Soul Hunter + Helsreach + Blood Reaver 40k by Aaron Dembski Bowden Review

Let me start by saying that this isn’t a book I would normally pick up. It tells a dark tale from the perspective of what I’ll call the “bad guys.” I could not conceive of a sympathetic “bad guy” character, someone or someones whose story I would care about. However, what prodded me to break my own rules and challenge my perceptions was the author.

soul hunter

Bowden’s first novel for The Black Library, entitled Cadian Blood, was truly exceptional. It simply dripped 40K atmosphere from every well-crafted page. The man could clearly write Imperial Guard and Space Marines, but could this new author really create a traitor Space Marine that I would relate to, that I would care about?

In a word, yes.

When I was thinking about the book, the phrase that kept coming back to me was deliciously dark. The story seemed to delight in being dark and caring not a jot. Yet the author’s main protagonist, a Night Lord Space Marine named Talos, makes you cheer for his victories and growl in frustration at his setbacks. The secret, I’ve discovered, is in the greys that are so often found between the black and white of good and evil, along with the realization that good and evil are often relative.

The story follows the fortunes of Brother Talos and his much-reduced Claw (read:  squad) of Night Lord Space Marines. While his commander and some of his brother marines continue to embrace the power that Chaos offers them, he remains true to his ideals and the belief that his life must be about revenge against the Emperor for his perceived betrayal. Talos looks upon his Chaos-possessed brethren and despises their sacrifice of purity for fleeting power. And yet he himself possesses psychic “gifts” that give him visions of the future, a reflection of his Primarch’s ability.

In truth I’m having the hardest time summing up the story. I think this is because it’s a  story that explores so many complex and emotive themes that to summarize it is to somehow reduce what has been, for me, a really powerful read.  Soul Hunter is both a story of survival and vengeance in the aftermath of the Horus Heresy and an exploration of the soul of the Night Lords and their unique relationship to their Primarch, as seen through the eyes of one his closest confidants.

Unlike many other Space Marine books, this one doesn’t shy away from turning the spotlight on the psychology of these post-human warriors and laying their inner worlds bare for all to see. There is one tremendously poignant moment in the book that clamors for praise. The author tells of a time that the legion returns to their homeworld of Nostramo for a victory parade, and that while marching through the streets, the marines are assailed by citizens calling out names, the names of those taken as children to be turned into Space Marines. One old woman breaks through the guard and comes to Talos, calling out to him until she is shot by one of the guards, and it is only after the march that he realizes she was his mother. This scene is both chilling and deeply moving in that it highlights so clearly how divorced these marines must become from their humanity, while at the same time striving to serve humanity in the Emperor’s name.

The story moves back and forth between past and present as Talos increasingly looks to the past to understand his present circumstances. The author makes clear that due to the vagaries of time within the Warp, only a hundred years has passed for Talos, but for the Imperium it has been ten thousand years since the end of the Heresy. This means that for Talos and company, the memories and feelings are still very fresh, while for those they fight, the Night Lords are evil creatures out of a time of legend.

The story also explores the use of fear as a weapon in itself, something at the heart of the Night Lords’ psyche, while Talos and the remnants of Tenth company must fight against the fearful reality that they are doomed to failure, as their ships and personal armour succumb to the ravages of time and attrition with few spares or replacements available other than what can be scrounged from the dead and defeated.

To be frank, I found this story so rich and compelling that I could wax lyrical for quite some time about its many themes and undercurrent;, however, as I go on, I risk giving away some of the really powerful revelations at the heart of the story. That isn’t a risk I want to take. Suffice it to say that this book has opened my eyes to the potential of “bad guys” to be sympathetic characters with a great deal of depth. It has also cemented my opinion of the author as a rare talent who really understands the depths of the 40k universe.

Highly recommended!

helsreach bowden

Helsreach is the second book in the new Space Marine Battle series published by Black Library, and the third novel of author Aaron Dembski Bowden. This series is meant to explore the most epic Space Marine battles in the history of the 40k universe and is therefore focused on what’s rather delightfully known in the trade as shooty-death-kill-in-space.

