SYNOPSIS: Legend tells of an expedition past the Halo Scar, led by a radical Magos of the Adeptus Mechanicus in search of a mysterious technological artifact. Now, thousands of years later, an ambitious and desperate Magos leads an Explorator fleet into the dangers of wilderness space in pursuit of the lost expedition.
PROS: From the solid prose to the beautiful descriptions, the solid and varied cast of characters to the wonderment of the expedition, this book brings an entirely new flavor to the franchise.
CONS: I wanted more. I wanted a lot more, and this book was just a sample of what is to come.
VERDICT: This is McNeill’s best novel since Storm of Iron and Dead Sky, Black Sun. Not only that but this is also a refreshing change of pace for the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
Graham McNeill is a member of what I would consider the Black Library, Old Guard. This is a man who has been writing 40K fiction since I started reading it, a man who was able to turn my distaste for the Ultramarines into a glowing admiration. He is also the man responsible for one of the best pieces of 40K fiction available, Storm of Iron, perhaps one of the coolest sieges I have ever had the pleasure to read about. Unfortunately some of McNeill’s more recent novels have been less worthy. Though his latest Horus Heresy novel, The Outcast Dead, started out with promise, it faltered in execution. I am happy to say that Priests of Mars is everything I hoped it would be and more. This is McNeill writing at his best, and when that happens everyone wins.
“All I’ve seen of this galaxy is war and death and destruction. I’ve had my fill of it, and I want to go somewhere that’s never heard of the Imperium or the Ruinous Powers or orks or witches. I want to get out of here.”
With Warhammer 40,000 novels you rarely know what you get just by reading the product description. Sure, you get a general gist of the plot, but other than gleaning some information on what Space Marine Chapter is slaying what foe of the Imperium, you are sort of left out in the dark. So going into Priests of Mars, all I knew was that there would be an Adeptus Mechanicus Explorator Fleet striking out into a dangerous and unexplored area of space. And you know what? That’s enough for me. More than enough. The Adeptus Mechanicus has to be my absolute favorite faction of the 40K universe and there are just not enough books that revolve around it. Throw into that an Explorator Fleet? Oh yes. To be honest, I’m quite surprised it took so long for this book to be written. Though the Mechanicus is present in almost any 40K book you are bound to read, it rarely gets any of the limelight. And that’s not even the best part. What strikes me most about Priests of Mars is the fact that this is not a war novel. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of action. But unlike every other 40K novel to date, this is not the account of some bloody and desperate battle. Instead, this is a story of adventure and exploration set within the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium. More on this in a bit.
Arch Magos Kotov’s expedition beyond the Halo Scar is a momentous undertaking, to say the least. Such a grand mission requires a formidable fleet of starships, crewed by a wide and varied cast. Readers will spend the first 100 pages or so getting acquainted with the dramatic personae. Leading the expedition is Arch Magos Kotov, a once powerful priest of the Mechanicus to whom great ill fortune has befallen. The search for the lost fleet, and the technological treasure it was after, is Kotov’s only hope of redemption. Joining Kotov aboard the Ark Mechanicus vessel, Speranza, is a number of tech-priests devoted to the never ending pursuit of knowledge. To crew a ship of such unimaginably vast proportions as the Speranza, indentured slaves are required to perform the hazardous menial duties. Abrehem is one such bondsman, pressed into servitude along with a familiar face to those who may have read Storm of Iron, a certain guardsman by the name of Julius Hawke. Another fellow with a vested interest in the mission into the deep unknown is the Ultramarian rogue trader Roboute Surcouf, and his ship the Renard. Providing security for the expedition is a joint task force, a compilation of Cadian guardsmen, the God-engines of Legio Sirius, and last but far from least, a squad of space marines from the Black Templar Chapter.
If that seems like a large cast, that is because it surely is. But don’t worry. At times, I forgot the name of one magos or another but this hardly proved to be a predicament. I love the characters of Priests of Mars, from the highest captain to the lowliest slave. McNeill weaves a delightful interplay between the standard humans, augmented tech-priests, trained soldiers, and post-human space marines. Each character behaves and speaks accordingly. Adepts of the Mechanicus are great; even when they are apologizing, they can’t resist a barb. The rogue trader Roboute was the easiest to relate to and I found myself growing a strong attachment to him. Even against the aloof and superior attitude of the tech-priests, Roboute could hold his own. The space marines act as you would expect of genetically enhanced super soldiers that are literally chained to their weapons. There isn’t a lot of room for development on that front, but there are some interesting moments of camaraderie between the Black Templars and the lesser beings. Abrehem is also a compelling character, serving as a stark reminder that though the Imperium may be the lesser evil, it is still a far from friendly place.
Arch Magos Kotov’s vessel, the Ark Mechanicus Speranza, could really be considered a character in its own right. What a cool ship! This is a space faring vessel large enough that it has an entire deck dedicated to the training of armed forces. Not just infantry, but tanks and armored personnel carriers as well. Oh. And titans. That’s right, the Speranza is so big that not only can it transport the God-engines of the Adeptus Titanicus, but those same war machines can rehearse mock battles. McNeill’s talent for description really brings the Speranza to life. Even in the 40K universe, some things can be difficult to comprehend, but the level of detail McNeill imparts on this massive leviathan of the void makes it effortless to imagine.
I mentioned briefly that Priests of Mars is not a war story in the usual vein expected of 40K. I love a good action packed war novel, but for a long time I have been feeling as though Warhammer 40,000 has a deep and rich enough lore that not every tale told within its frame needs to be the conquering of this planet or that solar system. Priests of Mars is a story of adventure. Again, there are action sequences for you adrenaline junkies – otherwise what would those poor space marines do the whole time? The real focus though, is this feeling of wonderment. Priests of Mars captures that raw desire for exploration that must have been at the heart of the Emperor’s Great Crusade to begin with. Yes there are dangers when you venture out into the realm of the unknown, but what is the spirit of man if not to blaze a trail in the wilderness? It is this theme that McNeill successfully captures and for this I applaud him.
Priests of Mars is a phenomenal read, offering fans something new and awesome. McNeill pits a great cast of characters against the cold, black void and invites us along for the ride. The prose is excellent, filled with all sorts of beautiful and breath taking descriptions. I was concerned at the start that this would be a standalone novel but I can confidently say that there are sequels to come. Priests of Mars is a fantastic start to a new series penned by one of the Black Library’s finest authors. Cheers!