PAGE Apocalypse 2014: The Defense of Kimball Prime

kingbreakers-icon

With the fall of Caldor IV and Rittenhouse Hive, yet another of Abaddon’s years-long black crusades continues to build momentum.  Gazing deep into sector holomaps, Kingbreakers’ leadership decides to make a stand on Kimball Prime.  Great works begin as the planet is made into a fortress world, with bunkers, shield generators, and innumerable weapons batteries built from the ice wastes of the poles to the sweltering jungles of the equator.  Here the traitor’s tide of war will be blunted, or the incursion will rage through the sector unstoppable.

Despite a snowstorm shortly before and a variety of other hiccups, most of the PAGE crew got together for its much planned 2014 New Year’s Apocalypse this weekend, to smashing success.  Brett, Colin, Lovell, Steve, Tom, and Warren joined armies to form the Forces of Discord.  Akil, Jason, Justin, Owen, and myself made up the Forces of Order.

Lots more photos are in the Flickr gallery.

The battle underway!

The battle underway!

Listen, we could spend all day rollin' butt loads of dice, or you and me could just Rochambeau right now and get a beer?

Listen, we could spend all day rollin’ butt loads of dice, or you and me could just Rochambeau right now and get a beer?

Armies

After extensive ad hoc rebalancing for missing players—presumably caught in the Warp—the two teams came out to about 20,400 points each, from an originally planned 24,000, including all Titans, superheavies, and gargantuan creatures.  The armies of Discord brought a variety of Chaos Marines, Daemons, Cultists, Traitor Guard, and Necrons, supported by a Reaver, Warhound, a Baneblade chassis, Greater Bloodthirster of Khorne, Great Brass Scorpion, all lead by Abaddon.  The Forces of Order brought together many allies, including Space Marines, Space Wolves, Dark Angels, Tau, and Imperial Guard, supported by a Reaver, Warhound, and three Baneblade chassis, lead by Librarian Rorschach.

The planet writhes in flames as the war grinds on to near stalemate.  Finally all the hosts come to a head in a single line of battle stretching across half the planet.  Desperate times at hand, the great heroes Grimnar, Belial, and Creed together with legendary commander Farsight hurl themselves into combat at the head of great columns of men and vehicles.  Awaiting them lies a brutal gallows roll of all the mightiest foes of the Imperium, from blackest Abaddon himself to the greatest daemons of the Warp, with even the machined strategist Imhotekh and all his advisors rising from a newly awoken Tomb Citadel to throw in his lot with the bid to take down an Imperial sector.  The last push begun, Captain Angholan clasps gauntlets with his battle brother Rorschach and embarks to the front, leaving the latter and his Council of Librarians to divine the Emperor’s light and guide the forces of order.

This planet is ours now.

This planet is ours now.

Party's on the other side of the table, boys!

Party’s on the other side of the table, boys!

Scenario

The board was 6′ x 17’4″, with teams each taking a 2ft long-edge deployment zone.  Chaos won zone selection in a roll-off, and then took first turn as well after bidding 5 minutes’ deployment.  The Imperium, expecting such a low bid from the heretics and having significant foot and vehicular forces to field, bid for a full 30 minutes of setup.  Discord placed a dual set of Void Shield Generators and Vengeance Battery fortifications, with a Necron Tomb Citadel nearby.  Loyalist fortifications included multiple Imperial Bunkers, Vengeance Batteries, and a Void Shield Generator creating a 12″ protective bubble over their central position.

Heretics placed one home objective in the Citadel, another safely ensconced within the overlapping Shield Generators, and targeted an immensely important fir tree among the ice caves on the Imperial flank for their opposed objective.  Kingbreakers declared their central command buildings as tightly clustered home objectives, while the Dark Angels and Tau targeted a critical defensive wall in the jungle temple on Discord’s far right flank as the breach point through which to break the crusade.

Table setup and deployment; click for larger view.

