.

The templars were super whiny..

mcandy91 said...

Totally agree with the 10/10 rating. I finished it myself this morning, and was sad to have to put it down. It's THAT good. Haven't read anything that really got me going in a while, but this hit the spot! Amazing read, it has everything you could ask for and more! Must buy.