Helsreach tells the story of a company of Black Templars under the command of the newly appointed Reclusiarch (first Chaplain), Grimaldus, and their desperate defense of Helsreach Hive against an innumerable horde of Orks. The story is primarily told from the first-person perspective of Grimaldus himself, though Bowden shifts to first- and third-person perspectives of his other characters throughout the book. If it sounds confusing, then worry not, it isn’t at all. In fact, the many viewpoints from a cast of fascinating characters add tremendous intensity to a story that is meant to be all action with little depth .

As is fast becoming  Bowden’s custom, he has once again laid bare the souls of the Astartes in his story, leaving the reader in no doubt as to their unique worldviews. Much “ink” has been spilt online about the nature of Grimaldus. In particular that his lack of empathy for the human soldiers he fights together with, and his apparent inability to understand their struggles, borders on the autistic and strains the boundaries of character sympathy. And yet I found him to be a character who commanded my sympathy in his singular context.

His position as the first Chaplain of the Black Templars means he must embody the ideals of his chapter, a chapter that has continued on the Emperor’s Great Crusade undaunted by the passing of  ten millenia. Their fundamentalist zeal that loathes any sign of weakness in the face of duty will inevitably be challenged by fighting alongside humanity in a battle where the odds are strongly against them. In such a context, it is no wonder that Grimaldus comes across as harsh and uncompromising; it is those very qualities that recommended him to his position. However, what is equally interesting is how over the course of the story Grimaldus grows to a level of genuine respect for the human warriors with whom he fights. This is earned by their herculean efforts in battle that he himself  inspires with uplifting rethoric (that is tremendously well crafted by Bowden).

One of the story’s clear subplots is Grimaldus’s belief that High Marshal Helbrecht, the leader of the Black Templars, has condemned his company to die for a hive city to no good purpose, while the Black Templar fleet fights in space for the survival of the planet as a whole. His struggle to reconcile himself to this fate and to devote himself to fighting to the last forms the background of his relationships with his fellow Astartes. Such is Bowden’s skill as a writer that the survival or death of each of his characters creates moments that are keenly felt, and there are many emotional highs and lows throughout the story that kept me turning the pages right to the end.

Bowden’s remarkable gift for writing fast-moving action scenes remains firmly in place in this novel. I often found myself with the very odd sensation of feeling like I was right there with Grimaldus and the others in the thick of battle. The relentless pace of the fighting and the overwhelming numbers of the enemy is so powerfully conveyed that at the end of a battle I was rather short of breath. Surely there can be no higher praise of an author’s skill?

This is the third book by Aaron Dembski Bowden that I’ve read, in fact his third overall, and I can’t recommend his work highly enough. He has rapidly built a name for himself as someone with a tremendous gift for the art of writing and as someone who really gets the 40k universe in all its depth.  For me it has reached the point that his name on a book cover is an ironclad guarantee of a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

He is rapidly settling onto a par with my favourite author of all time, Dan Abnett!

There it is. My highest praise.

bloodrever bowden

Let’s be clear:  My mancrush on Dembski-Bowden is well established. I love his writing. His characters tend to have the sort of depth normally associated with the classics, and his action scenes and ability to convey moments of heart-stopping drama give me warm fuzzy feelings in all the right places. Blood Reaver has forced me to add a whole new section to my basement Dembski-Bowden shrine (and what with the massive Dan Abnett shrine, it’s getting quite crowded down there).

Volume two of his Night Lords trilogy, Blood Reaver continues the dark saga begun in the immensely popular Soul Hunter and brings us bang up to date with the fortunes of First Claw as well as introducing us to a raft of excellent new characters. There are a few points in the story that seem to refer to characters and times that I wasn’t familiar with, but even these were largely put into context over the course of the novel.

The Night Lords aboard Captain Vandred’s ship, the Covenant of Blood, are in trouble. Having fought against the forces of the false Emperor for well over a century (from their perspective), they are facing up to the realities of a defeat brought on by slow attrition and decay. Unable to resupply like the loyalist Astartes, they must instead live as brigands, stealing what they need from isolated Imperial outposts and running from any perceptibly superior force. Furthermore, Talos has realised that they must begin to recruit new aspirants if they are to replace their losses and slake their thirst for vengeance in the long term.