Table setup and deployment; click for larger view.

We followed standard 6th edition Apocalypse scoring for the match: Killing superheavies, gargantuans, and the designated supreme Warmaster are each worth a point; objectives are scored at multiple times and progressively increase in value, in this case after Turns 2, 4, and 5 (game end), and for 1, 2, and 3 points per objective each time.

Let's do this thing!  Steve's scratchbuilt Warhound Titan.

Let’s do this thing! Steve’s scratchbuilt Warhound Titan.

Battle

How quickly shift the tides of war!

Major axes of movement & reserve arrivals; click to enlarge.

Major axes of movement & reserve arrivals; click to enlarge.

Turn 1

Combat began hectically, with the defensive Imperials in particular rushing to activate all of their comparatively numerous models and ultimately skipping a fair bit of shooting when time ran out.  Chaos declared a Trophy Kill objective on Grimnar on the Imperial right flank and began pursuing it with a massive Traitor Guard armoured spearhead combined with Abaddon himself and his Terminator bodyguards.  Innumerable daemons spawned into existence, anchored to the Materium by a host of greater daemons bursting forth from the Warp at each corner of the battle and shrouding the field in their Tetragon of Darkness.  A massive Necron Pylon came into existence in the very center of the combat, while Necron Sentry Pylons also beamed into place around the Discord objectives.  Discord claimed a Baneblade chassis while Imperials killed the Pylon to gain one point each through the course of the first turn.

Necron, Traitor Guard, and Abaddon, what could go wrong?!

Necron, Traitor Guard, and Abaddon, what could go wrong?!

Turn 2

The Emperor’s light shone brightly in the next round as the Great Brass Scorpion approached Imperial lines but fell to massed multi-melta and lascannon fire.  Chaos’ foul Tetragon was also quickly broken, with several greater daemons assassinated at their anchor points.  Imperial shooting also took out a Baneblade chassis, and all this without giving up a kill point themselves.  Further, Discord discarded their previously earned point to enact the Lies of Tzeentch Strategic Resource and temporarily control the opposing Reaver, forcing it to friendly fire and obliterate a number of Dark Angels Terminators.  Fast moving Necron Destroyers rushing from their recently awoken Citadel did manage to contest the Space Wolves’ objective, leaving Order only 2 points on objectives versus the Discord 3, but the Imperials and allies still came out ahead after Turn 2.

Ohmygod, we're so behind schedule; I need to take a break...

Ohmygod, we’re so behind schedule; I need to take a break…

Turn 3

Quickly though the clouds darkened over the Imperium.  Abaddon and friends bested Logan Grimnar in personal combat, achieving a Trophy Kill strategic asset and claiming 3 points.  Simultaneously the traitor Reaver and tank columns took down a loyalist Baneblade chassis for another point, the earth shaking crunch as its flaming pieces hit the ground second only to that of Grimnar.  These combined losses in the polar fighting left the Space Wolves distraught and open to systematic decimation in the coming turns.

Ongoing tremendous amounts of heavy shooting also did little to stop the inexorable flanking march of the Greater Bloodthirster onto the Imperial’s command bunker.  Only sustained sacrificial delaying tactics and careful positioning of many Space Marines, Imperial Guard, and Tau vehicles and infantry continued to keep it from reaching the Kingbreakers’ encampment and cracking open the critical Void Shields.  Ultimately Order gained no points and ceded its lead in the planet-wide battle royale.

For the greater good!  Blood for the Blood God!

For the greater good! Blood for the Blood God!

Turn 4

Approaching the endgame, the match pitched into a grinding battle of quarter inches and small chances.  Discord caused a cataclysmic explosion on the jungle flank by exploding the Imperial Reaver.  More damningly, the raging Bloodthirster, chosen warrior of Khorne, achieved his primary objective and crushed in a single blow the Imperials’ Void Shield Generator, exposing the command bunker and both objectives previously under its aegis.

