Dante settles into his role as Imperial Regent, while Mephiston’s powers threaten to overtake him… and everyone else
The galaxy is in flames. Chaos is in the ascendant across the stars. The Great Rift has split the holdings of the Imperium in twain, isolating entire sectors from the light of Holy Terra.
But all hope is not lost. The Primarch Roboute Guilliman has returned from deathless sleep, and appointed Commander Dante, lord of the Blood Angels, as Regent and Warden of the newly dubbed Imperium Nihilus.
In the Baal system, the shattered holding of the Chapter is being rebuilt, and Dante plans the greatest campaign of his long life, to retake half an empire. And yet at this moment of rebirth there are dangers close to home that could overwhelm all those who carry the blood of Sanguinius in their veins, stopping Dante’s noble endeavour before it has even begun.
The Flaw in Sanguinius’ sons is growing. As the twin curses of the Red Thirst and the Black Rage threaten everything, the hardest ordeal will fall upon Mephiston, twice-born Lord of Death and Chief Librarian of the Blood Angels. Among the mighty lords of Baal, perhaps only he can save them all, by mastering the darkness in the blood…
First released as a special edition, I’ve been looking forward to Darkness in the Blood for some time. Continuing the story of the Blood Angels begun in The Devastation of Baal and in Darius Hinks’s Mephiston trilogy, it presents an important piece in the puzzle that is the Angels’ place in the changed universe. With new allies, technology, and challenges, it has plenty of action as well as quieter moments that really add to our understanding of the Blood Angels and their heroes. I really enjoyed this.
If you haven’t read any of the novels (or background books) set after the launch of the Dark Imperium narrative shift, then there may be some spoilers in this review. Minor, but nevertheless.
Darkness in the Blood picks up the story a short while after the end of The Devastation of Baal. The Blood Angels’ home system has been saved, but at great cost. Reinforced now by Primaris Marines, almost back to full-strength, the chapter is adjusting not only to their new brothers, but also coming to terms with the loss of centuries of experience, a changed universe, and ever-present threats.
The novel kicks off with a couple of chapters set in the warp, as a Blood Angels fleet makes for home. A quick introduction to how the setting has changed following the opening of the Great Rift, and the new challenges that face those who must brave interstellar travel, cut off from the light of the Emperor. Luckily for this force, they have Mephiston helping them navigate the endlessly deadly Empyrean. These chapters were a slightly slower start than I’ve come to expect from Black Library novels, but they were good for situating the reader into this changed reality.
The novel focuses on two main Blood Angel heroes: Commander Dante, chapter master of the Blood Angels, and newly-appointed Regent of Imperium Nihilus; and Mephiston, Chief Librarian and possibly the most powerful human psyker. Dante’s story takes up most of the pages, as he comes to grips with his new responsibilities. The oldest living Space Marine, he is a very interesting subject. That he is a Blood Angel adds a certain melancholy to his thoughts, as he witnesses his equerries and attendants age, wither and die. The chapter’s aesthetic, artistic side also gives him a vanity that leads him to hide his face whenever possible.
Haley gives us a lot of insight into Dante’s past — something the author started in Dante (2017). We learn about his rise to Chapter Master and how it wasn’t as triumphant or grand as his subsequent service and record would portend. The author weaves the story of Dante’s past into the novel via the commander’s discussions with Danakan, the human commander of the fleet, who is struggling with PTSD. Through these conversations, we see another side of Dante: the leader, able to inspire, care for, and lift up others when they feel they have fallen too far, but also somewhat vulnerable.
‘I have made mistakes.’
‘But you can recover from yours, you are a Space Marine.’
Dante’s voice rose a little. He had a beautiful voice, like strong music in soft mountain airs. ‘What does that mean? Nothing. We are both men, you and I. Courage runs in every human’s veins. I, too, was not worthy. Others believed I was. Subsequent events seemed to bear out their opinion. I fought because I had to. I served because I must. I made errors. I learned much from them, and still the Chapter nearly perished while I was its Master. Eventually, I became worthy, because I had to be so. Because it was expected of me.’
Throughout the novel, we see Dante struggle with his age and his duty. So, when an agent of Belisarius Cawl arrives in system, bearing a new technology, Dante sees a chance to address the inexperience of the Primaris, and also overcome his own growing weaknesses. The new Primaris Marines are bigger and (supposedly) better than the original Space Marines in every way. When they were introduced, they proposed an interesting narrative opportunity: how do the original Space Marines deal with their impending obsolescence? It was almost inevitable that certain heroes were going to somehow make the transition into this newer form. And so, the Rubicon Primaris was created. For Dante, it has the potential to answer all of his prayers: conserving and prolonging the experience and knowledge of original marines, but also maybe fixing his physical ailments.
Unfortunately, the procedure has a very low success rate among Blood Angels. Which brings us nicely to Mephiston. Locked away in supposed isolation, his powers are growing and becoming less stable, and his control is slipping.
“Your gift is a torrent to my trickle.”
“It is still getting stronger… I feel the power in my, Gaius. I feel I could end the galaxy if I chose.”
Rhacelus grunted. “Best not do that, then.”
During a mission early in the novel, he loses control, triggering the Rage in some nearby Blood Angel Primaris (previously believed to be immune to this chapter flaw). Given the danger he presents to everyone around him, Dante and the chapters other leaders nominate Mephiston as guinea pig for the new procedure. If he survives, maybe he’ll regain control of his abilities. If he doesn’t… well, then the chapter heads off a threat. So, win-win. The procedure is covered in (grisly) detail, and it is… operatic. One certainly hopes that every time a hero crosses the Rubicon Primaris, it is not quite so costly. In addition to this transformation, we get a bit more insight into Mephiston’s mind, his own challenges, fears, and ultimately his secret burden. (It will be interesting to now read Hinks’s City of Light, which is Mephiston’s first proper outing following his transformation — I’ll hopefully read it very soon.)
Throughout the novel, Haley offers readers a glimpse at the strained relationships between the various Imperial factions. Distrust is rife, as inter- and intra-factional rivalries breed caution and suspicion. Cawl, in particular, is a figure of such mystery (and towering narcissism) that Dante can’t help but feel suspicious of any offer of support or new technology.
The novel is, in many ways, a pause in the larger story: the Blood Angels are getting their house in order, preparing for the larger campaigns and challenges on the horizon. It’s an interesting change of pace, and I welcomed the developments and shifts in their story. Haley’s writing is excellent throughout, and he avoids some of the more florid language that often characterizes Black Library fiction. His descriptions, while evocative, are not over-done (even during Mephiston’s procedure). Each scene, I thought, was composed brilliantly, conveying the quiet and the bombastic with equal skill.
Overall, then, Darkness in the Blood marks an important step in the Blood Angels’ evolution for the new WH40k reality. I very much enjoyed spending more time with Dante, learning more about his past and also his current challenges and fatigue. Mephiston continues to be a fascinating character, and one of my favourites from WH40k. If you’ve been following the Blood Angels story for a while, then I certainly recommend you pick this up. It should also appeal to anyone with an interest in the recent changes in the WH40k setting.