Go back to the start of the Indomitus Campaign…
As the Indomitus Crusade spreads out across the galaxy, one battlefleet must face a dread Slaughter Host of Chaos. Their success or failure may define the very future of the crusade – and the Imperium.
A great darkness has befallen the galaxy, and the armies of Chaos are rampant. To survive, humanity must retaliate and take back what they have lost. By the will of the reborn primarch, Roboute Guilliman, is the Indomitus Crusade launched – a military undertaking that eclipses all others in known history. From the Throneworld of Terra does the Avenging Son hurl his fleets, their mission the very salvation of mankind.
As vessels in their thousands burn through the cold void, the attention of Fleetmistress VanLeskus turns to the Machorta Sound – a region under attack by a dreaded Slaughter Host of the Dark Gods. The success of the Indomitus Crusade will be determined by this conflict, and the desperate mission of Battlegroup Saint Aster, led by Space Marine Lieutenant Messinius. Even then it is but a prelude to the forthcoming bloodshed.
Avenging Son is the first novel in a new nine-part series, which tells the story of Roboute Guilliman’s Indomitus Crusade. I was surprised when this series was announced, set as it is prior to Haley’s Dark Imperium novels. Originally pitched as the start of the “new” WH40k meta-story, and set during the Indomitus Crusade, the Dark Imperium novels dropped readers into the action some decades into the Crusade. So, the fact that Black Library commissioned this series, before the Dark Imperium trilogy was completed, was interesting: perhaps they thought they needed to go back, fill in a bunch of details in order to better-situated fans of the franchise? No idea. Regardless, it’s a strong start to a series, and I enjoyed it.
The novel starts a bit shakily — not because there’s anything wrong with Haley’s writing or characters (they are, of course, excellent). Rather, it was a little unclear where the novel was actually going until about a quarter of the way in. The first few chapters introduce us to a handful of key characters, many of them new. It felt a bit fragmented, without much tying all of the characters together — perhaps this was done in order to reflect the fragmented nature of the Imperial forces at the time of the emergence of the Great Rift. When things started to click into place, the shape of the story became much clearer — normally, I would think this a bit too late to happen, but given that I’m pretty committed to reading the WH40k story, I was more forgiving.
Avenging Son is very much an opening act. It serves to introduce readers to the various Imperial forces being marshalled for the crusade, it establishes the galactic situation, and also gives readers far more insight into the unveiling of the Primaris Marines. I thought the latter was particularly well-done, and Haley spends quite some time giving the readers an idea of what these new warriors are actually like — not as in other BL fiction, but right from the start. They are prodigiously talented, but utterly inexperienced. Messinius (the fellow in white on the cover) is attached to a force of Primaris, and it’s his job to provide real-world training, to help forge them into a functioning battle force and simultaneously encourage them to see themselves as protectors of humanity, while not being separate from them:
‘It goes further than being unblooded, in truth they lack direct experience of anything,’ Guilliman went on. ‘Most of them, Cawl says, have been in suspended animation for millennia, with only a few days truly awake. They were boys when they were taken. The Imperium they were born into is gone. Everything they know was inculcated into them by hypnomat. They have no actual training, in the main. The usual problems recruits face post-apotheosis are exaggerated by their sense of displacement in time. They will compound each other. It is vital that we, as posthuman creations, hold tight onto our humanity, or we shall forget who we were made to serve. Who knows how much of their essential humanity the Primaris retain? You were your Chapter’s master of recruits. I cannot think of a more qualified man to undertake this task.’
Present at the unveiling of the Primaris, Messinius — a “regular” Space Marine — is also confronted by his own obsolescence:
These were not Space Marines. They were something else. They were his replacements. He realised, as he watched, that he was witness to the dawning of a new breed, and by extension, the end of his own.
Messinius’s chapters offer plenty of context for the WH40k setting, as well as some excellent world-building. Haley weaves these moments into the story very well, and should help new readers situate themselves very easily. For more familiar readers, these moments are also useful for filling in some gaps and establishing certain new aspects of the lore. There’s also some interesting discussion about the place of faith in the WH40k universe, particularly in relation to the Primaris and other Space Marines. The Horus Heresy books have established pretty clearly that the Primarchs and their Legions do not think of the Emperor as a god (aside from Lorgar, briefly). That hasn’t always been the case in BL’s other WH40k fiction, but with the return of Guilliman, it had to be addressed.
As usual, for me, I really enjoyed those chapters and scenes that build up the lore and add to our understanding of how the Imperium works and how the various characters/factions operate within it. The growing gap between the general Imperial belief system, and that of the Space Marines is interesting, and poses plenty of interesting questions and opportunities for the future of the franchise. Guilliman, too, continues to provide plenty of opportunities for commentary on the state of the Imperium, and how far it has moved from the Emperor’s dream.
Everything I have seen since I awoke has shown me nothing but decline.
… there was no time left in the Imperium for anything other than war.
One thing of particular note is the novel’s slightly lighter tone: I was pleasantly surprised to discover the wry humour and moments of mild levity in the story. This is mainly provided through Fabian’s perspective, as well as a couple of other moments, and it suggested that Black Library was allowing Haley to take the setting just a shade less seriously — aside from Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaphas Cain series, the WH40k fiction line has often seemed a tad poe-faced. Sure, it’s grim, dark, and violent fiction, but it could feel like it was taking itself too seriously. But, don’t get me wrong: Haley hasn’t injected Pratchett-levels of comedy or satire into the novel, but there is definitely a dash of natural humour to certain scenes and characters that felt like a much-needed breath of fresh air.
There were certain aspects of the novel that, I think, worked better having read some of the other novels Haley’s contributed to the series — not only Dark Imperium and Plague War, but also The Great Work (which focuses very much on Cawl). I don’t think it’s essential to have read any of these in order to enjoy Avenging Son, but there might be a few things that click into place for you if you have, and some cameos that maybe carry a little more weight. (If you haven’t read the other books, you’ll probably experience that clicking-into-place when you get around to reading the chronologically-later novels.)
Anyway, I could write more about the book, but I’ll end there. If you’re a fan of WH40k fiction, and want to know how the “current” situation came to be, then I strongly recommend you read Avenging Son and Haley’s other recent WH40k novels. Well-written, populated by interesting and well-drawn characters, and gripping, action-packed stories. Recommended.
Dawn of Fire: Avenging Son is out now, published by Black Library in North America and in the UK. The second novel in the Dawn of Fire series, Andy Clark’s Gate of Bones, is also out now — I’ll be reading and reviewing it very soon.
The launch of the Dawn of Fire series has also meant the Dark Imperium novels have been tweaked and re-written a little bit — I’m not sure when the new versions will be released, but I assume later this year (and, hopefully, the third novel in that series will also see the light of day).