Recovering from their mounting losses though, Order achieved several critical successes.  Hulking in screaming victory over the savaged ruins of the Shield Generator, the massive Bloodthirster was yet again lit up and wracked by fire from every possible weapon across half the field of battle and finally succumbed, sent back to its blood god at the very door of the Imperial command bunker.  The great warmonger Abaddon was similarly forced to flee the battle in the face of mounting personal injury, yielding Order 2 points for these kills.

Significantly, the Dark Angels’ long battle through the heart of an equatorial jungle temple paid dividends.  With the bulk of the Chaos flank guards tied up by the Unforgiven, the Tau, Imperial Guard, and Kingbreakers were able to sweep the targeted strategic breach point.  At the same time, Kroot reserves and Imperial Guard bombardments arrived to reinforce the Space Wolves struggling under massive combined assault and help prevent further Necron and Traitor Guard incursion.  These actions denied Discord a third objective for the second round of scoring, which awarded two objectives each.

Air cav inbound!

Air cav inbound!

Turn 5

In its last moments the epic battle for Kimball Prime reached a fever pitch of critical moves, last-chance shots, and final coups de grâce.  Resurrecting the courage of Russ, Space Wolves squadrons regrouped into secure positions overlooking the bizarrely anonymous Discord objective in their midst.  Charged thrusts from elite soldiers and fast attack vehicles of the Tau, Dark Angels, Imperial Guard, and Kingbreakers also swept away the straggling Chaos Cultists and lesser daemons attempting to resecure the breachpoint, the nearby traitor Warhound stomping in rage at its inability to stop the loyalist troops swarming about its feet.

These are not the droids you're looking for!

These are not the droids you’re looking for!

But even as the Forces of Order prepped for these advances on the flanks, Discord piled all of its remaining heavy shooting onto the Kingbreakers’ command headquarters, the Bloodthirster’s suicidal, singleminded, successful mission to cripple the Shield Generator having rendered it exposed for the first time in the battle.  With the points near tied and Discord’s two home objectives safely held but the third stripped away and Order claiming its own flank objective, everything came down to the two on the bunker complex.

With nearly all other long range shooting eliminated or crippled, the traitor Reaver and Warhound Titans combined fire to strip away the bunker’s internal Void Shields and then pummel it with the most powerful weaponry ever fielded.  They were prevented though from directly targeting the most critical troop units and the bunker itself by a well placed Shield Generator Strategic Asset, carefully saved for exactly a deeply dire moment such as this.  A precious few Forest Guard platoon members survive the incoming blasts, even as nearby Kingbreakers Tactical Squads rush in to shore them up.  The Forces of Order continued to hold their two home objectives.

The last of the flanking Obliterators dead and Skarbrand sent back to the Warp, Captain Angholan pauses to survey the battlefield and catch his breath.  His muscles all clench though and his eyes yield to horror as he turns just in time to watch a final massive overcharged plasma blast from a retreating tainted Reaver slam into the newly unshielded command bunker, instantly obliterating its top ramparts and engulfing an extraordinary area in blazing gouts of flame.  Sprinting into the blinding rockrete dust, he calls on all his decades of steely training to choke back surging memories of the fall of Forestway and his own long entrapment in the collapsed capital building.  Armor servos shriek in protest as he rips apart nanobar and flings away huge chunks of rockrete.  Finally tossing aside an entire interior wall, he falls to his knees.  Ahead of him is a large energy bubble supporting all the tremendous rubble of the upper levels.  Huddled inside are a few all-but-dead yet still living Guardsmen and Space Marines.  At the center is his great, troubled friend Rorschach and the Kingbreakers’ Council of Librarians, eyes closed and faces a rictus of concentration from the inconceivable effort of maintaining the telekinetic shield.  With Angholan frozen in relieved shock, Squad Scolirus finally catches up and slips around their Captain to begin carefully extricating the survivors.  The battle is won.

Kingbreakers dance in the flames!