Into this picture steps the Blood Reaver himself, the Tyrant of Badab, Huron Blackheart. Planning a daring raid on the fortress monastery of the Marines Errant to steal their heavily guarded supply of geneseed, Huron recruits the Night Lords under the leadership of Talos to assist his Red Corsairs in securing the precious geneseed using their most potent weapon, fear. Promised their fill of the weapons, armour, and other supplies as payment for their assistance, Talos leads his Claw and the remnants of Vandred’s company into battle wary of the possibility of betrayal. However, when Talos discovers a powerful artefact in the hands of his would-be allies, the Night Lords set in motion a plan to take this artifact from under the noses of Blackheart and his Red Corsairs.

In my review of Soul Hunter I used the term ‘deliciously dark’ to describe the overall flavour of the novel. Blood Reaver takes this flavour to a whole new level. In the space of the first few pages, as the Night Lords torture a Blood Angel space marine for information, I quickly got the feeling that the author had discarded even the remnants of moral restraint and delved with utter abandon into the evil festering at the heart of the Night Lords. This atmosphere absolutely pours from each well crafted scene and left me feeling the need to keep the lights on when I slept.

The dark themes explored throughout the novel often war with a sense of martial pride as Talos and his brothers struggle with their base natures and the realities of the world from which they came. I felt that this was reflected in moments of brotherly care juxtaposed with battles between brothers on board the Covenant of Blood. Though they fight together to avenge the death of their primarch, there is always the tension of imminent betrayal between them. Balanced by a paradoxical sense of loyalty, this created the most powerful of subtexts to their every interaction.

Dembski-Bowden’s introduction of a new unit into the Night Lords’ forces was a very welcome one; Lucoryphus and his Raptors added immeasurably to the tale and brought with them a fascinating variation on the inhumanity of the Astartes, renegade or otherwise. Huron and his Red Corsairs also express well the depths to which a renegade Astartes can sink, though somehow Dembski-Bowden seems able to take this unrepentant bastard and make a charismatic character of him! Huron’s…faithful apothecary, Variel, is another fascinating and ruthless personality who plays a surprising role in the story, though his relationship with Talos is one of those points I mentioned earlier that seems to have happened outside of the novel, though I’m not certain where.

Talos’s human servants, Septimus and Octavia, continue their work for their master and begin to develop an interesting relationship of their own. The call of conscience is present in their own very human struggles and once again adds a very compelling depth to their story within the larger theme of loyalty and betrayal. Furthermore, their interactions with the subculture of human slaves aboard the Covenant of Blood is almost a novel unto itself and yet adds to the overall arc of the saga.

This is another Dembski-Bowden masterpiece, and yet, I’m left with a couple of niggles. There was, for me, an inevitability to the Night Lords’ eventual success that robbed the story of a building tension and release. Each of the set-piece scenes are emotive and delightfully dramatic, but there were times when the scenes– though powerful in and of themselves–felt separate from the overall narrative. These are minor points in what is a masterful 40K novel, but considering the standard Dembski-Bowden has set for himself, I felt that, for the sake of completeness, I should mention them.

Those nitpicks aside, this is a must read for any 40K fan. Dembski-Bowden continues to stretch the boundaries of 40K writing in this world class tale of survival and betrayal. Very highly recommended…but sleep with one eye open.

Forget the Sandman, Enter the Soul Hunter.

Phillip is an Existential Psychotherapist and Teacher by day and a writer, gamer and all round geek in the hours of darkness. He claims to be enjoying the creative process enormously and secretly harbours the hope of publishing a novel one day…

4 Replies to “Soul Hunter + Helsreach + Blood Reaver 40k by Aaron Dembski Bowden Review”

  1. Thanks Jeff. It really is a great novel and I can’t wait for his next one. Not a long wait though, ‘Helsreach’ is out in May.

  2. Excellent review! I would suggest you read the Lord of the Night. It is also a Night Lord book, and it have some background stories for the Soul Hunter (like how did the assassin got her arm cut off)

  3. You hit the nail on the head with your review. Just like you I’ve never been big on the “bad guy” books. Except for Storm of Iron that is. And just like you I picked it up simply because I love Cadian Blood so much. I really hope his ventures into the horus heresy novels as well as the next space marines battle book are to such a high standard as he has been producing.

    This book is amazing, I finished it in 2 days because I simply couldn’t put it down. Not many books have the power to do that to me.

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