A new WH40k era begins…
Fell times have come to the galaxy. Cadia has fallen, destroyed by the onslaught of Chaos. A Great Rift in the warp has opened and from its depths spew daemons and the horrors of Old Night. But all hope is not lost… A hero, long absent, has returned and with him comes the wrath of the Ultramarines reborn. Roboute Guilliman has arisen to lead the Imperium out of darkness on a crusade the likes of which has not been seen since the fabled days of the Emperor. But never before have the forces of Ruin amassed in such numbers, and nowhere is safe from despoliation. From the dreaded Scourge Stars come the hordes of the Plaguefather, Lord Nurgle, and their pustulent eye is fixed on Macragge. As the Indomitas Crusade draws to an end, Guilliman races to Ultramar and a confrontation with the Death Guard.
Reviewed by Abhinav Jain
One of the biggest criticisms that fans have leveled at Games Workshop for the Warhammer 40,000 setting is that the clock is always stuck at ten minutes before midnight. There is no forward momentum in the overall story, since the narrative is always stuck in year 999.M41 and we’ve already seen tons of stories and supplemental lore in that year. Going back and visiting the decades and centuries prior is all well and good, but many have clamoured for a change in the status quo. This picked up steam some two/three years back when the Warhammer Fantasy setting met its demise and was then reborn as Age of Sigmar. But that, too, caused problems since the new setting was a complete and total shift from what had come before and fans didn’t want that either.
So, now we have the era of the Gathering Storm. In a series of campaign books and new lore, the clock has been moved closer to midnight, from M41 to M42. There have been some major upheavals, not the least of which is the return of the Primarch Roboute Guilliman of the Ultramarines, and the launch of his Indomitus Crusade to reunite the Imperium against resurgent xenos and heretics. The fallout from this is what Guy Haley deals with in Dark Imperium, the first official full-length story set in this new era. It charts how the Crusade ends and what Guilliman’s larger plans are, in addition to all that has happened in the Imperium since he returned.
I was initially stymied by the changes, not the least of which was that Guilliman had ordered the creation of a new type of Space Marine: the Primaris warriors who have more efficient and improved gene-seed, as well as the creation of new weapons and ships. It was a lot to take in, so Dark Imperium comes at just the right time for me, especially since I’m beginning to get back into reading Black Library fiction after a break of some three years.
Guy is one of my favourite authors, both outside and inside of Black Library tent, and he definitely gives the novel his all. We start off with a prologue set during the era of the Scouring, the time immediately following the Heresy, when the Imperium was struggling to rebuild itself and when traitors and heretics were being hunted down all over the galaxy. Guilliman leads a force of Ultramarines, Novamarines, and warriors of the Aurora Chapter against his brother Fulgrim of the Emperor’s Children, in what turns out to be one of the best examples of a Primarch-on-Primarch close-quarters combat and some really vivid scenes that are iconic in and of themselves. Long-time readers of the lore will know as well that this event marks Guilliman’s fall, with Fulgrim delivering a grievous wound and the loyal Primarch being interred in stasis for the next ten thousand years. It is a fantastic start to what is a very engaging novel.
The rest focuses on the fallout of the Indomitus Crusade as the returned Guilliman ends his 112-year war across the divided Imperium, rebuilding the strength of its defenders and pushing back all enemies from the least to the most dangerous. Something that became apparent early on was that Guilliman was a slave to history. His Crusade mirrors the Great Crusade launched by the Emperor at the dawn of the Imperium, and just as the Triumph of Ullanor marked its end, so too does Guilliman mark the end of his Crusade with a Triumph on another world, Raukos. Symbols are important, and that’s the underlying theme of the novel, here.
One of the big questions I had going in was how superior the new Primaris Space Marines would be to regular Space Marines. They are supposed to have better gene-seed, better weapons, better training, better everything. There is clearly a difference in power, but it goes beyond that to the feel of the characters. After all, regular Space Marines have been the norm for some thirty-five years now, and the Primaris are the biggest change to that status quo. The answer for me was inconclusive. Guy does go into detail about the physical superiority of the Primaris many times during the novel, but given how his characters were written, I wasn’t sure if I actually preferred any of the Primaris over the “older” Space Marines that I’ve read about — such as Tycho of the Blood Angels, Ragnar of the Space Wolves, and so on.
They are too new, too different, and they lack a certain innate quality that they all have. The older type of Space Marines have all grown up around a particular culture that has defined them psychologically as much as physically. They are different Chapter to Chapter, because they all have traditions and rituals that are practically ancient in comparison to whatever it is that the Primaris have. And that’s what these characters like Sergeant Justinian, Lieutenant Sarkis, Bjarni and the others lack. They have their own brotherhood despite being of different gene-lines, because they go to war and train together. But the identity of a particular Chapter is not their lot.
Much of the novel is given over to exposition, to order to ground the reader in the new reality post-Gathering Storm and Indomitus Crusade, and I felt that such exposition took away space that could have been used to impart more distinct identities to the Primaris. Their action scenes are well-written and Guy definitely shows how different the new unit types are to expand on the different ways the Primaris make war. This made for some very enjoyable reading, but at the end of the day, the characters didn’t seem as strong to me.
If anything, Guilliman makes out like a bandit here. Dark Imperium is essentially his story and he certainly gets the lion’s share of the pages. This I’m fine with. We get to see how dubious is his relationship with Magos Belisarius Cawl. It is Cawl who has furnished Guilliman with the Primaris and their new weapons, etc. The lore surrounding Cawl is very thin, admittedly, since he was first introduced in the Gathering Storm storyline. He is presented as a master of technological sciences and is as much the father of the Indomitus Crusade as is Guilliman. The interplay between the characters was definitely fun and I can only hope that more attention will be given to Cawl over the next few years, so he doesn’t stand out as the completely ridiculous jack-of-all-trades that he is currently portrayed. Much like the Primaris, he needs a stronger identity of his own.
Overall, I am quite satisfied with how Dark Imperium turned out. The focus on the end of the Indomitus Crusade was a bit confusing, but Haley also tells an expansive tale of the new status quo across the Imperium, and it has got me super-excited to read all the new lore about the Gathering Storm and M42. There is so much potential for experimentation, and I am eager to see as much of it as possible. This isn’t Guy’s best work, but Dark Imperium is a decent novel that warrants at least one reading. The highlight is getting tons of insight into Guilliman; seeing how the Primaris function; and the tensions created by the presence of these warriors for the older Space Marines, whom they are displacing in more ways than one.