Kingbreakers dance in the flames!

Results

The Forces of Order break Discord’s Apocalypse winning streak!

Reap the tallyman, Nurgle!

Reap the tallyman, Nurgle!

Order claimed 5 of the 7 possible kill points offered by the Discord forces by tagging the Pylon, Scorpion, Bloodthirster, Baneblade chassis, and the Warmaster (Abaddon), leaving the Warhound and Reaver on the table.  Order also held two objectives after Turns 2 and 4 as well as three after game end, for a total of 20 points.

Discord claimed 3 of the 6 possible bonus points offered by the Order forces by eliminating the Warhound and two Baneblade chassis, leaving the Reaver standing.  It also claimed 3 more in achieving a Trophy Kill on Grimnar, declared as one of their Strategic Asset selections.  However it spent 1 to enact Lies of Tzeentch.  Discord also held three objectives after Turn 2, as well as two after Turn 4 and game end, for a total of 18 points.

Final disposition; click to enlarge.

Final disposition; click to enlarge.

Game Thoughts

In a game like this there’s a thousand big and small things of note that happen.  These are just a couple very top level notable observations.

Range and Formations

It was really helpful to have Owen, a newcomer to our Apoc fights, be able to make the battle.  That made a big difference in equalizing the 6th edition experience levels across the two teams, helping Order play both better and within the time limits.  Tactically speaking, it was particularly helpful that he plays Guard and has played a few large battles before as he thus brought a significant increase in Order’s long range, heavy shooting.  On an 18′ long table even the normally impressive 48″ reach of a lascannon just doesn’t amount to much.  Without that we would have been in real trouble.  I was really counting on some of the missing players’ armies to provide the ability to go out offensively and hit things at distance, but the Guard shooting at range probably present a safer way to do that anyway.

Sometimes you just gotta call in the veterans.

Sometimes you just gotta call in the veterans.

Despite the story text above, my Librarians were yet again a huge, huge disappointment.  At this point I’m pretty used to how limited in appeal they are for normal play.  But I had high hopes for the Apocalypse formation I fielded, basically 5 Librarians potentially tossing out a D weapon large blast every turn.  Literally nothing walked into their line of sight and range though that wasn’t immediately swept away by much less risky shooting.  One consequence of having two redundantly Void Shielded, heavily armed encampments staring at each other across a relatively open expanse was that almost nothing ventured into what became a completely empty dead man’s land across the desert terrain.  I thought about having them disembark the bunker to get better sightlines, but even then not that many targets wandered close enough, and our little Warmaster would be out running around with giant Greater Bloodthirsters and such running amok in close quarters.  I love the models & concept so much, but…

In stark contrast to the Kingbreakers' flaming self-entombment, the Necron basically stand around all day just talkin' about how awesome their fortress is, not even noticing it blasting stuff on its own.

In stark contrast to the Kingbreakers’ flaming self-entombment, the Necron basically stand around all day just talkin’ about how awesome their fortress is, not even noticing it blasting stuff on its own.

The general point there though is that the Apocalypse formations are basically dumb.  They’re either (1) incredibly hard to field, (2) very brittle, or (3) have limited effect.  To (1), of the Space Marine formations, the majority involve fielding a full company of troops or a weird collection of very specific HQs.  On (2), a great many of their effects can be easily defeated, e.g., no one walking within two whole feet of my Librarians, or Brett’s Tetragon of Darkness being popped almost immediately.  For (3), due to the extra points available with the missing players Justin did actually field and use a Space Wolves Great Company.  But despite the large number of models and points that entails, I couldn’t tell you that I noticed the benefits.  Similarly, I actually fielded the requirements for a Space Marine Predator Assassin Squadron.  But I didn’t select the formation because it seemed more limiting than useful.

Hey, hey, buddy, don't start nothin', won't be nothin'!

Hey, hey, buddy, don’t start nothin’, won’t be nothin’!

