The Chapter Master’s ascension, and the secrets of the Dark Angels
The Dark Angels Chapter sprang from the First Legion of Space Marines to fight and die at the Emperor’s side. But over ten thousand years, even the most staunchly loyal warriors of the Imperium can fall from grace, and the Dark Angels guard their own murky secrets most carefully — only Supreme Grand Master Azrael knows them all. A legend among Space Marines, he has fought for centuries and ever at the forefront of battle. Now, with the enigmatically alien eldar as his uneasy and unlikely allies, he must tread the fine line once more between the pursuit of victory, and keeping the Chapter’s past safely buried…
Continuing my new-found interest in loyalist Space Marine fiction, after thoroughly enjoying Guy Haley’s Dante, I dove into Azrael with pretty high hopes. It is, after all, written by Gav Thorpe — a long-time, excellent author of Black Library and, especially, Dark Angels fiction. This novel has a lot to offer fans of the chapter and setting as a whole.
As long-time readers of my Black Library reviews will likely know, my tastes lean away from battle-heavy WH40k fiction. I was therefore initially disappointed that the first quarter of this novel was effectively a single, long battle. It is not poorly written — Thorpe has plenty of experience, now, writing action and war scenes in the WH40k setting. It’s just… never as engaging or gripping for me as character-focused storytelling. Roughly a third of the way into the novel, we started to get the story of Azrael’s elevation to Supreme Grand Master of the Chapter. I enjoyed seeing the weird, kind of suspect nature of the Dark Angels’ practices and internal eccentricities. After reading so many Horus Heresy novels, I can’t help but think the Primarchs and the Emperor would not at all approve of how much ritual was involved… (I also still don’t understand the Angels’ connection/alliance with the Watchers in the Dark.)
The Dark Angels are a weird and fascinating bunch. They are highly secretive, still obsessed with executing the Hunt for the Fallen — those Dark Angels who, during the Horus Heresy, sided with the traitors and broke away from the loyalists. The chapter has kept this secret hidden, and frequently changes mission parameters to suit this Hunt over all other considerations.
“It is the second duty, the Hunt, which will define you,” Dagonet continued. “I am the custodian of the Chapter’s spirit, Ezekiel the guardian of its mysteries. You must be master of both, and through your leadership of the Inner Circle your accomplishments and legacy will be defined. Accomplishments that few will ever acknowledge and fewer still will celebrate.”
Among the Dark Angels, Ezekiel is a particularly weird, creepy, yet also melodramatic fellow. In fact, I kind of like how melodramatic are all the Dark Angels. His “explanation” of his role to the new Chapter Master is a good, typical example of the DA’s addiction to mystery and drama. (It brought to mind Terry Pratchett’s Death. I can’t remember in which Discworld novel it appears, but I could almost hear Death in my mind saying, in his abyssal voice, “AH. DRAMA.”)
If you’ve been following Thorpe’s recent Horus Heresy fiction, then there is one confrontation that offers a nice Easter egg, as we learn of the ultimate fate of one of his Night Lords characters. (That’s all I’m going to say about that.)
The story picked up quite a bit in the second half, as Azrael and his strike force’s mission changed, with the addition of an uneasy alliance with a band of Eldar. The ending came rather suddenly, I thought, and while it was a pretty satisfying read, I think I enjoyed Dante more — after finishing that novel, I felt like I had got to know the titular character more. True, I shouldn’t have expected total access to Azrael — that would have been not in keeping with the Dark Angels’ character. But still, I’d hoped for a bit more on that front. There are hints of his internal struggles and ambitions, but mainly we get to see his fervour for the cause of the Dark Angels — a fervour that supersedes the overall mission of the Imperium, it seems.
If you’re a fan of the Dark Angels, then I highly recommend you check out this novel. More casual fans of the WH40k fictional universe will no doubt also enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading more novels in the Space Marine Heroes series.