Balance

Obviously critical to the success of all of our Apocalypse games is the effort put beforehand into balancing the headliner models.  Coincidentally but unfortunately, the Forces of Discord have many more Titans, superheavies, and gargantuans at hand than Order.  Fortunately though they have so many that there’s enough—and they’re more than willing—to share them around and balance things out.

But, to that need to put a lot of effort into balancing things, D weapons are pretty dumb.  Since they’re so strong against everything, they make everything else all uniformly worthless.  With no protection of any kind being allowed against them, there’s no reason to field anything but the cheapest possible options and put all the points toward your own D weapons.  Given that they’re both equally dead if tagged, and equally unable to strike back at the shooter, why field 14 point Marines when a 5 point Guardsman is just as useless?  A ~250 point Landraider versus a 55 point Chimera?  Previously I had mixed feelings about the recent expansion of D weapons into the regular game.  Watching them up close again though has really pushed me to be very concerned.

Yep...  Good luck with that axe, buddy!

Yep… Good luck with that axe, buddy!

Similarly but in the other direction, the new Void Shields fortifications are probably also a problem.  I don’t have as much of an issue with them because ultimately they don’t directly remove models, and they’re somewhat readily countered on their own as well as much more internally balanced—you do what the Bloodthirster did: Walk right in, get protected from remote shooting by the Void Shields themselves, and then smash them.  But they’re almost certainly too cheap though for such a massive buff to a potentially large number of units.

Conclusion

Beyond that, I’m going to save for another post some thoughts on organizing and executing Apocalypse battles.  Ultimately we all collectively put a lot of thought into crafting a good plan and come at the game with the right mindset, and that all paid off in overcoming near disaster with multiple missing players and instead having a truly great day of gaming.

Again, more photos are in the Flickr gallery.  Till next time; the Emperor protects!

Huh... I guess he's really good with that axe?  Sergeant Harmon contests the Discord flank objective!

Huh… I guess he’s really good with that axe? Sergeant Harmon contests the Discord flank objective!

Book Review: Betrayer

betrayer-coverContinuing my Horus Heresy kick, over the weekend I read Betrayer by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.  I  was a little hesitant to grab this book but did so because it comes up on a number of best-of-series lists, not all of which are reliable (too much focus on action).  Turns out though Betrayer is very much possibly the best 40k/30k novel I’ve read, and certainly among the top.  Part of this I attribute to Dembski-Bowden apparently being an actual player of the game, something I don’t get from a number of the authors.  Not that it’s necessary, but it might bring an extra level of love to the work.

There are no spoilers in these thoughts.

Characters

Here that love’s paid off because he’s done the totally unexpected: Made the World Eaters, Angron, and especially Khârn possibly the most fascinating characters in the entire series.  My hesitation about the book was precisely because by the 40th century they never come across as particularly interesting.  Mindless killing machines, they do what they say—Kill!  Maim!  Burn!—and little else.  Their action sequences are boring, and they have basically no characterization to speak of.  Their appearance also raises a lot of uncomfortable questions, like how could such a bloodthirsty, disorganized fighting unit actually function?

The answer is barely.  This novel really explores in flashback and discussion the degradation of the legion and how costly their every minor victory has become.  A number of the characters spend a fair amount of time trying to come to grips with how precisely they can keep fighting when their extreme lack of discipline leaves them exposed and vulnerable any number of ways.  The action and training scenes demonstrate this well and between that, the characters’ discussions, and a healthy dose of the Warp, it’s an interesting progression that renders the 40k world more plausible (well, within the universe’s basic assumptions).

More importantly, Angron makes a good run here to be the most tragic of the Heresy characters.  That’s a big claim to make given Horus, but the novel makes it pretty credible.  My favorite though is Khârn.  He’s fascinating, and realizing that in the first couple pages is basically mind blowing given that I’d previously never found him particularly interesting.  He has a band of friends, many of them with their own solid characterizations—especially Argel Tal of the Word Bearers—and he has doubts, so many doubts.  Khârn’s so compelling, I’m almost motivated right now to go model up some Chaos Marine champion to represent him (I’m only 50/50 on his actual model).  Khârn’s depth and wisdom come across so well, it only highlights his glee and fury in battle.  The first, brief appearance of his catchphrase at a desperate moment is chilling: Kill, maim, burn.  Betrayer manages to make all of these utter villains extremely sympathetic and then next chapter they’re turning your stomach as they torture and murder with abandon, an excellent feat of writing.

Also excellently done, for the book that had every possibility of being the least humanized and the most purely testosterone driven given its very male lead legions and characters, there are a number of solid women characters.  In particular, Captain Sarrin of the Conqueror has a lot of pages and comes across strongly.  She’s key in manufacturing one of the standout scenes mentioned below, has a number of welcome interactions with her friend Khârn in the heat of battle, and it’s actually really cool to read with what glee and skill she goes about fighting the Imperialists.  In the grimdark future there is war and blood for everyone, not just men.

Fight!

As discussed regarding Know No Fear, 40k and especially the Heresy series has a ton of potential depth to it, and it’s the more character-study oriented novels that are the best.  All too often though they devolve into purely extended action sequences, as that novel does.  Here though a perfect balance is struck.  The action and character studies are so interwoven throughout the text, and often set within each other, that Betrayer never becomes a drawn out, boring slugfest, nor does it ever slow down and become purely dialog and thought with no chainswords or powerfists.  In terms of the technical execution of the plot and characters, the text’s arrangement is really well done.

Great Scenes

On top of all the overall excellence, the novel has a large number of great scenes.  Just a few of the most memorable, holding back the details:

  • Lorgar’s desperate battle to retrieve Angron, and the latter’s desperate struggle to then save the former.  This is the best primarch battle scene I can recall.  Forget inhumanly fast sword strikes and mega-punches.  There are goddamn vehicles being thrown like toys, and it’s not the least cheesy.
  • The legion’s censure of Delvarus after the battle of Armatura.  This opens with a great tense hangar bay standoff, once that captures that might alone is not always right, then pages later comes back with a darkly beautiful scene of fraternity, regret, and forgiveness.
  • Lhorke’s remembrance of Khârn and Argel Tal in the gladiator pits.  It’s a touching view of two soul brothers, ultimate warriors not yet mindless death machines, and has a rare touch of fun and mirth among a life of constant war.
  • Lorgar and Angron discussing the latter’s pre-heresy fight with Russ.  It has a sadness and quiet to it that’s heartfelt, with Lorgar pained because Angron doesn’t understand, and Angron pained because he does but can’t, shackled and crippled by his past.

Summary

Basically, go read it.  A fair bit of Heresy background and 40k foreknowledge is required to really appreciate everything.  Even having read a bunch and knowing a lot of 40k lore, even I wish just a little that I had read more of the Heresy series before reading this to catch all the references and character history.  But it’s got depth and action to spare so this is a minor concern.  Betrayer is an awesome novel that every 40k fan should really appreciate.

Kill. Maim. Burn.

Kill. Maim. Burn.

Update: Total sidenote, if the Khan model looked more like this conversion I’d be all about it.  The official model though is just a little to goofy and busy looking.  By absolutely no means the worst of the older GW sculpts, but after this read I really hope he gets an update or Forge World model sometime to be a bit more serious and dramatic.

Book Review: Know No Fear

know-no-fear-coverLast night and this morning I read the nineteenth book in the Horus Heresy seriesKnow No Fear by Dan Abnett.  The book records the first Battle of Calth, in which the Word Bearers attack the Ultramarines, the latter’s first intimation of the recently begun Horus Heresy.  There are no real spoilers among the thoughts below.

Battle

I was prompted to pick up this book by the recent limited release of the twenty-sixth novel in the series, Unremembered Empire, also by Abnett.  Previously I had only read up through the 4th book of the series.  Each of those four is solid to very good, and Unremembered Empires has been getting great comments, so I was intrigued to get back into the series.  That said, 40k books are highly variable in quality.  Some of the overriding themes and writing are great.  Many of the books though are poorly written battle reports of childishly imagined characters.  So, despite my love of the setting, I have no interest in reading all twenty-two of the other novels to get completely filled in before Empires comes out in paperback six months from now.

Looking to cherrypick the series, I read Know No Fear because it’s by Abnett, one of the stronger 40k writers, and it appeared on a few recommendations of must-read books in the series.  I can’t say I was disappointed.  It’s definitely among the stronger 40k books and a good, solid read.  The battle that occupies probably two-thirds of the novel is well done and moves along, never becoming the sort of tedious recounting better left to action movies from which many of the novels suffer.

That said, the battle does occupy two-thirds of the novel, and it’s definitely not the most interesting part.  Solid as the book is, it highlights some of the basic self-imposed limitations of the 40k writers.  The universe has the depth and breadth to incorporate some really great themes, and the novels often touch on these, but they never quite let go to really explore those.  Many, especially Abnett’s, start off with really interesting world and character building, and then devolve into a protracted fight sequence.  Know No Fear falls precisely into this fate.

World

That battle stuff is ok and entertaining, but what I really like is the first part of this book.

I think the Heresy series has a number of strategic factors driving its immense success.  One of these is the large, protracted, epic story arc.  It takes a really solid fabric and epic space opera universe to soak up 26 novels, bunches of short stories, and still have basically no end in sight for the inevitable conclusion everyone knows must come.  Another is that people enjoy reading history, which all of this is for players of the game.  There’s a pleasure to be had in knowing the basic outline but getting filled in on all the details.

A perhaps less obvious factor is that the series proceeds from a point in time before the 40k grimdark sets in.  At this time humanity is still making progress, there is both a hope and a reasonable expectation of a brighter future, the Imperium is not thoroughly downtrodden and oppressive, and not everything is war.  Ultimately people can only read so much misery and darkness before they tire of it.  The Heresy books, probably especially ones like this set around the prospering and civilized Ultramar, don’t have that same crushing bleakness to their background.

That brightness and engagement with the larger civic enterprise of building the Imperium also brings a lot of variety and texture to the story.  Among the current-timeline 40k novels, it’s no accident that the most popular books and series are based around the Inquisition and the Imperial Guard, like the Eisenhorn and Gaunt’s Ghosts books.  Those settings and characters offer a rich world with many different types of people and places.  In contrast, despite being the most popular faction in the 40k universe, Space Marines often make boring novels.  They kill stuff and hang out on their battle barge, and repeat.  They’re also all pretty much conditioned clones of each other, with comparatively limited variances.

The Heresy books step around that limitation.  The novels feature a lot more world building, characters outside the chapters, and the rebellion itself induces such a large fault line as to create differences among the characters.  I actually really enjoyed the “boring” stuff opening Know No Fear, like Space Marine Captain Ventanus and Sgt Selaton zipping about in a Landspeeder, getting stuck in traffic on their way to argue with the local dockworkers, or discussing the Imperial project with Tetrarch Lamiad in a futuristic, optimistic, empty museum.

Ventanus isn't sure what's going on, but he's sure he's not going to like it.

Ventanus isn’t sure what’s going on, but he’s sure he’s not going to like it.

Trans-Human

The other thing I really like about Know No Fear is that the opening portions really focus on the idea of the Space Marines as trans-human, and what that means.  To me this is one of the most interesting themes in 40k, and a major part of my love with the Space Marines.  In fact, this book repeatedly and often uses that specific term trans-human, which sticks out for me as a modern, civilized, scientific term.  Not that many people in the 21st century world would be familiar with this word, or are thinking about what it means, even though we really are approaching having to deal with such entities.  Similar holds for the 40k universe, where the word is rarely used, the Marines are much more frequently cast as super-soldiers, and people are pretty much concerned with not dying, as opposed to what living means.  In M30 however, this is a real, high level concept that occupies the more intellectual and world-cognizant of the Marines, this is a world thinking about the future and lofty ideas like what it means to be human.

Specifically, the term’s use highlights a key premise at the start of the book, that the Great Crusade is wrapping up, and now humanity needs to figure out how to go from there.  As the Space Marines perhaps most engaged with the world outside combat, many of the Ultramarines in Know No Fear have many discussions in the opening sections beginning to probe their thoughts about their place in a universe consisting of more than war.  What does it mean to be a defender of humanity that is not truly human?  Further, what happens if such a defender is no longer needed for defense?

Ultimately these are the kinds of questions the Heresy as a whole really gets to at its best points.  If there are men that truly know no fear, then there are also men that know only fear.  To me that is the central driver of the Heresy, those are the traitors.  Most simply fear death or pain, though they would never say it, and will make the most unholy bargains to avoid it.  Others fear powerlessness, and what could be more powerless than the universe’s greatest warrior in a time that knows no war?  Many fear being deemed inadequate by those they venerate most, as is clearly how the Word Bearers feel after their multiple rebukes by the Emperor.

Know No Fear gets at many of these points, and it’s the true strength of the book.  The opening sections feature not just a literature discussion of those topics, but the ultimate philosopher warriors of the 30th century, the Ultramarines, explicitly discussing them.  There’s a lot of talk about their Primarch’s attempts to prepare them to be useful for running governments rather than crusades.  In a great, telling display of the Ultramarines as intellectuals all, even the sergeants discuss how comparatively simple, bloody-minded Legions like the Word Bearers and World Eaters will fit into a peaceful age.

All of this stuff is great.  It’s what made Flight of the Eisenstein my favorite 40k novel, and it was really good to read in this novel.  It’s just a shame it’s all mostly dumped for a 200 page battle.

Style

A small thing I also really liked about this novel is that it opens with a crazy style, interspersing cold historical record in a very analytical framework of timestamps and notes with Primarch Guilliman’s much more poetical, abstract thoughts.  It’s a little tough to follow so I’m glad it phases out after the first chapter or so in favor of a more straightforward style of novel, but it’s really good.

Similarly, the internal looks at the Primarch are really enjoyable.  A good example is an early sequence of him working on what the reader will recognize as notes for the Codex Astartes, still far in the future, while he also thinks about his chapter masters and how even after all they’ve done they still don’t fully understand his powers.  Pretty awesomely and quite appropriately, Guilliman is actually one of the softer voices in the novel, and brings a fair bit of the humanity and even humor.  It’s small, but there’s a really nice point of comedic relief where he walks into a sanctum of his, finds an Ultramarine waiting there for a meeting with him that he had forgotten about for hours and hours, has a brief, unrelated discussion with him, and walks back out with the Marine left still waiting for the meeting.

Abnett also does a really good job here of making the Ultramarines stand out with their own unique character.  It’s definitely the most appealing I’ve ever found the poster boys of the 41st millenium, and they’ve always appealed to me a little for maintaining Ultramar as the bright point of the stagnant Imperium.  The constant scholarly discussions and Socratic teachings among themselves in all the small moments stand them apart, and the constant refrain of “Theoretical?” and “Practical?” in analyzing every problem gives them a voice and tone unique among the Legions.

Summary

All in all, I’m glad I read Know No Fear, and it meets my expectations of Abnett’s better 40k novels:  The inevitable extended battle sequence is good for what it is, but the opening part delivers the goods on world building and exploring the deeper, more interesting themes of the 40k universe.

I will say, the Heresy covers are getting harder and harder to tell exactly what the hell is going on.

I will say, the Heresy covers are getting harder and harder to tell exactly what the hell is going on.